It took us a few seconds to figure out what was happening. One minute my host brothers had been hurling snowballs towards the roof of an apartment building, and the next we were being assaulted by a blur of a man, shirtless but a little sweaty despite the fierce cold. He landed one punch, missed another, then turned to charge at me. “I don’t have insurance,” I shouted in German, raising my hands in the air like the victim of a Hollywood stick-up.
That stopped the man in his tracks. My older host brother, holding a hand to his jaw, looked at me with a mixture of amusement and incredulity. And his younger sibling, my closest friend in that world, seized the opportunity to address our antagonist. “Don’t mind him. He’s an American. Would you tell me, though, what made you attack us?”
Looking sheepish, his bare skin starting to register the temperature, the man crossed his arms and started to talk. “I live up there,” he said, gesturing towards the top of the apartment building’s slanted roof, where we could now discern pop-up windows. “Some assholes have been throwing things at my place. Because I’m a Turk. It scares my girlfriend and that makes me really angry. I thought you were them.”
We explained that we had driven to his town that evening, to spend time at one of the mobile “discos” in that rural part of southern Germany. Most of the time, the DJ played hard rock of the Scorpions variety. Almost nobody danced. But there were always girls. And alcohol. Somehow, standing around at the edge of a largely empty floor felt more exciting when we could do it in a place where nobody knew us.
The man grew increasingly apologetic, shivering his way to an understanding with my host brothers. After a little while, they shook hands. I couldn’t catch everything that was said — I’d only been speaking German since August — yet had the distinct impression that they had somehow bonded with each other by mocking my frightened declaration.
This suspicion was confirmed when we went back to school on Monday. Classmates would periodically lurch towards me, “hands high”, as the Germans say, and cry out “I have no insurance!” in a wavering falsetto. Soon, I was given the nickname “No Insurance”, which lingered a lot longer than seemed fair.
Nearly six months later, as I was getting ready to end my year as an exchange student, my friends would still kid me about the incident. By then, I had developed a thicker skin and the language proficiency necessary to fight back with cut downs of my own. Nonetheless, it bothered me that “the Ami” — that semi-derogatory term for American by which everyone in our small town knew me — might be remembered for his fearfulness instead of more positive traits.
The minute I’d shouted those words, on that cold January night, I’d wanted desperately to explain my reason. But I couldn’t summon the vocabulary then and realized that trying to provide the back-story when I was finally able to do so would be a case of protesting too much.
I hadn’t been with these host brothers that long. After a month with a temporary host family in Hamburg, where I’d been sent for language instruction, I’d been assigned to a family in Northern Germany, outside of Bremen. It was an awkward situation, because my hosts no longer seemed to have the money or the inclination to take on an exchange student. But I had tried to make the best of it, making friends who compensated for the less-than-warm shoulder I was getting at home.
Things were working out relatively well until I came down with an ear ache. As a small child, I’d been plagued by them. It had been twelve years since I’d had one, though, and it took me a while to grasp that I had a real infection instead of just water trapped in my ear canal. Eventually, though, the pain became so bad that I knew I would need to see a doctor.
If I’d had a more supportive host family, they could probably have figured out a way to get me the help I needed. As it was, though, I pretty much had to deal with everything by myself. I knew that I didn’t have the health coverage all German citizens were guaranteed to possess. And I knew from my experiences back in the United States that medical care could get quite expensive.
If I had to pay, though, I was willing to do so. The problem was, I couldn’t find a doctor who would take my money. Maybe my lack of fluency was a factor. Whatever the reason, though, I got turned away. It wasn’t until some of the townsfolk who knew my situation took it upon themselves to advocate on my behalf that I was finally seen. And even then, the doctor ended up doing everything for free, right down to giving me the free sample of antibiotics that cured the infection.
From that time forward, I had the feeling that if I wanted to stay in Germany, I would need to avoid any medical condition that required more complicated intervention. I didn’t shout “I have no insurance” because I was afraid of physical conflict per se, but because I was having too much fun to leave the country.
When I look back on my experience now, it strikes me how well it captures a crucial difference between Germany and the United States. Even though my host brothers and their attacker had “met” under the worst possible experiences and probably didn’t have much in common, they shared a worldview in which not having access to medical care was difficult to comprehend.
For my part, although this incident took place two decades before President Obama began pushing for the Affordable Health Care Act, the prospect of being denied coverage was an immediate concern. I had grown up in a culture where medical care was a privilege, not a right, and responded to the situation accordingly.
If I had to sum up my experiences in that year abroad now, I’d say that the most important were those that helped me to see what I had taken for granted as an American. Over and over again, I was forced to confront the realization that, no matter how much I had dreamed of escaping my homeland’s myopic self-satisfaction, I could never really free myself from its ideological hold. Even when I was trying hardest not to act like an “Ami” — indeed, precisely when I was trying to do so — I was confirming that identity in countless small ways.
When I think about how perverse it seems to the rest of the world that many Americans still want to turn back the clock on “Obamacare”, as it unfortunately came to be known, and return to the chaos of medical coverage before it started being implemented, I’m reminded of our run-in with that angry Turk. It may not make much sense to identify with a lack of security, that state of insurance-less-ness, but it is now so hard-wired in the American psyche that replacing it with something else seems to feel like a betrayal of ourselves.
Photograph by Paul Howzey. Published under a Creative Commons license