German families find jobs, culture, and friends in Tennessee Valley
CHATTANOOGA (WRCB) - Nearly a dozen German companies do business in Hamilton County. While they now employee a mostly American workforce, these companies bring German workers to the area to train others and to work. Some stay for just a short time, others remain for years, and some never leave. Local schools are adding more German courses. Oktoberfest celebrations in Chattanooga are bigger than ever.
The largest German employer is Volkswagen which announced in 2008 it would build its new midsize sedan in Chattanooga. The company now employees approximately 3,500 people including contract workers. Local officials hope the company will choose Chattanooga to build its new SUV, which could double the VW workforce.
Volkswagen may employee more people but it is Wacker Chemie that made the largest investment of $2 billion to the local economy with its polysilicon plant in Bradley County. The VW investment was more than $1 billion.
These are just two of the 3,500 German companies in the U.S., according to the German American Chamber of Commerce. Nearly half of those are located in the Southeast.
State officials say no European company invests more in Tennessee than Germany.
That is one reason Chattanooga will be the new home of an office of the German-American Chamber of Commerce, officials announced in November. The office is moving from Nashville to Chattanooga to help promote trade between the two countries, specifically in the southeast.
After billions of dollars, thousands of companies, and countless stories, little doubt remains that German workers came here for jobs but found culture, friends, and much more.
Willkommen to America
Arriving in the Tennessee Valley from various cities and towns in Germany offers an unforgettable experience. Heiko Juerges remembers it well.
Juerges is the President & CEO for the U.S. and Canadian activities of Hoenigsberg & Duevel Corporation, which is an IT company headquartered in Wolfsburg, Germany and has 1,700 employees worldwide.
Mr. Juerges arrived in Chattanooga the day after Christmas in 2009 when decorations were still everywhere. He immediately learned how significant this holiday is commercially.
"The almost overwhelming Christmas decorations and variety of products at each and every store made it pretty hard for me to decide what I really wanted or needed," Juerges said.
Americans are known for loving a good deal. Juerges found himself falling in and out of love with those "deals" quickly.
"The ‘buy one get one free' and all the rebates forced me a bunch of times to buy items which I really never needed. Over time I found the products of my choice and the so-called ‘deals' were not able to force me into an emotion-driven purchase just to save money."
The 2008 Volkswagen decision sent the city's business community and the unemployed into a state of euphoria. Optimism was back as the country entered a deepening recession.
Officials with VW knew the new plant would attract media attention. However, even one of its most seasoned media officials was surprised at the level of attention. A native of Frankfurt, Guenther Scherelis served as the General Manager for Communication for Chattanooga's Volkswagen assembly plant. Scherelis recalls one of the company's first news conferences after the initial announcement. It seemed the Chattanooga media could not get enough news about Volkswagen. The public's appetite for news about this new major employer was just as strong.
"People were very friendly and supportive," Scherelis recalled.
The people may have been friendly but living in a credit card society without one proved to be difficult at first.
"Without a credit record you are a nobody. After some days we got a credit card and the situation improved," Scherelis said.
German native Yvonne Woehrl, a manager for Wacker Polysillicon in Bradley County, tells a similar story.
"We were frustrated and felt really alone," she said.
"Everything worked different than in Germany and the American language is not as easy to understand. Sometimes it was very hard to get all things done."
Fortunately for Woehrl and her family those were simply growing pains in the transition. Similar to Americans, a vacation can make all things better.
"This all changed after a few weeks when we had our first vacation. From then on we realized that this is such a beautiful country with such friendly people, great nature, and we are happy to be here."
While most Germans come to the Chattanooga without an extended family support system, Christian and Brigitta Hoeferle had Brigitta's parents here when they relocated to America from Munich in 2004.
The Hoeferles were chasing the American entrepreneurial spirit. Before they could pursue a dream of owning their own business, they had some work to do on their new home.
Using nothing but digital photos via email, the couple bought a 1970s rancher in Bradley County before they left Germany. The picture did not do it justice.
"The walls were all covered with waverly pattern wallpaper – layers of wallpaper," Christian remembers.
"There was a bit more remodeling work after we were done stripping the walls."
The Hoeferle couple learned quickly about Americans' love affair with wall paper.
All culture shock is not bad. In fact, many Germans find the shock to be a pleasant and humorous surprise.
Yvonne Woehrl received more than pain relief for a toothache. She learned how Americans will attempt to make anything unpleasant as relaxing as possible.
"I got a massage on my hands and the narcotic for my tooth was very crazy," Woehrl said.
"I felt like I had three glasses of whiskey and after 30 minutes all was okay. This was really a big funny experience."
Heiko Juerges was looking forward to his first Thanksgiving in America. After all, it is one of the most quintessential American holidays. He was invited to a local family's gathering of more than 40 people. Juerges expected to see fine china on the table and everyone wearing dressy clothes the way he experienced in Germany for traditional holidays.
"As I arrived in button-up and tie and saw people in everyday clothes, I immediately felt overdressed," he said.
"The paper plates and red plastic cups confused me even more."
What goes better with red Solo cups than a football game?
Juerges was puzzled by this part of the Thanksgiving tradition adding, "That the TV was running and everybody paid almost more attention to the football game than to the arrival of other family members seemed very weird to me."
All culture shock is not temporary either. Christian Hoeferle says he still struggles with what he calls the normal depiction of violence and horror in this country. He feels like Americans are more comfortable with violence than with nudity. In Germany, he says, it is the opposite.
Mr. Hoeferle recalls the surprise when a local YMCA lifeguard asked him to put a swimsuit top on his then 18-month-old daughter.
"Now imagine my surprise again, when I realized which type of ‘action' movies were on in a room full of pre-teens at a birthday party at some friends' house. Too much glorified shooting for my taste."
Politics as Usual
The bickering between American politicians is one thing that stands out to most Germans living in the Chattanooga area.
Germany's government differs greatly from American even though both are republics. While Democrats and Republicans control the politics of the U.S., a multiparty system rules in Germany. Germans will argue that lends itself to more compromise.
Guenther Scherelis agrees. A man in his 50s, Scherelis said his German public schools taught him that Americans had more compromise and was the better example of government. After seeing it first-hand for more than four years he is not so sure. While many Americans criticize "career politicians," Guenther sees more of that in Germany.
"In the U.S. politicians often have a life outside politics, but in Germany many politicians have not made their living outside their (political) organizations," he said.
Heiko Juerges sees a similarity in that both countries' politicians speak a lot of rhetoric. The difference he sees has to do with style, especially in the campaigns.
"Politicians in the U.S. seem to be way more aggressive with their campaign, almost to a the point that they start a war around the professional and private life of their (opponents)," Juerges noted.
"I think the two-party political system in the U.S. is much more adversarial and confrontational than the consensus-seeking multi-party system in Germany," said Christian Hoerfele.
Lost in Translation
The German directness portrayed in films is for the most part an accurate portrayal of the culture. Germans prefer a communication style that is straight-forward, always seeking clarity.
Hoerfele noticed a big difference in the South and said for Germans, "Little thought is spent on taking into account other peoples' feelings when communicating."
"Presenting facts and data is often more important than the exchange of casual pleasantries. It's all about delivering an unmistakable message. American communication style is friendlier and much less abrasive."
Hoerfele owns a consulting business in Bradley County that benefits greatly from the influx of German workers. His company offers cultural training, coaching, and consulting services. It works to improve the effectiveness of German employees now part of an American workforce.
He cautions his German clients that certain arguments will come across as very confrontational in the Chattanooga area.
Hoerfele has learned that complaints and criticism will typically be viewed as directly aimed at the individual especially in the Southeast.
He tells clients that in the South, "It is more important to create a positive impression of oneself than being too direct. That also means unpleasant messages are packaged the soften the impact."
Stereotypes and Missing Home
Some stereotypes are accurate and others could not be further from the truth, according to German employees living here.
Most Americans are familiar with the German Autobahn, known for its speed. That is what Heiko Juerges misses most from home.
"I am a huge car enthusiast and used to driving as fast I want or as fast as my car can," he said.
"Over here, I always feel like I am driving in slow motion."
Yvonne Woehrl does not missing driving fast on the Autobahn as much as she misses the simplicity of riding a bicycle.
"We miss the possibility to take a bike and ride it whenever and wherever you want. It is very hard here in the U.S. to ride with the bike from your home," she said.
"You always need a car."
Brigitta Hoeferle says she misses all the "independently owned and operated butcher stores, dairy stores, and bakeries."
Guenther Scherelis agrees, saying in the beginning he mostly missed having a "German bakery and a German restaurant."
Scherelis says he quickly learned that all Americans are not "steak-eating cowboys from Texas" and wants Americans to know Germans are not all "Oktoberfest and beer-drinking Bavarians."
Where is home?
For the Hoeferle family, "home is an ambivalent term," they say. They have no plans to return to Germany because they were looking for an environment that saw the glass as half full.
Scherelis has returned to Germany following his assignment but has elected to allow his teenage children to finish their education here.
When Woehrl returns, she expects to miss "friendly people" and "independence" the most.
Juerges, like many people who move here, says he isn't going anywhere.
"Chattanooga is and will stay my home. I am here for good and wouldn't trade Chattanooga with any other place; neither in the U.S. or in Europe. I am in love with this city and (its) residents."