Storm Volunteers Highlight Cultural Differences — by Beate Ziehres

I started to write this article while I was waiting to board a plane to Germany, my native country. My topic is helpfulness. I want to define the cultural differences around giving assistance between members of different nations. I want to share a few experiences here in the United States. They show a level of caring that’s really new to me.

In Washington DC, we met people who were about to force their bus driver to stop and tell a policeman about a fire in someone’s house. They were concerned even though I’m guessing that the officer was already waiting for the fire brigade because yellow-grayish smoke covered the whole neighborhood. And I was planning on telling you about the cute lady who rescued my son’s kite that was stuck in the pillars of the Walnut Bridge over Coolidge Park in Chattanooga TN. In my home country, nobody would have cared about a burning house or a boy with a stranded kite.

But something happened when I returned from Germany that stopped me writing and confirmed my thoughts. This was when a swarm of deadly tornadoes destroyed whole towns in the Chattanooga area. Five weeks later, the first stormy night after the catastrophe lies behind us but another record-breaking tornado raged through the Midwest of the country. And I can be sure now that there is at least one cultural difference. Lots of folks from around the Scenic City still spend time helping those in need.

I was deeply impressed by the level of helpfulness and my respect will never end. I’ve heard from women, men and also teenagers who went out to the destroyed areas.  They helped people they didn’t know. In the first hours and days after the storm, volunteers looked for injured people or bodies, and cleared debris. Even today the wave of help hasn’t subsided.

Wherever I go and to whomever I talk, the destructive force of nature that came over us is still a subject of conversation. Innumerable volunteers will have to struggle with the scenes they saw, with the experiences they had. A friend of mine who is an author of murder mystery novels gained a few ideas while walking between wooden piles which had been homes. “It’s too early to write about it’, she said. But she will store the impressions in her head, as so many will do, until the furor of the terrible events have died out.

We are glad not to get tornadoes of this intensity in Germany. But if it happened, their assistance would be different. Of course, people would give money. But I can’t imagine they would spend weeks helping with their own hands. This is one of the big cultural differences between Americans and Germans.

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