Michael Kaufmann - his way of giving back


Michael Kaufmann on the way to Mérida (in the Andes) in the state of Mérida, Venezuela

"At a time marked by diverse fears and the discussion of the dominant culture, I think it’s especially important to promote direct contact with foreign cultures.”

Michael Kaufmann – a senior IT consultant – completed an internship at InterCable, C.A., a cable television provider in Venezuela, through the AIESEC programme (Association Internationale des Etudiants en Sciences Economiques et Commerciales). His internship was made possible in part by a grant from the DAAD.

Now Mr Kaufmann would like to give something back – a gesture he has demonstrated with regular donations to the DAAD-Stiftung since April 2015. In the following, he recounts his personal experiences and perceptions and explains his motivation:

So there I was standing at the cash register in a store in Barquisimeto, Venezuela, and was relatively clueless. The grocery cart wouldn‘t fit alongside the conveyer belt at the register. I couldn’t ask the cashier for help since my Castellano wasn’t anything close to suitable for daily use at that time. Otherwise the store was almost empty.This is just one of the many experiences one can have during a stay abroad. It’s not enough to simply adjust to a different culture; one must also be willing to engage in different ways of thinking.

I was allowed to experience a lot during my three-month stay, something I owe to my host family. They took me to a piñata, showed me places commemorating their most revered national hero “Bolívar” and travelled with me to Coro, a city located near the desert. The family was also convinced that they had witnessed a UFO and they regularly met with fellow believers – unusual, but definitely interesting.

I also travelled a lot thanks to members of AIESEC. I spent time in the capital city of Caracas, the coastal town of Chichiriviche and even appeared on television twice. The committee used these occasions to advertise their activities with local companies.

My name was relatively difficult to pronounce for Venezuelans. That’s why I often had to translate it. But people normally called me “Michael” (English pronunciation), “Comerciante” or “El Comerciante” (the merchant).

Of course, not every experience was pleasant. In Venezuela people place great value in outward appearance and grooming. For example, people might think you’re unkempt if you don’t use perfume or aftershave in addition to normal deodorant. That’s why it was less than flattering when a student representative explained to my boss that things are different in Germany. And that he would naturally give me some advice in personal hygiene. The same applied to my beard. It had to come off! I couldn’t expect anything resembling punctuality. That was a bit confusing to me. It was quite normal for friends to be two-hours late. Theft was unfortunately a problem in Venezuela. I had left my jacket hanging at an indoor, guarded shopping mall. My companion couldn’t understand why I insisted on returning to the mall after we had been driving for five minutes. It turned out that he was absolutely right – when I returned ,my jacket wasn’t there.

The DAAD helped finance my trip with 1,000 DM. Collecting and submitting all the necessary documents for the Venezuelan embassy resulted in expenses I hadn’t foreseen. There were considerable bureaucratic hurdles I had to take to get a work permit (HIV test, various certificates and notarised translations of my transcripts). The funding from the DAAD helped me tremendously.

My new colleagues in Venezuela took a more relaxed view. They joked that I was probably the most legal Venezuelan they knew. Apparently students in other AIESEC locations had entered the country on a normal tourist visa and worked nonetheless. I think I would still do everything the same today ...that’s probably a typically German trait.

Now, almost eighteen years later, I wish to give something back. In the meantime, I’ve “paid back” the money I originally received and donated a bit more to the DAAD-Stiftung.

At a time marked by diverse fears and the discussion of dominant German culture, I think it’s especially important to promote direct contact with foreign cultures. Even if your goal is to shield yourself, you can’t even do that without knowing what you’re shielding yourself from. In my opinion, there’s not enough discussion about the right to a perfume-free life, unattractiveness and wide aisles in stores.
With regard to international corporations, it’s also important to be familiar with the sensibilities of your customers. It wouldn’t be favourable, for example, for a customer to walk away dissatisfied and refuse to continue collaborating just because you didn’t take their customs into account.

So, what do you do with the grocery cart? You empty its contents onto the conveyor belt and shove it back into the store, making sure you don’t hit anybody. There is an employee who takes care of the carts. He stands at the end of the check-out, packing your items into thin plastic bags before you get the chance to pack them yourself.

Not every experience during a visit abroad is a positive one. But that shouldn’t discourage you. I’ve come to realise that from unexpected negative experiences you can sometimes learn the most about yourself and others.

The German version of the text is Mr. Kaufmann's original words.