Jonathan is an American podcaster working and living in Berlin. In today’s interview, we talked about his passion for podcasting, his take on the U.S. election and his philosophy of empathy. On his podcast, “Hood“, he invites people of various backgrounds to talk about their lives, their passion, their hood.
Please tell us about your journey on moving to Berlin?
My wife is German, but she lived in the U.S. for about 10 years. We both finished University together. We knew that we wanted to move to Germany. It was easier than starting a family in the U.S.. We lived with my mother- in – law in Jena for the first 4 months. At that point, we did not know that we wanted to live in Berlin. What we knew was that we needed a job and we wanted to be in a bigger city. So, we were sending applications to companies in Cologne, Munich, Stuttgart, Berlin and Hamburg. Just open for whatever.
My wife went to a job fair in Erfurt and met someone from Deutsche Bahn, who worked in the recruiting team. They connected and she got hired at the Berlin Hauptbahnhof for a job. Since we were open for whatever we said: „ Ok, Berlin it is!“. That’s how we ended up in Berlin.
I am, personally, not a huge fan of big cities. I grew up in the suburbs of the San Francisco Bay Area. The city was there, it was cool – I could go there if I wanted to, but didn’t really have to. My wife, on the other hand, grew up in a less-than-1000-people village in Thüringen. She was simply fascinated with the big city, so when Berlin became an option, she said: „Let’s go.“
I still struggle with it – the number of people still bothers me. It’s way too many people everywhere! But thinking about the opportunities that I had as a foreigner, an immigrant – I would not have those in other cities in Germany. I think coming to Berlin was a great choice.
So it was more that the job opportunity decided for you rather than an active choice of moving here?
What were some of the differences between California and Berlin that you did not expect?
There is a lot of things I didn’t expect (laughs). I’ve been to Germany multiple times before moving here. In Berlin, I spent like 2 days previously. I didn’t have a strong grasp of the city itself. Between California and Berlin, in general, there are a lot of differences like the weather. The fact that it’s 2 degrees in November and I know that it’s gonna get colder is really a shock for me (laughs). In California, it will maybe get this cold overnight in January.
Also, a big thing, as I said I grew up in the suburbs. I did not realize how much people walk. As a kid, we never walked anywhere. It was kind of like an adventure ‚cause we would leave the house and drive somewhere. We drove everywhere. If I was lucky, I got to walk to the convenience store around the corner. Now I don’t own a car and walk everywhere. Public transit has become everything to me.
In California, not really normal. So, public transportation was a very foreign concept to me and something I had to get used to.
Otherwise, I think learning how to be an adult again. You spend your teens up to earlier 20s learning how to be an adult. Figuring out how to do your taxes and how to get your drivers license. And then you move to a new country and have to learn all of these things again. I am still struggling to get my drivers license (laughs).
Did it get better over time? Did you actually become an adult in Germany?
Depends on who you ask. I think I am growing in leaps and bounds every day (laughs). My wife… she still thinks I have a lot to learn. Generally, in the German language, I can handle going to a store, getting a haircut is still very awkward (authors note: as it is in any language apparently 😉 ), but for the most part, I have no problems.
Going to an Amt (authority office) is still scary. Even in advance, I have to mentally prepare myself to go in. I’d say, I definitely have grown and learned how things work for the most part. But still, this whole bureaucracy stuff is a challenge in this country. I am not used to it.
Even for Germans, the bureaucracy can get pretty overwhelming.
Yeah, I went to an Amt (authority office) the other day for a Fahrerlaubnis (driving permit). I went in, the worker went over my documents and I got the certificate for my ability to start my drive education. Then I went online, did some research… Apparently, as far as I know, I got the wrong paperwork. I have an appointment for next week to figure out what exact documents I need because there are no clear instructions anywhere.
Do you think that the inability to speak German perfectly in some way restricted/restricts you in the working environment?
In Berlin – no. I mean, it always depends on the capacity that you’re working. For my work, I can work in English and German. Not a problem. I work with lots of companies – most don’t have any problems when somebody does not speak perfect German. There are still some very conservative older German companies, that’ll say: „Fluent German and no other way!“, but I don’t know if here in Berlin it is an issue that I really ran into. I mean, I worked in a kitchen before; we had a mixture of people – guys who did not speak German or English, guys who only spoke English – and it worked.
I have a personal story. I applied for a job as a city launcher for Leipzig. They said: „Sorry, you have to speak fluent German.” But, I mean, this is outside of Berlin. Your job is going to be hiring people. Locals that are going to be working in this location and they don’t speak English. You have to have a strong understanding of the language because they’ll have a different dialect. That was the only instance for me, where it just would not work.
I wouldn’t say it is a big restriction. It’s probably 50/50 opportunity-wise.
Was there any incidences of violence (verbal or physical) you faced based on prejudice? If yes, how did it impact your view on German society?
No, I didn’t have any verbal or physical aggression towards me. Even with my German troubles, it’s been more of an opportunity. There are a lot of people that don’t speak German here. I think, even with the language, most people don’t have a problem with it. People that may have a problem are very few as opposed to other cities around Germany.
I also have the advantage, the benefit, that I physically look that I belong or look German to other German people, who may judge others based on skin tone. Being an immigrant, who is also of European heritage gives me an advantage in contrast to someone, that may come from an African country, Eastern Europe or South America or Asia. If someone just looked at me, they would not go: „Oh, that guy is an immigrant!“ Which is unfortunate that people judge in such a way, but it’s been probably a factor in why I hadn’t any incidences of violence towards me.
Do you think there are difficulties that migrants face that are completely overlooked by the general public?
There is a lot (laughs).
I’ve actually been one of these people before moving to Germany. I had this mindset of: „Well, you came to this country, you better speak the language.“ And now I am being like, „ You don’t know someone’s scenario!“. Of why they are here. What they are struggling with. For them to even try to speak the language is huge.
When I first came here struggling to find things in a grocery store and not knowing how to ask somebody for help. Struggling to get a haircut. Not being able to communicate those basic things – it wasn’t that I didn’t want to, I just couldn’t.
Or people that come here for a job opportunity, maybe from another country. They will not instantly know how to speak a language overnight. Maybe they just arrived yesterday, for all you know and you are pissed at them because they don’t speak the language fluently. So it clicked for me. It makes sense. When I was getting frustrated at people, I didn’t know what their situation was. And that’s the thing. People tend to overlook this.
You don’t know the type of situation that person is in. You don’t know what they struggle with. You also don’t know how long they have been in the country. So, maybe people could be a little more compassionate towards others that are obviously struggling with things because you don’t know how much effort it takes for these little things.
I think a lot would get solved in the world, if we just had more empathy ( laughs).
To move onto some heavier topic: the U.S. politics have been a big issue, especially this year (2020) due to corona and election? What are your personal opinions about these issues?
My personal take on American politics – I can’t stand the U.S. politics. As covered in the last question, I am a person of empathy. The trend that I have seen U.S. politics take over the last 20 years has no longer been a path of empathy for either party. We used in English terms partisan and bipartisan. Partisan meaning just my own party, like the Republican Party or Democratic Party. And then there is bipartisan meaning both sides. In the past, it was almost a requirement to be bipartisan. If you said: „Hey, we want this law to get passed!“, you needed not only the support from your own party – you needed some support from the other party as well. You need to have empathy for the other side – other citizens – to make agreements, that benefit both sides. And this has changed.
Now, political parties try to find ways to push things forward to spite the other side. Try to put things into laws, that they know the other party is absolutely gonna hate and stir things just to anger the other side. Just to mock them, even. It’s not the way it is supposed to go. Because it becomes us vs them, them vs us and no longer a „What can we do best for the people?“
Example being the stimulus package during the Corona pandemic. Financial support for people who lost their jobs, who still owe rent. People who cannot make ends meet, because they can’t work or are working fewer hours. The U.S. Government passed in March, April, a law to send US citizens and residents, with certain restrictions in how much money you make, a check for 1200 USD. That was great, it was helpful. This was the way we should be going. For once, they thought to help the people. There was a dialogue of „How can we support small businesses? How can we support large corporations during this? How can we keep everything afloat?“ Since then, they were not able to agree on anything.
Other countries have been able to say, „Hey, our people will receive this much a month. Or this much every 3 months. Let’s do Kurzarbeit.“, like in Germany. Instead of firing people, we can still support them financially. The U.S. – no, because the government can’t agree.
Both sides are trying to pass laws to benefit them under the cover of this financial stimulus package and nothing happens. People are losing their houses. They cannot get the financial aid that they need because nobody wants to help each other.
As far as the election goes: it was really tough. Personally, I am not a fan of either of the two big political parties. So, I voted for a third party’s presidential candidate, who gets no media coverage inside or outside the States. No one knows those candidates really exist. California had like 6 different candidates, which you never know about unless you’re taking your own initiative to research them.
I think the last 2 elections have been a climactic point of these partisan battles. The closer it gets to the election, the lesser it is about the actual issues. The presidential debates… nobody argued their side. I didn’t learn anything about what those candidates’ points were, because they were too busy bashing each other. That’s all it was – yelling over each other. No one said: “This is my take on this issue. This is what we’re going to do. This is how I am going to do it.“ None of that. As soon as someone said, „I have a plan.“, the other side goes, „No, you don’t! You’re an idiot. I’m gonna tell you why I am a genius!“
And what do you think about the coverage in German media?
I can’t say how the media coverage was in the US for the last election, as obviously I wasn’t there. We do have our large news outlets, that tend to have political leanings. It is clear when you watch them and how they report the news. But as far as Germany: people are generally dumbfounded when they see that anyone in the U.S. is even voting for Trump. When we watch the news here, there is only the terrible stuff he does and nothing else.
I explain this a lot to people; the biggest news outlets in the US are in the Los Angeles Area and the New York Area – the two most liberal states in the entire States have all of the major news networks, even the conservative news network is based in New York. But also Fox News is not an option, for example, in Germany. I turn on my TV and watch CNN, which is generally more liberal. But in the U.S. the conservative people geographically live more in places like mid-west and the south. There is no big news source in Omaha, Nebraska broadcasting news to Germany. You don’t hear the news that are affecting those people. The people that are voters of Trump.
He made promises to people in these regions that he generally upheld, so they will vote for him again. Also, single-issue voters where people care only about one issue and will vote for the person, that supports it. Abortion is a big one. Trump tends to have a lot of evangelical voters. And when he says, „I am against abortion. I will not pass any laws, that allow abortion.“, so a lot of evangelical voters will say, „Boom! We are voting for him!“
On election day, I tried to avoid as much news as I could. I had a video conference with my work colleagues and we drank together. Just ignored it. Tried to shy away from politics in conversations, but everybody wanted to know who I voted for. Everyone was writing to me, asking how I felt about the election. And I just wanted them to stop, like I don’t care.
I think it is interesting, that you mentioned the lack of break from politics even in friend groups.
I come from a conservative background. Technically I am a registered to vote republican, even though I never actually voted republican (laughs). Mainly because I like to participate in the primaries. I would say traditionally my views would lean more towards republican, but the views of the Republican Party, as I see it, have drastically shifted. Now I consider myself a libertarian, so more moderate centre-right party. But watching my social media and seeing everybody fighting each other, calling each other names was absolutely ridiculous. People were accusing 3rd party voters of wasting their votes, calling them just as bad as (insert politician’s name) voters. That’s absurd!
I am voting for what I believe in. This is how I feel towards things. And I have no expectation that they will win. But I am also not somebody, who is going to give their vote for something I don’t believe in. That’s the thing. As long as we continue to vote „this or that“ 3rd parties will never get a chance. Maybe we should start to see that we don’t have to only vote „this or that.”
Thank you for your inside and honesty, as it is a heavy topic. I would like to move to your online presence: you also have a podcast called „Hood“? Can you tell us more about it? What motivated you to start one?
My podcast, as mentioned, is called „Hood“. It has sort of a double meaning: in English, the suffix „-hood“ generally means „belonging to a group, that has a similar identity“. Commonly used in words like brotherhood or motherhood. But we also use it as slang for „neighbourhood “. It combines these two things. It’s about getting to know the people and their hood. For example, I don’t know what it is like to be a sister – sisterhood is foreign to me. Being able to interview someone about what it genuinely means to them.
As far as podcasts go, I started to listen to them over 10 years ago. I think, in 2009 when Apple popularized podcasts – I guess there were some concepts of audio RSS feeds beforehand – I started to listen to a Tech News podcast called „Buzz Out Loud“ from CNET News. I loved it. I listened to every episode. Just felt this joy and excitement and started to learn about it.
When I was young, I did theatre, loved audio dramas and improv. My dream job would be to be a voice actor. I would love it if I could give my voice to a cartoon or video game character.
So, I started considering; if I had this podcast, what would it be? And I came up with this concept, which was actually inspired by a show I used to watch, called „Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood“. It was on public television by former Presbyterian minister Fred Rogers. He embodied the sweetest, most empathic person and he lived in this neighbourhood, where he called everybody „neighbour“. He connected with everybody and broke colour barriers. He had an episode in which he invited an African-American mailman. He opened a little pool for them and they had some lemonade together while tapping their feet in the water. This was groundbreaking at the time. This was not normal television. I was like, how can I put this compassion and empathy in a podcast form.
Personally, the challenge was about how can I use my voice to spread this message of compassion, but at the same time be a better listener. My podcast is unscripted. I don’t have any questions prepared in advance, so everything I ask comes from my genuine interest on the spot. That means I have to listen carefully and pay attention to what my guests are actually saying to come up with a follow-up question. It kinda teaches you this childish curiosity again, when I am like, „ Oh! I don’t know what this means, tell me more about this? Tell me, I need to know!“
I recorded my first 2 episodes a 1.5 year ago before I actually started the podcast. It was so much anxiety to just put it out there. And also with Corona and my new remote job, I was like, this is the time! If I am going to do it, I have to do it now. No matter the audio quality, I can always improve and get better, but I needed to start.
Can you tell us about the challenges you faced when it comes to the development of „Hood“? Were those affected by the pandemic?
My most prominent challenge was the learning process, as I have no one who can directly teach me how to do it. I started to discover things, like Facebook groups. There are always people connecting that started something 10 years ago. Duh! But I never thought to search for knowledge in this way before.
I don’t know if things are actively being affected by the pandemic, we will see (laughs). In general, it is nice to have the interviews over video chat. It made it easier because I don’t have this kind of set up to do recordings of more than one person in-person. So switching everything to online has been a benefit.
The issue now is that I only know so many people that want to be interviewed for a podcast (laughs). Unless I am going out and can socialize and meet new people, it creates a challenge of coming out with new content.
Last week I reached out to someone I’ve never met in person on FB, from back home, that I saw in a couple of FB groups. This person was mentioned a lot, so I thought that people want to know about this person. I need to reach out to them.
But yeah, the pandemic makes it a real problem for me to actually meet and befriend people. Now, I have to be constantly aware what is happening on social media to reach out to strangers online and say, „Hey, I have a podcast, would you be interested in an interview?…“
„I am not a creep…“(laughs).
Exactly! It feels a little weird.
But people became more aware of video chat and are more open to schedule an interview. Everybody is talking about podcasts because everybody is doing it right now. Problem is: everybody is doing it right now! Like myself on my laptop in quarantine. (laughs).
There is, of course, competition. And also a level of amateurism. I am coming in clearly as an amateur podcaster. Most people don’t want that, because they are used to things being professionally produced. I have the passion and vision for it, but my challenge right now is audio quality. So I have to take care of that before I can go to the next level of amateur podcasting!
Disclaimer: The opinions shared in the interview are those of the guest and do not necessarily reflect the position of the author. The images in the post belong to Jonathan.