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The advantages of growing up in East Germany


Steffen Engel, project manager at Consulting Engineers Mekong Ltd, pictured above. Photograph: Phnom Penh Post

For the first 16 years of his life, young East German Steffen Engel lived in the German Democratic Republic and traveled to communist neighbours such as the Czech Republic. But in 1989, he took the first bus from Potsdam to West Berlin.

“It was really a nice time to be welcomed by brothers who were long away or not allowed to come and then finally came in, it was a warm welcome,” he said.

Engel still remembers his first impressions when entering the West for the first time.

“What sticks to my mind was actually the first time I went to a shopping mall,” he said.

He remembers going to the first floor and seeing all the choices and colors they had in West Berlin.

“If you’re only used to grey or easy colors, less colours, then you come in and after ten minutes I needed to go down, I got dizzy,” he said. “I really felt uncomfortable in my stomach because it was too much input.”

Steffen Engel was born in Potsdam in 1973 and went to school in the GDR until the 10th grade.

“Since we lived near Berlin we had it a little better than, I don’t know, Dresden or the outskirts because everything was brought to Berlin or the surroundings,” he said.

Engel said even though he watched Western TV secretly, he initially got brainwashed by the East German propaganda that also permeated school life.  

“You have one side of the story and the other side of the story and both saying the other is lying,” he said. “For me it was a feeling like here is something strange going on,” he said, adding that “my head wouldn’t admit it until then.”

However, shortly before the Wall came down, “you started realizing … that there is something going on here," Engel said. “I said I am not clear anymore what is right and wrong.”  

He said seeing brainwashed people and the use of propaganda in other countries “is a flashback for me.”

After the Wall came down he finished school at a gymnasium focusing on economy in Berlin.

“Since I lived near Berlin it was possible to make the Abitur in Berlin,” he said.

Because he was born in a very low-birthrate year, “West Berlin was actually welcoming students from the east to fill up their classes. They made it very easy to enter their classes.”

Engel remembers the teacher saying that it was not the languages, but the level of mathematics and physics among students from East Germany that was much higher than from West German students.

“East German study was better,” Engel said.

Engel then went to university in Berlin, majoring in civil and structural engineering. Afterwards he moved to the Netherlands in 2000, where he lived for 10 years. His company in the Netherlands sent him abroad to Vietnam for a year, but when that job was finished Engel did not want to go home.

After travelling in the region for four months he came to Cambodia this year, working as the project manager at Consulting Engineers Mekong Ltd.

Founded in 2002, the company is a German-Cambodian engineering firm focusing on the Cambodian construction sector and rendering engineering services for public and private clients. 

Examples are bridge- and road improvements in the rural areas, advising in case of erosions or acting as structural consultants for architects.

Engel said he has not made any plans yet to return to Germany, nor to leave Cambodia.

“As long as the money is rolling and the fun is going and I have a nice time and I  still have the feeling I contribute something I'll stay here.”

He said he does not particularly try to stick around only with Germans in Cambodia. “I have very few German friends,."

Engel says he meets people from around the world and just because some are German he does not have to like them automatically.

He said for him living abroad is not much about missing German beer or other things from back home.

Even though he sometimes misses German bread, “most of the time I’m busy with where I am and then I try to enjoy everything,” Engel said. “I have to find out daily why do I like it and not why I don’t like it.

“Maybe that makes me an expert to go abroad because I don’t miss it so much. I don’t need it that way. I don’t know how long I’ll stay here.”



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