“Will you be my friend?”

A year ago, I moved to Switzerland. Cue the yodelling, cow bells, and chocolate fountains.

The country boasts almost everything I consider essential in an ideal society. Almost. The fact is, Switzerland isn’t a country for young, career-starting expats. Switzerland is our layover; we only stay for as long as we need to.

Now I, like many other bright-eyed twenty-somethings, firmly believed I could buck this trend and committed myself to integration. I studied German. I prescribed to a diet of coffee and cheese. And I invested my time in the outdoors. The big three: language, food, and culture. What could possibly go wrong? First, Swiss German isn’t the same as German. Second, turns out I can’t eat dairy. Third, rollerblading isn’t as easy as kids make it look.

The fact is, integration is mostly superficial. It’s taking part in things that the locals do. But what’s the point in any of it if you don’t have any friends?

How do you make friends when you’re an adult?

Before you think I’m being dramatic, Switzerland has been voted “the worst place to make friends.”  And from personal experience, one does not simply “approach people and chat” in Switzerland.

For me at least, the problem is also exacerbated by the fact that I lived in the home of hospitality for two years. I became accustomed and infatuated by the US culture of talking to everybody. Bad day? Your cashier will offer you advice! Lost? Just ask for directions! Lonely? Go to the local coffee shop! Atlanta taught me how to be an extrovert, spoilt me with human contact, and showed me what community looks like.

Fast forward to Switzerland and I came to believe that I was the problem for my non-existent friend count; maybe I’m too loud?  Too young? Too foreign? Then I was convinced that the privileges of being a student had spoilt me. I mean, if you’re in a class of ten, that’s nine potential friends off the bat. So then I turned to the fountain of knowledge and googled: “How do adults make friends?” (cue tiny violin). Armed with a wealth of tips and tricks, I did what adults do: go to bars, join clubs, visit new places. But then those endeavours also turned up empty. Everyone was either older, spoke no English, or was simply disinterested. It turned out the twenty-somethings had already filled their quota of friends, and I was too late to join the club.

There’s a difference between travelling somewhere and living there.

To keep myself motivated and occupied, I’ve resigned to acting like a perpetual tourist. I enjoy the sights, experience new things, and talk to other foreign people. All of which are great when you’re on holiday and you have the promise of people waiting for you when you get home. But technically, I’m already home.

Let’s be clear, this isn’t a damning criticism of the lack of community in Switzerland because it certainly does exist. The problem I’ve encountered is that you need a foot in the door. For expats without a Swiss connection, that door is almost always closed. So the young expats close our own doors, band together, and dream of the day that we can leave.

Of all the things I’ve learnt in this past year, my Swiss experience has made one thing abundantly clear; community and friends are what make a home, and without it, there’s nothing compelling you to stay.

KH

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Just because things look beautiful and seem just fine doesn’t mean they have to work
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Britain vs America

The title is misleading. I’m not going to go into a patriotic rant about how much better Britain is compared to America. In fact, what I’ve learned is that living in either country has its merits and its downfalls. But ultimately, having the experience of living in both countries is a blessing, and it has been a fascinating journey so far.

1)     English got a lot more complicated

I’m not talking about spelling. I was well aware that Americans like to omit u’s and replace s’s with z’s. I admit I’m still being stubborn about adopting Americanised spelling, however it hasn’t exactly created any pressing problems. I can rely on autocorrect to resolve those differences. But no, I’m talking about words with actually mean totally different things in America. Here’s a snippet of a completely innocent conversation I had during my first month here.

British Kate: Hey American Stranger, do you have a rubber?
American Stranger: Ermnosorrybye. *runs away*
British Kate: Tsh. I just saw him using one. Americans are so rude.

One week later, after recounting this story to an American friend, I realised that I had made a very grave faux pas. That poor fellow either thought I was intensely concerned about practising safe sex, and/or thought that I was a desperate sexual predator. Regardless, there’s probably a poster going around campus warning unsuspecting undergrad boys to avoid “that mixed-race Game of Thrones chick.” Oh, to clarify for my American audience, a “rubber” in British English is what you would call an “eraser.”

ImageSee, completely innocent.

Of the misunderstandings I’ve encountered, here are a few of my personal favourites:

“jumper” vs “sweater”

No, I’m not in need of a person looking to throw themselves off a building. I’m just cold.

“chips” vs “fries”

Did I seriously just order a plate of crisps with grated cheese?

“pants”

When an American says to me, “Oh hey, I like your pants, where did you get them from?” I automatically assume one of the following logical things: (a) they’ve been standing outside of my window watching me get dressed; (b) the situation has already escalated past option (a) and they’ve broken into my flat and gone through my underwear drawer; or more realistically (c) they have x-ray super-vision and they can see through my trousers. Either way, for a couple of months, I unfairly judged most Americans to be perverts. Sorry America, but these language barrier misunderstandings work both ways.

2)     Hospitality exists

As soon as I told people I was moving to Atlanta, the phrase “southern hospitality” kept popping up in conversations. “Southerners are so welcoming and helpful.” “They’ll feed you so much food and try to fatten you up.” “They’ll make you unwittingly divulge all of your deepest darkest secrets.” I simply responded, “Fair enough, I can handle that. They sound like my Filipino aunties.”

I was wrong. I had been off the plane for an hour (58 minutes of that was spent in a so-called “queue” at immigration) and I was smothered. I stepped out of immigration and someone had already appeared with a trolley (or “luggage cart” for you Americans), another person was pulling my suitcases off the conveyor belt, and someone else was telling me to “have a great day!” What was happening? Was I in trouble? Are teabags not allowed through customs? Why is that person touching my stuff? Were these people expecting money off me now? Was I being robbed? Why is that lady telling me to have a great day? Did she know something I didn’t? Needless to say, I was overwhelmed. Within minutes, Atlanta International Airport certainly redefined my misconceived perception of “hospitality.” And I hadn’t even stepped onto legitimate American soil.

Not that I don’t appreciate it. But hospitality of this calibre simply doesn’t exist where I’m from. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been hit in the face by doors because I naively expected the guy in front to hold it open for me. Although don’t get me wrong, it’s not like Brits don’t know what hospitality is. Like that one time the bus driver actually waited when he saw me scurrying down the street in the pouring rain after his bus. I mean, it was possibly because I ran in front of the bus as he was pulling away, but at least he opened the doors for me. Eventually. This is probably a very unjust portrayal of British hospitality but my point is, in Britain, we really don’t interact with other human beings unless we know them, or we’re in desperate need of medical attention, or drunk. Again, I’m being unfair. But you get my point.

Should've thrown yourself in front of the bus, mate. Works like a charmShould’ve thrown yourself in front of the bus, mate. Works like a charm.

3)     Overly-attached Greeting Cards

This has become a serious issue for me. At home, we rotate three standard birthday card messages: “Happy Birthday!”; “Have a great birthday!”; and if we’re feeling adventurous, “Many birthday wishes!” I go to Clintons, I buy a card with a nice picture of a cat wearing a birthday hat, and I leave.

Image

“Frankly, I don’t care if it’s your goddamn birthday.”

This is not the case in America. Buying birthday cards here has become a half hour expedition. After trawling through shelves of “Mazel Tov on Your Bar Mitzvah” and “Happy National Coffee Day” cards, I eventually locate the birthday cards. But if finding them was hard, nothing compares to what I’m confronted with when I open them up. *nice picture of cat riding a scooter* – “Sending you magical birthday wishes on your very special day. May all the years and all your days be filled with joys and sunny rays.” – *vomit* After reading one hundred and twenty seven cards with similar cringe-inducing messages, I usually give up and leave. Perhaps it’s because I’m British and I’m reserved when it comes to public displays of affection, however is there really any need to be this intense? Personally, I think not.

ImageSeptember 29th guys. Put it in your diaries. I’m expecting cards.

What Have I Learnt Then?

I honestly could have written a whole essay on the differences between Britain and America, but ain’t nobody got time for that. I’ll probably return to this conversation another time because humour, etiquette, sales tax, and eating habits are also things I find bizarre and astounding over here. But more on that another time.

Returning to my previous post about culture shock, the list above has certainly contributed to my feelings of displacement and disorientation. First, I didn’t expect to encounter so many language barriers, and second, I didn’t expect the simple task of choosing a birthday card to become such a traumatic endeavour. Nevertheless, I can certainly credit southern hospitality for making my cultural transition a lot more bearable. As soon as I arrived in America I felt like everyone cared about me (although I have a sneaky suspicion that people just find my accent endearing). And most importantly, everyone I’ve met has made me feel at home. The culture shock I’m encountering at the moment was always inevitable, but I thank America for making my whole experience – so far – insightful, entertaining, and delightful.