“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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Things nobody told me about adulthood

Let me start off by saying, how do I actually know I’m an adult? I don’t feel like one. I don’t act like one. And I certainly don’t look like one.

I’m 25 now, and I was under the impression that at some point we all undergo a magical, ‘caterpillar turning into a butterfly’ transformation experience. Figuratively speaking, of course… At the very least, I expected some kind of watershed moment where we become conscious of the fact that “we are adult now.” It didn’t come after graduation. It didn’t come when I moved into my first home, built my own furniture, and got my first bills. And it didn’t even come after I got married.

So what is it I’m waiting for? Do we ever really feel like adults? Or are we all journeying through life, doing what we think adults should do, while simultaneously hoping that nobody figures out we’re all just pretending?

Am I really an imposter?

So this is a question I’ve thrown around and asked other adult-looking people. I was genuinely curious as to whether it was just me, or whether it’s something a lot of us just don’t talk about. After all, the last thing an imposter wants is to be discovered!

Surprisingly, of the people I asked, all of different ages, career accomplishments, and family statuses, the resounding response was: “Yes. Most of the time I think I’m just playing ‘adult’ and someday, somebody is going to find out.” So that was good to know. I guess being an adult doesn’t really feel like anything after all.

Are adults really as secure, strong, and confident as they make out to be?

This one is easy. No. No they’re not.

We’re all life-long learners, figuring out how to live, while trying to inflict the least amount of damage on ourselves and those around us. Fact. I know this because I’ve spoken to first-time parents. Their trajectory is arguably the most tangible step into adulthood since it bears lifelong, vulnerable and hungry responsibility: babies.

If you’ve ever spent legitimate time around babies and their new parents, you know. (If you’re still calling your best friend’s baby “adorable,” you haven’t spent legitimate time around that tiny human.) Or, if you are indeed one of those babies/new parents, you know too. If you have neither experience, then imagine a squirmy, tacky worm screaming in your bed at witching hour, unable to communicate what’s going on in their over-stimulated minds, and refusing to eat, play, or sleep. Put it this way, it’s pretty hard to feel secure, strong, and confident when you have no idea what’s going on.

And that’s the crux of it, as “adults” I don’t think we ever really know what’s going on or what to do.

Will I ever be able to walk past a group of teens and not feel like prey?

Granted, this one is subjective. I still get IDed for matches and I’m pretty sure you only need to be 16 (or 18 in the US) to purchase them. But here’s the thing; I assumed that as soon as I turned 21, people would just be able to sense it.

Don’t you remember sitting on the bus as a pre-teen, glancing at the older kids in their rambunctious groups, and thinking, “Golly, those guys are SO much older and cooler. Gotta make sure I don’t make eye contact, lest they make snide remarks about my Harry Potter glasses!” (Of course, if you’re an 11 year old using words like “golly” and “lest” and wearing circular gold-framed glasses, then I shouldn’t have been surprised when the older kids targeted me. Pray, I jest!) Nevertheless, I’m a grown woman and if there’s a group of teens coming my way, I will cross the road.

This is what I’ve realised: just because you’re technically an “adult” doesn’t mean you have to act or think differently; everybody is pretending they know what they’re doing; and getting older doesn’t make you braver.

There you have it, a over-grown child’s observations about adulthood.

Is it just me who had certain expectations? Or do you also feel like you’re sometimes pretending to be an adult? Or better yet, have you had that watershed, red pill moment?

KH

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Being responsible, doing adult things, screaming like a child
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The world is apparently your oyster

“The world is your oyster”

First of all, I don’t like oysters.

Regardless, is the sentiment actually true? Is the world/oyster really ours for the taking, to pry open, so that we might reap its pearly rewards?

We never really hear anybody say the phrase absent of optimism, do we? After finishing up my masters, getting engaged, and moving to Switzerland, that’s what people told me. “The world is your oyster now! Seize all the opportunities and enjoy them!” So my assumptions were that: a) the world is oozing opportunity; b) everyone can access opportunities; and c) opportunity leads to reward.

Now, let me clarify: I’m not a negative Nelly! Sure, when I started reflecting on this phrase, the direction of my thought process was entirely different than where this post is going… Anyway, today I’ll submit, hands held high, the sentiment isn’t far off; the world IS our oyster. But let’s be clear; it shouldn’t be taken lightly, saturated with promises of abounding opportunity and treasures.

a) “the world is oozing opportunity”

In reality, that oyster is either buried at the bottom of a shark-filled ocean or lying between a rock bed plummeted by unrelenting, violent waves. Opportunity isn’t available just because we want it. We have to know where to look, search really hard in those places, and even then, we’ve got to get there before anybody else.

b) “everyone can access opportunities”

With that out of the way, seizing the opportunity is entirely dependent on our tenacity and/or sheer luck. But let’s not forget, not everybody can swim. And even if you can swim, it takes courage to dive deep down into the unknown. And then, even if you’re blessed with all of these qualities, you’ve got to beat the birds, sea otters, fish, and crabs to it because they see and smell the opportunity too.

c) “opportunity leads to reward”

If we succeed in taking it before those crafty otters, then we have to struggle to unleash its potential opportunity. Oysters aren’t always easy to get open! And in the end, an oyster is only worth what’s potentially contained within it. I stress “potential” because the fact is, even when we’ve found it and broken our nails trying to prise out what’s inside, we still don’t know what its fruits are going to look like.

Opportunity doesn’t necessarily lead to reward. Indeed, at the end of the endeavour we might get that shiny pearl. Or, equally probable, we might get a blob of snotty gloop. True, if you actually like the texture and taste of oysters then you could technically win either way. So here’s another outcome; you might just get a bad oyster!

Either way, my conclusion is that after all the searching, struggle, and accomplishment, what we get at the end isn’t always what we expected. That might sound pessimistic, but that’s okay. If we keep diving down, expecting an abundance of oysters and reward, oftentimes we’re going to be sorely disappointed.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m no pessimist. I’ll keep on diving in the hope of discovering that fruitful oyster. And when the ones I find turn up empty, I won’t forget that opportunity is out there somewhere. In actual fact, those empty oysters are a reminder that opportunity did live there at one point and that we’re not the first (nor the last) to struggle through this journey.

So what do we do? We learn to swim deeper, fight harder, and ultimately, get there first.

There you have it, a realistic optimist’s interpretation of oyster diving. Let me know what you think!

KH

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One of those times the oyster did indeed turn up treasure
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“What is easy” vs “What is best”

They say travelling broadens the mind.

In the past, I wouldn’t have disagreed with this statement, but my perception of it was more to do with exploring new cultures, trying new foods, and encountering new beliefs. Today, I still regard these experiences as a crucial part of travelling, however I have also come to realise that this is simply one aspect of what seeing the world has to offer.

By broadening the mind we come to reflect on things that we usually overlook (or bury deep down) while enjoying the comforts of home. Outside the daily distractions and routines of home life, travelling enables us to take a step back from “the norm” and ask ourselves whether we’re actually happy living in that bubble. Travelling broadens our scope of possibility.

I can hold my hands up and admit that in the last year I have often blurred “what is best” with “what is easy.” And I’m wondering, why? Perhaps my lifestyle over the previous six years has influenced this tendency? I certainly haven’t picked the “easy” route:  moving to the US by myself, choosing a long distance relationship, learning Greek and Hebrew over Spanish and German… That last one I still can’t understand… Nevertheless, here’s my analysis. These choices were some of the hardest, and most challenging to live with. And now, surrounded the security of my home, my husband, and my family, I’ve become satisfied by the “easy” because it’s sure as hell less stressful than the alternative.

The fact is though, “what is easy” is not always “best.”

Travelling takes us to new places, literally and figuratively. Travelling broadens the mind beyond the complacency of our routines and conveniences. Most importantly, travelling encourages us to re-evaluate what truly makes us happy. And here’s the truth, what makes us happy is what is best.

KH

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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.

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“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.

Alien in a Foreign Land

Did you know that culture shock is a real thing? I didn’t. For me, so-called “culture shock” was an excuse that naive people gave to justify sitting alone in their room and write predictable blogs about missing home.

Hello World. I’m Kate and I’m suffering from culture shock.

I’m not joking.

It is a real thing. I read about it on Wikipedia so now I consider myself a world-class expert on the topic. Sarcasm aside, I was certainly very naive to think that moving to a new country was going to be an easy transition. Indeed I’ve never been to America before, but seriously, how different could it be? It’s only across the pond. We (almost) speak the same language. We (almost) eat the same foods. And we all love the British monarchy (minus miserable republicans who don’t appreciate true love. Long Live Will & Kate). Surely that would be enough to guarantee my flawless transition into American culture? Apparently not. Today I had to face reality: I’m an alien in a very foreign land.

Drawing upon very reliable facts extracted from Wikipedia (give me a break, they had references to legitimate research), I discovered that culture shock consists of four stages: (1) Honeymoon; (2) Negotiation; (3) Adjustment; and (4) Mastery. I recently entered the second phase.

Negotiation

After some time (usually around three months, depending on the individual), differences between the old and new culture become apparent and may create anxiety.

– Wikipedia, “Culture Shock”

Coincidently I’ve been in America for three months now. HOW PREDICTABLE. I’m a textbook Wikipedia entry.

Prior to this, everything was perfect. A “honeymoon” one might say. America was a novelty; everything was just like the movies. But it was even better because it was all REAL. The fraternities were real. Pop-Tarts were real. Diners were real. All of it. And it was amazing.

But it didn’t last. The Frat boys were obnoxious. My Pop-Tart broke in half inside the toaster. And I realised that I had to choose between a S’mores milkshake or a double stacked bacon ‘n’ cheese steakburger because there’s no way in hell I can finish both. My “American dream” fizzled out, slowly, but surely. And now I’m here – facing reality – in a country where people keep asking me (a) if my accent is real, (b) if I was in Game of Thrones and, (c) if I was invited to Prince George’s christening. It’s terrifying.

So where do I go from here?

I’m still figuring that out. All I know is that this “negotiation” phase requires me to start re-evaluating some of my unfounded and romanticised assumptions. Of course, before I embarked on this journey I should have done some quite crucial transition preparation. But “should’ve’s” are no use to anyone. Especially someone who is freaking out about the very real situation of being so far away from home, while simultaneously trying to fish a Pop-Tart out of the toaster without starting a fire.

Eventually I’ll ask myself the fundamental questions: Where am I? Why am I here? And how am I going to adjust? But for now, I am quite content/overwhelmed with the realisation I made today. That is, I identified that I was in denial. Culture shock exists. The “pond” which separates Britain and America is not a pond at all. And whoever said American culture was not that different from British culture is a liar. Oh, yes, that was me.

I’m Kate and I’m an alien in a foreign land. It took me three months, but I’ve finally admitted it. First step towards “adjustment” – done.

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This photo was taken pre-culture shock (I’d only been in America for a week). First of all I’m in a diner. Second of all, I was exposed to American Dining 101: Chips are not chips. Needless to say, I had a pitiful meal. Luckily I ordered a milkshake too, which satisfied my diner experience, and my appetite.