Cultural identity of expats in Switzerland – just who are we anyway?
The whole Save WRS radio station issue has got me thinking a lot about cultural identity in an expat world. I signed the petition because I want to save the radio station, which is Switzerland’s only publicly-funded English language station and could close based on the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation’s imminent decision. But the issues it brought up are bigger than “just” whether an English language radio station should be subsidized by tax revenue in a country where English is not an official language.
It’s actually not that hard to see the reasons against WRS. Would you agree to subsidize an Italian radio station in Texas? Well, probably not, that would seem illogical. But what if the Italian language station itself was a major part of Texan culture? What if the Italian language is what made some foreigners integrate into Texan culture?
Ok I’ll stop with the Texas analogy (Can you imagine Clint riding around on a horse in a movie called “ Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo”? Impossible! ) But my point is this: there is a specific cultural identity in Switzerland tied to the English language that is not merely an “outsiders” culture. It’s local. It’s Swiss. Kind of.
Take me, for example (I am an easy example, frankly.) I’m Canadian. Been here almost 11 years. I speak French and English (I also now speak a bit of Danish but that’s a whole other story). My two oldest boys, who moved here with me 11 years ago, can switch accents between French-Canadian and Suisse Romand without batting an eye. I have not adapted that much yet and probably never will, as soon as I open my mouth I betray my French-canadian-ness, to the delight of the Swiss I must add. In another year I can apply for Swiss citizenship and I wonder if they will test me to see if I can pronounce the word “dix” without using the letter “z”. Maybe it’ll help if I show I can say “Chuchichäschtli”? (I really can, my Swiss-German friend made me practice till my mouth hurt.)
The majority of my co-workers are Swiss, from all over the country. But there are still almost 40% non-Swiss at my work-place, from all over the world. With the other foreigners, we speak either French, or English, or a mixture of a few different languages depending on who’s talking and who’s listening. It would not be surprising for a conversation to start in Swiss German, switch to French, switch again to English and have a few side-arguments debated in Italian and Serbian. The only strange thing about it all is that we all seem to understand each other.
There is no doubt that I’m not Swiss (yet!) I am Canadian, always will be. But just how Canadian am I anymore? How much “Swissness” has rubbed off on me, so that if I return to Canada I don’t really fit in there anymore either? This is a conversation I’ve had with many of my expat friends and co-workers, and we all agree, there is a point when we don’t belong back home anymore either.
Example: you’re back in your home country, and you sneeze. Nobody rushes to say “santé”, and you’re shocked. You could, after all, be dying of some terrible sneeze-causing disease and nobody has wished health on you! Or, you listen to the weather forecast and they say snow is expected, but don’t tell you at how many meters! Or, you want to cross the street at a crosswalk, and the cars don’t all slam their breaks to let you pass! What’s up with that? Or, worse than anything, you get served a coffee and there is no small chocolate next to it!
When exactly does it happen that we go from being “Canadian-living in Switzerland” (or English or Australian or American or Serbian or German or…) to being Swissified-Canadian? Is it that first moment when you’re sitting at home relaxing on a Sunday and you hear a new neighbour drilling a hole loudly and you actually “harumpf” out loud? Is it when you give your teenagers 100 francs to go pick up take-away pizzas for them and their two friends and you wonder if you gave them enough money? Is it when someone from another country (probably your own) talks about “Swiss cheese” and you go into a tirade of describing the difference between emmentaler, gruyere, vacherin, appenzeller and the non-existence of a cheese simply called “Swiss”?
And, circling back to my original point (you were probably wondering if I was going to manage that), if there is such a thing as being Swissified, then as a unique part of the Swiss culture should it not be supported through a local radio station that exemplifies all that we, The Swissified, stand for?
Because I know I’m just not a normal Canadian anymore. (Opening myself up to some comments from the peanut gallery there I know.) I’m in-between two cultures, and I love it.