Wednesday, January 17, 2007

White versus Black (Socks)

One thing I’ve learned from hanging out with my Swiss friends is their utter disregard for their countrymen. Because the German speakers are forced to learn French and vice-versa, they tend to hate the other’s language and prefer to speak to each other in English, a more neutral language.

Ask a Swiss German about French and he’ll wrinkle his nose and answer you in English despite his multi-lingual abilities. And when my Zurich office deals with the Geneva office, more than likely, all e-mails are exchanged in English.

In fact, there was a Swiss riot (mind you a Swiss riot—think extreme loud yelling and nothing more) not to long ago in Zurich over changing the first language taught in the school system to English instead of French. The young people want it because of the Internet, movies, music, and for business reasons. But the traditional people fear a loss of culture somehow, and who can blame them. And the traditionalists seem to be losing out. Somehow, American culture really is taking over the world.

In Switzerland, English is trendy and cool. An entire ad might be in German, but you can bet the tagline will be in English. Movies aren’t dubbed as much as they are in Germany, and something like “Swiss Made” would never be translated, but just be written in plain old English despite what language might appear around it. While the four official languages are German, French, Italian, and Romansh, English appears to be the common ground among young people worried about their image.

But the Swiss segregate themselves with more than language. The tiny country, only about a third of size of Illinois, divides itself into 26 states or cantons. And each canton has its stigma and prejudice.

The people from Zurich think the people from Aargau (my canton) are old-fashioned, boring, white-sock wearing people. When people in my office found out I lived in Baden, they wrinkled their noses and said that they personally, would never be found dead with an AG (canton of Aargau) on their license plate. Being the unknowing American, I just shrugged and said, “Well I didn’t know.” Plus I didn’t have a car anyway and have tried to adjust to wearing black socks for all occasions lest I find myself in the sleek and refined canton of Zurich.

When I went to Zermatt, my German teacher (from Seengen in the canton of Aargau) said she doesn’t go there as the people are rude and standoffish.

In a country that seems so peaceful, neutral, and conflict-avoiding, it seems funny to see people segregate themselves as much as they do. But then I think back to my good old college days at the University of Illinois where we Chicago suburbanites laughed at the drawls of our southern Illinois friends. So maybe it’s just human nature. No matter how neutral you are, segregation, no matter how harmless, is just part of life.


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