Thursday, June 20, 2013

Foreigner or Expat in Switzerland?


Seven years ago yesterday, The Frau arrived in Switzerland.

Yipee. Should she feel different?

Oh no, yodelers, because here's the thing: no matter how long she lives her life in Switzerland, she'll always be a foreigner.

She wasn't always a foreigner. For her first five years in Switzerland, she was an expat. 

Is there a difference between an expat and a foreigner?

Ja, ja.
23% of the Swiss population is foreign.
And made to feel foreign.

An expat has an expiration date. An expat has defined plans to leave, usually with the same company that brought them there. An expat often lives in a bubble, putting their life on hold for that normal they think they’ll be able to return to—key word, think.

Because Switzerland has a lot going for it, many expats become foreigners in Switzerland.

A foreigner is someone who decides to stay—at least for awhile. They have local contracts with no expiration dates. They stop putting their lives on hold and instead live their lives to the fullest in the place they are now, rather than where the place they plan to be later.

By her definition, The Frau has become a foreigner.

Foreigners in Switzerland like The Frau often realize something else: No matter how good or bad their German is, no matter if they learn to play the alphorn or not—they will always be one thing in Switzerland: foreigners.

The Frau thinks a lot about this now that she has Baby M. Baby M is an American growing up in Switzerland. She says “Baden” with a Swiss accent. She answers when spoken to in Swiss German. And “nein” is her favorite Swiss German word.

But Baby M, if she continues grows up here, will also probably always be a foreigner. A very strange kind of Swiss German-speaking foreigner, but a foreigner by Swiss definition, nonetheless.

The Frau has come to realize that once a foreigner in Switzerland, always a foreigner—even if you are born here.

This is why almost 23% of the Swiss population is foreign. Behind Luxembourg, Switzerland has the highest percentage of foreigners in Europe—and for good reason—the time, expense, and process involved in becoming Swiss is some of the most stringent in the world.

The Frau doesn’t necessarily even want a Swiss passport—what she wants is the acceptance that doesn't seem possible here without it. Because after seven years in Switzerland, she’s found wondering, can a place ever be considered a home if one is always defined as a foreigner when living there?

What do you think?

12 comments:

Virginia Thompson said...

Love your blog Chantal, I being if Swiss heritage (my great grandfathers house is in Eschanz TG and his bride was form Interlaken) I tried to get papers from the Swiss Emb in San Fran back in the 80's....oh what a dreamer I was back then!

Paul said...

I can understand what you are saying. Germany is like that too. Some of the Turks there have lived there for a long time, but they will never be considered Germans.

France has its own culture regarding people moving there from other countries, and Britain is different again.

The US is virtually unique in that its population is essentially made up entirely of immigrants (apart from the Native Americans, of course).

But then again, the US has the concept of certain people being "UnAmerican", meaning that they don't aspire to an interpretation of core values, which is peculiar to a Brit.

Lance said...

I be been in CH for about six months. Before leaving home in the US, we spoke with a few others who had lived in Switzerland. When we asked whether they maintained contact with Swiss friends, they uniformly (and swiftly) said "no."

What do you mean when you say at you want "the acceptance that doesn't seem possible here without" a Swiss passport? What form would that acceptance take? So far, I've been content to enjoy the country without expecting too much of the people. But I'm sure my needs and expectations wil change with the passage of time. :)

Bob said...

Now, I have been reading your blog for a while and I love it. There are very funny and very accurate descriptions of the Swiss.

I'm Swiss. And while I do admit that you describe Switzerland and the Swiss generally favorably and while I also admit that you have more than just a point when criticizing many aspects of this country, I think that this is the first post of yours which I believe to be driven by frustration.

No, you will never be a mountain village farmer hailing from some valley. But having read this post, I must wonder if we live in the same country. Where I live, there are thousands of identities and a very international atmosphere and you can absolutely become a Swiss. The elder Swiss people will eventually learn that Switzerland, unless 60 years ago, is now defined by other things than a die-hard Swiss accent.

And your baby, I grew up with many kids of non-Swiss parents. There is no way, she will be a lifelong foreigner. Well, ok, there is one: Send her to international school, tell her constantly that Switzerland is not her country but that the US is. Then she will still be Swiss but will believe that she is Swiss "by mistake" and that she actually belongs to America.

I really wish Switzerland was more welcoming to foreigners. But I also wish foreigners would be more straightforward in claiming their rights. It saddens me when a third-generation foreigner claims to be "Serbian" or "Tamil" or whatever. Because he is not. My grandma grew up in Austria. I don't run around waving Austrian flags and telling everyone that actually, Austrian is the place where I belong. This is how absurd this is.

Do Baby M a favor and - should you stay in Switzerland which I hope - get naturalized as soon as you can and make it clear to her that this is her country too.

iphigenie said...

I'm Swiss - although now and expat to the UK - and my husband is american. We lived in Switzerland 12 or 13 years and even though my husband didn't get the passport, he feels he belongs, when in Switzerland. So it can happen.

He finished his studies here, he worked several places here, he has friends all over the place and has the same experiences as everyone - cultural experiences, family traditions and rituals, festivals, places visited and things done.
It is, in part, because apart from a stint in Bern, he was always surrounded by mostly Swiss people and hanging out with Swiss people.

I would say that, apart from his hometown, he feels more at home in Switzerland than in the US. or the UK, where we are now. He'd go back in a heartbeat.

Now of course people who don't know him and just hear his accent, in french, will know him as originally anglophone (strangely enough when he is speaking german or swiss german, he has a swiss french accent so they assume he is a "welsch") but that doesn't matter.

In many ways my husband is more Swiss than me

I think the biggest thing to feel "Swiss" is a Swiss social circle - if you get one, through work colleagues, through a club, a brass band, parents of your child's schoolmate - then you will be going to the swiss picnics, swiss events, swiss birthday, swiss festivals, swiss weddings and all and before you know it, geraniums are in your blood ;)

iphigenie said...

and yes, the decision of the Swiss, over and over, to not offer automatic nationality (or even easy nationality) to second or third generation children is RIDICULOUS. It creates this fake count of foreigners who are not, and should not ever be considered foreigners.
It would have been gone a long time ago but the largest group of original expats was from the EU, and their EU passport is no obstacle, therefore they didn't feel the need. They should, though, even if only for the right to vote

Hattie said...

Swiss German plays a huge role, and looking and acting Swiss. My older daughter, fluent in Swiss and good at all the things Swiss people excel at (skiing, etc.) was fully accepted there, but the rest of us were not, including my somewhat "Italian" looking daughter. If we had stayed instead of coming back to the states when she was 16, she would have become a Swiss citizen.
But there are many advantages to "not fitting in" there, I found. I felt very free, as a matter of fact, to go my own way and be as eccentric as I pleased.

Irene said...

I'm a Spaniard leaving in Baden (maybe we have actually crossed each other somewhere!) and I completely share what you are saying. I've been in this country since 2004 and I feel totally Ausländer. I speak fairly good German (and French) and I understand quite some Swiss-German, so that's not the problem. I should fit in the Swiss culture: I like skiing, hiking, quietness, following rules, punctuality, mind-my-own-business life style... I would love to have Swiss friends, but I just don't know how to get to know any (my circle is mainly Ausländer, because that's the people it's easier to get to know...). I went to the same gym for 3 years and I only got as far as "Grüzi" with the ladies there. I go with my son to the playground and, again, I never get passed the Grüzi. And if I get to have a long conversation with any of the neighbours, they turn out to be partly Ausländer as well.

My son is going to Krippe and will definitely be fluent in Swiss-German. But I am not sure what nationality he is going to feel (he's half Spanish, half Swedish): the country where he was born doesn't really consider him its citizen... That worries me a bit :(

Charles said...

I'm swiss, my all family come from switzerland from age and I just want to react to what you say about beeing foreigner or expat in switzerland.
What I can say from my own experience, some people with swiss passeport are more foreigner than people without. The thing is that swiss people are really happy in their country, mainly when you see how all the problem in the world. We live in a small country, how had no war since 1848, where there is job for (almost) everyone, peace and safety. Swiss people are afraid of foreigners, because for them, foreigner are synonym of trouble. For example, during last votation in a subject with foreigner, most of poeple who voted against foreigner are people who live in small valley ore village and have no contact with foreigners and are afraid of them. So, for me, there is no difference between foreigner, expat and swiss people, but there is a differences between people who are include in switzerland than others. Some of my friends are not swiss, and I don't see a difference between them and others friends, so for me they are swiss. Swiss people look like racist for rest of the world, but we want to protect of peacefulness. Foreigners are welcome in Switzerland, but they have to adapt to our way-of-life, costums, etc.
I'm 100% swiss, but I feel sometime foreigner in my own country. When I move to another canton (district) that have different customs, another accent or expressions, even if they speak same language than mine, I fell like beeing in another country.
For resumed all that, what I can say, it's that if you want to live in switzerland for longtime, you have to forget that you are from another country and acting like swiss people.
I know it's really hard for foreigner to understand mentality of swiss people. I was studing a lot in another country, and what I see it's that there is a very few people how understand the swiss mentality.
Swiss people are not against foreigner, or expat, or whatever, they just want to live in serenity.
When you know them, swiss people are one of the most welcoming people in the world.

(sorry for mistakes, like you said in another post, I learned german and not english in school :) )

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