Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Reflections on a year

January saw my one-year anniversary of arriving in Zurich, and my perspective on my new adopted home continues to evolve.

I admit, I've spent much of the last year being frustrated. Frustrated that I couldn't understand people, that I couldn't make myself understood, that I didn't know how to accomplish things or where to find things. I have always been a rule-follower, and it was unnerving to be unsure of what the rules (written and unwritten) were. Patience has never been one of my virtues, and my entire family always likes to share stories about how, as a young child, I would burst into tears at a moment's provocation when I couldn't do things, however small or absurd. As an adult, I'd like to think I'm less prone to tears, but I often feel that frustration bubble up at a moment's notice.

Among the frustration, though, are lulls - and as I settle in more, those periods last longer.

A fact that I've finally learned to accept just over the past month is that I will never fully integrate into Zurich. B and I will forever be marked as outsiders to some degree. One huge reason, obviously, is the language barrier. And it will always be there - even if, twenty years down the road, I am able to comfortably converse in German (or, more unlikely, Swiss German), I'll have an accent that immediately marks me as "other." I will never truly feel or be perceived as Swiss.

I was surprised to find that once I accepted this fact, I felt, quite unexpectedly, a sense of calm. It took me another few days to understand that this new calm came from realizing that I no longer had an unattainable, impossible goal. I won't integrate, but I can focus on building a happy, fulfilling life here. I don't have to self-isolate or surround myself with only Americans, but instead I can meet a variety of people and slowly build a network of friends who come from all over the world. And that's what I've been doing. I've met amazing Swiss women who are more than happy to speak English while I struggle with my German. I've also met wonderful people from Germany, Colombia, India, Britain, New Zealand, Korea, and South Africa (Zurich's population is 1/3 non-Swiss). I still have a long-term goal of improving my German, but that doesn't need to prevent me from making connections in the meanwhile.

The large expat community here in Zurich means there are many fascinating, interesting people to meet. Unfortunately, I have also learned that the negative side to this is that there is a high rate of turnover. I have already said goodbye to one friend that I only grew close to in the month before she left, and I got an email last week announcing the departure of another amazing woman that I didn't take advantage of getting to know well enough. I've served on the board of the American Women's Club now for five months, and at least four of the women I've gotten to know through my work there are departing the country over the next three months.

As I was discussing my new revelations with my parents over Skype, I was surprised to see them nodding. Although they've never lived abroad, they moved to a small community in rural West Virginia as adults and even, after 30 years, were still seen as outsiders. They often made connections with visiting astronomers who would only stay for two or three years before moving on. It was a surprising admission to hear - we moved to West Virginia when I was four and I am proud to have been raised there. Growing up, I was different from most of my classmates (no local relatives, no television, reading books, and a desire to leave the county all marked me as 'other'), but in my childish selfishness, I never considered that my parents would feel a similar sense of isolation.

It doesn't take a move across an ocean or a place with another predominate language to feel out of place or as if you don't belong. But if you're in that situation, please know that it's not unusual to feel that way, you're not alone, and it will change. It takes time and effort to build a community, but I firmly believe that, no matter where you go, there are warm, welcoming people that are worth getting to know and who can enrich our lives. I'm still in the midst of the process, but I am so grateful for all the wonderful people that I've met here in the past year and I am optimistic about the future.

1 comment:

  1. Well said and well done. I grew up in an area where most of my family went back hundreds of years. I then flitted round countries, a traveling dilettante, where I flourished on different cultures and non-permanent friendships. When I settled In Pocahontas County, WV, I had one advantage over your parents; my husband's family descended from the original white settlers and they accepted me and gently showed me the ropes (Thank you, Jane Price Sharp whose mantra was, "Keep busy and get involved!"). But I was a foreigner and I only had to open my mouth to emphasize that, AND I was in an area where a newly minted Ph.D. in romance philology cut no ice! Pocahontas County is now my "home". True, not all segments accept me as a" local" ; they never will. But, away as I am now, I worry when there is a flood watch, when my neighbors suffer through extreme temperatures, lose electricity and deal with horrendous snowstorms. I care intensely when the preservation of its history is endangered and when the crystal clear water that rises there is polluted downstream. You are on your way to becoming a Zuricher. Ich bin hocherfreut; viel Gluck, meine Freundin!