This is a post I have been waiting a long time to write. I have wanted to write it even before I had this blog. As some of you know, my family moved overseas to Switzerland in 2011. In retrospect, it was the hardest thing I have ever done. Yes, even harder than giving birth…twice.
We packed up half of our worldly possessions (and sold the other half), took our kids, then aged 6 and 3 and moved from Tennessee to Switzerland. WTF? I mean seriously – who does that? (Us apparently…). Everyone else in our lives knew this was a terrible idea, but we were hoping for an experience that would show us and our kids a broader view of the world at large. Open our eyes, break us out of our middle class, southern bubble and show us what was UP! Holy shit did we get it an eye opening experience?! Better be careful what you wish for – you just might get it!
It was Switzerland – it was all alps and cheese and chocolate – idyllic , right? WRONG! It was the single most isolating, humiliating and frightening experience of my life – yet I have never felt more alive.
We lived on the German speaking side of Switzerland in the countryside near Zurich in a small village called Niederrohrdorf (Knee-derr-or-dorf). We were on a civilian expat assignment with my husband’s company and we had pretty much every perk you could think of – kids were enrolled in private schools, car allowance, housing allowance, etc. but we were the poorest people in the village. Why? Because people rejected us. We had no people.
Have you ever truly felt rejected? I can say that until my Swiss experience, my answer was no. Yes, we all have people who don’t like us, we feel lonely sometimes, but that is different than categorical rejection. The rejection I personally experienced was one that left you physically cold and doubtful at the end of the day. Pondering where and if you fit into your own reality. Wondering how and if you fit into the world at all…
Imagine being completely misunderstood in EVERY encounter, no matter how simple. Go to the grocery store and imagine that you can’t read the signs, communicate with the cashier or understand how to drive the cart (in Switzerland, it requires a coin and all 4 of its wheels rotate 360 degrees). Imagine taking your sick child to the doctor and being told you were wrong to do so (one must go see the pharmacist first). Imagine being chased off the bus with your two small children in tow being told you were an ‘Auslander’ (literally translated – Outlander – not of this land – foreigner). Imagine all of this happening without a single sign of warmth from your perpetrator…no smile, no tip of the head…nothing. That was my reality everyday for almost a year.
And this was freaking Switzerland – they are neutral for God’s sake! What if we had done the unimaginable and actually moved somewhere known for their personality or politics (good or bad)? China, Thailand or even France? Holy crap! What would have happened then?!
Despite it being the hardest time of my entire life. Despite the icy cold feeling I get deep down in my chest and gut upon the mere mention of the country, Switzerland. Despite the tears I shed over our heart wrenching decision to move there – I am thankful. That experience taught me just how important it is to the human spirit to belong. It helped me understand that acceptance of others, no matter how different they are from you, should be something we give without reservation. It helped me understand that no matter how much those Swiss humans didn’t want to like or associate with me and my little American humans, we share a species and therefore, must appreciate and accept each other to at least some minimal degree.
When was the last time you were truly warm to someone from another country or nationality? I implore you to find it in your heart to accept rather than reject. Smile, instead of frown. Hold the door, instead of letting it close in their face. Try, for just one minute, to put yourself in their shoes and realize that even if they don’t speak English, even if they look, act, smell or talk different from you, that they deserve your respect, not only as a human, but as a human with guts. Probably more guts than you. After all, they are the ones putting themselves out there in a foreign land and being vulnerable. Trust me, they are sad, homesick and lonely. Why make them feel like more of an Auslander?