By Jessica Thien Wood
Picture it: Zürich, Switzerland February 8th, 2020, my family arrived after a very long flight from San Francisco, California ready to start our new life in Switzerland! Is this the picture you were imagining? This was our reality after 4 weeks of living in Switzerland. The picture is from my daughter’s 8th birthday, celebrated in March 2020 with no furniture (aside from foldable chairs we picked up at the Swiss version of a Home Depot) and store-bought cupcakes because I hadn’t yet figured out how to work the oven.
Now that we have lived here for over 2 years and have passed the point of surviving (i.e. yes, we have furniture, can work the appliances, communicate in basic daily German, and are fortunate to have several good friends…) – I can reflect on my experience of being an American abroad. Living abroad has made me connect with Americans from all different political and geographical locations and on a different, more meaningful level. I could list several things I miss about the US (Amazon, big refrigerators…), but here are the shared values I miss the most:
Opportunities and Optimism. I can almost hear the eye-rolls of readers. Yes, America is not perfect and there are inequities, but it does seem to be easier to switch careers in the US than in Switzerland and there’s an undercurrent of hope. I moved here from the San Francisco Bay Area, the land of startups, where failure is almost a rite of passage. From my understanding and talking with local friends here, your career path is decided relatively young and once you start a career it can be difficult to switch as switching can mean a substantial amount of time and resources. However, in Switzerland, the depth of knowledge in each profession from car mechanic to teacher runs far deeper than in the US and all professions are well-respected, which is really incredible.
Spontaneity and Creativity. I miss the creativity and having more spontaneity that life allows for in the US. In Switzerland, where everything is clean and “runs like a Swiss clock”, it should come as no surprise the Swiss value punctuality and perfection. This is ingrained at an early age, where if an assignment is done incorrectly, students will often be asked to redo it (at least in the German part where I live). It reinforces the need for perfection but also ensures the student truly understood the assignment. As a parent to school-age children, I can say they are getting a wonderful albeit different education than they would be getting in the US. Also, if you have ever taken public transportation in Switzerland, you can see the difference…trains run on time and everything is clean. So while I do miss the creativity and spontaneity, I truly appreciate the Swiss way of life.
Emotions are not worn on your sleeve in Switzerland. Laughing too loudly will surely get you a stare, as will crying, or outwardly showing too much emotion. You will not be offered a tissue or a hug, you will be stared at or ignored. They are not being rude, they are a private group and are respecting your privacy.
I hope Americans are able to start seeing each other as this Expat does, as neighbors and friends who have more in common than their differences. If you are reading this in the US, I hope you had a good belly laugh picturing this emotional sponge of a woman trying to keep herself together in the place she currently calls home. If you are reading this in Switzerland, happy to schedule a spontaneous Apéro.