What Lies Beneath: Making the Case For Cultural Understanding

I pull from a box, loose magazine pages peppered with photos of my kids and a byline with which, post divorce, I no longer identify. The words though are familiar, and eerily consistent to how I feel some ten years later. I used to write for a parenting magazine and was allowed free run with a regular column in which I sorted through my experiences as a new mom living as an expat in Switzerland. I’d made small volumes of these columns for my daughters before we left hoping one day they’d be able to look back to recognize a consistent effort to discover the honesty and sometimes humour of situations as I navigated my way through a foreign culture. With these columns splayed out on my desk today, I realize I’ve forgotten much of what I wrote but as I read through them, the thread running through my life, from South Africa to the creation of Culture Dock pulls surprisingly taught and vibrates with what I hope was always an understanding tone.

One column snags my attention. In it, I had written about visiting an online chat forum for expat moms in Switzerland where more than a few members weren’t exactly seeing the best of their adoptive country. The group moderator felt the need to step in, remind everyone to think twice before hitting the ‘send’ button as tempers flared. I chirped in with a little input, something to the effect that if expats can’t work at understanding what’s beneath the surface in a country like Switzerland, what hope do other places have that have genuine racial problems. They were obviously just overwhelmed Mamas, probably missing home like crazy but there was a reason I felt my opinion here, mattered. It was because of my columns in the parenting magazine that I was recommended to author a book about Swiss culture for a global guidebook series, and I’d just put the final draft to bed when I took it upon myself to ‘educate’ the poor expat moms.

I remember when the email came in from the publishers of Culture Smart and how scattered I felt as I was pulled in too many directions; unconvinced I could research anything outside of my own experience. I recognized the opportunity for what it was and knew I was in no position to turn it down but I had no idea how I was going to pull it off. I had written a book a few years prior and understood the commitment it takes of both time and focus. The project was daunting – not just for these reasons but because I was to be a resource of information for an entire culture of a country that despite its small size, wasn’t culturally homogenous. I lived in the ‘German part’. There was also the French, Italian, and Romansh areas and the urban/rural factor to consider. I feared perpetuating damaging stereotypes and imagined responses from Swiss friends who may take offence or point out exceptions to the rule as I attempted to navigate the customs, etiquette and history of their home and of a land and people I had grown to love. In my columns, I’d been cracking jokes about the phonetics of a gas station attendants wishing me a ‘gute fahrt’ and spewing concerns about my daughters’ mastery of their first language of English, as they played in Swiss German and did homework in High German. I wasn’t sure if I was ready to depart from my personal voice and speak authoritatively for a collective of ‘outsiders’.

Of course, I accepted the gig with Culture Smart. Drawing from my own experience while also utilizing the help of Swiss friends, books and articles, I addressed such things as making friends and doing business in Switzerland; I discussed values and attitudes, holidays, languages and in less than 15 pages I summed up no less than two thousand years of the country’s history. These are concise volumes that deliver the essence of countries and their populations in handbooks fit for travel. Because I wrote Culture Smart: Switzerland, my experiences in the country became richer and my perspective more tolerant. As a visitor to a foreign country, the moment one decides to not be offended or assume there’s only one way of doing things; to be curious about traditions and behaviours, everything changes – doors open. Not only do we learn something but we’re changed forever, and for the better, in the process. We never look at our own lives again the same way and cease to hold ourselves to be so precious.

A headline from Britain’s Independent newspaper after the Manchester bombing said, There’s only one way Britain should respond to attacks such as Manchester. That is by carrying on exactly as before. I’m dismayed by those taking this as an opportunity to criticize such a tact; attempting to make the courageous embarrassed for being too politically correct or too passive. It’s time again, for me to chirp in. This is just another example of social media being used to polarize people into disparate views. Beyond the headline, the article in The Independent goes on to say, That is not to say police should not track down who was responsible for such vile murder. That is not to say the security services should not step up their efforts and do all they can to stop a repeat of such slaughter. What the article implies, is that we average human beings do not have to let terror attacks spread terror or let cowards and control freaks turn us into something we’re not. Most importantly, we don’t have to lose our sense of tolerance for one another.

It reminds me of something a councillor once said to me when I was going through my divorce.  When someone acts so disturbingly don’t let them move the goal posts, don’t let them change the rules of the game to suit just them. Pressing on is not putting our heads in the sand, it’s courageously standing by principles despite people who are insisting you should be afraid. It appears more and more obvious to me that apart from those who wreak havoc in the world, the rest of us fall into two camps — there are those who understand bullies and those who fear them; I figure it’s the former that’s going to move the world forward.

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