Zürich is full of creative, imaginative, cultural nomads for whom adaptation is a way of life. Change and learning how to fit in means something different to all of us. It’s awkward, painful, enlightening, hard work, liberating and funny. Here, some Woolf readers talk about their own journeys of adaptation, growth and imagination.
By Gabrielle Mathieu
Consider this: You’re raised by a former New York artist and a Swiss actress, who then converts full-heartedly to Hinduism. Your older half-sisters live in Brooklyn with their Jewish mother. Your older Swiss cousin absconds to Thailand, your younger Swiss cousin moves to Greece. You have no siblings or relatives nearby to show you the ropes as your tiny family moves all across the globe.
Now it is 1975 and you’re a bewildered teenager in the U.S.A. You do not know who Sonny and Cher are. You’re forbidden to wear blue jeans. Your schoolmates laugh at you often, and not from your own instigation.
You become an informal social anthropologist. You develop a life-long fascination with parsing cultural signifiers, including clothing styles, media preferences, and body language. Just the body language of a region can yield many observations: do people merely purse their lips when they are displeased, or will you get a tongue-lashing if you step in it? How long should you hold eye contact? What’s merely flirting, and what constitutes a blatant come-on that will get you in hot water?
And yet, the more you observe, the less you crave a full-scale adaptation. Certainly, you concede, a quick nod to cultural norms is indicated. You will not bare your midriff in a church, you will not laugh like a braying donkey with your Swiss friends, you will not be reserved and chilly on your vacation in Ireland. But the more you travel, the less you care about fitting in. You have never fit in, you will never fit in; you could never squeeze all your multicultural experiences under one hat.
Local community thrives on continuity and provides security, but it exacts a price. You cannot reinvent yourself, you must plod through the steps of being who you are, there are expectations and webs that wind themselves around you.
The world is full of people like you: born one place and living in another. That is your community. Those who adapt, and adapt again, but remain true to what’s inside.
Images and text: Hilarie Burke
I am an extrovert. I was born in Japan. My education started as the only non-Japanese among 30 Kindergarteners. We moved to three Asian countries for 2-4 year stints before settling in the US at age 12. Additionally, I was a cross-eyed, toe headed dyslexic with glasses and eye patch. I learned, right off the bat, that I was a person among people, not part of the clan. I would never fit in, an early if unconscious realization that freed me from the agony of trying. Being open to the people around me, led me to folks of like mind, our energies matched. The idea that I might ever be able to actually ‘fit in’ never entered my mind, except to yearn for the impossible—thick, black Asian hair. I gained a broad sense of what community means. My good friends in each country were native to that country; an adaptation practice that goes a long way. Self worth could not be measured according to the approval of others. Paying attention to my own disapproving thoughts became an adaptive tool.
When I listen to the conversation about immigration and the need for immigrants to adapt, I wonder. What does that mean? Ok, finding and keeping a job, and generally living by the laws and norms of the society one lives in. But even second-generation immigrants will always be part of the culture they came from, especially if there is a racial difference. It helps to recognize that they add great cultural wealth to the host country. Resistance to change is treacherous. Adaptation is core to the process of evolution. Integrating into a global society is a survival tactic.
I remain comfortable as an outsider living in Switzerland, and muddling through German. Knowing I will never be Swiss is liberating. If I have a clan, it is the international community. We share a big thing in common. We are all outsiders.