My daughter’s music teacher told me a story about a colleague in Basel. She was a teacher from France who had reached a good level of proficiency in German. However, she had a habit of addressing everyone as “du,” no matter who they were, including the Head of the school! She said she simply couldn’t get her head around such a rule structure (despite the French language having similar formal and informal forms), and everyone accepted that this was simply how she was. To me, that is amazing, brave, crazy, and worthy of applause. I agonize over my “Sie”s and “du”s. Yet in other ways, I break conventions all over the meadow.
“Know the rules well, so you can break them effectively.” ― Dalai Lama XIV
I was thinking this over, while sitting on an IKEA chair on the bus headed for home. I had just carried the chair through town. Understanding that this was really not the thing to do, and knowing I looked a little strange to say the least, I took to grinning at everyone…quite a startling concept to some folks trying to do a little quiet lunchtime shopping.
Moving to a new country, you have a few options for integrating. One is to learn the new ways of being and try as hard as possible not to annoy or perplex the natives or, heaven forbid, stand out. The other approach is to have great respect for the culture but to play by your own rules anyway. I don’t fit in and that’s great! I didn’t particularly fit in back in England, so I cheerfully expected the same here and behave accordingly. I know there may be consequences, and a fair amount of bafflement, but mostly smiles. If I do manage to annoy someone, at least I have given them a story!
My daughter challenges me by questioning the rules in her school or the way things are done. I explain it in this way: a whole bunch of people got together to work out the best way to organize things and help children go to school. They made rules and lots of people agreed. It a huge game that we play to get to where we want to go. We follow the rules to get there, but it doesn’t have to be serious, as we are just playing a game. This one is called “school,” but it can be called many things, like “airports,” “restaurants,” “buses,” “French,” “German,” or even the country they call “Switzerland.”
Our children are constantly asking us “why” questions about how society and culture works. They are giving us a huge opportunity to – rather than flatly answer – also ask “why” and to explore new ways of thinking and doing things. It is an opportunity for us as parents to grow as well as our children.
Scale it up and we have day-to-day life as an expat. We didn’t grow up with a lot of these rules, so we are blessed that we can see them more clearly (back “home,” rules and customs are harder to spot, as they are simply seen as “the right way” or “the way things are done”) and have more chance to see the game we are playing.
So here I ponder, sitting on my 15-franc secondhand chair, in the middle of a bus. Are the others in the bus thinking about me? Probably no more than when I mess up my German at the supermarket checkout or forget to weigh a vegetable correctly or die laughing at the price of pair of pants. I have no idea what they are thinking, nor do I believe it matters a jot. If I can break the rules and make people smile, beyond culture, language and a thousand other rules we have made up, then today was a good day.
You’ll learn, as you get older, that rules are made to be broken. Be bold enough to live life on your terms, and never, ever apologize for it. Go against the grain, refuse to conform, take the road less traveled instead of the well-beaten path. Laugh in the face of adversity, and leap before you look. Dance as though EVERYBODY is watching. March to the beat of your own drummer. And stubbornly refuse to fit in.
― Mandy Hale, in The Single Woman: Life, Love, and a Dash of Sass
By Tammy Furey
Tammy is a coach, writer and blogger who lives in St. Gallen with her husband and daughter whilst attempting (badly) to speak German and fold her paper recycling in the correct manner. Visit her at www.fureycoaching.com. She also runs a free expat Facebook support group for mums: www.facebook.com/groups/whiteknuckleparenting/ (if link doesn’t work, type the address into your browser).
Illustration by Laura Munteanu
Laura has studied Journalism and Advertising, and has been working as a journalist and an illustrator. She has been illustrating for magazines, websites, charity and diverse campaigns. She lives in Zurich with her husband and six-year-old daughter.