“Forget about Swiss perfectionism at home.”

How a Korean-Japanese-Swiss family deals with cultural differences

The love story 

It was a sunny day in June 2009. The temperature peaked almost 30℃. Daniel Wyssen, a 23-year-old Swiss man, was travelling in Seoul, South Korea. He and his friends came into a pub for a drink. That’s when he saw her. 

“She was working at the bar making drinks.” Daniel said. “I kept looking at her, and she at me. After spending hours glancing at each other, I finally walked to her and ordered a Coke. I was not thirsty. I wanted to know if she spoke English. When I walked to her for the second time that evening, I asked for her phone number.”

She was Hie Yoo, a 21-year-old university student, who was studying media and communications during the day and working at the bar in the evenings. Hie also fully remembered how it had been. “He was very cute.” she said. “I can say I was never attracted by a man like that at first sight.” Hie gave him her phone number, but he didn’t call her for days. “What could I expect from a foreigner I happened to meet in a bar? I thought that was it.” After a few days, Daniel came to see her again, saying his Swiss phone was not working well abroad. He asked her to go out. 

“It was the 22nd of June,” Daniel said, smiling. “Hie brought her laptop on our first date to translate English.” In spite of the language barrier, Hie felt very comfortable with Daniel. There was silence from time to time during the conversation, but she didn’t feel any pressure to fill it. They met around noon that day and spent more than 12 hours together. 

After Daniel came back to Switzerland, their relationship continued with tons of emails and Skype calls. They met again during Hie’s vacation, but it was not enough. Soon Hie got a chance to study at the University of Zurich as a guest student for a year. She also did an internship at Swiss International Airlines, where Daniel worked, so they could stay together in Switzerland. 

Since the very beginning of their relationship, Daniel wanted to meet Hie’s parents. But she knew how shocking it would be for her parents to know that their daughter was with a foreigner boyfriend. It was finally announced when Hie was with Daniel in Switzerland. Her parents immediately came to visit Daniel and his family. 

When all the parents were together, they talked about the marriage and wedding ceremony, which was quite an Asian way. Hie’s father said to Daniel, “There is a way you can show that Hie is the number one for you. You can set the wedding day on the 11th of November, 2011, at 11 am.” Why not, they thought. So they had the wedding ceremony in Switzerland with lots of number ones. 

Life as a foreigner

“I’ve been a foreigner all my life.” Hie said. Hie is a Korean and Daniel met her in Korea. But actually, she was born and grew up in Japan. “I went to public schools in Osaka. I looked like one of them, my mother tongue was also Japanese.” Hie said. “But because I had a Korean name, kids found I was not Japanese and bullied me. Some even told me to come back to Korea.” Every new school year, Hie had a hard time introducing herself to new classmates. She was shy and stressed. But things changed gradually. Not the other kids, but herself. “As I learned the history between Korea and Japan, I could understand the complex situation of my family in Japan.” (*Korea was a colony of Japan for 35 years. Around those times, lots of Koreans moved to Japan against their will. – Author). Thereafter, whenever someone took issue with her origin, she talked back: “Do you know why I am here? Go learn the history properly and come back to me to keep talking.”. She was a strong girl to stand against the bullying. But not everyone was like her. One of her friends in a similar situation had to stay in a mental hospital for three years. 

When she went to a university in Seoul, Korea, she expected she would be finally treated as part of them. “One day I plucked up the courage and asked some of my closest friends if they felt I was Korean.” The answer was disappointing. “They said not really, because my Korean was not perfect. I was an outsider both in Japan and Korea.” 

Switzerland is not an exception. She sometimes feels people looking down on her. She shared a recent experience. “The other day in front of Sihlcity shopping mall, two women were handing out some vouchers. I was sick that day and wearing a mask. When one of them came to me, I just said, “Nein, Danke.” I don’t know why but she started to talk about me with her coworker and laughed at me. Might be how I looked that day or my German. I felt so bad that I walked to them and complained about it. And they apologized for it.” That was just example of what she goes through on a daily basis. 

A mixed-culture family

Hie and Daniel have two kids now: four-year-old daughter Kyra, and two-year-old son Liam. As the kids’ mother tongue is Japanese, Daniel wants to speak the language, too. “I’ve been learning quite a lot with the kids in our daily life, but it’s not enough. I think I need to take a course. I’m also planning to have something like “Japanese Monday,” so I force myself to speak it more.” 

In a mixed-culture family, language sometimes leads to other problems. When Kyra was born, Hie’s mother came to Zurich from Osaka to help them and stayed for three months. There was no common language between Hie’s mom and Daniel. 3 months was a long time to communicate without a language. Hie said, “My mom started to feel lonely and sad because Daniel didn’t try hard enough to talk with her.” Hie and Daniel had a very long and serious talk about his attitude and cultural difference for the first time. 

Besides the language, the biggest cultural challenge for Hie was food, especially food for kids. Kyra had to stay in a children’s hospital for two weeks when she was less than two years old. Hie was shocked that they provided sick kids with Nutella, bread and chocolate milk for breakfast. She also saw some parents offer their kids sodas like Coke and Rivella. “It wouldn’t happen in Japan or Korea. Parents there are very strict about food,” she said. 

Daniel agrees with her, but he puts a bigger emphasis on kids’ independent choice when eating. He said, “Eating healthy is important. But it’s also important for the kids to decide for themselves what and when to eat. Parents should role-model to them, without forcing them. If you don’t want your kids to eat chips, you shouldn’t eat chips either.”  

Daniel’s point of view is partially coming from the philosophy of his parents or their generation. They stuck to non-interference and permissive parenting. “As far as I remember, I was always playing outside without any grownup’s supervision. I guess no parents these days do it.” He continued. “There are reasons behind. But I think it’s very important for the kids to grow up independently, taking adventures. They need to find how to behave in certain situations. They need to gain experiences and think for themselves.” 

Sleeping is another issue for them, as for most parents of young kids. Hie slept with her parents until she was five years old. After that, she shared the bedroom with her older brother until 12. In Japan, parents sleep with young kids until they want to sleep by themselves. In Switzerland or other countries in Europe, it’s common to sleep separately when the baby is very young. 

In the beginning, they tried the Swiss way. But it didn’t work. Everyone ended up having a bad night and constant lack of sleep. “Whenever the kids sleep with us, they sleep much better and so do we. We decided recently to sleep altogether in one bedroom.” Daniel said. “More and more people start to get interested in a “family bed” nowadays. There is no right answer. We have to try different things and be creative.” 

They chose co-sleeping, following Hie’s culture. But when it comes to solid food for babies, they followed Daniel’s culture. In Japan, it takes lots of effort to make baby food. Ground and boiled rice, mixed with finely chopped vegetables. Hie said, “I followed as other people do here. Our kids’ first solid food was simply boiled and mashed carrot. I think it’s as nutritious as they do in my country and much easier.” 

From languages and manners, to food and sleep training, it’s tricky and sensitive to live in a mixed-culture family. Daily life brings extra challenges. One tip from this couple is “to keep calm and take it easy,” Hie said. “I’ve been with Daniel for 10 years but there are still moments when I don’t understand him because of our different backgrounds. I try to stay relaxed, turn the corner. Then I feel it’s not a big deal.” Daniel nodded and said, “Switzerland is famous for its perfectionism. There are correct processes for everything. It’s good to try to be perfect at work. But not at home. Sometimes it’s better to forget about the processes and just be creative.”

Article and photo by Jeenkyung Chloe Kim 

Chloe is a freelance writer and journalist from South Korea, now living in Zurich with her Spanish husband and two kids. She’s interested in diverse cultures, parenting, literature, movies, plants, food, drinks, and writing about all those. jeenkyungkim@gmail.com

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