I find it fascinating how humans, essentially similar physical beings, can think so differently, depending on where they have grown up. One thing about not really belonging anywhere, is that it lends itself to a unique insight into a society and the cultural expectations that define its people.
As a newcomer in Norway, my cultural benchmark was the UK. My subconscious perception, having never been challenged before, was that the way British people did things was normal, and that Norwegians could be a little strange. I was often left bewildered by my daily interactions, sometimes things were just so different.
The Norwegian didn’t hide his amusement at some of my English ways. I didn’t really feel the need to defend my actions, after all, he was the one who did such odd things.
I knew that Norwegians didn’t get British people and their love of carpets. Dirty apparently. As for not taking shoes off when inside, well, to a Norwegian that is just wrong. We also didn’t wash up properly, I had never known that the rest of the world washed the soap off. The Norwegian was incredulous that a whole nation didn’t realise they were washing their dishes in dirt. But I had moved to Bergen, a rainy city, and he clearly didn’t realise that it wasn’t normal to have umbrella vending machines in the street. And no, one sunny day in July didn’t count as summer, only people from Bergen thought that.
In Australia things were more familiar. A calmness came over me. I hadn’t realised how much energy I’d used trying to make myself understood before. At last I blended in, with only the occasional word giving me away.
Something had changed though. People thought I was strange for taking my shoes off, but it made complete sense now, why bring the dirt in? Australians were shocked by how much water I wasted rinsing the plates. They had a point, I tried to do it more quickly.
I hadn’t noticed that my baseline for normal had shifted. I had tried to integrate into Norwegian society, but I don’t think I made it to the final ‘mastery phase’ when passing through the stages of culture shock. Even so, I lived there for six years and two of my children were born there, so I was undoubtedly influenced by the culture and the values held by the society.
I have now been in Zurich for over a year. Once again I am experiencing culture shock, currently in the ‘frustration phase’ where I am noticing the differences between the old and new cultures. This is complicated by the fact I have lost my ‘base’ culture. I have days when I am homesick, but equally so for England and Australia.
I sometimes feel free from the cultural expectations of how I should be and that is quite liberating. I am now at peace with doing things differently. In those early months in Zurich I was so concerned with integrating and fitting in that I experienced an inner turmoil because I was doing things that just didn’t feel right.
Children here walk alone to kindergarten and school from the age of four. It is frowned upon for a parent to walk with them and the teachers tell the kids they must walk by themselves. This is because the Swiss strongly believe that children should be independent from an early age. My kids walked by themselves when we first moved, and I would wait by the window, holding my breath until I caught sight of them coming home. Then one day I had a revelation. I didn’t care what the Swiss kids did. I wasn’t comfortable with them walking alone along a busy main road. They would still grow up to be independent because I would foster this in other ways. The importance of being true to myself sunk in, I am the parent and must do what I think is right, because I will still be the parent when we leave Switzerland and the rules change again.