TO INTEGRATE, OR NOT TO INTEGRATE: C’EST CA LA QUESTION
by Elizabeth McEwan
I want to thank the man who called me a ‘Rosbif’ last week in the school playground as I chatted in English to a fellow mum. I’ve been meaning to air my thoughts on the subject of expat integration for a while now, and his comment has given me just the kick start I needed.
I’ve never met this man before, I have no idea whether he was trying to be funny, or whether he wanted to insult me, or make a point about me chatting in English. What I do know is that it sparked an important conversation amongst my friends (of diverse nationalities) about how expats are perceived here in Switzerland, and how important ‘integration’ is.
WHAT DOES ‘ROSBIF’ MEAN?
For those readers unfamiliar with the term, a French person calling a Brit a ‘Rosbif’ (Roast Beef) is a little like a Brit calling a French person a ‘frog.’ Depending on the context, it might be considered jokey banter….. or a fairly clear insult. It has become a little more of a contentious issue since a war memorial in northern France was graffitied with ‘Go Home Rosbif’ a few years ago, and I was interested to note that the urban slang dictionary defines it as a ‘degrading term.’
That this man felt the need to make a point about me talking in English left me a little perplexed. He wasn’t a mate teasing me in the pub, it wasn’t even said as part of a conversation with a wider context, this man wasn’t known to me – I can only assume he is a fellow parent.
ONE SHOULDN’T ASSUME
Whilst arguably I should have let the comment slide and move on, I found myself thinking about it a lot over the days that followed, and particularly what assumptions he have made about my friends and I.
- Perhaps he assumed that I didn’t know what the word meant. (I did. Don’t stereotype the Blond Brummy Brit…. She’s got a Masters in French).
- Perhaps he assumed that I don’t speak French, or at least enough French to understand the term and it’s connotations. (I do. See above.)
- Perhaps he assumed that the Anglophone parents gossip too much in English at drop off (We totally do. )
- Perhaps he assumed that we should be speaking French to other parents. (We often do, and sometimes don’t. Whether we should or not is where it gets a bit more complicated….)
INTEGRATION: Type 1, Type 2 and Type 3
I know many expats here in Geneva who don’t speak much French, who move within Anglophone circles, who more or less ignore Swiss culture and work hard to bring as much of their home culture to their Swiss life as possible.
I know some who go for a full on integration approach – almost turning their noses up at those who don’t, or won’t, or just can’t.
I know others who opt for a middle ground – & in case you are wondering this is me. I found it very important for my own sense of belonging to learn German / Swiss German when we lived in central Switzerland, and improve my French when we moved to Geneva. I like to know what’s going on in my local community, to take part in the local events and customs, and I really like to be able to communicate in the local language. Equally, after a hard day being ‘Swiss’, I long to slob in front of the BBC news, or Strictly Come Dancing, relishing in that sense of belonging I feel when the reassuring face of Hue Edwards appears on my screen, recounting the day’s news, or Claudia Winkleman analyses Ann Widdecombe’s Foxtrot….
COCONUT CULTURE: Hard to crack
Readers should know that I like to accompany this trip to British TV land with a large cup of Yorkshire Gold and a square of 2 of Cadburys chocolate on some nights, and a glass of Côte du Rhône and a Steak Tartare on others…..
It’s easy for those who go for a more ‘integration’ approach to judge those who don’t, yet if we unpick what is really going on, there are often a number of factors at play. Perhaps the ‘non integrated expat’ is on a short term assignment in their host country, perhaps they struggle with languages and feel out of their depth communicating with locals, perhaps – as many would argue is human nature – they simply feel more ‘connected’ to other expats or those who share the same cultural references (and, of course, language.)
Perhaps they have tried and felt they weren’t getting anywhere. It’s true that for many Brits and other expats from ‘peach cultures’, the ‘coconut culture’ here in Switzerland can be a hard nut to crack (pun intended – you’re welcome.) And if you are wondering why on earth I am banging on about peaches and coconuts, take a read of Diccon Bewes’ ‘Swiss Watching, in which he suggests that ‘peaches’ (Brits, Aussies, Dutch to take some examples) open up easily, whilst ‘coconuts’ (Swiss, Germans, Russians to name but a few) take more work to get to know.
INTEGRATION: There is not a right way
Wherever we place ourselves on this scale of integration, there isn’t necessarily a right or a wrong. Fitting into a new country with all that it entails is a process, an exciting and enriching process, yet also at times daunting and exhausting.
Let’s learn from one another, let’s enjoy the array of languages we hear in the playground, let’s be thankful that our children are growing up in a multinational setting, let’s be kind, let’s put name calling firmly on the children’s side of the playground …
And let’s keep the conversation going. Do you consider yourself integrated? Are you proudly floating around in your expat bubble? Have you tried and succeeded? Have you tried and failed?
I’d love to hear from you….