There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?” – David Foster Wallace*
When cultures collide
The Swiss were the first to fill me in on a little secret about George W. Bush.
They said, he wasn’t a God-ordained savior of the world.
This was news to me.
I grew up in one of the most conservative places in the United States, where liking someone like Bush meant you were a good person. Liking the “other side” meant you were bad.
At least, that was the gist of my world view in August of 2005.
Over the next 11 months, the Swiss would share a new world view with me, so obvious to them, and oblivious to me. That’s what studying abroad was supposed to be about, learning another perspective.
But, it wasn’t easy. Humans are wired to notice cultural differences, and when cultures collide, you can’t help but stack the other’s ways again your own. If you’ve spent your entire life driving a gas-guzzling pickup truck, grabbing a Starbucks coffee to-go each morning, and drinking bottled water from Fiji, it’s uncomfortable to confront a culture that sees this as incredibly wasteful. You might do mental gymnastics to assure yourself that your way is the right one. Or, perhaps more commonly, you skip the gymnastics and laugh off the other’s as silly, wrong without questioning.
I believe everyone does this. After all, cognitive dissonance is uncomfortable for everyone. Can you imagine how maddening it would be to put all your beliefs and habits into question each time they were challenged?
That’s why the exchange student organization reminded us, again and again during our orientation, “It’s not wrong, it’s just different.” The (now-cliche) phrase was supposed to make us more aware of our judgmental instincts.Sure enough, cultural secrets awaited, and would stretch my perspective into something new.
Ten years later, they still do, even at a country hall in Texas.
Ten years later, at a country hall in Texas
It was last weekend when the Swiss culture came into my view again.
It started, when my host brother’s in-laws, Hans and Evi, decided to visit the United States for a few weeks. They weaved through America’s South in a “big American car,” a GMC-model SUV – to ride the American way – from Nashville to Memphis, and from there to Texas. That’s where their son currently works, in San Antonio. But they also wanted to see something a bit more, country.
So they booked a cabin in old-town New Braunfels for a few days.
Hans even decked himself out in country gear: cowboy hat and boots, blue jeans, and an ironclad bolo tie around the neck. To top it off, they had tickets for a live country show at the legendary Gruene Hall, where nine-time Grammy-winning country act, Asleep at the Wheel, was scheduled to play.
My fiancee and I were invited.
To think that one week ago, we didn’t even know Hans and Evi. Now they’re saying it was a night they wouldn’t forget, and urged us to visit Switzerland soon.
Tripping over words, and time
Monica and I were 20 minutes late. I thought about Swiss trains, which usually leave at the precise second the schedule says. Swiss punctuality isn’t just a stereotype; it’s a reality.
Fortunately, Hans and Evi were still waiting beside the parking lot when we arrived, and recognized us from a photo I’d sent.
I tried to spit out some words in broken German – it had been a decade you know – and hoped they spoke some English, mostly for Monica’s sake.
“Könntet ihr Englisch sprechen?” I asked, somewhat startled to find that I still had it in me.
“So-so,” Hans replied. That usually means, “Barely.”
Evi’s was a little better, but I could tell communication would be a matter of retraining ourselves to talk much more slowly, choosing simple words, and clearly pronouncing ev–er–y syl–la–ble.
Non-native English-speakers are often in for a surprise when they go from the clean sounds of classroom English to the muddy reality of its everyday use in the United States, where words are chopped in half and consonants swallowed. It’s not “I don’t know;” it’s “I dunno.” We often say “wassup” (or worse, “‘sup”) rather than “how are you?”; and if you’re in Texas, it’s “y’all” instead of “you guys. ” This is a surprisingly hard habit to break as a native English speaker.
The show had already started, but Evi suggested we first grab a beer at the brewery across the street. I should have known; the Swiss take their vacations a tad more slowly than Americans, and sitting around a table at a cafe or bar is often the first stop at any destination.
I remember visiting Bern with my host family once, and feeling so eager to jump in and explore the sites. But as soon as we arrived, we headed straight for a cafe to have a drink first. My left leg bobbed up and down the whole time, anxious to get moving and see as much of the city as possible. I wanted to see more, more, more!
“It’s not wrong. It’s just different,” I told myself.
I’m glad we stopped. The brewery bustled with people who gathered around wooden barrels for tables, laughing and chatting under the gentle spray of misters. Good vibes and local beer quickly warmed us up to good conversations.
And once we started talking, we landed in a bottomless stockpile of cultural observations that would get us through the entire night. It felt good to skip past the shallows of trivial chatter.
Or perhaps, it was more that the trivial suddenly turned fascinating.
Clowns, cars and parking lots
Starting with parking lots.
“Parking lots are so huge in America!” Evi exclaimed. “But you drive more than we do, and have more space.”
When they asked someone for directions to Gruene Hall from their cabin, they thanked the stranger and started walking. The person thought they were crazy. “You’re going to walk?! It’s a mile away!”
Hans and Evi found this hilarious. They do a lot of walking in Switzerland, and biking. The public transit system also covers every inch of the country (as I recall it), and it’s entirely possible to live without a car. My host family had just one car for their family of five; and they even shared the vehicle between two other families. Getting groceries was a matter of biking fifteen minutes with one of those serious back-packer’s backpacks, stuffing it full of food, and trekking back home. I probably stepped inside a car all but two or three times throughout my year abroad.
It’s worth noting that there was no condescension in the way Hans and Evi talked about the United States. They seemed pro’s at applying the advice from my exchange student organization. Even when I asked what they thought about Donald Drumpf (come on, I had to), they were hesitant to criticize, and acknowledged their bias. That doesn’t mean they liked him, but they were awfully respectful.
“For us, it’s … well, it seems a little crazy,” Evi explained. “But we only know what we see from Switzerland. So who knows?”
Hans nodded as Evi talked, then searched for the right words to tell his side.
“He’s … like a clown.”
That’s one way to boil it down to four words. Maybe Drumpf and this guy should meet, and exchange some four-word sentences (I’d actually put my bets on Hans’s English over Drumpf’s).
Country to the bones
The four of us strolled across the street and into the timeless Gruene Hall. Everything about the venue felt straight out of the late 1800s, except that baseball hats seemed to have replaced the cowboy hat as popular head apparel. I don’t watch many Westerns, and honestly, I’m not too familiar with western saloons in general – but this was exactly how I’d expect it.
But now I’m just projecting. What I do know, is that the floor pulsed beneath my feet to the stomps of two-steppers. The walls and doorways looked a little crooked, which I liked for some reason.
And the music, ohhh the music.
Ray Benson towered over the audience, larger-than-life, and belted tones that rattled my femurs.
One guy that looked a bit more “cowboy” than the others there, leaned towards me and asked if I was from Switzerland.
“No, but I’m here with a Swiss couple. Why do you ask?”
Cowboy guy: Oh! I was just talking to them, and saw you’re with them.” He was awfully friendly.
I looked past him and saw Evi talking to some other strangers. There was a communal vibe about the place that made mingling feel more natural than at your average bar. I suppose that’s what dance halls are about, getting the townspeople and out-of-townspeople together to prance and play and share ideas. Kind of like a dog park, except for humans, and coded with words and handshakes instead of butt-sniffing.
Hans and Evi loved it.
The water we swim in
“A fish does not know its environment is wet, because that is all it knows and all it has ever experienced. The fish has no idea that anything else exists besides water because it has never had to think about any other possibilities” – Lewis Schlosser
After the show, we made the one-mile drive to their cabin for a nightcap and Swiss chocolate (they insisted). We talked some more, and Evi described “the one thing” that shocked them most about the United States.”The amount of waste here is shocking.” She went on, describing our culture of big cars; huge portion sizes at restaurants; super-sized drinks; disposable plates, cups and utensils; the field-sized parking lots.
Decade-old memories from my stay abroad rushed back, and I felt bad about how much I had adapted back to our culture of excess. I hate to say it, but she’s right; Switzerland definitely has us on this one.
The Swiss – on the other hand – are some of the top recyclers in the world, and their air is some of the cleanest. I remember being astounded by the tiny cars on the roads, some that looked like a three-wheeled hybrid between a car and motorcycle. And when you stop at a red light, everyone turns their car off. It might save all but five seconds of engine-running time, but energy conservation is engrained into little habits like this.
Even in the way they do (or, don’t do) laundry. It’s not at all abnormal to wear the same clothes three days in a row to avoid using the washer so often; dryers were essentially non-existent (according to a note a jotted down at the time, which said “No one has a dryer, all save the world”).
My host brother yelled at me once for leaving the fridge door open while pouring a glass of juice. “It’s really easy, Douglas.” He always spoke in English when it was important. Apparently this made the cut.
And for my host family, it was also engrained in the way they traveled. One time, I planned a trip from my Swiss home to Amsterdam, and I found that plane tickets were a fraction of the cost (and travel time) as the train. I told this to my host father, and he guilt-tripped me into taking the train instead. “Flying is worse for the environment,” he kindly explained to me, also in English.
I told Hans and Evi this, and they laughed. “I think your host family might have been a little extreme, even by Swiss standards.” Hans said something in German, and she translated, “Don’t tell them about the big American car we rented!”
Usually, I wouldn’t say it’s admirable to intentionally adopt a wasteful lifestyle, but it was clear that Hans and Evi were determined to get inside the American mindset. That’s why they got the big car. They also had a stack of disposable plates and cups left over, and Evi said she even got a coffee to-go the other day.
“I said, ‘today I’m American’ so that’s what I did,” Evi explained. “It’s nice actually! I understand why people live like this.”
But Americans don’t see it as “nice;” we see it as normal. Excessive consumption is simply part of our culture, the water we live in. We even have a pejorative word to describe environmentally-friendly people like the Swiss: “tree-huggers” – and as I explained in “The Secret Handshake of Language,” the words we use are a blueprint to our cultures. I don’t recall ever learning an equivalent for this term in German. Caring about the environment wasn’t an exception; it was their sense of normal.
Maybe it’s time to swim over to the other side again.
As we were wrapping up the night with goodbyes and hopes to visit each other again, something else it me. No one had asked that quintessential question of American society – “What do you do?” – the whole night.
Instead, we talked about its opposite: vacation. Hans and Evi shared stories of travels to India, islands in the Caribbean, and plans for their next stop in Toronto. They both get six weeks’ paid vacation, and Evi said my host parents get 13 weeks since they’re elementary school teachers.
Then Monica made Evi’s mouth drop when she revealed that most people in the U.S. are rationed just two weeks’ paid vacation each year. Land of the Free!”Two weeks? That’s no life.” Evi responded in a soft voice of pity.
Well, it is when it’s the water you swim in.
And so the absurdities continue. Others can point them out, again and again – the excessive consumption, the waste, our over-worked schedules – Water! Water! Everywhere!
And we look back and laugh, oblivious as ever.
“What the hell is water?”
* My sincere apologies to the spirit of David Foster Wallace, for appropriating your words to represent something else. In my representation, I think everyone is the older fish at times, and the younger fish at other times. Please don’t hurt me. Thanks:)