Andrea Flacher is often asked if she was born and brought up in Switzerland. Her Swiss German is without accent. She is in charge of everything at home. Right from reading the school letters, newspapers, keeping the family updated with what’s going on in Switzerland for
kids and in general. Andrea has really gelled into the Swiss society. But this wasn’t the case when she first moved to Switzerland 16 years ago from India’s Bengaluru to join her Swiss husband soon after marriage. It was mixed feelings as she began her Swiss life. “I felt like I was a coconut tree being uprooted in India and planted here in Switzerland and needed to fight to survive and grow in this foreign soil with the wrong temperature.” She recollects.
After more than a decade and a half, Andrea is very well integrated in the Swiss society but there are times when she has felt like an outsider. She discusses the challenges she faces in her daily Swiss life. “When people see us together, at first glance, I know what is going through their mind. First, if all 4 kids are actually ours because two are very Swiss and two have heavy Indian features. Then they are perhaps thinking if we are well integrated, if we speak the language fluently, from which country could I be. Really the first look is not always a friendly one but rather a cautious one. But once I speak in Swiss-German you can see their reactions change. They are at ease. But being constantly ‘judged’ because I am a foreigner is not a comfortable feeling,” she says.
Sociologist Sven Bisquolm agrees. “The more you invest in an endeavor (like a marriage/love), the longer you are willing to make it work. Say, you left everything behind (a good job, friends, and family) for your spouse in Switzerland it will be harder for you to give this up and the more difficult it will be to move back to your old life. Bisquolm analysed perception, legal and social realities for bi-national Couples in Switzerland in a paper for the University of Zurich in March 2014. He explains in his paper the importance of distinguishing between two groups of foreign spouses: EU and non-EU spouses. The former has a fairly easier start in Switzerland than the latter. “The problems a non-EU spouse faces are two-fold. On the one hand there is the harder immigration process. On the other hand there are the cultural differences. Two European citizens most likely share more cultural similarities then a Swiss and an Indian. Family, friends and the general surrounding is more critical to a spouse from “far-far-away” than to a spouse with similar cultural background -habits, language, and food and so on,” says Bisquolm.
But luckily Renu, another Indian married to a Swiss national, does not see too many differences in lifestyle, at least at home. Renu and her Swiss husband met on an Indian online matrimonial site. Her father had uploaded her profile as he was hoping to find a good match for her. Her husband Miro Simek- half Swiss and Half Croatian, who was already attracted to Indian food and culture browsed the site hoping to make some Indian friends. They got talking, met later in India and got married according to Indian customs. Miro’s love for Indian culture ensured that nothing changed for Renu when she came to Switzerland. He welcomed his Indian bride into a very traditionally decorated Hindu home- there was a temple with pictures and idols of Indian Gods and Indian food on the table.
While the house was set in Indian style and a husband who read the Bhagavad Gita and Vivekananda, it was only the change of language that bothered Renu a little. She grew up in North India and spoke Hindi most of the time with her family and friends. So she was unable to switch from speaking her language Hindi to English all the time. But now their four year old son can — his first language is English and he can also understand and respond in German, Hindi & little bit of Croatian.
Maria, another Indian married to Swiss, is no stranger to Swiss German anymore. “ I can have a conversation with the old lady who grumbles about her neighbour mowing his lawn at 12:30 in the afternoon. Or deal with the janitor of my apartment block complaining that I haven’t separated my cardboard from the newspaper on the sidewalk. That’s how I mastered Swiss German and integrated.” Maria first came to Switzerland as an Intern for a multi-cultural exchange program. She worked for a Radio Station in Zurich and soon began teaching English to kids. But she had troubles with the language herself. “Thrown into the deep end with not a ‘Grüezi’ or ‘Danke’ in my vocabulary I was alone with my thoughts. They were after all in English,” she smiles. “I couldn’t communicate with most people.” A month after arriving she met the brother of her Swiss friend, Raphael. It was love at first sight for them. They have been married for a decade now. And so began her journey into the world of ‘Chuchichäschtli (kitchen cupboard) and Chäs-chüechli (cheese cakes)’ – the two similar sounding Swiss German words. “I kept my ears to the ground with an mind open. My classrooms were the supermarkets, and the trains, buses and trams on route to work. My teachers were my little ‘Monsterlis’ to whom I taught English. Word by word, sentence by sentence I embarked on a journey to learn a language that has no script,” she recollects.
Apart from the language there are also many administrative issues in India that couples deal with before they tie the knot. “It was quite tough especially in India because you need to get the registered documents for a Swiss spouse visa. Right from Birth certificate, residential proofs, a no criminal-record certificate and so on. It took over six months to get all the documents and have them legalized in India.” Renu says. But despite this there are often very strict rules for foreign national spouses before they are legally integrated in the Swiss Society. To become a citizen a foreign spouse has to live in Switzerland for a minimum of 5 years and also be married to his or her Swiss Partner for at least 3 years. They need to prove that they are well integrated in the Swiss Society speaking the language and understanding the Swiss culture.
An Indo-Swissed life
Andrea, Renu and Maria are few of the Indian women in Switzerland who have integrated well in Switzerland. While they live their Swiss life with their families, they have also found ways to keep their Indian roots alive. As active users of social media, they participate in Indian festivals and religious celebrations, enjoy Indian dinners and get-togethers. But the continuous need to prove their integration in the Swiss Society is a challenge to many like them. “I’m a person who does not aim to please other people. I learnt the language for my satisfaction so that I could communicate. It is sad that our residence permits here are based on the marriage working out or not. It’s like a test to see if we wanted an entry permit to a first world country or we actually did marry for love. The chances of a marriage failing or succeeding are the same whether bi-national or not. But this is bureaucracy and it is everywhere in the world not just in Switzerland.” Says Maria.