On privilege and living in Switzerland

The backyard garden at my former job.

Lately, I can’t shake the feeling that I don’t deserve to live in Switzerland. I’ve tried to talk to other people about the rationale behind this feeling, and this is how I have described it: I’ve only ever worked in the US or Switzerland. I’ve never studied abroad, never done Peace Corps, never lived near or among the communities that I have tried to support. I am the stereotypical white collar professional in international development who sits in an office in Washington or Geneva and thinks I can make a difference by typing some words on my computer screen.

Part of this personal reckoning is related to my starting a new job at an international development organization where postings in Geneva and New York are seen as highly desirable. An escape from the chaotic challenges of life in a less developed part of the world. In the U.S. Foreign Service, if someone is sent to a hardship post for two years, then their next assignment is an “easier” city, like Vienna or Montreal. In our organization, mobility isn’t so enforced. People come to Geneva, they love it, their families love it, they find a way to stay and never rotate back out again.

Having lived here for two years, I, like many other people, have become accustomed to my privilege. I live in a country with excellent air quality, a world-class public transit system, and an abundant supply of COVID vaccines. Hell, I just bought train tickets to Italy because I felt like it, without needing to crunch numbers or draw up a budget. And yet we – myself included – complain all the time, for all kinds of inane reasons. Oh no, we have to pay for a PCR test so we can fly somewhere for vacation. Poor us, the bilingual international schools where our kids learn to hike and ride horses are so expensive. Boohoo, the shops are closed on Sundays because how dare the workers need a day of rest.

The expat bubble in Geneva is real. It’s not just demarcated by language or country of origin. It’s a matter of who makes enough money to live a comfortable life here, and who has to rely on inconsistent, often under-the-table cash jobs to get by. Who got to work from home when the pandemic hit, and who lost their restaurant job and had to stand in line at the community food bank every weekend.

It’s about how people who hold a permanent or stable work contract like myself are heavily favored for apartments, while their coworkers at the same organizations are stringed along on 6-month consultancy contracts and have to jump from sublet to sublet because no régie will rent to them.

It’s the difference between English expats flying back and forth between Geneva and London every month without giving a fuck about the pandemic or the carbon emissions generated, and the long line of diligently masked workers standing outside the local money exchange shop to wire earnings back to their families in Latin America.

It’s the abundance of unpaid internships that are virtually inaccessible to any student whose parents cannot afford to pay for them to live in one of the most expensive cities in the world for 3 to 6 months, no matter how bright and talented they are.

I’ve been thinking about my childhood a lot recently. I didn’t grow up with the life I have now. We never went hungry, but my parents were poor and made sure I understood it. I benefited from the free lunch program at school and got my clothes from garage sales and a hamper in the laundry room of our apartment complex where people dumped their unwanted clothing. (As I write this, I’m wearing a T-shirt that my mom bought literally 20 years ago at one of those garage sales.)

I watched my parents climb the social mobility ladder. When I was 11, we bought our first car, a used grey Buick for two thousand bucks. I cried when someone rear-ended us just a few months later and shattered the trunk. When I was 14, we bought our first house. Then my brother was born, and by the time he was out of kindergarten, he had already enjoyed all the things that my parents hadn’t been able to afford for me: a birthday party and cake at an indoor playground, a soccer team, Boy Scouts, taekwondo classes.

I recount these things not out of resentment, but to remind myself that this was reality; this is a reality that I lived, and that others continue to live. I don’t want to forget what it’s like to riffle through piles of clothing that someone else has discarded next to the dumpster, inspecting the material for stains and microscopic bugs. The heartbreaking maturity that comes with never asking your mom for anything, not even $5 for a pack of markers, because you know that she doesn’t need any more pressure right now. Not being able to go to your classmate’s house to work on a project because your parents don’t have a car, and the embarrassment of trying to explain that to your classmate. The humiliation of sleeping on the floor at a relative’s apartment, four people sharing a small bedroom, because your family can’t afford an alternative.

Regardless of where I am in the world, I am privileged now. My education, my job, my American passport, my fair skin tone — all have propelled me into a life that I never dreamed that I could have. Maybe I deserve to live in Switzerland. Maybe I don’t. For now, the best thing is to turn that privilege into something that can concretely help make the world a little bit better.

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