One of the consistently most-read posts on my blog is this one: What frustrates me about living in Switzerland as an Asian American. The gist of the post is that last year, I went to a language exchange event in Geneva and left feeling annoyed and disappointed because people kept prying about where I was “really from” and refused to accept “the United States” as an answer.
Well, this year, I decided to give this event another chance, as I was hoping that an additional year in Geneva would have given me a broader outlook, as well as a different perspective on how people consider (or claim not to consider) matters of race in Europe. So I went again. And somehow, it was even more disorienting and disappointing.
Needless to say, I got the “no, but where are you really from?” and “well, what about your parents, where are they from?” questions multiple times. That wasn’t the surprising part. I don’t love these questions, but I’m used to being badgered with them by total strangers, especially when I’m sitting on the bus and minding my own damn business.
(And before I move on from this point, I just want to raise something that I find very interesting. In France, a lot of people claim to not see color; in fact, it’s illegal for them to report race and ethnicity data in their census. As an example, there are a lot of Black players on the French football team, players who were born and raised in France. And everyone’s like, “Well, they’re not African; they’re French.”
And when Diversity, Equity and Inclusion initiatives gained traction during the summer of 2020, a lot of the Europeans I knew were super uncomfortable, because, again, “This obsession with race and identity politics is an American thing. Don’t bring your wokeness over here. In [European Country Name], we don’t care about race. We treat everyone the same.”
And it’s like, dude. Dude. Who’s the one that’s actually obsessed with race and identity politics here? Is it me, sipping on a water and saying “hey, what’s up, I’m from the States”? Or is it the person staring intensely at my face and bombarding me with question after question about my ancestry until they can finally solve the puzzle of whether my blood is Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Vietnamese or Other?
Who’s the one that doesn’t see color again?)
Anyways, the real takeaway that I got from this event was that I just really, really suck at social mixers with strangers and small talk. I am no good at them. My hearing is slightly impaired, so I often can’t hear people properly and find background noise stress-inducing. Also, it’s just hard to connect with a lot of people, period.
For instance, I had one conversation with a fellow American, where neither of us were assholes, but we just completely talked past each other in a manner that was so divergent that it was kind of impressive. It went something like this:
Me: *Seeing that she has a ‘Spanish learner’ tag on her shirt* Oh, what made you want to learn Spanish?
Her: I already speak Spanish very well, actually. I just practice it to keep it fresh.
Me: Oh, that’s great.
Her: I have a French-English exchange partner through this program. We meet up every week, and they correct tiny things in my pronunciation. It’s been very helpful.
Me: Haha, yeah, French people can be nitpicky about getting the pronunciation just right.
Her: No, I don’t think that’s true. It’s helpful for me to know what I’m getting wrong.
Me: You’re kind of a perfectionist, yeah?
Her: No, I’m not a perfectionist.
Me: Oh. Okay.
Her: Where are you from?
Me: The U.S.
Her: Oh, I’m from the U.S. too! But you’re Asian. You must be one of those — one of those U.S. Asians?
Me: *After a pause* Asian American.
Her: What country are you originally from?
Her: What about your parents? Where are they from?
(… I have to say, “U.S. Asian” is certainly a new term. Can’t say I’ve heard that one before.)
Later, I saw an older woman at the snack table who wore tags that indicated she was a native French speaker, seeking an English exchange partner. I smiled at her and approached.
Me: *in French* Hello! You’re a francophone?
Her: Yes. And you, how long have you been learning French?
Me: It’s been almost four years. French is a pretty difficult language. But I try my best, though.
Her: I don’t think French is a difficult language.
And then she just… walked away….
After only about thirty minutes at this event, I was ready to leave. And thank God my good friend E was also there and also ready to leave. We ended up going elsewhere for dinner and a one-on-one conversation instead. On the way to the restaurant, I said, “God, I feel so stupid. Nobody there wanted to talk to me.” And E very kindly said, “I know what you mean.”
As someone who suffered from intense, overwhelming social anxiety when I was younger, I’ve always felt this internal pressure to overcorrect, to prove to myself that I could be charismatic and good with other people. But the truth is that even though I am fine at one-on-one conversations (or, at most, in groups of four people or fewer), I’m just not good at parties. I’m not good at small talk. I know these things about myself. But still, when complete strangers at a random party don’t give me the attention and validation that I crave, my self-worth collapses. I become that sulking, invisible teenager all over again.
I think this event was crucial in reminding me that I don’t need more friends in Geneva. I’m happy to have more, of course, and always respond enthusiastically to people who want to get to know me. But what I have now — what I’ve built over the past nearly four years — is enough.
So today, I am grateful for many of the people in my life, with special shout outs to:
- E, who was so kind to join me tonight and really talked me out of a slump.
- S, who took me to the Red Cross HQ for lunch today and was so incredibly encouraging and supportive about my journey to publish my novel.
- G and R, whom I cherished catching up with at ramen night this week.
- And C, who is not a friend but a freelancer that I hired at my previous job. We’ve managed to occasionally keep in touch, and I recently wrote him for advice on something, and he responded with such encouragement and kindness that I was supremely touched.
Oh, and also — I’m grateful for the people who come to my meetups. I organize an event in Geneva every month for people who want to talk to strangers, honestly, about anything. At the last event in April, five people cried. I think there is a self-selecting factor about the types of people who choose to come to these events, which are always intense, personal and vulnerable. So this has been a great reminder for me to keep hosting these events, to create this temporary, valuable space for people to engage without judgment.
I still feel stupid, but I’ll be okay by tomorrow.
Hi! I just recently moved to Geneva and wanted to join your meets ups, could you send me the information?
Hi, yes with pleasure. Please send me an email using the contact form on this website and I will share the link with you.
stumbled upon your blog and love reading your perspective!