Letter from Lucerne, Switzerland

Here’s my October column for the Holland Sentinel…

The Swiss like to shake hands. They like a firm handshake with lots of eye contact. In Switzerland, it’s considered rude not to shake hands with everyone before leaving a social gathering, even if doing so requires a considerable amount of time.

Earlier in my life I learned to give a firm handshake, so I was well-prepared for my move to Switzerland several years ago, and my integration officer, the one I was required to meet with each year, seemed to think that I was integrating well. (He tended to overlook my slow progress in learning the local language.)

As it turns out, however, shaking hands can be problematic for some people from other cultures. Muslims, for example. Shaking hands with members of the opposite sex, except for certain relatives, is often not allowed for religious reasons. In August, 2018, a Muslim couple in Lausanne declined to shake hands with the three-person commission which interviewed them, and they were denied Swiss citizenship, an incident reported in the American press.

A similar story occurred a couple of years earlier when two male students declined to shake hands after class with their female teacher. Shaking hands with one’s teacher after class is a well-established Swiss custom and is considered a sign of respect. Faced with the possibility of a $5,000 fine, the parents, who were Muslim, nevertheless refused to allow their sons to comply—on religious grounds.

Americans, in my experience, are generally supportive of people who refuse to engage in certain behavior for religious reasons. Our country was founded, at least in part, on the principle of religious freedom. But, like the Swiss, we aren’t used to religious objections coming from a faith other than Christianity. What do we do when newcomers to our country refuse, at least initially, to accept long-established ways of doing things and therefore do not integrate as quickly as we would like?

After moving back to the U.S. a year and a half ago, I was glad to be home again, but I recently moved back to Switzerland for a four-month assignment. Instead of Zurich, where I lived during my previous stay, I am now living in Lucerne, which is not exactly hardship duty. And yet, I am struck all over again by the challenges that the Swiss are facing with their immigrant population, and how similar those challenges are to the ones we face in the U.S.

I need to be clear that I am not taking a stand here either for or against immigration. I am simply asking the question about people who live legally in the U.S., first- or second-generation immigrants who are attempting to integrate within American culture.

Immigrants often bring with them good and pleasing contributions to American culture. We enjoy, for example, the food and music that come along with immigration. In those cases, our culture is enriched. But along with food and music, other habits and customs are introduced as well. Certain clothing, for example, can be problematic. The wearing of a hijab (or veil), in particular, can be disturbing to western sensibilities, and several countries have passed, or tried to pass, legislation having to do with clothes, especially for women. It turns out that freedom of religion has its limits.

What I am discovering during my current stay in Europe is that a more fundamental question is at stake in immigration debates—namely, what does it mean to be Swiss? The Swiss are having to ask themselves what is essential to Swiss culture, which turns out to be an unexpectedly difficult question. Is a handshake with a teacher after class essential to being Swiss? The Swiss parliament notably decided to leave this decision to local governments. Famously, though, in a 2009 national referendum, the Swiss decided that building minarets on mosques would not be allowed. So, no minarets, but handshakes only in certain places.

In the U.S., the questions are no less difficult. What does it mean to be American? Can anyone suggest a definitive list of traits or qualities? Let’s assume the ability to speak English. What else is peculiar to being American?

When I first moved back from Europe to western Michigan, I did a considerable amount of research into my family history. All of my ancestors came from the Netherlands to the U.S. in the last half of the nineteenth century. They were desperately poor when they arrived, and they were grateful to find work. They took with them, and held tightly to, the customs and language that they brought with them from the old country.

Slowly, reluctantly, they let go of much of their heritage. By the second generation, no one in my family spoke Dutch. In hindsight, they integrated rather quickly within American culture. But, in those first years after their arrival, integration was slow and often painful.

I’m guessing that the current wave of immigrants to the U.S., including those from Muslim-majority countries, will experience a slow and sometimes painful integration as well, but will eventually find themselves assimilated into a new culture. Let’s hope so. I’d like to shake their hands.

Photo: That’s me enjoying the contemplative life in Switzerland. I’m playing outdoor chess in Meiringen, a fine little village near Reichenbach Falls, where Sherlock Holmes was tragically pushed to his death. Or maybe it was Moriarty. Anyway, some fictional character died near there.

About Doug

I have been a writer ever since fifth grade when I won second prize in a “prose and poetry” contest. I am also a Presbyterian pastor, and for several years toward the end of my career I lived and worked in Zürich, Switzerland. I am now retired and live just north of Holland, Michigan, along the lake.

2 Responses to Letter from Lucerne, Switzerland

  1. Charles Scouten October 4, 2019 at 1:41 pm #

    Thanks for thought-provoking questions. With our American rush to “move on down the line” or “move on up to the East side” or move on to our personal whatever, we seem to miss great opportunities to ask ourselves the hard questions about “What do we really believe?” “What does it really mean to be an American?” (especially since Brazilians, Canadians, and people from all those other countries in this hemisphere are also Americans) and “Where do your rights begin and my rights end?” Along with “Slow down and smell the roses.” maybe we should “Hold on for a minute and really think about hard questions.”

    • Doug October 8, 2019 at 7:21 am #

      Thanks for the comment, Charles. It is a hard question, isn’t it? We sometimes think we know the answer, until we try to verbalize it. Glad to know your mind is still engaged!