Monday, July 24, 2017

Melding of Heritages: A Swiss/Latino Hybrid

With few exceptions, everyone wants to know where they come from, i.e., their heritage. This is especially true of those of us who are children of immigrants in the United States. During this past year in Switzerland, I have been steeped in discovering my own ancestral roots. From the Alpine foothills near Schwartzenburg and the Gürbetal Valley near Wattenwil, the Wengers, the Hersheys and the Horsts were pushed into the deep crevices of the Emmental Valley. Constantly pursued by Bernese Authorities, they moved on to the Palatinate in Germany, and finally settled in the USA after years of uncertainty. The Clemmers (Clymer, Kleiner, Klymer) came from the region of Zürich.

The Hohgant Ridge near where the Emme River begins.
I travelled the Emmental (Emme River Valley) both literally and in my readings from the beginnings of the Emme River near Kemmeriboden-Bad under the majestic Hohgant Ridge, to Burgdorf with its majestic fortress on a hill overlooking the Emme River. The whole area at one time was riddled with Anabaptists. Our travels included the castle in Trachselwald were my forbearers were held in prison, and the Anabaptist Hideout where the Frankhauser family concealed Anabaptists in a hidden chamber in their barn while Bernese “Anabaptist hunters” pursued them.

I discovered that one part of my family had been Anabaptist since 1591, making me a tenth generation Anabaptist. That same family came to the USA in 1731, and eight generations of that family still live in the original house in Lancaster County. My Clemmer relative supposedly arrived in the USA in 1730 in the same wave of Anabaptist immigrants, making me an eighth generation Anabaptist in the USA.

All of this family history has made me feel rooted, understanding where I’ve come from, and some of the idiosyncrasies of my cultural make up. There are times here in Switzerland when I meet someone, walk a certain road, or hear a piece of music that makes me feel an uncannily nostalgic bred-in-the-bone affinity to Switzerland.

In the middle of this journey to find my roots, I received a message from the director of the Latino Student Alliance at Eastern Mennonite University. They wanted to invite me to be the keynote speaker for the kickoff of their Hispanic Heritage Month celebration. I was delighted to accept, while protesting that I am not Latino. “You are an honorary Latino,” was the response from the planning committee.

Lago Atitlán in Guatemala
Indeed, I have lived, worked, studied and related to Latinos more than eight years in the countries of Costa Rica, Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico. I taught Spanish full- and part-time for over 30 years at two institutions in the USA. I served on Mennonite Central Committee’s East Coast board of directors for six years. During that stint with MCC, I caucused with the Latino representatives, sometimes translating, often serving as a liaison. We shared our stories with each other, laughed and worked together for a cause that transcended our heritages. They fully accepted me into their circle as one of them.

To say that I was not affected or influenced by my exposure to the Latino cultural heritage is to ignore reality. Once while attending a party of mostly Latinos, a non-Spanish speaking participant friend of mine remarked after the party: “You seem to have a different personality when you speak Spanish.” This was a totally new and intriguing thought to me.

Do I have two distinct personalities that weave in and out of the cultural situations in which I find myself? One Latino and one Swiss-American? If this is so, am I schizophrenic?

I would rather believe that I have learned to meld the two heritages together into a hybrid personality that functions in whatever particular culture I am in. This melding does not make me two-faced, or a doppelganger, but rather an example of what has potential to be an emerging culture in the USA.

As evidenced by many posts on the recent MCUSA Convention in Orlando, there are still numerous cultural divides that separate rather than meld together. An example of this comes from a Latina friend of mine who is the most acculturated Latina Mennonite I know. She wrote on Facebook while on her way to the Convention: “The white people in this shuttle have identified each other as Mennonite, and have left me out of this conversation. So therefore, I think they think I'm here on some other business.” The Swiss, German, Dutch, Russian-American heritage white card left my Latina friend excluded. I have heard many similar stories.

Our church has much to learn about the melding of heritages, and our racially divided country even more. My hope is that my church can become an example, a witness, to the power of the Gospel to meld cultural heritages. Even though Paul was “a Hebrew of Hebrews” (Phil. 3:5) he became the apostle to the Gentiles, crossing and melding cultural heritages “becom[ing] all things to all people in order to save some” (1. Cor. 9:22). There has been some progress, but we have a long way to go.

The Latino Student Alliance accepted me as an “honorary Latino.” I felt that the Latino Caucus at MCC did the same. How soon will we be ready to invite non-European heritage people into our midst as not just “honorary Mennonite/Christians,” but fully accepted as equals? 

Sunday, July 16, 2017

The Informalization of Swiss Ways

Many years ago during the first year I lived in Switzerland, Esther and I took a four-day bus trip to Holland with a group of mostly farmers from the Emmental Valley. We addressed each other as Mr. so-and-so, and Mrs. so-and-so, and used the formal “you” conjugation of the verb.  On the final evening of our tour, we stopped for dinner in Rüdesheim, a wine-growing region along the Rhine River in Germany. The restaurant was proud to show off its regional wines and it flowed freely among our fellow passengers. After about the third round of toasts, people started giving each other their first names. From now on we could use the informal “Du” to address each other. A little wine was all it took to break down the social barriers. We were now on a first-name basis.

I always thought it was a bit ironic, since I never met any of our fellow passengers again to exercise this newfound intimacy. Meanwhile, others I met on almost a daily basis were still held at arm’s length with formal address. Usually you have to wait until the person in the higher social position invites you to use the informal you.

This year we have experienced a newfound freedom to do away with this awkward (in my US American point of view) social custom. We have visited eight different churches so far, and attended numerous meetings and seminars in different localities where we have met hundreds of people. In the vast majority of cases upon introducing ourselves, the Swiss person would immediately give their first name, inviting us to use the informal “you” form with them. I find this an interesting example of the “informalization” of Swiss ways.

Another area of change has been in the normal greeting given when passing someone on the street or on a hike. In the past, you never walked past someone without giving a greeting: “Good morning,” “Greetings to you,” or “Good evening” depending on the time of the day. Arriving here this time, I began to greet people the way I had in the past. Most people responded accordingly, but many seemed surprised by the greeting, like they weren’t expecting it. Usually I initiated the greeting, so I experimented by waiting for the other person to give the greeting first. More often than not, I didn’t get a greeting. Perhaps there are regional differences, but I found this to be another interesting example in the “informalization” of Swiss ways.

Finally we come to the kiss. It used to be customary for you to greet friends or relatives with a kiss on the cheek when meeting them: men to women, women to women, but not men to men. Actually, it was three kisses, starting on the left side, moving to the right side, and then returning to the left side again. Or is it the other way around? Although the kissing ritual is still done, especially among older people, I have discovered that it is not necessarily expected anymore. It is often replaced with a hug; even among men. I find this to be another example of the “informalization” of Swiss culture.

I am sure there are many factors involved in the informalization of Swiss ways. Perhaps it is the ubiquitous global youth culture, spread by music, movies and social media. Perhaps it is simply the natural evolving of a culture. However, not all Swiss ways changing, as I observed in a former blog post, “Bumbling through Swiss Social Conventions.”

Whatever the cause of what changes and what does not, I find it interesting to observe over the course of the 37 years that I’ve lived and traveled in Switzerland.