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Immigrating to One’s Country of Origin - CS EN


The author discusses his own identity choc her experienced when feeling in between the communities of native Swiss people and foreigners.

Case: Immigrating from Australia to Switzerland

For a white male who grew up in a Western society, I did not consider a country like Switzerland to be foreign. Sure, it is different to my home country, Australia, geographically and linguistically, and like any country, it does have its peculiarities that make immigration a little difficult, but on the whole, I expected the differences to be rather trivial. They are both western, democratic countries, with similar standards of living and, as I discovered, a surprisingly pleasant dislike for hierarchical structures and formalisms.

It was then somewhat surprising for me to discover that I did suffer a « choc identitaire » when I first arrived. The shock consisted of two parts which were totally contradictory to each other.

The first part of the shock was learning to accept that I was a foreigner, and this itself can be broken into two parts: Firstly, my perception of the world around me and secondly, the perception of others towards me. This was in itself a somewhat alienating experience as I was not used to being treated as a foreigner or an “other” but rather an average member of society. I would like to add that the reaction to me was not necessarily negative, and could often be described as simply curiosity but nonetheless, it was there and I was conscious of it. The loss of fixed social reference points (e.g.: family and friends) which lead to a sense of isolation accentuated this experience.

The point above was without doubt accentuated by the fact that I am of Swiss origin and even have relatives here. Thus, I felt the paradox of simultaneously feeling foreign yet at the same time being, in one sense or another, Swiss. This fact exacerbated the discomfort I felt by being a foreigner, in that someone who had immigrated and had no specific relation to their adopted country would not expect to be treated as anything but, just that, a foreigner.

Three distinct examples spring to mind. The first is the typical example of language. It was common that I was often responded to in English after addressing someone is German. This aroused feelings of, at times, resentment towards the other party and unfortunately a certain sadness with regards to my upbringing (i.e.: The fact that despite being, at least to a certain extent, Swiss, but not being able to speak Swiss-German). Where my Swiss counterparts thought they were actually being accommodating by using my native language; I actually found it insulting that they were unwilling to use their native, or semi- native1, language when addressing me. Thus I would often find myself in the bizarre situation of myself as a native English speaker, speaking German to a Swiss who was responding to me in English.

The next example is also related to language and retrospectively somewhat comical. The simple fact of saying my name or introducing myself became almost impossible. I had always been, David Roth, yet suddenly I was “Darfid Rort” with an unpronounceable, to native English speakers, rolled “R”. Suddenly, I was unable to pronounce my own name in a manner that was understandable. In other social situations, a joke would be made, and everyone would be laughing, while I sat in silence wondering what was going on. Were they laughing at me?

The third was also an experience common to most immigrants to Switzerland, that of finding an apartment. Suddenly, I had moved from an upper echelon of society, that of a well-paid professional who had never experienced any form of negative prejudice, to one with no references or social history in the country, who was unable to rent an apartment.


Quelle est la réaction au « choc » (quelles sont les émotions qui ont été ressenties par la personne) ?

As with all intercultural situations, the lack of understanding causes a variety of emotional responses. These included: disappointment, anger, frustration and at times even humiliation, depression and paranoia. These emotional responses could almost certainly be considered one-sided in that the Swiss people with whom I was interacting with did little, at least consciously, to contribute to these emotions. Indeed, to most of them, I was just another foreigner (and this is said without any negative connotations) who happened to be in Switzerland for one reason or another.


Part Two

Note: Unfortunately, no other student within the MIC responded to my request to swap cases, as per the suggestion, so I will analyse my own case study above. I will attempt to do so from a “clinical” third person point of view.


Part Three

Analyser le récit (le sien ou celui d’un collègue) (3-5 pages env.) en étudiant les questions suivantes :

Quelles sont les représentations, valeurs, normes, conceptions, préjugés… le « cadre de référence » de la personne qui a vécu le choc qui se dégagent du récit ?

“Migration is the process of social change whereby an individual moves from one cultural setting to another for the purposes of settling down either permanently or for a prolonged period…The process is inevitably stressful”3. (Bhugra and Jones)

Like all new experiences, certain lessons must be taken if one is to “learn to be a foreigner” and if one is not prepared for this, the experience can be difficult. It is important to understand the psychological effects that occur due to the sudden change from being a normal, average member of society, a native, for want of a better word, to that of a foreigner, or an outsider.  The difficulty of the situation is exacerbated by the simultaneous loss of social reference points and sense of isolation, combined with the general stress of emigrating.

The native of a country has an understanding of the cultural norms and more importantly possesses the required linguistic skills to interact with other members of society, be they professional or personal. If one has never previously been in the situation of not understanding the cultural norms, or indeed not even understanding what their peers are talking about, these skills are not even considered to be skills - one is normally not even aware they even exist, they are just a part of one’s self, in the same way, that no one really takes time to consider that walking is a special ability, it is merely something that one does. On the other hand, the foreigner does indeed have to learn to ‘walk again’. This is accentuated by the fact that sometimes extremely simple, everyday tasks, that would not even be considered mundane in the foreigner’s home country, can be a challenge in the new or adopted country.

Although the « choc identitaire » here could be considered trivial on a surface level if one is to compare it, for example, to that of a refugee who was recently forced to flee his or her home country, what makes it interesting from a psychological point of view are the conflicting images of the self in the individual's mind (I am not accustomed to being a foreigner, being treated differently or experiencing any forms of negative discrimination; I understand my society and have the tools to communicate effectively) compared to that of reality (I am actually a foreigner, who does not understand my society completely and do not possess the skills to communicate effectively; I am treated differently and at times, experience negative discrimination).

Cesari Lusso makes the point that the individual must be « conscience de son propre enracinement culturel et des limites de son propre système de référence » and thus many of the negative emotions felt by the subject can be attributed to his own lack of experiences, having only experienced life from his own mono-linguistic, local socio-cultural perspective.  This concept of self-image is also described by Zaharna (1989) in his studies of expatriates. He discusses the idea of a “self-shock” as something that, « se situe à l’intérieur de l’individu et se manifeste par une relation tension non plus à l’égard de l’autre mais vis-a-vis de soi-meme ». Cohen-Emirique describes this a « déstabilisions au niveau intrapsychique liée a des difficultés au niveau interpersonnel ». Another example of the concept of the image of the self versus how others see you can be found in Anais Nin’s “La maison de l’inceste”.

When one has such an experience one must also remain conscious that particular rules or norms can easily be misinterpreted as being discriminatory when in fact they are merely different to those that one is accustomed to in his or her home country. It is often the case that the local people, must also abide by these rules, and may even find them ridiculous or superfluous, but the response to the rule is different simply due to the fact that they are accustomed to the rules.


Quelles sont les représentations, valeurs, normes, conceptions, préjugés… le « cadre de référence » de la personne qui a provoqué le choc (hypothèses) ?

The subject was reminded daily of the fact that he was a foreigner by the reactions towards him. The reactions were not necessarily negative, but they nonetheless served as a constant reminder to the subject that he was a foreigner which was the source of the « choc identitaire ». The case of language use above provides a typical example of a misalignment of expectations from both sides.

Whereas the conception of using English when addressing a foreigner could be considered normal or even polite to the Swiss, it was viewed as an affront to the subject whose desire was not to be treated as such. “Many theorists say that language is perhaps the single most important ‘marker’ of a national identity” 7 and thus the refusal of the subject’s Swiss counterparts to converse with the subject in German was deciphered by the subject as an exclusion from the culture that he was attempting to join. This point is especially complex in Switzerland due to the prominence of Swiss-German and the attitude of native Swiss-German speakers to High German. Nevertheless, what is important to note here again is the notion of perception and expectations. In this case the subject, who with no understanding of the cultural issues at hand, incorrectly assumed that German does, in fact, reflect the culture of Swiss-Germans. This is a typical case where the lack of understanding of a culture in depth can lead to false assumptions and misunderstandings.


Du point de vue de la personne touchée, quelles sont les dimensions de l’identité (selon Codol, 1981 – voir Document de travail) qui ont été « menacées» ?

Each of the four “composantes de ce sentiment d’identité” from Codol are reviewed below.

Sentiment de sa difference: In fact the « choc identitaire » actually occurred due to the opposite effect, the subject suddenly found himself in a situation where he was viewed by others as different, in situations where he usually would not have been considered so. Although this perception from others may not have seen this difference in a negative light, or indeed even as something positive, it nonetheless provided the subject with a constant reminder that he was not considered as a foreigner, which did not match with his self-image.

Sentiment de sa permanence continuité dans le temps : In this case, the multiple roles that each human plays was in fact ignored by the subject and this could be considered as one of the primary causes of the « choc identitaire ». The subject did not take into account the « la diversité des représentations de soi, de la multiplicité de ses rôles, statuts, et appartenances »8 but allowed one single role, that of being foreign to dominate his image of himself which, in turn, had a negative effect on his self-image.

The concept of time should also not be ignored here. The reaction towards being treated as a foreigner is totally different if one is simply a tourist, as one has no expectations to being treated as anything but just that. The idea that this was a permanent state of being increased the effects of the « choc identitaire ».

Sentiment de sa cohérence : This point is also critical. It was, in fact, the loss of connection to the self (i.e. the loss of the image of what one is), the loss of connection the surroundings and the loss of frames of reference that could be attributed to being the largest cause of this shock. One is reminded of the quote of Simone Weil, “To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognised need of the human soul”. If one has always been rooted, one cannot understand the feelings of being uprooted without actually having a first-hand experience. There is no doubt that language, or lack thereof, also played an important role regarding the “sentiment de sa cohérence”, especially in social situations.

Valorisation : The subjects, hereto positive self-image was also affected by the sudden lack of the his ability to have « un certain pouvoir sur l’environnement matériel et social » and to « avoir le sentiment que l’on peut influer sur les choses et les êtres, diriger ou maîtriser »9 (Codol, 1981, p. 116). Indeed the fact that the subject suddenly had these “powers” removed also contributed to the « choc identitaire » and resulting negative emotions. This « question de l’identité » is also discussed by Cesari Lusso, « [l]es travaux cliniques de E. Erikson ont bien montré comment se développent dans l’individu les sentiments lui permettant (ou ne lui permettant pas) de se percevoir comme, par exemple, digne de confiance, capable de faire confiance, autonome, etc. »

Quelles stratégies et quelles ressources ont été mises en œuvre (ou à mettre en œuvre) par les acteurs?

Instead of accepting his role as an immigrant, which as mentioned does not have to be seen as negative, the subject put his efforts into attempting to integrate, or at least be treated in a manner which matched his perception of himself. This was primarily through language. (If you don’t look different, it is only when you speak that your difference is noticed). The example of the ‘reverse’ use of second languages cited in the case study reflects the desire of the subject to change the perception of those he interacted with towards him. Whilst learning the local language and attempting integrate into one’s adopted society is certainly a culturally enriching experience, it is somewhat naive to believe that this will solve the problem in its entirety. The strategy placed too much emphasis on the reactions of others towards the subject and other external issues without dealing with important internal issues which sooner or later would have to be addressed i.e.: that of accepting the role of the ‘other’ or foreigner as a part of your character. No strategy was put in place to solve this important issue.


Quels sont les processus « intergroupes » que vous pouvez repérer à partir du récit ?

Since the subject did not emigrate is a group, nor did he have any group references, this point can only be analysed in general terms. However, since I do not feel it is appropriate to throw all members of a society in one cultural pot, especially with regards to the attitude towards foreigners, I do not see that this point can be analysed for this case. One need only observe the variety of reactions in Switzerland towards the SVP’s policy regarding immigrants to understand that one cannot make any generalised comments regarding the group behaviour of Swiss people towards foreigners.


Part Four

Retours réflexifs (introspectifs) (pour la personne qui a réalisé l’analyse): qu’est-ce que cette démarche d’analyse d’un récit de « choc identitaire » vous apprend sur les processus psychologiques en jeu en situation interculturelle et sur vos propres mécanismes ? 

The idea that having « expériences n’est pas à confondre avec le fait d’en avoir conscience. Vivre des expériences n’est pas nécessairement une démarche de connaissance » 11 springs to when I reflect on this experience. It is only through this research and analysis of this experience as well as the benefit of hindsight, that I have gained a better understanding as to why I experienced the « choc identitaire ».

Two main points come to mind.

The first is that the reactions that I experienced are quite commonplace and are in fact well documented by various studies. Aside from the references listed in this paper, “The impact of culture and diversity” was recently the theme of the World Federation of Mental Health’s international day. This was then reflected here in Switzerland with the title “Macht Migation Krank” 12 which focussed on the emotional and psychological effects of migration.

Secondly, looking back on the experience and analysing it has led me to believe that this is, in fact, more a case of learning to cope with not only a geographical or cultural change but more importantly with a social and status change. That is, where I originally thought about this topic from the point of view of culture and integration, I see it now as more as a case of learning to adapt one’s perceptions of one’s self and one’s expectations. I have now learnt to accept that I am not a ‘local’ that I am still, at times, treated as a foreigner and even in some cases excluded because of this fact. However, my reaction towards this has changed completely, and I have learnt to react accordingly.  Indeed, I sense that if I were to re-immigrate to Australia, I would, bizarrely, undergo a reverse culture shock due to not being a foreigner and not being treated differently.