4440 miles from home

living 4440 miles from home


Max Blessing

A passport is required in most cases to enter the U.S. For most European passports, a previous ESTA application is enough, but because I’m staying more than 90 days, I needed a visa.

Being a foreigner isn’t easy. Visas and bank accounts on the legal side, language and being a stranger on the cultural side all make living in the U.S. as a foreigner difficult.

There are of course differences between green card holders who have lived here for many years and people who have just arrived and may not have legal status. I am an exchange student with a visa and can represent this group and no other. 

I am from a country, Switzerland, where, according to the Federal Statistical Office, 26% of the population are foreigners. In the U.S., according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the amount is much smaller and I feel that they are oftentimes overlooked. 

As someone who grew up in Europe where borders are indicated by lines and recognized by a sign showing the country’s name, it was a completely new experience to prepare for several weeks to get a visa. All of my passport’s pages were blank until I got a sticker allowing me to ask the U.S. immigration officer for entry. I have never even had to go to an embassy before to get a visa, which showed me for the first time the advantages of visa-free travel.

Another thing that can be frustrating is the inability on many websites to do online purchases with foreign bank cards. Typically, the issue occurs when attempting to enter a billing address. Many websites don’t allow people to enter any foreign addresses, specifically the ZIP code. Because I have a foreign bank account, the transaction would be successful–if I could simply enter my foreign address.

Of course there are options to solve this problem, like trying to open a temporary account with a bank located in the U.S. or trying to change the address of my home account. But, since I am only in the U.S. for a year, these options seem overly complicated.

Another thing that can make everything much more difficult is the language barrier. I grew up in a Swiss German-speaking household and started learning English in second grade. I am extremely grateful for these eight years of English classes I experienced before I came to the U.S.

But although I speak relatively good English, it is still a challenge to almost always use English. Sometimes I have to say a phrase two or three times because in my pronunciation a “v” sounds like a “w” or a “z” sounds like a “c.”

Additionally, there is the way teenagers and young people speak. Slang, abbreviations and cuss words unfortunately are not taught in a typical Swiss English class, but these words are often a factor for others to decide if you belong. 

As I illustrated in one of my first columns, the American school system is significantly different from the Swiss school system. In a nutshell, the number of people that you are in classes with in Switzerland, typically about twenty people, is significantly smaller than in the U.S.

In my opinion, the Swiss system makes it easier to have deeper social connections because you spend the whole day with the same twenty people. On the other hand, it also decreases your choices about what classes you have.

Because of this, meeting more than 100 people in classes is something that overwhelmed me when I came here and is still overwhelming to me. Everybody has their own connections and you know different people that know each other without realizing it. This complexity is much less common in a twenty-person group.

This is the point where you might feel like a stranger. And indeed I am still a stranger, even after a half year. Most people do not know enough about me to fully understand my reactions based on cultural differences, and I, as a foreigner, sometimes have a difficult time understanding everything that Americans talk about.

On March 1, 1967, Phil Schwartz wrote in the Chatterbox, “That only a few Walnut Hills students have added to their understanding of other peoples as a result of [the exchange program] A.F.S [(American Field Service)] is a failing of the program.…We do not make good use of our A.F.S. students.

The same program, 55 years later, and this problem still exists. Many students still haven’t interacted with the three exchange students that are currently a part of WHHS’ everyday life.

This fact is unfortunate, as so many students have limited understandings of what happens outside of the country. But, I am not sure if that is easily changeable; Many students at WHHS are busy between their academics, extracurriculars and other involvements.

The U.S. is a great country, whose success is based largely on the idea of incorporating the best of every culture. However, being a foreigner in the U.S. remains difficult.

Among many great experiences, this exchange year has shown me the experience of a foreigner, a stranger. In the future, I will try especially to give the person that can’t speak my language perfectly or might not be settled yet in my own culture an extra portion of kindness and understanding.

I hope you’ll do that too.