As I write this text, reflecting on the last couple of months and trying to come up with examples of what has become familiar, I sit on the rooftop of my student housing. Here, 21 floors above the ground, I have a perfect view over central Sydney. While there are so many things, stories and people that have become familiar over time, the breathtaking view reminds me of the many stories and aspects I haven’t yet gotten to discover.

The exchange experience can be overwhelming at times, especially in the beginning. One very popular strategy to deal with the many impressions is to apply a “baby steps” approach to new and unfamiliar things. This certainly helped me in the beginning. As an exchange student, the first few interactions with a foreign culture will be undoubtedly be characterized by a feeling of awkwardness and uncertainty. Embracing the uncertainty during these interactions and repeating these unfamiliar activities and tasks helps to make them feel familiar one little step at a time. Furthermore, it is my experience that a few cultural practices are familiarized rather quickly.

One of the most prominent examples would be the payment systems. After carrying cash with me in the beginning of my stay, I now only bring my credit card. The contactless payment systems can be found even in the smallest shops. This was a big change for me, as I’m not accustomed to use my credit card all the time back home. While you can familiarize yourself with this specific activity rather quickly, there are other examples where the adaption process is longer. For example, the first topics that usually come up when I introduce myself as Swiss are either chocolate, banking and tax havens or watches. While this came as no surprise to me, the personality traits that are deeply rooted in the core of my understanding of my culture pose the biggest problems when it comes to familiarizing oneself with unfamiliar aspects.

Take the most prominent example of watches, for example. In Switzerland, at least according to the stereotype, people will go to great lengths to show up to appointments on time. Furthermore, “on time”, will often be defined as being 2-3 minutes early to ensure a timely start at the agreed upon time. Having had the opportunity to work with students from a variety of other cultural backgrounds, however, has shown me, that this idea absolutely does not exist in other cultures. Over the course of 4 months of university, I can only recollect one team meeting that started on my definition of on time. As I do have a lot of patience, I don’t really mind when people are late. However, even the calmest person will probably lose faith in his/her teammates after waiting for 2 hours. Even worse, depending on the country or culture some of my teammates came from, appointments were just ignored completely. While I really do not want to sound judgmental, this is a great example to demonstrate that all of us will often fail to adapt to changes that are close to core beliefs of our own cultural identity. One could even argue that I failed to change myself and turn up 2 hours late!

However, there are also a lot of great and positive examples! As the semester is officially over since last week, a lot of my colleagues are currently travelling through Australia to discover its beautiful nature. As I am expecting visitors over the weekend, I’m currently left alone in Sydney until I start travelling next week. This of course has led my housing to become a “ghost village”. After having had full discretion over the choice of laundry machines (on a side note: it took me ages to familiarize myself with this devilish machinery), I headed to the rooftop to finalize my latest blog contribution. It was here that I encountered one of my friends reading a book, enjoying the sun. So, after a week of feeling rather lonely, I was reminded once more that the biggest support in conquering all these challenges is to be able to rely on people, now friends, I didn’t know until quite recently. I cannot but conclude that the people I met while living abroad will have the biggest impact on my life after my exchange is over. Having met so many different personalities over the course of the last couple of months, I’m certain that all of them have become a special part of my life. It seems like that in some instances, the unfamiliar has not only become familiar, but family.


Michael Schär

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