Take advantage of being different and contribute to shape different viewpoints.

Switzerland is known to be the land of cheese and chocolate, mountains and lakes, Heidi and watches. One country, one passport, one constitution, four languages. How does this translate in real life? I was born in the Italian speaking part of Switzerland, at the border with Italy. I grew up feeling Swiss, celebrating the national day, eating Butterzopf on Sundays brunch, being proud of the cleanliness and organization of my small country, craving for Gruyère cheese and chocolate. But I also grew up listening to the songs of the Zecchino d’Oro, watching Italian TV programs, eating lasagna or polenta at Sundays family lunches. This Swiss-Italian mix was my normal life.

When I moved to the French speaking part of Switzerland for my studies and later to the German part, I realized that in the eyes of my compatriots I was Swiss but different. I had an “exotic” touch because many of my cultural, social and culinary reference points used to be Italian. My unmistakable Italian accent was often the starting point for a discussion on the intrinsic characteristics of “being Swiss”. People used to ask me questions that made no sense to me such as “do you feel more Swiss or Italian?”. With the time, however, I have learnt to take advantages of these exchanges.

First of all, my diversity creates curiosity and facilitates conversation: I always have a topic for discussion with my compatriots ;-) Curiosity might rhyme with intrusiveness, but most of the time it has been an opportunity to share my differences, dismantle prejudices and shape the image they had about people coming from Ticino. Second, to be heard, I had to develop my communication skills. It is not only a matter of learning a new language. It is deeper than that. It is about learning to navigate between different social rules and norms. Third, by getting in touch with the “Swiss majorities”, I have developed an opener mind and a more objective eye on my own worldview. Seeing myself through the eyes of the others has also helped me get to know myself.

My moving around in Switzerland confronted me with the difference between feeling Swiss and being perceived as Swiss. Being Swiss is not only a matter of passport and personal feelings, it is a matter of social recognition: if you fail to display what the others recognize as Swiss, well you won’t be considered Swiss! This applies also to all situations in which you feel to belong to a group but you are not recognized as such by the others. For instance, every time that a person with a disability is treated as a disabled person, this person is put into a “box” on the basis of one characteristic and is not primarily recognized as citizen, parent, tourist, athlete, or professional. Every time that the media present a Paralympics athlete as a daily life hero instead of focusing on his sport performance, every time that we doubt about someone’s ability to perform a task because of the wheelchair we see, we are not recognizing this person for all what he or she can be. We are bringing to the foreground one characteristic, probably not the most relevant one in their eyes.

We cannot change the fact of being Ticinese or of sitting in a wheelchair, but we can change the way in which others look at us, for instance by making them discover that Ticino is more than the “Sonnenstube” (the sun porch) of Switzerland and that Ticinesi are more than sociable and chatty. If we cannot change what people see first in us, we can at least change their attitudes and beliefs towards us. It usually does not happen overnight, but this is one way in which historically single lives as well as collective destinies have been modified. This is how women conquered the right to vote and persons with disabilities the human rights. Communication is the key to encourage people to think outside their box and to develop new worldviews, which will contribute to change the world.

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