THE EXPAT CAT AND THE CONCUBINE
“Have you considered a divorce? Or just give her some babies, that’ll keep her busy,” my husband’s boss suggests, upon learning we are returning to California from Switzerland so I can attend graduate school. The news about our move is released to the company shortly thereafter, and when my husband’s team invites me out to drinks, I basically know what to expect. I’ve broken the trailing spouse rules and interfered with my husband’s career path.
“So, why do you hate Switzerland?” The supposedly tongue- in-cheek question comes before my first beer arrives, earlier than I’d thought. We sit at a rooftop bar overlooking the Basel landscape dominated by their company’s giant tower, the only skyscraper over a landscape of medieval European buildings.
“I don’t. It’s beautiful here. But unfortunately I can’t do the things I want to do in this country without the privilege of a native, even though I’m in a uniquely privileged position among immigrants.”
“Sure! You’re an expat.”
“You mean a white immigrant with savings.” I have the script for this conversation memorized by now, I’ve had it so many times, so I try again to tell the whole story.
Nearly three years earlier, on Thanksgiving 2015, I get engaged and am planning to be married in one day.
My then-boyfriend-now-husband researches a type of medicine from which most companies have completely divested due to its historical unprofitability, so he and I move to the places that still consider such medicines worth studying. (If resources for making medicine could be moved entirely to the public so that decisions about where to put those resources and why could be considered as the ethical dilemmas they are rather than made primarily based on profit motive that would be super amazing, so let’s get on activism and voting toward that end. Thanks!)
Anyway. To make the things, BF has to move to Basel, Switzerland, which we find out on Thanksgiving day. I can move with him, the company says, but only if we are married. And they need to submit the paperwork immediately.
Most city halls and county clerk offices aren’t open Black Friday, making even a Vegas elopement difficult. We use our niece and nephew as an excuse to get away from the other adults, to google questions like “Can you get one of those IKEA digital weddings without an officiant?” (You cannot, and as of 2019 I’m not sure you can get those IKEA digital weddings at all.)
It turns out that immigrants to Switzerland who work for a certain set of companies can have “concubines”, partners in romantic/sexual relationships with them, migrate as long as they promise they’re planning on marrying. The German word is Konkubine.
We do still have to send the government happy couple photographs from throughout our relationship as evidence. The fact that we met during my college years means the Migrationsamt gets pictures of us with hot pink face paint and dilated pupils at my school’s spring concert. Hey, they asked for proof of our love.
You know who gets Swiss citizenship immediately upon arrival? Our cat, Neptune. The Swiss pathway to citizenship is a minimum of 12 years for humans, and instantaneous for cats. He has a little passport and everything.
Switzerland is a small, homogenous, wealthy country, in large part based on profiting from colonialism without itself becoming a colonial power, and providing a financial arena for global conflicts without participating in them militarily. Many Americans seem to think Switzerland is socialist. What they’re probably latching onto is that, for citizens, Switzerland has a strong social safety net and labor regulations. Native workers are much more likely to earn a fair wage. But nothing has made me more insistent that socialism is international-or-bust like seeing what a xenophobic attitude does in a small, homogenous and wealthy country as opposed to a large and diverse one.
Upon arriving we are given iodine in case the local nuclear reactor goes down, and told to find our nearest legally- mandated fallout shelter. The cellars and mountains alike are full of bunkers, hundreds of thousands of them. The Swiss, despite being famous military isolationists, are hardcore doomsday preppers in the aggregate.
I spend some time exploring the neighborhoods and learning a bit from my husband’s company’s immigration department, which is the only reason we can get housing but is also geared toward a social, economic and political perspective that doesn’t quite match ours. They refer to historically Turkish neighborhoods as the “bad part of town” despite their being orders of magnitude safer than anywhere I have ever lived in my life, and call the minorly inconvenient (though I do wish it was income-scaled) pay-by-volume trash bag system the “infamous Bebbi-Sagg”, which we initially assume is some local mythical child-stealing monster.
Assuming mythical monsters here isn’t totally off base. Once a year Basel throws a three-day festival called Fasnacht where groups of people called “cliques” don terrifying masks and play military music on flutes and drums, nonstop. Including at 4am. It’s perfect horror movie fodder but also fun to drink through, especially since rich people open up their bunker- cellars and turn them into bars.
I immediately start trying to meet people. I attend a regular event mostly populated by architects, artists and designers. I assume that everyone will think I’m a huge loser because I have no artistic sensibility and my short body would turn into a lego block in the black shift dresses that seem to be their uniform, but they are actually very welcoming. I hear the same story over and over again from people all over Europe: The crisis happened in 2008. The jobs disappeared from their home country and moved here. So they’re all here, lucky to still be working in their trained field but far from home, and liable to lose their visa at any point.
It’s always been clear to me that being a white concubine means I’m playing immigration on easy mode. I quickly learn how disruptive it can be, even within a highly educated group, when the necessity of moving one or two American states’ worth of distance away within Europe means you’re in a new country with no citizenship rights.
While I’ve started with a data analytics job at my husband’s company, I quickly learn I’m not well suited to work in a massive corporate environment, and decide to pursue social work, a career closer to my educational background and from which I feel better positioned to advance social justice.
This means that I’m not a corporate employee anymore. I’m referred to as a “trailing spouse”, and the attitude of the people I meet about my work changes drastically.
Switzerland gave women the right to vote in federal but not municipal elections in 1971. The last canton gave women the right to vote municipally in 1991. Until 1985, women needed spousal permission to get a job or open a bank account. In 2017, women in Switzerland worked the fewest weekly main job hours as opposed to men compared to all OECD countries. Schools frequently lack lunch for kids—they just send the kids home to their mothers for lunch, because the mothers are home. This legacy is felt in pink collar professions that are still largely upheld by unpaid women’s labor, which I learn very quickly doing social work.
If I’m going to do this job I need to become very good at German very quickly, so I do that through constant classes, and I enroll in a certificate program at the local Fachhochschule. Not having been through the Swiss education system, I am ineligible for paid work, and am unlikely to get paid work even after my certificate program ends. I am told so in no uncertain terms. But I can do a year-long internship.
I start the internship at the local counseling center for sex workers. Going by the framework eloquently outlined by Juno Mac and others, sex work in Switzerland is legalized but not decriminalized, meaning that sex work is legal under restrictions that are often near-impossible to meet, especially in survival sex work. Street work can only be done in the “tolerance zone”, where our counseling center is located. Other restrictions regard immigration, given that most of these women have recently left their home countries to provide for their families from abroad. Most sex workers in Basel come from Hungary (due to a treaty allowing them to legally work in Switzerland for three months without a work permit), the Gulf of Guinea, and Latin America.
There’s a lot to be said about sex work and the specifics of sex work in Basel. I’m not necessarily the one to say it. There are many evidence-based reasons that organizations run by sex workers should be given priority in sex worker activism and care. I’m not going to sit here now and pretend to have the knowledge of e.g. Melissa Gira Grant or Flavia Dzodan. And in 2017 I don’t assume I have a clue either, but as I go into my internship, I think it could be a way to remove some barriers between women in sex work and their healthcare, their legal rights and their money. I accompany women to the doctors’, to appointments for their migration paperwork, to request extensions on debt or to get new housing. I learn that Switzerland does not have birthright citizenship. Gott sei dank, “Thank God,” a staff member says within earshot of a pregnant client. I’m asked to translate other things I can’t even repeat here. I don’t translate them.
We are encouraged to call the police when there is any suspicion that women are not here of their own free will. After a few police raids, a few mass disappearances of women, I start to push back on this. How can we call the police when we don’t know what happens next?
I am invited to a conference on sex trafficking at the Rathaus, the city hall. The speakers are cops and border guards. A British cop gives a talk about Romanian families forced by poverty to sell their children into gangs that migrate illegally to England. The children are arrested, sent back, and the cycle begins again. I ask the officer whether the root cause of this might be the poverty. I ask how we can more equitably distribute wealth between countries so that families do not have to choose between a child’s starvation and their slavery. The response is that England’s childcare services are overburdened already. When it comes to children in poverty, he’s not wrong. But that isn’t what I meant and I think he knows it.
One thing is clear to me: many in Switzerland want the benefits of a sex work industry without having to provide for the workers, at least not the ones they deem undeserving. Concubines, apparently, are another story.
Learning German is legally required by the bureau of immigration, and your immigration status can be downgraded if you don’t learn, but these classes cost money and time that not everyone has. I’m practically burnt out and I don’t have to stand outdoors all night like many of my clients either. I’m getting in arguments every day. Sometimes they’re about racism, like the time another volunteer mocks a newlywed family member for taking her Chinese-Swiss husband’s Chinese last name. Sometimes it’s just about the apparent tradition of letting men cut in front of women in the grocery line—or at least in front of me. My theory is that, because I’m often shopping for the 25-to- 40 person meals served by our counseling center, it looks like I’m shopping for a big family. Therefore, in the cashier’s eyes, I have no real job, and no real place to be.
At some point my immune system just kind of turns off.
My body starts giving every viral and bacterial infection that comes my way room to evolve into the nastiest version of itself. Somewhere between the internal bleeding and the blackouts I am given a recommendation to “reduce my stress”.
After about three months straight of varying illness severities I get a norovirus and black out in my apartment alone. Before I fully black out I manage to call an ambulance and drag myself with my arms (legs aren’t working) into the open doorway in case in case the EMTs can’t get in, covered in things that used to be inside of me. The last thing I hear pre-blackout is the arriving EMT’s horrified “Oh Gott!”. Four bags of saline, anti- nausea meds, and a night in quarantine later, I’m allowed to go home. I’m not sure if they’ll charge me more the longer I stay, so I better get out of there. The problem is, it’s close enough to the holidays that I don’t know a single person still in town. I have no ride home. I came in naked. They find a big sweatshirt and jeans that only go halfway up in the lost and found, but for the rest, I have to cobble together clothing and shoes from rubber bands and plastic bags and walk home at 4am looking like some sort of delirious vomit alien with her pants falling off.
I’m lucky to have the money for an ambulance. I know too well that for those who don’t, being alone while that sick can be fatal.
It’s 4:30am in a small Swiss city, so the streets are pretty empty, but I do see two very dignified looking Swiss ladies approaching. This is about as un-assimilated as I can possibly get. I look more like I’m from the Hellmouth than from this country. Even though I am playing immigration on easy mode, I ponder, the game is officially over and I have failed.
“But what a bizarre game,” I think to myself. After all, I’ve always strongly held that expecting immigrants to assimilate to the local culture is fucked up. If anything, working with undocumented immigrants has brought into even sharper relief the ways that the immigration system is designed not to give everyone the same opportunities. Now that I’ve hit some sort of official failure mark by wearing garbage, it hits me: just because I have increased opportunities to hit a goal, doesn’t mean it’s a goal worth hitting. In fact, it means the opposite. I’d been getting angry at people saying I was good at assimilating while criticizing myself for not being good enough at it. I wanted people to understand how flawed the system was but I also felt like I needed to perform in it perfectly to validate my presence here. And that didn’t make any fucking sense. To really point out prejudice in the system, trying to make the whole thing look easy doesn’t help anyone.
Okay, so I’m a vomit alien plastic concubine in the streets. Fine. If anyone asks, I’ll tell them why I’m here. I sit down to rest on the old medieval fountain so I don’t pass out again, and let the Swiss ladies run away.
I stop trying to pretend this is easy, and this ends up contributing to the best friendships I have here. Barbara, an architect from South Europe, and Sarah, a multi-racial artist partially of West African descent, whom I met at that design event I still go to, invite me to get nachos at a bar. The bar is called Nomad. It’s mostly occupied by middle-aged men in suits, and it has an aesthetic Sarah describes as “90’s stockbroker cocaine party.” Once a week, we get very drunk and have “Feminist Nacho Night” at this bar that is made for a very different kind of immigrant and talk within their earshot about the kind of politics that make the besuited men very uncomfortable.
I find out that I’m not the only one struggling to find common ground with people here, but also that I’m not the only one caring less over time about appearing correct. Even though Barbara is a sharp scholar of ecofeminism and ecosocialism who has read All The Things, and Sarah has an instant intuition for visual media that defies explanation, they near burnout in arguments about migration too, both within and outside
their fields—like with an OkCupid match who wants to start his own “sustainable kingdom” and follows up with some platitudes about South Europe’s “lack of entrepreneurship” following the debt crisis. (I doubt this approach will ever lead to his having sex, but in this case he at least got a Naomi Klein recommendation out of it.)
The three of us manage to be okay with feeling alienated without being alone. I’m able to put the energy I had put into feeling like I was “doing this well” into caring for other people who need it. I think I can better serve my friends, clients, and students, yes, but this also frees up mental space for remembering candy and cough drops for the sick kids forced to wait in the three hour lines at immigration when I transfer in England (the shorter children’s lines only apply to EU citizens), or organizing fellow air travelers to bargain for a higher price when an international airline tries to lowball the compensation for kicking people off after overbooking. Nice try, Delta.
And of course, now that I’ve developed these friendships and improved my priorities, I realize I’ve reached the end of the professional line here after my internship and if I want to continue doing social work I need to return to the US and get a full masters degree. It feels sudden to me, but my friends who have been moving since the crisis are used to it. That’s usually the way these timelines work out.
So now I’m going back to the land of Amazon and McDonald’s and Walmart and all the other exploitative companies from hell, where the government is currently shut down over a wall that was real and then a metaphor and then real again, and children are dying in camps and the administration is saying “only two” like that’s a normal reaction to children dying, and unpaid prison labor is used to fight fires, and a million different things that I’ve been following from afar, hoping the fact that my degree will be acknowledged in this country will mean that I’ll be better able to jump in and help stop all of this crap.
I like to think that I’ll be able to remember this idea I’ve held onto over here, that if I think a picture that society has is unrealistic, if I think it’s harmful to expect other people to reach for it, then trying to fit that standard myself doesn’t help anyone. That I should take that energy to care for the people who need it and the people who matter to me. That not everyone gets to have those people close to them. I do feel guilt that I can go home even when my friends and former clients can’t. But this isn’t about me or the image I’m not living up to, or even the fact that most reading this will probably think I’m an entitled ass for polluting the immigration discourse with my relatively frivolous story. The point is, now that I’m returning to the resources of living in my home country and have identified them by their absence in my and other people’s lives—community, easy comprehension of administrative documents, native knowledge of civic activities, etc.—resources that so many people are deprived of by arbitrary borders, I feel better poised to leverage those resources toward actual change.
On paper, though, my status reverts back to just as it was before my trip, no additional citizenship and no longer a concubine. The only one whose status has changed permanently is Neptune, who will retain his Swiss-coded chip on his person (his cat?) for the rest of his life. He is also the only one of us who has no internalized concept of national borders. Good kitty.
Illustration by Daryn Ray