First Generation American Project: Drinks & Dialogue with Corinne Meier
By: Ania Jablonowski
God works in wonderful ways. As some of our readers may know, I am a Director for a networking group that gives back to the community, known as Connect.Inspire.Grow. Each month, our group meets up at St. John Brebeuf Church in Niles for a packing party to assemble lunches for the homeless on behalf of St. Vincent DePaul’s aggregate food drive. Many parishioners know this as “Uncle Pete’s Food Drive” in loving memory of Pete Zonsius.
At a recent food drive, I randomly stationed myself at the brown bag table, along with Corinne Meier, one of our regular volunteers. Corinne and I had met a few times and exchanged some general conversations, but this was this first time that we were able to truly connect on a deeper level. I think this conversation was meant to be.
Corinne asked me about First Generation American Project and what it meant to be “FGA.” To her pleasant surprise, she is part of our demographic and immediately began sharing memories of growing up first generation as a Swiss-American. I asked her to join our “Drinks and Dialogue” interview; here is her story.
“I was born in Switzerland and only lived there for three months. My entire family and lineages are from there, so there’s only one American-born member in our family and that would be my brother,” says Corinne. Her parents both worked at a car rental company, which is where they met. “My grandfather worked in the airline business, so my mom was able to get cheap flights and would never spend money on anything other than travel, so she managed to travel to China, Japan, Thailand - everywhere in the world - so she didn’t necessarily spend her whole life in Switzerland.”
Corinne’s father had a business concept that he wanted to launch, which her mom supported as she was not partial to the weather in Switzerland. “Life there is great. It’s a wonderful country, one of the most beautiful countries in the world. But the weather is very tricky. It can be like Chicago, just long-winded winters where you don’t see sunshine for days. The clouds get caught between the mountains, so there can be really horrible weather conditions and I think that my parents just wanted to try something new.”
Her parents packed up their belongings and moved to the States. “My father rented sold and leased used station wagons, vans, motor homes, any kind of car for traveling and sightseeing. The kind that you could go camping in, where you could see the entire United States.” She continues, “From the European perspective when you visit the US, you want to see the entire country. They have the train system [in Europe] so he thought of his business in the way that these customers would want to see the US, in its entirety for three months up to a year. The economy was so strong in Switzerland in the ‘80s and ‘90s that people were able to afford it, and so it really worked out very well. He did it for 18 years, and it was based out of Miami, and then of course he built a hub in New York, Washington, and California.”
It was this experience that exposed Corinne to the entire landscape of the US, from a Swiss-American perspective. She says, “It was one of the most beautiful ways to see the United States.”
After her parents closed the business, they separated shortly thereafter and Corinne’s mother moved to Chicago, while her father went back to Switzerland. “My mom came here for the natural healing role because it is very progressive in Chicago. It is more Green, more open energy healing and alternative medicine, so she became a massage therapist in Miami before she moved to Chicago. Her whole intention was to build her natural healing business. She works with children with ADD and cancer patients.”
Throughout Corinne’s childhood and adolescence, both parents managed to instill the Swiss culture in her upbringing. “Many summers, we would go to Switzerland. It was like Swiss camp, and it was great because you get to practice your language. And get in touch with your family again,” she says.
She remembers how she only had immediate family in the US for holidays. “We had an adopted family, there’s this huge Italian family in Miami that would bring us in every Thanksgiving and Easter. We built our own nuclear sort of environment here. The only holidays we would really celebrate with our own family was either Christmas or Swiss Independence Day.”
While visiting family in Switzerland, Corinne recalls, “It’s amazing, you get there, you land, and everybody knows. You’ve got to see everybody, you have to eat. And you get full! You have breakfast at someone’s house, then you go to go to someone else’s house for lunch. Then you go right after lunch to another person’s house. You’re just constantly full, and you’re like, ‘Can I take a nap for a second?!’”
Before my interview with Corinne, I honestly did not know too much about the country. One element of these interviews that I truly appreciate is the Cultural 101.
Corinne shares, “Switzerland as a country is divided into four predominant areas. The Romanian area is very small, so it’s actually Italian, French, German and this little Romanian sliver. The packaging on products is written in French, German and Italian, and that is a normal thing. When you’re driving, your ‘turn right’ sign is written in three different languages. There, you speak, read and write in German. In school you use German. When you talk to the teacher, you’re talking Swiss, but when you’re reading, you’re going to read German. It’s interesting that way. There is no official language. There’s Swiss as a language. There’s no written-out format of it. The dialect flexes depending on what part of the country you are in. It’s just like in the US, there is a different accent in the South versus New York; same thing in the German area of Switzerland. Language is big, and most people there speak two languages off the bat. I have had a luxury of learning Swiss through my parents.”
Corinne also attended a German program during what we first generation Americans refer to as “English school.” She says, “I would read poems and really there was a beauty to it, I mean really you cannot capture the same meaning in English language, it is not possible.”
Between traveling the US throughout her childhood and visiting Switzerland every year, Corinne has been influenced by her parents to make a difference in this world and tap into her entrepreneurial spirit. In addition to volunteering with Connect.Inspire.Grow, Corinne has started several notable businesses.
Corinne Meier is the CEO and Founder of MAX Inter D, I Love Being a Preneur, Hip-Hop Aerobics Chicago!, and A Little Deal. To connect with Corinne, visit www.hiphopaerobicschicago.com