Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Being a Foreigner

I remember when I first moved abroad. Actually, I will be more precise and say that I remember when I first moved to Europe, to Sweden in 2004. I spent the first couple months, possibly years in Sweden always felt like a foreigner. It was not easy to fit in. Previous to this I had lived in Asia and it was just way too different to make any real comparisons. I always felt foreign in Asia but it was such a huge foreignness - a huge difference between me and the natives - that the small subtle differences that threw me in Sweden really didn’t matter. Plus, I really only hung out with foreigners - both Bali and Shanghai had massive ex-pat communities... So, the differences were bigger. But they seemed to matter less.

In Sweden however the differences between Sweden and the US were often small (at least compared to Asia) but so important. It is important to note that in Sweden, I only hung out with Swedes - that was probably a big part of the difference. My foreignness was always glaringly obvious - at least when I opened my mouth or expressed thoughts. That was the other thing. I LOOK SWEDISH! Who knew! I grew all all my life thinking that I looked like the typical American “girl next door.” And then I move to Sweden and BAM I realize that I look more Swedish than anything else. I am a faux Swede.

I actually had a slight inkling of this when living in Bali. Indonesians like to shout out what country they think you are from and they almost always would say “Sweden, Sweden” when I passed by (I soon realized this was a good thing as it was right before the Bali bombings and being American wasn’t something you wanted to be really). I also realized that if I asked people men in bars - they never would guess that I was from the US but they would usually get through all the Scandinavian countries plus Germany first. This game has always amused me. I still play it when I’m abroad. I have come to the conclusion that it’s not just the blond hair and blue eyes that lead people to think I’m Swedish but something in the shape of the face...

So, the strange thing about moving to Sweden was that I actually looked just like everyone else! In Asia I stuck out like crazy - no one would mistake me for native (this had it’s benefits because when you were doing something stupid or asking stupid questions, people would give you a break). Because I looked Swedish, people therefore expected me to act Swedish - which was not something I knew how to do (at least at first) and this made me feel all the more foreign.

First of all, I always talked too loud and too much. I spoke my mind. I gave my opinions - loudly. I told people why I thought I as so great. I fought aggressively to in every argument I participated n. Over the years living in Sweden I learned to be more humble. I stopped bragging about myself. I continued to speak my mind (which often got me in trouble in the work place) but I also learned that sometimes it’s ok to back down and that not every confrontation needs to be a dramatic argument.

Second, I wanted to pay for everything for everyone all the time - expecting like you do in the US: what goes around comes around. I buy this round, you buy the next. But the problem was that in Sweden this was so not the deal. You do not buy others drinks. You go to the bar and order a drink for yourself. Even after living there for five years, I cold not bring myself to do this. It just seemed so rude. So at the end of nights out, I often ended up with significantly less money in my bank account than I had started the evening with.

The other thing I couldn’t get over was the bring your own alcohol to the party. And I don’t mean bring a bottle of wine or spirits for the host, Swedes would bring just enough alcohol for their own consumption which often manifested in water bottles full of vodka (for real - it felt like high school). I always found this odd and couldn’t bring myself to do this. If I went to a party and wanted vodka, I would bring a bottle of vodka for the host. When I hosted a party (and I had oh so many parties), I always had enough alcohol for my guests. Don’t get me wrong. I understand that the reasons for this behaviour is because alcohol in Sweden is EXTREMELY EXPENSIVE! Seriously, I bottle of vodka (a 3/4 liter one) will run you about $50. But even so, I just couldn’t adapt to the custom though of buying and bringing only alcohol for yourself. Unfortunately, all of this basically contributed to me spending about half of my income on alcohol... But on the upside, my friends thought I was really generous.

The other big difference in Sweden was that people tended to have cozy (mysig) parties and dinners at home rather than going out to dinner.This was also because of the expensive alcohol and the fact that restaurants are also very expensive in Sweden - and not always that cozy. At first this was very strange for me especially coming from Asia where both food and alcohol were so cheap that the thing to do on weekends was to gather a huge group of people and go to dinner. But I learned to enjoy having my friends over or going to their places - it is much more intimate and cozy and it’s a more flexible and relaxed setting in which to interact rather than being stuck at a table talking to just the people directly seated next to you.

Swedes are known for being reserved and formal. But, I didn't find this with my group of friends. However, I will admit that Swedes are not chatty or all that friendly- at least not to strangers. They generally do not talk to the person behind them in the check out line at the supermarket (as Americans do) just because they are both waiting. They might or might not hold the door for the person behind them, but they certainly will not go out of their way to do it. They do not give random complements - definitely not to strangers and not very often between friends in the way that is common between American women who tend to comment on any small change in the person’s appearance or new article of clothing - this was something that was very hard for me to get used to. For a long time I thought I must have been fat, ugly and wearing bad clothes as I was used to being complimented all he time. But later I learned that Swedes do give compliments -but only when they really mean it. And that makes them much more meaningful.

And the music in Europe. Dance music! My Swedish friends would complain about my American hip hop music when they came to parties at my house. Don’t you have that new song they would always ask me? And it would inevitably be some Euro-pop dance song that I had never heard... I wised up pretty quick though and downloaded all the popular dance music as well as the hip hop music. And then there was the way they danced to the music! The first time I saw Europeans dance was in Bali - and I remember laughing. I thought they looked so silly with their hands in the air hopping up and down and not moving their hips the way Americans do. I forgot about this though until my brother came to visit me and also found it very amusing. He found it even more amusing that I had somehow managed to adopt this style of dance without even realizing it!

I even found myself missing the Eurovison song contest this year! I could have watched it in London I guess... but I don’t have cable and I didn’t have my Swedish friends around inviting me over to drink wine and watch it!

The food took some getting used to as well. I mean sandwiches for breakfast? And what was up with the portion size? It is so small! An appetizer in Europe is just for one person. And portions are designed so that you order an appetizer a main meal and desert. There are no doggy bags. Luckily, I quickly realized that the food was really tasty - a smaller portion of salmon cooked, prepared and presented just right is so amazing. And I loved the Swedish cuisine! Red beet salad, swedish meatballs, cheese, hard bread, reindeer, wild boar, moose meat (love moose meat and wild boar), And who knew herring could be so yummy! I loved it from the start! (I seriously must have been a Swede in another life).

The fika culture of Sweden was also new to me. Fika more or less translates into “coffee break.” But it has a deeper meaning than just take a coffee. I would say a more literal translation would be: “take a coffee with a friend in a cozy cafe, maybe have something sweet to eat if you feel like it, have a chat, relax, DO NOT RUSH.” Europeans are known for their relaxed coffee culture (oddly enough this culture doesn’t really exist in England, I think it’s because instead there is a strong pub culture). The “coffee-to-go” culture does exist in Sweden but barely - it’s not that popular. And I have never seen a drive through coffee place! At first I kid of missed my Dunkin Donuts drive through and my huge America coffee to go.But I realized that having a nice cozy fika with a friend is much better than a coffee on the run.

Obviously, somehow somewhere along the way I adapted to the Swedish European style of things. And I as I realized again and again while home in the US for a month just recently: suddenly I feel like a foreigner in my own country!

I feel more comfortable dancing to dance music than hip hop. Two of my friends have told me that my music preferences are very “euro trash” and both times I was very honestly surprised! When I put those songs on in Sweden, everyone jumps up and starts dancing in the European way where you put one arm in the air and kind of hop around like everyone else during the best parts of the song... How come Americans don’t feel the need to do the same?

I’m unnerved when a stranger comes up to me in the street and talks to me. I find it weird when a stranger walks up to me on the street and randomly compliments my outfit or an article of my clothing. The chatty store attendants stress me out and annoy me. Why can’t they just leave me alone? My own polite manners seem to have also deteriorated. I most often forget to hold doors for people. I don’t offer compliments unless I mean them. And I have all but forgotten how to make polite small talk...

And while I love my flip flops in the summer, I’m always overdressed preferring little black dresses and high heels to the more casual jeans and T-shirt American style of dress. My American friends are constantly reminding me tone it down and that cocktail dresses are not really ever appropriate in small town America.

I refuse to go out to dinner for the most part when I’m home in the US. I hate the big portion sizes and the poorly prepared and presented tasteless food (of course nice places in the city are ok). And I still like my coffee-to-go (thank you Dunkin Donuts drive through) but I find myself missing the cozy European cafe culture of just sitting with friends eating something and drinking coffee an catching up.

Recently, when in San Francisco with my parents, all I wanted was a sandwich or a shrimp salad from a cozy cafe in Sweden. We ended up with clam chowder and burgers and fries! And at the hotel the crappy continental American breakfast was for me a poor substitute for a wonderful European style breakfast buffet with cheese and bread and eggs, cereals, muesli and yogurt (and in Sweden of course there would be herring and smoked salmon). The other night my mother made pasta with pesto. I fund myself really missing the cold pasta with salad fixings such as arugula, olives, mushrooms, peppers as it would be prepared at home in Sweden.

I had the shock of my life the other day when I went to the liquor store to buy Rose Wine and they didn’t have any! WTF? That is ALL YOU DRINK ALL SUMMER LONG IN EUROPE. Every store has so much of it stocked.

It seems very likely that I will be moving back to Boston this fall. I’m very worried about this.

I worry about being able to compete in the work place. It has always been so easy for me as a loud mouthed dominate American in a room full of Europeans or Asians. I don’t even know what American working style is like! And as a side note, I was also appalled by the way people dressed in our Boston office! Flip flops? Skirts and shirts more appropriate for a bar than for work? Men in baggy suits? It’s going to take some getting used to.

At least in Sweden, I had a good excuse - I was a foreigner and no matter how Swedish I looked or how much I adapted to the culture that would never change. But in the US, I’m American (and that will also never change -no matter how much of a Faux Swede I am). This is my country and my culture. I will be expected to fit back in easily. I’m worried about this. When I do stupid things or stay stupid things or dance funny or dress wrong... what’s my excuse? I’m so worried about moving back home. I think it’s going to be really hard to feel like a foreigner in my own country.


Sara Louise said...

That sucks if you have to move back to the US in the fall, but, on the bright side, you are moving to a nice city instead of somewhere in the middle of nowhere, and it's always easier and cheaper to get flights to Europe from a major east coast city.

And I never know what the latest dance song is either!

International Woman of Mystery said...

It's going to be so strange to move back after 9 years abroad! But I should still get to travel for work and now I can use my vacation to see friends in Europe (rather than family in the US). I'm sure I'll move back abroad again. I'm looking at this as a temporary thing. On the bright side, just thing of all the fun blog post my imminent repatriation will inspire!

jess said...

So Im gonna have someone to dress up and go dancing with this fall? I love all excuses for little black dresses... + most if my friends think its weird that I'm not attracted to boys who don't wear skinny jeans. But not you, lady! Let's find us some rich twins <3

International Woman of Mystery said...

@Jess - glad I've found another girl who like skinny jeans! Let's go out and take on the town of Boston in our LBD's and high heels.