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‘We want Swedes and foreigners to laugh at their differences’

A new improv comedy show in Stockholm pokes fun at the cultural differences foreigners often encounter while living in Sweden. The Local catches up with American actor Josh Lenn, one of the show's creators, to find out more.

'We want Swedes and foreigners to laugh at their differences'

The show, “Lost in Translation”, premieres on Friday, providing just the antidote for anyone who has found the experience of living in Sweden to be “overwhelming, confusing, and frustrating”.

The show tackles the peaks and troughs of life as a foreigner in Sweden, based on experiences drawn on from actor Josh Lenn, a US native who’s been in Stockholm for the past few years.

With the show offering the chance to “laugh at our cultural differences with these special people called Swedes”, The Local talks Lenn about the show, life in Sweden as a Californian, and the importance of saying “yes”.

The Local: How and when did you get the idea for this show?

Josh Lenn: I have been here four years now and I’ve been faced with some tough challenges as well as amazing moments. I have met so many expats who have similar experiences and challenges when making a life in Sweden.

A lot of this stems from our cultural differences with Swedes, who have strong social norms. Integration can be difficult. About a year ago I realized I wanted to put this on stage, and theatre is a great forum to not only laugh at these differences, but potentially understand them better.

TL: As you see it, what is the toughest thing about being an American in Sweden?

JL: Being from California, the obvious answer is the weather. But, the big thing when I moved here was missing small talk. I think a lot of Americans crave that.

TL: Why will this show appeal to non-American expats living in Sweden?

JL: This show will hopefully be fun for anyone who has moved here from another country. Also, it will hopefully be fun for Swedes who are open to taking a look at themselves from another perspective.

TL: Why is improvisation a useful way of exploring the challenges of navigating life in Sweden as a foreigner?

JL: One of the fundamentals of improv is to say “yes”, which basically means to accept what is given to you. As we get older, we learn how to say “no” more and more. So, by practicing improv regularly you work out your “yes” muscles and you learn to be more accepting. That attitude helps a lot when you are faced with change and things that are different.

Improv also tends to be funny. So it is a great vehicle to provide laughter for situations when you might normally feel frustration.

TL: Tell us a little bit about the cast? Who are they and what do they know about being ‘lost in translation’ in Sweden?

JL: The cast is made up three amazing Swedish improvisers, Robert Weitz, Veronica Bergström and Katarina Wahlberg, me, and a great musician Maria Olofsson. They are very brave for being willing to put their “Swedishness” under the microscope and take a look at themselves with different eyes. Some of them have lived abroad as well.

TL: What sort of reactions have you gotten in the run-up to the show’s opening?

JL: So far the reaction has been very positive. The first two shows have already sold out, which is a great sign. It feels like the concept resonates with people, and that’s fun.

TL: Is there any chance the show will continue? Any thoughts about taking it elsewhere in Sweden?

JL: There is a good chance the show will continue. Especially if we keep selling tickets. We have not thought too far in advance about taking it somewhere else, but we are very open to it.

“Lost in Translation” is showing on October 19th, November 23rd, and December 7th at the Improvisation & Co. theatre at Hagagatan 48 in Stockholm’s Vasastan neighbourhood. The October and November shows are sold out, but tickets are still available for the December 7th show (see link below)

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IMMIGRATION

Reader’s view: Why is it so hard for Sweden to accept English in public life?

A reader of The Local shares her story of trying to enter the Swedish job market after completing her doctoral studies.

Reader's view: Why is it so hard for Sweden to accept English in public life?
File photo of two women, not related to the article, having a conversation. Photo: mentatdgt/Pexels

Under the Swedish public eye, those put into the category of “undesirable” or “wrong-typed” migrants such as asylum seekers, refugees, and unskilled workers from poorer countries in the global South have often become the target of heated debates on governmental spending, neoliberalised administration, and moral public sentiments.

Yet, another group of migrants, those seen as a more “right” type of migrants that Sweden wants to attract – the high-skilled international researchers – remains invisible and overlooked while this group continues facing everyday exclusionary barriers and bureaucratic administrative obstacles.

In addition to the Swedish linguistic barrier that excludes foreign academics in their everyday workplace at Swedish universities, it appears as though the whole Swedish administrative system is not welcoming any foreigner, including high-skilled foreign academics, despite the government's avowed promises of hospitality.

My recent experience could be seen as an example of this bureaucratic and xenophobic logic of the New Public Management in Sweden – in which I believe that many other international researchers could have shared a similar experience.

My employment contract as a doctoral candidate at a Swedish university ended in June 2020. I was told by my union that it was imperative to register my unemployment at the Swedish Employment Agency, Arbetsförmedlingen, which I did. Yet, the whole registration process has alienated me, a non-Swedish speaker, because all the instructions were written in Swedish only.

I navigated by using Google Translate from Swedish to English, though I was not certain whether the translation was accurate. Towards the end of the online registration process at Arbetsförmedlingen, I was asked to book a mandatory interview by phone with Arbetsförmedlingen, which I complied with.

Yet, my first meeting with Arbetsförmedlingen turned out to be a failure, which irritated both me and the Arbetsförmedlingen officers.

The phone meeting abruptly ended just after a few minutes instead of a 30-minute interview as proposed. The first officer I met on phone only spoke Swedish. When I told him that I could not speak Swedish, he passed the phone to another officer who spoke English but demanded that I must speak Swedish to him. It was obvious that he could speak English but he refused to continue speaking English to me, putting me at a disadvantage.

He asked me (in English): “How long have you been living in Sweden?” I tried to explain to him that I was very keen on learning Swedish but I had not had any sufficient time and resources due to the nature of my over-stressful PhD work, which was conducted entirely in English. But the Arbetsförmedlingen officer did not seem to understand or did not want to understand, and he blamed me personally:

“It's your responsibility to learn Swedish!” he said.

I proposed that we could hold our conversation in English since he was capable of speaking English. To my surprise, he said (in English), “No, I don't understand your English. I don't speak English. You must speak Swedish. Because you don't speak Swedish, we need an authorised translator of your mother tongue.”

Then he insisted (in English) that he would book another meeting with an authorised translator of my mother tongue. I was required to speak either Swedish or my mother tongue despite the fact that my mother tongue has not been a part of my work life, daily life, and family life for over ten years – since I have been living in English-speaking countries, working in Sweden, and am married to an English-speaking partner.

This bureaucracy, this inflexibility, and insufficiency of public administration, together with its hostility against non-Swedish speakers, shocks me. In a country like Sweden where English is widely spoken, why is it so difficult to accept English as a second working language?

Seen from the cost-and-effect calculation, it is obvious that it would be more costly for the government to hire authorised translators for some far-away mother tongue languages of those who already live in English-speaking countries, obtain a Swedish PhD degree, and speak English.

If language is simply a means of communication between the government and its citizens, could it be wiser to accept English as a second official means of communication and administration so that administrative tasks could run smoothly? In terms of administrative efficiency, could it be more reasonable to accept English when the country at the current moment cannot even provide enough resources for Swedish learning?

At my workplace, for instance, there are also very limited resources and incentives for international researchers to learn Swedish (for instance, we do not get employment prolongation to learn Swedish while all the tasks carried out in English already occupy more than our full-time working hours).

Is the systematic demand on Swedish speaking while not providing enough support and resources an administrative strategy to drive out high-skilled foreigners who do not speak Swedish for some reason?

The conservative, neoliberal, nationalist and xenophobic mindset “In Sweden, we speak Swedish” and threatening proposals from opposition politicians to cut funding and restrict the rights to interpreters do not solve the Swedish problems at their root. The only thing they succeed in is creating a public fear of attack from foreigners and foreign languages, including English.

This reader's story was written by a former PhD researcher in Uppsala currently a permanent resident of Sweden, whose identity is known to The Local but who wished to remain anonymous. Do you have a story you would like to share with The Local about the highs and lows of life in Sweden? Email [email protected]
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