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'Do expat friends make it harder to integrate?'

12 Mar 2013, 13:05

Published: 12 Mar 2013 13:05 GMT+01:00

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In the years before I moved to Sweden, I tried hard to be a good traveller. I wanted to really explore the places I visited, immerse myself in other cultures.

So when I did my study abroad in Spain back in college, I did not seek out other Americans, nor did I really miss the connection with American culture. It was nothing personal; there were, no doubt, plenty of other interesting college students on my programme. But, as I saw it, I hadn’t flown all the way across the Atlantic to meet more Americans.

SEE ALSO: Ten sure-fire ways to bug your Swedish friends

I was there to learn Spanish and immerse myself in everything Spain. I was there for the bullfights and sherry tastings, not complaining about why Spain was so...well, unlike the US. At least, that was my rationale.

Fast-forward a few years...or a little more than a few. I am now, once again, living across the Atlantic, but I am no longer avoiding Americans. In fact, the few Americans I know are my closest friends here.

There’s part of me that’s embarrassed to admit this. I want to integrate, and I believe that friendships are an important part of understanding (and enjoying) a society. But another part of me depends on these friends as a kind of anchor in my new and sometimes confusing cultural explorations.

Part of it has to do with language. I do speak comfortable Swedish with family, colleagues and friends. However, I can’t always convey the subtleties of the language, the right amount of empathy or humour that I can in my native language. There are times when I feel that important parts of my personality are missing from my interactions in Swedish, and sometimes I wonder if I’ll ever feel completely myself speaking Swedish.

And then there are the mistakes.

Like the time, at the dinner table with my in-laws, when I wanted more cucumbers. How many? I answered, "Jag vill ha sex, tack," which I assumed meant, "I would like six, please."

Actually, it means, "I want to have sex, please," my husband later clarified, between snorts of laughter.

My in-laws, my husband later reported, had tried to hide their laughter. Did they feel sorry for me? Did the distance between us widen at that moment? Not that I'm above English flubs and faux pas, but in my native language I’ve certainly never told people I’m hoping to impress that I want to have sex.

SEE ALSO: Ten more Swedish words you won’t find in English

Of course, my Spanish was not flawless either. I started out my stay with a host family on the wrong foot when I was asked how I liked my dormatorio, which I translated as my (college) dormitory and described as cramped, dirty and smelly. It was only after an uncomfortable pause and some badly-phrased questions from my side that I realized that they were, in fact, asking about the room they so kindly were letting me stay in.

But back then, somehow (after they finally understood what I had meant), that kind of thing just didn’t affect me in the same way.

And I don’t think it’s just the language differences that make my North American friends so important.

My sister, now a dual Australian-American citizen happily living in Sydney, also gets together with American friends frequently to talk about cultural differences and aspects of the US they miss, despite the fact that she can express herself with her Australian counterparts much more seamlessly.

I suspect many expats keep this lifeline to their home countries, whether they are Brazilians living in Bali or Spaniards living in Sweden.

But there’s something about relying on friendships from my home country that makes me feel like I'm not being a "good" immigrant. Have I, in my older age, become more closed-minded, less adventurous? Less open to embracing everything Sweden has to offer?

Or have the circumstances changed?

One semester in Spain, with return flight purchased, is much different than an indefinite move to Sweden. I could do just about anything for a semester. But for the rest of my life?

And then there’s the kids. On one hand, kids are a great equalizer, amazingly consistent worldwide for evoking just about every possible emotion from their parents—both good and bad. But for some things, I need cultural support—like doesn’t candy once a week seem like an awful lot? Does Halloween have to be scary and gory, even for my preschooler? And isn’t football practice for eight-year-olds supposed to happen after school, not after dinner?

SEE ALSO: Are Swedes really all blondes and Vikings?

Or maybe I’ve just had more experiences since Spain, and with these experiences comes the ability to better reflect on what will make me happy.

As a student, I was looking for something different in my relationships. I was exotic, a real American like they saw on TV, and my new friends were exotic, real Spaniards that I had learned about in my classes.

But now, if I'm going to make it for the long haul, I don’t really want to feel exotic. I don’t want every aspect of me to be interpreted through the lens of being from the United States. But there are times when that turns out to be an almost insurmountable hurdle.

And I don’t think I'm the only one.

Story continues below…

Just this last weekend, when my Canadian friend had fixed dinner—including baking bread—for their (Swedish) guests, she got this response: "What a great housewife you are! No wonder you only have time to work part time."

Although this comment was most likely meant as a compliment, my friend found it irritating. Would her guest have made the same comment—called her the "h-word"—if my friend were Swedish?

"No way," my friend answered.

"I just would have been ‘matintresserad.’" Even after seven years of friendship with this family, her one, glaring characteristic is that she’s Canadian—this despite the fact that she’s lived almost half her life outside of Canada.

I do, of course, have Swedish friends, and these are friendships I also value. But my statistics aren’t great: when my husband and I listed eight families we’re inviting for dinner in the next couple months, half of them had a North American in the family.

So I have to ask myself, am I closing myself off from Sweden by creating a mini expat support system, or am I doing what it takes to carve out a comfortable, happy life in my new home?

It’s a question I need to ask because these friendships play a role in nurturing—or hindering—my journey toward feeling Swedish.

Rebecca Ahlfeldt is an American ex-pat writer, translator and editor currently based in Stockholm. Follow Rebecca on Twitter here

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Your comments about this article

14:28 March 12, 2013 by Issybelle
I know exactly what you mean about the language. I live in the States and the last time I had a chance to have an extended conversation in Swedish was in September. 2 hours straight talking in Swedish...I always feel the sentiments conveyed are too simple and that I would rather use more descriptive words. The temptation to switch into English is often there, and when I ask for a translation of a descriptive English adjective and the Swedish response is "bra" it can be frustrating. I am not sure if feeling otherwise is possible...it may not be a matter of becoming proficient, but rather the effect of having a much larger and very descriptive native language and learning one that is prized for its efficiency.
15:29 March 12, 2013 by JulieLou40
Finally, a decent written article from this lady, with proper paragraphs, and not simply a load of single sentences. credit where it's due.

I am much the same-most of my friends here are expats. I hate to say it, but I think it's down to the fact that swedish people can be so insular and shy. it takes an awful lot to break through the exterior. Whereas Americans or Australians or Spanish, or whatever, are much more outgoing and receptive to new people.
16:15 March 12, 2013 by Rishonim
It depends. I find it easy to integrate and even have a proper discussion with Swedes regarding pretty much anything. Yet, if I wish to take the conversation a bit deeper, like the superconductor super collider, Maldelbrot parallel universe or Descartes doubt of existence, then I have to place lost of mirrors and look into them ;-)
17:01 March 12, 2013 by skogsbo
comical - if you barely work in Sweden, all your social life revolves around wingeing to other expats about kid related stuff, you write generally inaccurate moany articles about life in Sweden, then you wonder why your social life is void of any Swedes?

Perhaps if you worked, spoke Swedish, joined Swedish clubs and societies that you have a common interest in, mixed with Swedish parents, not just expats etc. then your social life will have lots of Swedes? I can understand folk giving you a wide berth for fear of being featured in another article, but I agree with JulieLou it's good that you've moved on from bullet points to paragraphs, only the content to work on now.

I wonder how many immigrant friends the moaning immigrants had in their homeland, when they lived there? I expect the 'i don't need to work' expats and immigrants wives, daytime social club doesn't have many Swedes on it, or probably non-English speakers, so the authors opinion can't be a suprise.

Ditch your support group of fellow moaners, join some Swedish groups, report back in 12mths.
17:28 March 12, 2013 by cthulhus_chosen
I agree with skogsbo, but maybe not so harshly.

Work is the best place to find friends and learn Swedish. I don't have any ex-pat friends. I've worked with many at IES where I spoke mostly English, but now I'm working at a municipal school and find that I speak Swedish 99% with colleagues.

Getting a hobby-group is also good whether it's a board game group, choir, orchestra, floorball, etc.. You'll soon find yourself understanding Swedish and Swedes much better. I do complain that all activities are "late" (for a parent of elementary school kids) in the evening during work days. Afternoon or weekend activities would be nice, but that seems to go against the Swedish way.
17:54 March 12, 2013 by skogsbo
not harsh, but if I spent all my time drinking coffee with people from Jupiter, complaining about kids groups with other parents from Jupiter, spoke mainly jupitish, invited mainly jupitarian people to dinner... how can you wake up one day and moan you don't know or intergrate with anyone from Saturn. Perhaps it's me that is missing something?
19:00 March 12, 2013 by StockholmSam
As others have noted, it is about damn time you used proper structure in an article. I refused to read your other articles with the one-line paragraphs.

Simple answer is yes, the more you interact with your expat network, the more opportunities you sacrifice to integrate. But we all need our expat friends to keep that little bit of home close. The danger is putting too much faith in their opinions of the Swedish experience and letting that cloud our judgment. Just get out there and experience it and then judge for yourself. But don't expect to get the real Swedish experience in your No. 1 Mothers' Detective Agency.
20:35 March 12, 2013 by jackityjack
So, how does one ask for six then?
22:39 March 12, 2013 by jman01
I've only been here 2 months ... leaving behind a successful career, with a nice retirement pension in 13 years. I'm already feeling pretty lonely as an American trying to get work and learn the language. My Sambo is great, but this is harder than I ever imagined it would be. I have a Master's in an IT related field, but not quite the right background experience to fit it. I have a meeting with an expat group in a few days .... Altho they aren't all Americans, it does feel like I've already stepped away from proper integration.
07:13 March 13, 2013 by Phillynilly
Dont worry jman01. My advice is to travel in Europe a lot. Make the use of Sweden as a launchpad to the rest of what Europe has to offer. Sweden is as it is. You will never change it...For your own sanity you will need to leave and visit other places on a regular basis. As Swedes themselves do.....
09:21 March 13, 2013 by Max Reaver
I don't think it's the right mindset to classify yourself as "good" or "bad" immigrants based on how many Swedish friends you have. You hang out with people because you like to be with them, not because you want to be seen being with them for extra credit. If you put "integration" as the sole motivator to meet Swedes, that makes you needy and you are off track from the beginning.

As for integration, I speak fluent Swedish, I know the politics, culture and history of Sweden, I can talk about almost anything in Sweden in Swedish. I do have loyal, long-lasting Swedish friends. Have I integrated? In some sense, maybe, but then I still feel ousted at times. Also you just can't talk with every Swede out there. In my spare time I hanged out a lot with two groups of ppl, one is a Swedish choir, the other bunch consists of Swedes who have been expats in other countries. The choir ppl are more down-to-earth, they always party, drink a lot and live in their own little worlds, while the former expats like to discuss more open-world topics. I do enjoy hanging out with both, although I find the former expats easier to connect to. Anyway, it's better to be yourself and don't make friends based on others' ethnicity.
09:46 March 13, 2013 by kishember
In a way it is easier to be a native English-speaker, though I found Swedes spoke better English than I could speak Swedish, so it took longer for me to develop my Swedish enough to be able to speak it with Swedes.

So at first I made friends with mostly other expats. Later it changed as I became more fluent, but arriving in Sweden in my early 30s my Swedish never became perfect. It also depends on what work you do. As an academic mostly I wrote in English, having text translated as my knowledge of Swedish improved.
10:59 March 13, 2013 by Elssie
I think this is a very common concern. I have a few thoughts. One, and this I have run into on every move I've ever made, is that people already have friends. Wherever I move to, most adults already have a full set of friends, family, coworkers, etc. and it's hard to get in. Most adults just aren't worried about making new friends. Also, language is definitely part of the equation. If you don't speak Swedish you go to SFI or somewhere similar. No Swedes there. I can't get a job because I don't speak enough Swedish so I have to stay home. No Swedes there either. So I rely on other expats for company and feel guilty that I have no Swedish friends. So, I have decided that I am integrating as best I know how into my new life. Not necessarily into Swedish life in general but into my Swedish life. I spend time with people who have time for me, with whom I have things in common and whom I enjoy. That's the best I can do. Swedes and all others may apply.
12:52 March 13, 2013 by JulieLou40
I agree wholeheartedly with Elssie. I have no job, and so of course, am home an awful lot by myself. Only thing is, I have a Swedish sambo-but he's too damn lazy to speak Swedish to me, and have to correct/explain things. So he speaks English! (Don't get me started on that...)
14:11 March 13, 2013 by Svensksmith
Don't overthink it. Just enjoy the experience.
18:57 March 13, 2013 by bcn86
why do you worry? no imigrant will ever be accepted in sweden. in here you will live with the etiquet in your forhead of: foreing! and don't worry that's in all of europe... no matter how long you live here, how adapted you are, you will always be a migrant. I have been living here for 3 years and i find this culture so borring and lame. they are so tight up their ass all the time. they have to be so political correct. the only time i have fun with swedes is when they are drunk, besides that... i will be a bad imigrant but at least i won't be a borring swede! and if anyone has a problem they can shove it!
19:29 March 13, 2013 by w_t_f
first of all why everyone saying positive things are from west side of the world ...why i cannot see anyone from east side. That s because Swedes judge you immediately if you come from east side. If you are from other side you are so lame....get over it fellas...:D I do not think they give the same chances to eastern ones.
20:41 March 13, 2013 by Justin O'Pinion
I agree with most of what the author has to say. However...

You can say the United States, I'll even accept THE Donald (Trump). However, for the love of god, not THE Canada!

As someone who writes for a living and who grew up just across the world's longest undefended border in the United States, the author should know better.

The end
21:57 March 13, 2013 by Migga

Well you sure seem like a nice person. I have a problem with you spouting nonsense on here saying that a nations culture us boring or lame and that it`s people are "so thight up their ass" (?). It really makes you come of as a hatefull and bitter person. You won`t only be a bad immigrant, you will be a bad person aswell.
17:45 March 14, 2013 by oldscot1
I have some sympathy with this article. The main problem with Swedish as a language, is a shortage of words. Where does "please" occur? I have told jokes translated from English, and one time a guy said " that does not work in Swedish".

So, for some one with a literary bent, a la Clive James, it is probably very hard.

I give an example to brighten things up.

I recently bought a new camper van. A friend asked if it had an awning. No i said, ingen aning! Why is it only English speakers find this funny?

However , my main friends here are Swedish. och jag prater inte svenska!
13:49 March 15, 2013 by ru_kazemi
I'm a graduated student of cultural studies, and I am really happy and sad at the same time that I came to Sweden. Here I learned for a fact that language and culture are "two faces of a coin" and they are inseparable!

To be honest, I haven't been able to "assimilate" into the Swedish society after already living here for four years, but I have been more than happy to "integrate" into this society by participating in different activities and exploring this culture while keeping my own cultural identity in the background.

I see myself as a hybrid identity now, after having studied here during these years, I have come to the conclusion that I may go back home, where it really feels home, so I wouldn't have to be forced to learn another language, through which I am also forced to receive pre-packed Swedish culture. Because if I wouldn't, they would easily ask me to why I don't "go back home" and every time I hear that in any context, I feel belittled and degraded especially when looking for jobs that barely require language skills.

I feel you and I hope you'll find your way to go around this frustration :)
15:06 March 15, 2013 by cogito
"if I spent all my time drinking coffee with people from Jupiter, complaining about kids groups with other parents from Jupiter, spoke mainly jupitish...(#6)

@skogsbo, It is Swedes who live on another planet.

As the writer experienced, is not only easier but also more fun to have conversation with Spaniards, as well as with the French, Americans, Italians and Irish.

On Planet Sweden, trying to make conversation is a sisyphean task. Pushing that (conversational) rock up a mountain is unrewarding and excruciatingly boring work .

Commication has little to do with how well you know a language.

Communication is about shared cultural references, a sense of humor and interest in or curiosity about your fellow human beings.
15:57 March 15, 2013 by castor-Beaver
The lady protests too much... I was born in Central Europe, then immigrated to France, then the US and then Canada. In each case, the change was permanent. My mother used to say - don't feel bad about leaving your friends here, you will find new ones in your new country.

As long as you keep on comparing and criticizing, you will not be accepted. This works for new arrivals in any country.

As time goes by, you will find yourself feel more and more at home in your new country. You may even find that some of your former compatriots are sort of weird.

When using pen and paper, I still do my divisions the way I learned to do them in France. For the same reason, I cross my sevens.

I am a retired translator - accustomed to building bridges. Your paper (and column) should really be about building bridges, not pointing out the differences in bridge architecture, or that one kind of cement is better than another.
17:06 March 15, 2013 by LKenna
Okay. A day later and a dollar short. I don't read this site often because I'm an American living in America with no ties to Sweden but I read a lot of foreign papers.

Point being, I feel the same feelings you feel living in another country, living in America as an American. The people who are my friends are people who've grown up experiencing stuff similar to me that we can relate over. It's not a shocker that you don't relate to another culture on a personal level. Culture is subtle it's not just the language or what they do physically differently. It's the emotions that are deemed acceptable, it's the general tolerance of some things and intolerance of other things that you never even considered before. This happens with age, location, skin color, language. And this happens rather you're in another country or you're in another state. So I don't think you should try to force yourself to immerse yourself into another culture that isn't yours. You should accept it, respect it, but don't try to become something your not. If you really like your friends, it's for a reason. Even the Swedish ones.
19:39 March 15, 2013 by zeulf
Hej Rebecca, Nice Article and Photo . But "Do Expat Friends make it harder to integrate?" Well i guess so , but so does being born in the North or Scane or...

I doubt You or anyone will ever forget their Homeland, why should they

I suspect you are doing just fine , enjoy ARK
10:45 March 18, 2013 by Terry Siederer
I've been an ABF-er (Another Bloody Foreigner - joke) most of my life, not just in Sweden. My tips:

Make friends with those Swedes who like you, enjoying mixing English and Swedish. Everyone gets the best of both worlds and so what, as long as you enjoy the company.

Join ex-pat clubs, make friends with those you normally wouldn't be friends with back home but take all whinges about the new host country with a pinch of salt. It's natural to point out the differences but some ex-pats do whinge a lot.

Be prepared to explain our love for irony, sarcasm and double meanings. Have some sympathy with those who are not native English speakers, stackars dem.
11:26 March 19, 2013 by scandiland
I've been a foreigner in Britain for a long time and I will always be regarded as Swedish, even though I have integrated well here. But, IMO, what's wrong with that, I AM Swedish and always will be. It works best for me to have both Swedish friends (mostly on the internet) and local friends here. Some locals here are curious about Sweden and I'm an "expert" by virtue of my nationality. Here they think Sweden is exotic!

But it is a strange feeling to have one foot in each country. It's as if you're an outsider in both countries.

For some reason I bonded with the UK better when I took up walking. I fell in love with the country when I was outside, enjoyed the seasons, the views, the air, the sky. I also took up riding here and to my surprise I loved it. Then I joined a choir and loved that, too (I had never sung in a choir before). So, the old advise "join a club" has been a good thing. You just have to be brave when you go to the first meeting...
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