Growing up close to the Mexican border, I inevitably learned the Spanish phrase "puta madre". I tried it once on my mother, to immediate rebuttal. I was told never to use it again. As a child, I didn’t get it. It wasn’t my language, it meant nothing to me.
I was seven and I was living in a town where 75 percent of the residents spoke Spanish. Obviously, that phrase was going to offend quite a few people.
It was only years later, as an adult, living in the great melting pot of New York City that I understood what it meant to show respect in a multicultural society- and how and why not to tread on toes.
Today, Sweden has become the melting pot of cultures that South Texas and other areas have been for years. The parallel is remarkable. And just like me, at seven, being attracted to exotic words in a new language, the Gothenburg owners of A Fucking Awesome Sandwich seem not to have understood the actual gravity of their choice of word.
Multiculturalism isn't easy, which the rise of the Sweden Democrats shows us. There are kinks at every turn. Although I feel sure that the owner doesn’t sees it at this level, or intended to cause offence, the use of "The F Word in “A F***ing Awesome Sandwich” is just another obvious kink in this cultural mashup.
"The F word” offends many immigrants, who have known its explosive character since childhood. It also upset the native Swedes who have learned that it is offensive to a great many people. The Swedes that get it have been taught, as my mother taught me about “puta madre”, that the word is offensive. Not to everyone, but to a great deal of people.
Few immigrants to Sweden that I know would take the worst profanities in the Swedish language and bandy them about as though they were a cute joke. So why is it OK for native Swedes to take a profanity from English – lingua franca to many immigrants not only Americans, Indians, many Africans, and Brits – and throw it about as though it means nothing? There is an “elephant in the room” in Sweden that is about to roar.
That elephant is what I perceive to be a lack of respect for immigrants. Swedes expect immigrants to adapt and learn, to pay respect to the Swedish culture, which they do daily, but do Swedes also adapt and learn what a multicultural society demands of them in terms of respect?
With the sandwich shop owner 's use of this phrase, I see no apparent effort to return the respect. I get that personal insult feeling that many immigrants get from a Swedish native. “We know you are there, but we don’t really care.” Again, I reiterate, I speak not of the owner's intentions, but of the effect of his choice as I see it.
The kinks in the Swedes growth into a multicultural society continue.
The shop owner’s use of that phrase sends a message: “We do not care if this is offensive to you or to your children. The loss of your patronage won’t really dent our profit, so why would we care about you?"
If Sweden wants to be the fabulous multicultural society that many now claim it to be, people have to realize that respect works both ways.
Karen Rowland is an American designer married to a Swede. Her family until recently lived in Gothenburg, where Rowland was active in a network for American expat women.