‘I thought to myself: what have I done with my life?’

In this week's My Swedish Career feature, Chen Zijia Pennie from China tells The Local of how she moved to Stockholm to work as a teacher – and ended up learning a lot about herself in the process.

'I thought to myself: what have I done with my life?'
Chen Zijia Pennie from Shanghai. Photo: Private

Chen Zijia Pennie knows all about contrast. She can tell you stories about her first encounter of wild bird song after a lifetime surrounded by concrete, about living for the sake of your own humanity rather than for your career, and about moving to the other side of the world… only to find you feel at home.

The teacher first arrived in Sweden seven years ago to study a masters programme in outdoor environmental education and outdoor life at Linköping University. The central Swedish town proved to be a far cry from the hustle and bustle of her home town of Shanghai, one of the world's biggest cities by population.

For the purposes of comparison: Linköping has just over 150,000 residents. Shanghai some 24 million.

“The university tutors took us out on excursions. I had never slept outside in the forest before and the first time was scary but amazing. And I keep thinking 'it's so beautiful', even today. That Swedish saying is true that there is no bad weather, only bad clothes,” laughs Pennie.

“My teachers were 60 years old and they were so much stronger than I was. I had grown up with concrete, boxes, machines, noise – a completely different environment. I was 23 at the time and I thought to myself: 'what have I done with my life?'”

Chen Zijia Pennie loves the Swedish nature. Photo: Private

But curiously, rather than being frightening and unfamiliar, she says the new experience felt like coming home. So much so that the 30-year-old – who is not afraid of making a leap of faith – has since chosen to surrender her Chinese passport in favour of a Swedish one.

“I always felt I didn't fit in back in China. But it's really weird, you end up feeling confused about your identity. I've tried to adapt to Swedish society, learning the language and so on, so whenever I go back to Shanghai now it's…weird. There's so much stress and noise, and I've become used to the calm in Sweden,” she says.

The teacher still visits her family and friends back in Shanghai twice a year. But the age-old expatriate tale of struggling to understand who you are when you have your feet in two different worlds is always there.

“I became more interested in my own background and got another perspective every time I came back after many years in Sweden and in some ways I'm struggling to find my lost identity especially the language, culture part. I'm still very Chinese in many ways.”

Chen Zijia Pennie has lived in Sweden since 2008. Photo: Private

Sweden's labour market is notoriously difficult for foreigners to break into, with many employers requiring near-perfect Swedish skills – and that is just after you have delved through the mountain of bureaucracy.

It was no different for Pennie. But she is more keen to enjoy the present than to dwell on past obstacles.

“My current employers are very understanding and I appreciate their approach very much. They didn't care as much as others that my Swedish wasn't perfect from the start. But I got better and better at it for each working day,” she says in her now fluent Swedish.

Today, Pennie works with children at a pre-school on Stockholm's Södermalm island. She and her colleagues use the Reggio Emilia approach to teaching, which focuses on helping children explore their individuality through the principles of respect and discovery.

“My employers always think of what is best for the children, which I like. In general, China is completely different to Sweden. There's so much competition and it is hard both for adults and children. Everybody has to be smart. Children are raised as robots. I don't like that,” she says.

“In Sweden there is more focus on equality, gender and social life – you ask 'how can you learn to live as a human?' I think it is important that the children get a good foundation and get to experience things as a human first. The children get to choose for themselves what they want to do with their lives.”

The same applies to adults, she says. And Pennie has made full use of the famous Swedish focus on work-life balance – whether it is learning new snow sports to get her through the long Nordic winter or taking part in artistic dance performances.

And she has no plans to leave her adopted country any time soon.

“I like Sweden very much. I'm proud of it. It's a small country that has a lot of great things with a lot of great people. And everything feels so free here.”

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My Swedish Career: How I became Swedish Lapland’s first local wedding planner

Lisa Tousignant’s Swedish journey began with her taking a teaching job with IES in Stockholm. This month, she launched Arctic Lapland’s first wedding planning company.

My Swedish Career: How I became Swedish Lapland's first local wedding planner

Tousignant’s new company, Arctic Weddings of Lapland, opened for bookings on July 1st, and she is now focusing on arranging weddings for the coming winter season. You can see some images of weddings Tousignant has done on the company’s Instagram account. 

The idea came to her after colleagues she worked with while employed as the wedding coordinator at Icehotel, in Jukkasjärvi outside Kiruna, told her they often got weddings queries from both abroad and within Sweden.

“The photographers and the florist that I work with said they got calls all the time from people wanting to plan  weddings, but who had no idea where to start,” she said. “There’s no one doing destination wedding planning for Swedish Lapland who actually lives here and this area has so much to offer.”

Icehotel, the big international tourist draw in Jukkasjärvi, hosts dozen of weddings each year and Tousignant is set to continue her relationship with the hotel next year by doing wedding day coordinating. She hopes that Arctic Weddings of Lapland can build on the success that Icehotel has had with their customisable packages by offering different options for adventure within the whole region for winter and summer as well.

“I just had all this support from local people encouraging me to do it, because there’s so many options up here for beautiful weddings and adventure elopements. It’s hard to know where to start and how to navigate all the possibilities.” she says “The overwhelming support made me realise I have been building this idea in my heart for so long and wedding planning is what it is.”


A wedding at the Björkliden Mountain resort near Kiruna. Photo: Rebecca Lundh

She wants to what she calls “adventure weddings”. This week she was visiting the Nutti Sámi Siida offices to discuss collaborations. She plans to work with Fjellborg Arctic Journeys, who arrange dogsled trips and have a beautiful lodge camp that could accommodate large wedding parties. With her connection to Tornedalen, she plans to work with Huuva Hideaway, who specialize in Sami food, culture and history, and is also hoping to collaborate on events at Lapland View Lodge and Art Hotel. “i’m going to work my way down Norrbotten from Kiruna to Luleå connecting with all the venues and suppliers, “ she laughs.

 Tousignant’s journey towards being an Arctic wedding planner began 15 years ago when she left what she describes as “a successful career” doing public relations for CBC Television in Canada. 

“It just felt like life was supposed to be more than going back and forth to a job I didn’t love anymore,” she remembers, “I quit…sold all my stuff and went to Central and South America where I worked in hostels and roamed around for nearly two years getting to know myself in my mid-30’s.”

After her two years of travelling, she applied for teacher training college in Canada, got hired by Internationella Engelska Skolan (IES), and moved to their school in Nacka outside Stockholm. She thens taught at IES, and then at Futura Skolan International, for nearly 6 years, before following her sambo Martin Eriksson to the far-North of Sweden. 

“My sambo and I decided to have kids, “ she explains. “Making this decision really pushed him into wanting to change careers and follow his dream of becoming a shoe maker. We really try to support each other in following our dreams, so he moved up to Övertorneå in August while I stayed to complete my teaching contract.”

She moved up to Övertorneå in December, a week before their daughter was born. 
For her, moving to the far North of Sweden felt like coming home. “I immediately loved the North! People up here are chatty and friendly and very open.”
They lived in Övertorneå for almost three years, while Eriksson built up a successful bespoke boot business. But the Covid-19 pandemic reduced custom, and Eriksson took a job in Malmö shooting videos for the local police. But Malmö did not suit them. 
“After living in such a sleepy town, having two kids in the city was overwhelming and everyone missed the snow, so we took the first job opportunities we could in Norrbotten, my sambo [shooting video]for IRF (The Swedish Institute of Space physics) and me for Icehotel,” she says. 

An image from the website of Arctic Weddings of Lapland. Photo: Arctic Weddings of Lapland.