Feeling like a foreigner at home – the strange nature of dual nationality

The Local Sweden
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Feeling like a foreigner at home – the strange nature of dual nationality
A stranger here, a stranger there? Photo: JonatanStålhös/

What's it like to be a stranger in your own country? Freelance writer Caroline Adolfsson interviews four Swedish nationals who didn't grow up in Sweden.


Swedes born abroad, or those with citizenship rights or maybe even dual citizens, are a specific subset of the migrant population here in Sweden.

As a dual citizen myself, American/Swedish, I can personally attest to the weird bureaucratic and personal challenges of migrating to a country you're already a citizen of. For example, I paid almost $200 for my passport from the Swedish embassy in New York City, only to arrive in Sweden and realize it had been issued with my non-registered tax ID number and not my personal number. The passport was invalid upon my arrival in Sweden and I had to pay to get a new one.

Conversely, it's been amazing to see that people actually know how to spell my last name (Adolfsson) but annoying to explain that I don't speak Swedish since I didn't grow up with my Swedish parent!

I spoke to four other Swedes who had similar migration paths; persons whose histories weave them in and out of the country they have heritage to and in which they currently now reside. Mixed identity, language barriers, and social interactions were the three of the biggest topics.

Caroline Adolfsson interviewed people who, like her, have one foot in one country and one in another. Photo: Private

Emily, 28, grew up in the United States of America

Well, in many ways the transition was seamless, in the logistical sense, because I was blessed with a personal number! It was more the social barriers for me that were the biggest shock of all.

I spent a lot of time in Sweden during the summers when I was growing up visiting my grandparents and childhood friends. So, the picture I had of Sweden was sunny, warm, filled with people who I had long standing relationships with. Now that I live and work here full time, I realize that the social aspects are much different. You really have to start over. Making friends as an adult is hard but I feel like in Sweden it's especially challenging. I find that here you need a specific reason to hang out with people. It's weird to hint at wanting to hang out just to hang out.

Luckily since I started working, I've been forced to get over this uncomfortable feeling when speaking but I speak pretty fluent conversational Swedish and I have a pretty good dialect so in the first two minutes you wouldn't exactly know, but then after a few minutes you'll notice that my vocabulary is limited, that I conjugate things incorrectly, I use -en or -ett incorrectly, and then they look at you like "are you stupid or something?" This is all because I don't sound like I have an American accent when I speak Swedish so I have to go through this whole awkward explanation. I'll say "yeah I am half Swedish, I've lived in Sweden for two and half years", and the moment you do that, they'll switch to English. 

Because I only spoke to my grandparents, who used a bunch of old words and phrases that no one really uses any more, I kind of speak like an old lady. But, I've recently been managing a team of 60 teenagers. So since I've had this job, I've been getting hip with the Swedish slang!

Emily from the US. Photo: Private

Edgar, 25, has moved between Egypt, America, Jordan and Sweden

I can break it down for you: I was born in Sweden, then a few months later we (my mum, my dad and I) moved to Cairo, Egypt, because of her job as a correspondent. We lived there for five years and then moved to Washington DC – also because of my mum's job. Five years later we returned to Sweden for a three-year period, and then when I was 13 we moved to Jordan, where I graduated high school. That same autumn I moved back to Sweden for studies in Lund. Now I'm living in Stockholm.

Identity is different when you're younger. I felt Swedish in the sense that I spoke the language, had family there, and was introduced to Swedish pop culture by my parents – albeit from the 70s. Definitely did not feel like a migrant, because that's one of the first realizations I had when I came back: that there is a clear separation between those who are considered 'Swedish' and those considered 'immigrants'. However, returning when I was older was different. I couldn't understand this new form of hospitality – I'd like to say Swedes are hospitable but in their own, subtle way. Arabs go all out, and never let go of a chance to invite people over to their place and organize things, offer to pay for things. Swedes are quite different – I was lonely at first.

Edgar has lived in Egypt, the US, Jordan and Sweden. Photo: Private

Alex, 30, born in the US with Swedish citizenship

I was born in America and had Swedish citizenship since birth. We then moved back to Sweden when I was one and returned to the States when I was six. We moved again to Sweden when I was 16, and I've been here ever since.

I was really excited to move back to Sweden [when I was 16], to move back to a place that was part of my culture, but I think my expectations were too high and weren't met. We moved to a small town where everyone already knew each other and it was really hard to make friends. And out of all the friends I eventually did make, only one was 'Swedish' and the rest were Czechian, Bosian, Albanian, Serbian… It was like I couldn't get to know people because I didn't know people – I couldn't get invited to parties because I didn't know anyone and I didn't know anyone because I wasn't getting invited to any parties.

I guess I've been able to filter out what I like about each culture and merge them into my personality. I think I never feel what I am culturally, where I am physically. I feel Swedish in America and American in Sweden. Even though I recognize things, I don't feel like I'm American really any more when I go back to the States.

Alex feels Swedish in the US and American in Sweden. Photo: Private

Imran, 20, grew up in Tanzania with a Swedish father

I lived in Tanzania until I was 16 and then I moved to Sweden for high school.

Schooling is really different in Sweden. I was always studying in English back at home because I went to an international school. But in Sweden, I studied in Swedish. It's tough because my Swedish just isn't at university level yet even though I spoke Swedish with my father growing up. My father, who is Swedish, wanted my siblings and I to go to Sweden for our high education. So my old sisters went to Swedish school and my parents even fixed a tutor for us. They gave us the basics but I guess it wasn't enough for university studies. People sometimes think that I'm from Stockholm because I have my father's accent plus the slang that I use and then I have to explain.

Owning a jacket was a big thing for me, I had never owned a jacket before I lived here. Because before this, the maximum I had to have was a hoodie. I realize that it's something I should have accepted by now but it's still something I complain about.

I'm still trying to figure out who I am because I'm still pretty young. Here, I don't feel Swedish. I tell people here that I'm Tanzanian but then when I'm in Tanzania, I don't feel Tanzanian either and I'm more Swedish. So it's more of a mix and match, I have the option to choose at least. I refer to Tanzania as home. It's an internal thing where you have to think about who you are and who you want to be, I guess. I'm still trying to figure it out, if I'm Swedish or not Swedish… I guess I'm both, It's already been decided for me, I guess I don't have a choice. Like being a dual citizen, I've always been one up until recently. In Sweden you can have two passports but in Tanzania you can't, so I had to give up my Tanzanian citizenship at 18.  So technically I'm no longer Tanzanian which is weird. Now when i go back I have to get a visa, no residence permits, it makes me feel like a tourist when I go back home.

Imran has had to give up his Tanzanian citizenship. Photo: Private

Caroline Adolfsson is a research assistant at Malmö University and freelance writer.


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