"Meanwhile, I was also juggling all sorts of other perplexing life tasks. Swedes generously offered to help, but I quickly realized that this wasn’t the role I wanted them to play in my life. I wanted them to be my friends — not language translators or life administrators."
I grew up heavily influenced by Swedish culture, so it wasn’t happenstance that I eventually found myself moving to Sweden.
Over 1.3 million Swedes emigrated to the U.S. at the turn of the century, and by far the most (upwards of 900,000) emigrated to my home state of Minnesota.
Today, Minnesotans continue to delight in their Scandinavian heritage—they compete in kubb tournaments, ski the Vasaloppet through the town of Mora (the sister city to Mora, Sweden), and cheer on our local football team, the Vikings, where fans sing “skål!” when the team scores. There are midsummer celebrations hosted every year and kids can even attend Swedish language summer camps. Minnesotans are also known for social mannerisms that are often attributed to Swedes, such as polite friendliness as well as aversion to conflict and confrontation.
Most Minnesotans do not go so far as to reverse emigrate to their country of ancestral origin though. But I grew up with a very persuasive unofficial ambassador for Sweden: my grandmother. Through my beloved “mormor,” I inherited not only many generations of Swedish ancestry but also a genuine appreciation for Swedish culture. She and my grandfather traveled to Sweden regularly to spend time with her relatives and “the Swedes” came to visit us in the States too.
There was another significant influence drawing me closer to Sweden: Gustavus Adolphus College, a college founded by Swedish-American immigrants. During my time as a student, I traveled to Sweden multiple times through study abroad programs, research grants, and internships. A few years after I graduated, a former Gustavus professor forwarded me a scholarship through the Swedish American Chamber of Commerce for a Master's program and internship placement at a Swedish company. I applied straight away and several months later, I moved to Sweden.
I’d like to say that all those years surrounded by what I thought was “Swedish culture” in Minnesota, paired with my many visits to Sweden, prepared me to move here. But that was not the case. In fact, I was thoroughly culture shocked and bewildered by my own naivete in how difficult it was to adjust to living here.
Despite this bumpy landing, I was enamored by many aspects of Swedish life. I wanted to keep the door open to living in Sweden beyond my two-year Master’s program, but I understood the challenges in navigating the job market. I tried to do everything I could to improve my odds. This meant in addition to my studies, I completed two internships, signed up for mentoring programs and networked as much as possible. I also enrolled in an advanced language course where I spent 20 hours/week learning Swedish.
Meanwhile, I was also juggling all sorts of other perplexing life tasks. Swedes generously offered to help, but I quickly realized that this wasn’t the role I wanted them to play in my life. I wanted them to be my friends — not language translators or life administrators. I didn’t want to spend a Friday night with my new friends asking questions about how to book a doctor’s appointment or reading through Försäkringskassan registration forms. Plus, I discovered that most of my Swedish friends actually couldn’t help me, even when they wanted to. How do you register for a "personnummer" when you have had one since you were born?
This is where I found the International Citizens Hub Lund to be such a helpful resource. Any forum to meet and connect with other internationals who have already walked this path, or who are currently on the same journey, is incredibly beneficial. But I especially appreciated the webinars they offer with practical information for day-to-day life in Sweden. What are the steps involved in buying a home? Do I qualify for a driver’s license and if so, how do I get one? How does the pension system work?
As a new-comer to Sweden, it can feel as though everything you knew about how to live, and who to be, doesn’t apply in this new context. You have no choice but to become the protagonist in your life. That can be daunting. But as often as I felt lost and confused, I have also found this experience to be thrilling and empowering. You never have to wonder, “Am I brave? Do I have it in me to take a risk? Can I take a leap of faith?” Because the answer is already yes. You have already done it. Better yet, you also now have the wisdom and courage to guide you through future challenges… and maybe even jump off a new cliff into another unknown.
… just kidding. Maybe not quite yet! Or at the very least, have a coffee and enjoy a cinnamon bun first.
/ Elizabeth Johnson