Moving to another part of the world can be exciting! It can also hold some frustration. When you experience a new culture – a good advice is to just take it all in. Try to leave interpretation and judgment behind for a while, until you learn more about the rules, norms and values. It will save you some emotional rides. I know it sounds easier said than done, but from the top of my head I can think of situations where I have felt indignation and later learnt that there was no such intent behind. It was just a matter of cultural difference.
This is not only valid for expatriation but for all encounters with a, to us, new culture.
Another thing that I had put on my list of first impressions moving to Sweden was the mail and parcel service. Abroad I had parcels and boxes delivered to my door, by the mail company. The postman would ring the doorbell, I would open and scribble my signature on some electronic gadget and I would get my stuff. The Kavat shoes for the kids! The handbag that I had had to return since the shop assistant had neglected to remove the alarm device. The DVD player. The contact lenses ordered from Sweden (yes – cheaper than buying on location). Here there is a slip in the mailbox urging me to go to the grocery store to pick it up, or a text message. Few people are at home during the day in Sweden. People can’t open the door to the mailman.
When I moved back “home” I wrote down my first impressions. I have moved and settled quite a few times and I know that sooner or later many of the first impressions will fade away. What you find astonishing, weird, beautiful or just different might become everyday and taken for granted. I’m not saying all of it will, but first impressions are simply not just called first impressions without a reason.
I moved back to the same little town I had once left. It was all familiar yet quite different. I was looking upon the village with different eyes. The very first thing that struck me was how coastal it all looked. Lots of wooden houses in different pale colors, the older ones with gingerbread work. It was a dark winter evening but yet I felt the presence of the sea without actually seeing it – all due to the building style of the houses. Today I don’t see that anymore. But sometimes when I pass a certain house I think about this first impression I had returning from expat life, and try to get the feeling back. It would have been lost without my notes.
Why saving first repatriation impressions?
I am so happy I saved these first images and thoughts. I have even written on top of the paper that I expected to not find any of it peculiar after a while. Some things I can still see why I wrote down, others are a complete surprise to me today. It is really amusing. It is also something to reflect upon; how quickly do we adapt? Do we ever fully integrate and accept things? When repatriating; do we go back to the same values? It is also a reminder of what we found marvelous in the beginning and that we just take for granted by now; a reminder to still appreciate it.
My advice to you is to write things down if you are in a new place or situation. I did the same thing each time I had a baby. I kept a tiny notebook by the bed and tried to scribble down a few lines about the new life. These memories are golden. Save them!
Pls share or comment! I love to hear from you!
If you wonder why I quoted “home” – find out why 😉
A year after repatriation I took an on-line course on creative writing. As an expat I had embarked on the e-learning journey and I enjoyed – and still do – partaking in classes from the comfort of my own home. In the middle of the night. One of the tasks was to write an engaging poem. I had never written such a thing in my life; it´s not really my cup of tea, or at least so I thought. But I knew exactly from where to get the inspiration – the first cold and wet, dark, months back in Sweden. So I wrote. And I cried. The words flowed and at the same time evoked such strong feelings. Apparently in the teacher too. I received high praise. She commented it might be about suicide though – referring to darkness, cold and that it didn’t have to be. Eh … no. Only about the weather. ;/
Being back. A repatriate getting reacquainted with the Swedish winter.
I hated it. Constant rain. Wind. The dark. You couldn´t walk from the house to the car without being soaked. Had it only been snow.
Being a mom you know you might as well throw your umbrella away. There are never any hands left to hold one anyway. Besides, umbrellas doesn´t really work here on the windy west coast where the rain actually comes down sideways.
I was so frustrated I could scream. Thinking of it I most probably did. Once.
It rained to the extent that the front door of our house was ruined. It rained so much I discovered a product called “rain cover for infant car seats”. Great.
I had always said that if we were to move back to Sweden it must not be during the dark and cold season. To me the climate was one of the best things about having expatriated from Sweden. I knew it would be tough moving back, and I had also not forgotten the long, dark winters in Scandinavia – they wouldn’t exactly be helpful. Hence repatriating in the late spring sounded like a plan. Now my dear readers, do you think it worked out? Nope. Mid-December we left to resettle on the Swedish west coast. Yes, you heard me – December. As far as I could possibly get from late spring. December was pretty exciting though – the novelty of being in a “new” place, Christmas with family, old friends. Swedish food, shops. Lights and comfort, no need to spend much time outdoors. But after that … re-entry shock set in, largely due to the worst winter weather I can recall. Ever.
A visual reminder to embrace living in a different climate – it´s a lot easier if you dress accordingly! “There´s no bad weather, only bad clothing” is one of the proverbs we grow up with in Sweden. I know expats who hate this saying, but truth is I guess we need it to survive! 🙂 Swedes are usually outdoorsy people; we need good and proper clothes for snowy, cold, rainy, windy, wet days. The first winter I spent back in Sweden after several years abroad I was constantly freezing. I had a winter jacket, right? The following winter I bought a new winter jacket – a Swedish one! Thick, fluffy and a fake fur lined hood. What a difference it made! I had failed to see the climate from the right cultural perspective.
One of the ladies in my expat network told me it is so easy to spot Swedish people in the alps – it´s the ones with the most appropriate winter wear! And not only in the slopes.
The headaches of an expat can be surprisingly heavy
My head felt heavy as I woke up. For once it wasn´t the tck baby but a throbbing headache that was calling for my attention. Bright light found its way through the a bit uneven blinds in our American apartment, giving away that it was already morning. I felt as if I hadn´t slept at all.
It was really something else that had forced me out of my sleep. The smell. A heavy odor that shouldn´t have been there. It was all over our new expat home. Like sulfur; gas; a bit like rubber. For an instant I was tossed back to Swedish high school where the boys constantly opened the gas taps in chemistry class to upset the girls. Or should I say to impress them, speaking boys’ language.
The apartment was on ground level and raising the blinds I was welcomed by the sight of the lush green foliage outside our master bedroom, and – immediately to the left – the natural gas cabinet. It didn´t take long to make the connection smell and gas leak. Impressively fast, considering the condition my head was in.
I called the natural gas company and explained – a little bit cautious as Swedes tend to, not wanting to be such a hassle in case there was nothing to it. Apparently the smell was not good at all. Someone was to be sent over immediately. “Gas leaks are not to be taken lightly. Right, and that´s why I made the call in the first place.
Before long there was a service minded maintenance worker on the patio. He wore sturdy shoes and had a dark blue overall on, as well as a concerned look. It didn´t take long though before he burst out into laughter.
“Seriously??” he said. ”Have you never ever smelled a skunk before??”
What? No, I hadn´t. His reaction left me feeling relieved yet a bit wronged. There are no skunks in Sweden.
I thanked the highly amused man and made a mental note. My list of new experiences, ever growing from living in another country and being exposed to cultural differences, had been added to. Again.
Share your story! I know there are many situations out there that deserve to be shared! We all have problems and headaches as an expat. Surviving expatriate life is a lot easier if we´re able to laugh at ourselves. And believe me; it´s not as if there’s a lack of situations where things can be misunderstood …
This post has also been published in Swedish, go here if you´d like to read that version and the comments!
Parenting styles can vary from family to family. But there are also differences between countries, or should I say cultures. We appreciate different values, which are likely to impact our upbringing of the children. Sometimes they are easily spotted, sometimes they are not. Concept of time for instance is a good example. Coming from a culture where being on time is considered important and a courtesy, I found it annoying at times as a foreign student working in groups with others that were happily an hour late for study meetings. No surprise that we soon found out that Germans and Swedes worked well together!
As always, awareness of the values and set of rules can lead to a better understanding, and less annoyance; tolerance. In the case of time, I simply learnt to agree on another time with the students I knew would be – in my world – an hour late.
Being a parent or not; moving into a new culture you will be exposed to the impact of cultural differences. As a parent a playground is a perfect location for observation and “study”. It´s fascinating that you often can tell from the parents’ responses to their children’s behavior from which country they are. I have encountered societies where one believes that adults should not interfere when children are “playing”. In the beginning I just assumed they did not care; now I hope they care but still want the kids to solve problems on their own. I have also experienced children being constantly corrected and taught. Swedes are normally somewhere in between these two parenting styles; of course, I would like to add with a touch of irony– after all we are the land of “lagom” (just enough) and “mellan” (in the middle).
There are also differences when it comes to physical punishment (illegal in Sweden) and scolding in public. Some people want other parents to know they are dealing with the matter, and some don´t.
Another, always hot, topic is whether it is considered acceptable for a parent to deal with someone else’s child.
I do believe that the culture you are currently living in influences your parenting. It is a way of fitting in, of accepting the hosting society but also grabbing the good stuff!
It is interesting once you start thinking in terms of cultural parenting. What are the cornerstones of your culture/-s when it comes to raising children? Which are the strengths? Have you added anything from your host culture?
Perhaps you are even a slightly different parent in another location! And by that I am not referring to the newly relocated, stressed and culture shocked parent …