Immigrants, newcomers, … it’s a sensitive topic. As you might or might not know, I am originally from Belgium but moved to Sweden. As a foreigner myself, I got to know many fellow migrants from all over the world. Some had to flee war or injustice, some followed love, others found a cool job or liked to raise their children in a different way. I also met people who want to earn better money to sent home to their family. There are so many reasons why people migrate. They always have done so and always will. And I’m glad for it.
Still, I mostly try to avoid the topic as most people who start this type of conversations are just the complaining type looking for everyone else to blame for their pains. I even hear it from our Swedish teacher who thought that we didn’t have to pay as much taxes (on food for example) as she did. Huh? Immigrant come in all colors and shapes, but we have one thing in common: we live in a place where we weren’t born.
However, with some conversations that I picked up recently, I realized that I might be feeding the irritation against immigrants with how I live my life, but apparently I have one thing to clear me from most of the charges: I am pale/white/pink. Whatever. I look like them, they say at first glance. Until I do something they don’t like- oh the irony.
“They don’t have the same moral values!”- I read and hear it everywhere but when you ask to state clearly about what values they are talking you won’t get a clear answer. The closest I got was: “A real Flemish person knows!” So I guess that indeed, at this point I might not share the overall values of my home country nor the place I was born and raised.
So what else could I extract from the rambling hate?
1. “They speak another language on the bus. If they live here, they have to speak our language.”
Oh really? Which of the 3 official languages do you mean? Why? If I go to the shop, take a bus or go out with my partner, friends who have the same native language or family that visits me, I will just speak my own language. First of all because if you’re constantly trying to come up with words, putting in a lot of effort to understand and studying daily for a new language it’s a fucking relief to hear, read or speak the language that you know best. And yes I study Swedish daily and weekly meet up with our Swedish teacher, but it takes time to understand and to speak in a way that makes sense. Let alone feel comfortable with it. The language you know best is also the one that makes you able to define the most specifics about feelings, wishes, dreams, plans and even daily routine. Why would I try and speak any other language with my partner? We would not understand each other, get frustrated for not getting the message through and we would teach ourselves mistakes.
We don’t have children but if I would, I would teach them our native language. First of all for the love of my language, secondly to make them a part of their history both as immigrants as well of their personal family history. How rude would it be to shut them off from my family and friend, their history, the ability to talk to their grandparents or my friends?
Language is much more than communication. It’s part of our identity, our past, memory, and dreams. It’s the words we heard our grandmother sing by our bed or the first love letter we received.
At the same time, it’s also just a local variety of sounds we produce to make ourselves clear. When I speak Flemish in a shop, it’s because it comes naturally to me. Not because I am anti-Sweden. I even noticed that when I feel very comfortable around some people, I start to talk to them in Flemish- when I don’t think about language.
If that makes me an example of a bad immigrant, I’m ok with that. I value where I come from and I value the journey I’m on. I will not deny my origin. I love my native language and I will cherish it.
2. “They dress weird/different/…”
The biggest change that I made to my wardrobe was buying new socks. First of all, I needed more warm socks because of the weather obviously. And I bought some clean, nice socks without holes – because in Sweden you take your shoes off when entering someones home or sometimes even in other places. That was new to me- and if you’re not prepared it can be an embarrassing situation.
But that’s about it. And you might think that fashion between Sweden and Belgium isn’t that different and you might be right when you compare jeans and shirt with a shari, but I do get some confused looks now and then.
In Belgium, it’s more or less the habit/rule to put on something decent to go to a shop. Here I will blend in with sweatpants or ski pants, but I get blank stares or curious looks when I put on a longer coat, formal shoes or a hat.
When I go to the gym, I’m the only person not wearing bold colored (headache) tights. And I also train with shoes on, not just in socks- unless going barefoot to yoga. I also prefer sportswear while a lot of women work out in outfits smaller than my underwear.
I don’t consider my clothing very stylish or special but it turns out that my clothes look a bit different than what most people wear in our village. But tell me, why should I wear those ugly plastic shoes? Or pants that I don’t like? Or go to the gym with a lot of makeup and perfume if it’s not my thing? (I think my face would fall off in down dog)
Why should I spend money on changing my looks to blend in, like what I have and overconsumption is already terrorizing the world already?
So, oh, you just think everyone in the world should start wearing mass consumption clothes made by underpaid children because this style fits our values?
3. “They should adopt our way of values to be respectful.”
This is a difficult one. I know that not every country in the world accepts the human rights, women’s rights, gay rights, … so of course, that is part of the social contract we apply to when living in Europe. There is however a big difference between moral and ethical values and habits/ cultural norms and taboos. And I noticed that often it’s not about the big ideas but rather those stupid unwritten rules. I never heard someone complain about their neighbors not agreeing with article 10 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. No, it will rather go on superficial small habits and cultural uses.
When I was invited by a Swedish family, I asked them:” Should I take my shoes off?” A very normal question of politeness in a Belgian setting but apparently a rude one to ask in Sweden. (I only found out months later by reading a critical book on Scandinavian -unwritten-culture, and habits.)
Another thing that is very Scandinavian is being lagom (not too much, not too little) and blending in, never standing out. Being average is the norm. The idea behind this is equality. At all costs.
I wasn’t born in Scandinavia and grew up in another part of the world where the Law of Jante wasn’t so active. I am a strong believer of ‘practice makes perfect’, not to reach the level of perfection, but to challenge yourself to learn new skills, to have a broad view, to use your skills to serve others. Change comes with walking your talk. With having a point of view, with learning and adapting and actually criticizing the things that are not right. Change takes courage, determination, failing and standing up again.
I was once told: “You have to act more Swedish.” At that point, I was here for 1,5months of which I lived in a van for 3 weeks waiting for the key to my house. And I have to admit, I have no intentions to be Swedish (and comments like that don’t make me want to). The main reason is that I’m simply not Swedish, secondly, I am who I am and I value the place where I come from too. “But you moved here for a reason, right?” he said. Yes, I moved to Sweden to live closer to nature and to have more space to roam. I didn’t move here because I think Belgium is a bad place with bad people and bad values (although I hadn’t seen the most recent elections back then). I didn’t move here with the idea that Sweden is a utopia that I can access by acting as Swedish as possible. I’m sure the Swedes will do a way better job at that.
As you can see, there is much more than meets the eye, but although I point out some differences, some that I like and some that I don’t feel connected to, there isn’t a single action that comes from disrespect to the place where I live now. Living your own life isn’t the same as sabotaging the life of someone else- and I don’t get why so many people feel attacked by a person having a different lifestyle than their own. To my personal opinion, it’s interesting to learn and grow and combine all the best things from different cultures. I love the Belgian work-ethics but I can learn a lot from the slower Swedish rhythm as I often forget to take a break. I like the love of the Swedes for their parties – although I’m not so much into singing and dancing or getting drunk- but I do miss the love that Belgians would put into the food. Oh man, I miss the love for good food!
When I crossed the border and got my residence permit, I didn’t get the Big Book of Unwritten Rules. Did you? Did you give one to your neighbor? Probably not. So how the fuck should we/they know what others are just born into?
PS: About the Law of Jante, aka small-town syndrome in other parts of the world.
The Newbie guide writes:
“This law holds a firm grip on every member of the group, killing any attempt not to comply through a severe method of passive bullying. Non-conformists can expect a role as an outsider, receiving no empathy or support from the group. The result is a uniform society, rendered by mediocrity, suspicion, and envy. “
The 10 rules of Jante Law
- You’re not to think you are anything special.
- You’re not to think you are as good as we are.
- You’re not to think you are smarter than we are.
- You’re not to convince yourself that you are better than we are.
- You’re not to think you know more than we do.
- You’re not to think you are more important than we are.
- You’re not to think you are good at anything.
- You’re not to laugh at us.
- You’re not to think anyone cares about you.
- You’re not to think you can teach us anything.
And here is an illustrated article on the Local.se about how this might work in real life.
4. “We are raised Catholics/Christians.”
So it’s perfectly fine to admire an old book written by a wise man in the middle east, mixed by the greed and lust for power of some white males bathing in gold, but the rest of the world population are all terrorists and people who can’t possibly have moral and ethical values? So it’s also fine to scream about our values but not live by the book we claim to follow? Compassion anyone? I’m not sure if they have read the same book when I hear things like “Throw them all back in the sea!” Yeah, that sounds like kindness for all people. Can’t remember reading that the Good Samaritan threw the struggling traveler in the sea.
So it also makes sense to have that same institution of old white men who never had good sex or loving relationships decide how we should live and who we can marry? Sorry-not sorry-, no thanks.
Hearing all the arguments, I’m not a real Belgian, certainly not Flemish plus a bad immigrant. But according to the Belgians, I’m a good Belgian immigrant when I don’t let my own habits/traditions overrule by those of my new country. But the Swedes might see that as an insult to their way of living. Still, they do love our beer. So I can like Belgian beer as long as I paint my house red? Is that how it works? I’m also often confused with being French or even Canadian.
So I guess, I just have to be just me after all.