Do not Smile or say ‘Hej’


One of the first impressions a stranger to Sweden might get is that the average Swede is very aloof and reserved.  This is often seen on the streets where nobody smiles at each other, makes eye contact, or in any way acknowledges the existence of the other…unless of course they are really good friends.  This is often perceived by outsiders to be rude.  (At least outsiders from the North American continent and other friendly places.)


Today, at precisely 6:13pm I realized why this is the norm of behavior in Sweden.  It actually has nothing to do with being rude, but instead it is a collective cultural norm to help everyone save face.  Essentially, this practice is a form of social evolution to allow individuals in this society to suffer less embarrassments and awkward moments.


Now, last year I did not realize this and I was quite frustrated with the “unfriendly” Swede and went out of my way to make eye contact, smile, and say ‘Hej’ to anyone I passed on the street.  This is a typical adjustment strategy I use when first moving to a new country.  And this strategy got me nowhere in Sweden…except for that one time when I basically pinned another hemmapoppa in the corner of the Systembolagat.  Anyways, last year I was new here, I did not know anybody and I thought this would be a good way to show I am friendly and approachable.  (Hint Hint Swedes…I am looking to make some friends.)


It was not until just today that I figured this all out.  Though I just had a conversation with some new colleagues who explained that they get quite confused and startled if anyone they don’t know says ‘Hej’ to them, I still didn’t get why they did not greet acknowledge others on the street, until this happened:


I was walking out of the Chinese restaurant, taking some yummy Asian noodles home for K (who insists that Asian egg noodles are the best possible food in Almhult), and was about to cross the street where I almost cut off a bicyclist.  We both stopped, made brief eye contact…as we were about to collide I think it was appropriate to have that sort of communication, but then it happened!  I think I knew that person…but I couldn’t quite be sure.  So I said nothing.  I ignored her, waited very tensely for the crossing light to turn green, and hoped that I really did not know the person and was being quite rude.  And that is when I realized why Swedes don’t make eye contact or greet people on the streets…you never quite know who you are talking to.


Remember, this is Sweden.  The sun has set at 3:30 and it has been dark for over two hours and it is only 6pm.  So it’s dark, not a big deal until you then realize it’s December in Sweden.  This woman had a big wool hat pulled down half over her face, a matching white fluffy wool scarf covering the other half of her face, so the only distinguishing feature visible to make a positive ID on this person were two blue eyes and blond hair down past the shoulders.  Hmmm…blond hair and blue eyes pretty much describes ¾ of the population here.


So here I am, having nearly knocked over this woman on her bicycle, at night, in the cold, impatiently waiting to cross the road hoping that I actually didn’t know this person cause I could not be certain of who she was to begin with, because I couldn’t see her bloody face through the wool and night sky!!  And I couldn’t rightly say ‘Hej’, cause if I really didn’t know her then I would be that rude foreigner going around saying Hej’ to everyone like we were best mates or something!!


Yes, I see it now; it is much safer to go about your business in town and not acknowledge anyone and if everyone rightly follows this practice, then no one ever will be considered rude…unless of course they decide to look at you, smile, and say ‘Hej.”



A lesson in making friends from a three year old

Yesterday I was walking with K to go see if there were any pinecones ripe for picking in the forest.  On the way, we passed a small playground that was bustling with kids.  The hunt for pinecones was off as K now focused on playing with these other kids.

The playground was a simple structure consisting of two tire-swings and a slide all on a sandy area.  It was surrounded on all sides by small apartment buildings and had an adjoining grassy area where a couple of fathers were out BBQing.  There were about ten kids on the playground or the surrounding area, mostly all older than K, and all of them were Swedish speakers.

During our first weekend in Sweden, K and I took a similar walk where we found a playground with kids and K insisted on going in to make some friends.  Then too none of the kids spoke English and K’s attempts to engage were rebuffed.  I remember watching him try and try and feeling heartbroken when the other kids kept refusing to play with him.

As we approached this playground, I was preparing myself for another sad experience and told K that he could go on the slide a few times, but that we could still go into the forest to hunt for pinecones.  He said no and insisted on staying.  Once we made it to the sandy play area, K got a bit shy and hesitant and instead of encouraging him to go and engage, I was suggesting that we could simply keep going on to the safety of the forest.  K still refused.  He stood there and watched the kids play.  Off to one side there was a wooden beam that we started to walk along, balancing and going back and forth.  After a few times of doing this, a young boy, who I later learned was six years old, came over to initiate contact with K.

The boy came up and asked a few things in Swedish that I could not make out.  K got very shy and put his head down and didn’t make eye contact.  I used my limited Swedish to introduce ourselves and explain that K did not speak any Swedish.  The boy went away.  Again, I asked K if it would be better to go into the forest and hunt pinecones.  He continued to refuse; so we walked up and down the wooden beam some more.  The boy came back.  He tried again to ask us a few questions, to which I shared more information about K.  The boy stuck out his hand to K to shake and K did not respond.  I explained to K that this boy was trying to be his friend and wanted to shake hands.  K tentatively reached out and they shook.

Immediately K lit up and started talking to the boy.  The boy couldn’t respond but said something about his cycklar (bicycle).  He then led us off to the side to look at his bicycle and K was happy as could be to look at it, ring the bell, and make comments about it.  By this time, the boy’s older sister joined us and she was able to speak a little English, so between the two of us we were able to translate a limited conversation between the two boys.

Soon, the boy was running off to get his helmet to show K how well the bike rode.  K ran after the boy as they rode/ran circles around the play area.  Obviously K could not keep that up for long, so he stopped; but the boy kept riding until he had to go with his mom and sister somewhere.

But no K was ready to engage.  He walked right up to two other kids playing in the sand and started to dig alongside them.  But, soon they left him and did there own thing, but K was okay just digging.  I had drifted off to the side to sit and watch from a distance to allow K his space.  Soon there was another little girl, probably a bit younger with K, whom K was trying to chat up.  She had a startled look about her and once she realized she could not communicate, she took off.  But K would not leave it at that.  He began to chase her.  Okay, some kids love to chase, but the scared look on this little girls face belied the fact that she was not exactly a willing party to this activity.  The look of fear might also have increased because by now K had acquired a stick (standard play equipment for any little kid), so he was chasing her…while running and swinging a stick around.  She bolted off the play area and took off the over the grassy field toward one of the BBQ stations.  K was right on her heals.  I was also fast in pursuit as I see impeding disaster about to take place.  The knots of parents and community adults socializing outside started to take notice of one larger little boy swinging a stick and chasing after a fairly visible scared little girl…and international incident was on the brink of erupting.  But, the girl safely made it to the adult and other kids near the BBQ pit.  K slowed on his approach and I was able to catch up and offered to hold the stick.  K joined the group of older kids that the little girl was hiding among.  As soon as K joined, she took off and as K was about to run after her again, I was able to entice K to stay and talk to these other kids.

Again, no English, but I was able to help facilitate a little conversation with my Swedish.  The other adult helped a little bit too.  But soon K and I were drifting back to the playground.  This time, I was more insisted that we leave, but K still would not have any of it.  So he sat in the dirt and began digging again…and no kids joined him.

At this point, I really want to leave.  I was feeling very frustrated for K and sad that all he wanted to do was play with these kids but could not.  Wanting to save him from this rejection and awkwardness I was arguing with K why we should leave.  My wife, a very brilliant lady – especially regarding young kids – informed me that at K’s age, he does not have the same perception and feelings that I do.  He was not feeling awkward or uncomfortable, he was probably perfectly content sitting and digging in the sand by himself.  On the other hand, I know that he wanted to play with the kids, so who knows.

Just before I was about to pull the plug, another little boy from K’s preschool arrived.  They knew each other and could communicate and so for the next twenty minutes K was able to play with a friend before we really had to leave.

For myself, I am still trying to reflect and learn from this experience.  I realize that I need to be careful about not superimposing my own feelings and anxieties on my son, and to trust him that he is okay if he wants to stay and continue to play, even if none of the kids are engaging with him.  I also had a chance to observe some of the cross-cultural theory I have studied in practice.  Dr. William Gudykunst has developed the Anxiety/uncertainty management theory, which essentially states that in a cross-cultural interaction of ones anxiety is too high, they will freeze, shut down, or flee the situation; but, once there was been some positive experiences, the anxiety will reduce and the person will begin engaging.

This experience was a textbook case of this.  K wanted to engage, but froze up when we got there.  It was not until the very nice six-year-old boy came to engage K and shake his hand that K felt comfortable enough to engage.  And then he engaged…and even when his efforts were rebuffed, he continued on and did not give up.  A good lesson to relearn, and made even more real by the fact that just as we were about to leave, the six year old boy returned and immediately jumped on K’s tire swing with him to play.  And when we did finally leave, this boy seemed sad that he was losing a play partner.  Well, I suppose we will be back so that K can keep working on making some new Swedish friends.

Infant Linguistics

My wife and I are were both born and raised in the USA, coming from non-recent immigrant stock.  Being so, we are unfortunately fluent in only one language, English.  While we can string a few sentences together in Bangla and a little smattering of Spanish, we are essentially useless outside of our native tongue.  One of the advantages of raising a family abroad was the thought that at least our children would be exposed to multiple languages and might have a better chance at picking up something beyond English.  Well, this leads to our problem.

M, as of yet, has not developed much of a vocabulary; and we are in that awful period where all of us (including M) wishes that we could communicate more clearly with the spoken word.  We can tell he is trying really hard and wants to tell us something (typically involving food), and when we don’t understand, his (and our) frustration levels peak.  This is a typical stage of infant to toddler development, and I have plenty of frustrated memories of working through this with my eldest son K.  K, however, developed a pretty impressive vocabulary early on and I think that we were able to push through this frustrated communication stages pretty quickly.

When in Yangon, we sent K part-time to a Japanese run preschool.  While the instruction was English medium, each day they focused on key lessons in a different language.  So each week, K was exposed to Japanese, Chinese, Burmese, French, and English.  We thought this would just provide him some solid exposure but did not expect him to pick any of those languages up.  Well, after a few months K’s toddler gibberish really took off and we swear he was sneaking in some Japanese and Chinese into it.  Then, some of our Burmese-speaking friends informed us that K could understand and follow quite a bit of instructions spoken in Burmese.  Very cool…but since we didn’t speak any of those languages we were unable to support his learning or reinforce it.  And now that we are in Sweden, it has all faded away for K.

Here in Sweden, we have just started M in a Swedish dagis (preschool) while I attend my own Swedish classes.  While M is starting much earlier than K did, we still don’t expect him to pick up Swedish, just the exposure at a young age to a different language should help him pick up one later on in life.  Well, maybe he is picking some Swedish up.  Today I was putting him in his car seat, he was blabbing away in his toddler gibberish when suddenly he clearly says, “titta” and points to a lady walking a dog.  M loves to look at dogs and always points them out when he sees them.  And to the untrained ear, “titta” would fit right in with nonsensical toddler language.  But, as I am also learning Swedish, I recognized “titta” as a close variation of “tittar”, which means, “to look”, and he was pointing directly at the dog.

Hmmm…is M speaking Swedish or is he gibbering and I am trying to force meaning into his toddler language?  This is our problem.  How do we form effective early communication with our sons when they very well might be using a language we don’t understand?  We taught both of our boys a bit of sign language, which has been an amazing help in the early stages of communication; but, when we reach these frustrating toddler months, sign language is not enough.  M desperately wants to use words, and we desperately want him to use his words; but what happens when his words are not in English?  It is incredibly annoying to work so hard to expose my boys to other languages in the hope that they will be able to speak more than just English; and then not be able to support them and reciprocate their communication attempts when not done in English.

Well hopefully, if I keep up my Swedish lessons then I might have a chance to further support M if he decides to use more Swedish.  This will work well, at least while we remain in Sweden.  After this, what country will we be in and what language will they speak?  Knowing that we probably would not be in Sweden for the long-term, we enrolled K in an English-medium preschool so that we would be able to make friends easier and not be hindered by a new unknown language.  But, if we keep that up, both boys will inevitably end up with only English…exactly what we don’t want to happen.

Sowing the Seeds of Regret

Charlie Chaplin and Jackie Coogan in The Kid

Charlie Chaplin and Jackie Coogan in The Kid (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

M has just been accepted into a ‘dagis’, or daycare, facility starting on Monday.  He will be attending 1/2 days five days a week.  And with this, my run as a full-time hemmapappa is coming to an end.

The original plan, the plan that I agreed to when still in Burma and contemplating the move to Sweden, was that I would stay home with M and K until August, 2013.  My wife and I are committed to being the parents that are willing to take the time and effort needed to be there for our boys during their first two years.  My wife stopped working with K and only went back part-time when he was 18 months, and not full-time until he was three years.  Coming to Sweden we had agreed that I would do the same so that M’s first full 18 months would be spent at home with me.  M is now 13 months, and he is going to be attending dagis.  What went wrong?

Well, nothing went wrong.  Life is as it is, there is no right or wrong.  What changed was me and the reality of both living in a foreign country and being a full-time hemmapappa.  I knew it would be difficult, but I didn’t quite realize how difficult.  Don’t get me wrong, it is also incredibly rewarding…just frustratingly difficult too.  What I anticipated, but didn’t think would be a huge factor, is the isolation.  Taking care of an infant and a three-year old takes up a whole bunch of time and energy.  Though my wife told me over and over again that I would have little time for anything else, I still thought I would be getting out and really experiencing life in Sweden. But that is just not the case.

I live in Sweden.  I have been living in Sweden for six months now, but I still don’t really know Sweden.  There are two primary factors for this.  First, I don’t speak the language; and living in a foreign country without speaking the language is like watching a movie on mute.  Sure, you can get the general gist of the story, understanding who the protagonist and antagonist are, and enjoy the sites…but, all of the details and subtle plot twists are lost.  In the end, you might be smiling and saying you enjoyed the film, but you still never quite really understood what was happening.  (And this is assuming that you are watching some action or romance film, forget it for drama or comedy.)  Second, I am not immersed with Swedes.  I have made a few friends, but only one is a Swede.  Without a job or an environment that forces integration, it is very hard for me to be immersed with Swedes.  My wife comes home and shares a tidbit from her colleagues, and sometimes makes that comment, “It was so Swedish!”  I don’t know what that means…what is so Swedish?  Without observing and interacting with Swedes on a daily basis, I am unable to fully understand the Swedish mentality and culture…not that I would ever be able to fully understand, I mean I don’t even understand my own culture at times.

I am sick and tired of living in a country without really knowing how to speak the language.  If you read my post ‘Swedish for Dummies‘, you are aware of the dubious start I have taken in learning Swedish.  Well, I am now enrolled and will be attending a beginner’s Swedish course in February.  Unfortunately, the class is during the day, afternoons, so M is being bundled up and sent off to dagis to take his afternoon nap and learn some Swedish; and K will now be remaining at his preschool all day.  (Which by the way he is super excited about.)  This is much sooner than I anticipated, and though I will still be with M for half of each day, I have a sense of betrayal to the promise I made both my wife and M when coming to Sweden.  But my very wise and insightful wife told me, “We need to do what is best for the whole family.”  And right now, learning the language and starting the job hunt in earnest so that we might have an opportunity to remain in Sweden for a longer duration, is what needs to happen…I think.

But still…I just know that in a few months, or perhaps a few years time, I will look back at this step with regret; knowing that I will never ever have a chance to spend such amount of time with my boys, during these pivotal development years, as I have right now.

Art in a Shipping Tube

giant OBEY giant

giant OBEY giant (Photo credit: joo0ey)

There is a problem with leading a nomadic lifestyle.  Well, there are many problems, but the one on my mind today deals with art.  My wife is something of an artist, photography, and I am an appreciator of art.  Traveling has exposed us to many diverse art forms and we have collected a decent collection.  From Bangladesh we have multiple rickshaw art paintings and some beautiful textiles, from India we have some decorative lamps and a variety of masks, we also have masks from Nepal and Burma, from Vietnam we have a series of reproduction propaganda posters, also from Burma we have a nice restored pieces of furniture and a few beautiful paintings, and on top of all this, we have multiple pieces of work by Shepard Fairey and in Burma we discovered the artist Casper Johansson and have a really nice piece of his.  In addition to all of this, my wife has a ton of awesome photos of her own.

The problem of all this, is that in our home now we only have three masks and one photo hanging.  Admittedly, much of the art work we collected in Bangladesh and India as well as the majority of my masks are languishing in a box in the basement of my parents’ home in the US…another part of the problem.  Here in Sweden, we actually spent the money to ship the pieces of furniture and paintings we had in Burma so that we could display them; but…we are once again asking ourselves, “How long are we going to stay here?”  “If I get a job next year we might buy a home here, shouldn’t we wait to put up the artwork in our home and not this temporary apartment where we need to pay/repair any holes made by hanging the pieces?”  And quite frankly, the apartment we are in now does not have the space to tastefully display all of the art we have here.

So here we are, avid supporters of the arts with hardly a piece of it up on the walls for us to enjoy.  The reason:  we are nomadic.  We are constantly changing homes and countries of residence.  Through all of these transitions, more and more of our art ends up being stored in the basement of my folks. (Thanks mom and dad, I really do appreciate it and one day we will take it away.)  But that one day has yet to arrive.  Moving to Sweden, we thought this would be it.  We would come in, buy a home for an extended stay and put all of our art up.  Six months later we are concerned that this will be a shorter stay than intended and that we will once again need to pack up our stuff and spend the money to ship it somewhere else.

Being nomadic, is it even worth collecting material objects?  But is art merely material?  Art is very important to us and we like to collect examples of it from the different countries we have experiences, but what’s the point when we can’t even appreciate it ourselves much less share with others?

So right now, in our utility closet we have two shipping tubes.  One is full of Shepard Fairey pieces, and the other contains Communist propaganda from Vietnam.  In a box under the M’s changing table are three large paintings and mixed media work from Burma.  In our storage space in the basement of this apartment we have a pair of Chinthe bronze statues, a set of Ogre balls from Burma, and an ox bell display all boxed up.  In the closet we have Naga and Chin tapestries and textiles folded up, and in the beautiful old trunk we got in Burma, we have a ton of photographs of our family and shots that my wife has taken and printed while in Burma…locked away out of site.  Now what is the point of all of this?

Some sites of interest:

A Conversation

This conversation took place between K and the sweet old lady who lives on the first floor of our apartment building.  K was climbing the stairs in full winter gear carrying a twig with green leaves he found on the walk home, which he intended to put with his pine cones; and this lady had just opened the door to her apartment.

Sweet Swedish Lady:  “Swedish Swedish Swedish.”

K: “Its green leaves for my pine cones.”

SSL: “Swedish Swedish Swedish.”

K: “I can’t say it in Swedish.”

SSL: “Swedish Swedish Swedish.”

K: “I can’t say in Swedish, I don’t speak Swedish.”

SSL: “Swedish Swedish Swedish.”

K: “I can’t come into your home.”

SSL: “Swedish Swedish Swedish.”

K: “No, I live up there.  I can’t go into your home.”

SSL: “Swedish Swedish Swedish Skolan Swedish.”

K: “For pine cones.”

SSL: “Swedish Swedish Swedish.”

K: “No I can’t.

SSL: “Hej Hej.”

K: “Hej Doh.” The door closes and the conversation ends.

K to me: “That is a really nice lady, very friendly.”

Twas a Merry Christmas (God Jul) Indeed

Christmas Eve found this family still in Almhult, Sweden…alone with no family or friends over, but very merry still.  This was K’s fourth Christmas and M’s second.  Since K has been around, family has become more of a focus for us.  One of the joys, and challenges, of living abroad is being away from family.  Before we had kids, this did not bother us too much at all. (Sorry folks.)  But since K has been with us, we have only had one Christmas were we did not spend it with family, either us flying to the States, or them coming to us.  But for this Christmas, we made the decision to keep it very low key and immediate family oriented, and it was wonderful.

In the Swedish tradition, my wife and I cooked up a very nice Christmas Eve dinner, which then made keeping us and the boys fed the next day much more stress free as there were plenty of yummy leftovers for all to enjoy.  The presents were simple, some pajamas on Christmas Eve and then just one Santa gift per child, a few presents between family members, and Santa filled stockings to kick it all off.  Luckily, K is still (though barely) in the stage where he can open just one gift at a time and play with it and not have the need to tear into each and every gift under the tree.  He does need to be involved in unwrapping everybody’s gifts, but his excitement is contagious and wonderful.  M enjoyed the wrapping paper and  buzzed around the couch and floor with a little toy train for most of the morning, completely happy in his newly turned 1yr old world.

The day featured nap times for everybody, a family walk through the melting forest (the day began as a mostly white Christmas but quickly faded to green as the slight heat wave worked on the remaining snow), the classic Frosty the Snowman by Rankin/Bass, and some leftover no-bake oatmeal cookies that K and I made for Santa the day before.

Of special note, this is the first Christmas in the eight years of marriage where we have not traveled somewhere for the holiday.  As a family nomadic, this was pretty impressive…though we are now looking at taking a quick trip to Copenhagen in the next few days so that can sorta maintain our nomadic title.  But honestly, it has been incredibly nice to stay at home, with just the four of us, to enjoy a stress free holiday.

And I hope that all of you also had an amazing Christmas where ever you happened to find yourself.  Merry Christmas and in Swedish:  God Jul.