På svenska, tack! Race and gender in a Swedish-for-Immigrants class
November 30, 2017
In Sweden and Denmark, every person who legally resides in the country is entitled to take free language classes. The system is enhanced by the fact that there are different schools for different needs, ranging from courses for illiterate students to schools that focus on persons with a higher education background. In 2015/16, I enjoyed about eight months of excellent Danish classes, and from April till October 2017, I did the SFI (Swedish for immigrants) course here in Gothenburg.
On the first day, we had to attend an intro meeting for all the new students, I think we were about 60. When I entered the room, I immediately noticed the difference to my Danish school. There, the majority of people had been young, white students. Here, I looked at a sea of black hair, dotted with some lighter brown shades and colorful hijabs. I think this is a clear reflection of the two countries' immigration policies.
We had to do a classification test and were then allocated to different classes and levels. My course consisted of about 20 student from Mexico, Urugay, Kroatia, Serbia, Palestine, Iran, Afghanistan, Jordan, Syria, Philippines, China, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Spain, Sudan, Eritrea, and Germany. If I would count in all the countries we lived before we came to Sweden, the list would be considerably longer. The youngest students were in their early twenties, the oldest around 50. The most common language was Arabic. Some of us had fled from war and persecution, others had come to Sweden due to career or relationships. Our backgrounds were highly diverse, before coming to Sweden we had been students, teachers, dancers, engineers, anthropologists, physicists, captains, economists, biologists, technicians, and more. The only unifying factor (apart from us being human) was that everyone had some sort of academic background.
A privilege in context A might not be a privilege in context B, and vice versa. At school, I got the feeling that everyone expects the best of me because I am a Korean-German female.
Because I am me, I have been thinking a lot about privilege, race, and gender and how they impacted the dynamics in our classroom. I mentioned it only as a side-note in my last article but something I have thought about in particular has been the situational and liquid character of privilege. A privilege in context A might not be a privilege in context B, and vice versa.
I will exemplify this with my own situation. I am a young female, born in Korea but raised in a German family. I grew up in Germany, lived in different European countries, and have a solid academic education. I have elaborated in other articles how these aspects merge into both privilege and oppression. However, in the case of migration and education, all of that classifies me as "a good immigrant". If I had a more stable job here in Sweden, I would perhaps even qualify as an "expat". At school, I got the feeling that everyone expects the best of me. I am German, and Germans tend to be really industrious and effective, right? On top of that, I am Asian, and Asians tend to be really studious and intelligent, isn't that so? I am female and girls tend to be even more studious, industrious, and attentive, or am I wrong?* The funny thing is that I am indeed one of the best students in my class - but that had nothing to do with any of these attributes but with the fact that a) my mother tongue is extremely similar to Swedish; and b) I studied Danish for several months, and the two languages are so closely related that the grammatical structures are basically the same. That means, most of the things we learned I had either studied before or was able to internalize quickly because of the similarities to German, Danish, and/or English.
But here's another funny thing: the other top students in my class were... the other East- and South-Asian girls. But the "real" ones! They hardly ever spoke up in class, so nobody knew about their genius until they all scored straight A's in the exams. Does this indicate that the smart-Asian cliche is true in the end? No. What many of us (including me) often fail to do is putting the individuals into bigger contexts. No group of people is born smart, dumb, lazy, beautiful, musical, criminal, submissive, proud, or any of the other traits that people like to attribute certain cultures or persons. Why are many Asian students so quiet, studious and successful? Probably because they grew up in societies and families where this is the norm; probably because they were schooled in institutions that asked for absolute discipline and highest performance. The education system in Korea, for instance, demands seemingly impossible things from its pupils and students. When I traveled in South Korea a few years ago, I couchsurfed with a guy who worked as a teacher at the local high school. It was a few months before the final exams and we hardly ever saw him. After he was done teaching in the afternoon, he spent the entire evening working with the students in preparation for the exams. Most days he didn't come home before midnight. An article in the NY Times explains that "the average South Korean student works up to 13 hours a day, while the average high school student sleeps only 5.5 hours a night to ensure there is sufficient time for studying." This immense pressure takes its toll - terrifying stories of South Korea's teenage suicides have been present in the media for years. I think this offers a pretty good explanation why so many Asians are extremely studious, ambitious, and successful.
There was so much underlying pain, heartache. So many untold stories. Simple conversations can be tricky waters.
So what about my Syrian classmates? These days it is oftentimes highy qualified immigrants who do precarious, short-term, low-skilled jobs, because taking any education in a language and cultural setting that is entirely foreign to your own is a gigantic challenge, even more so if you struggle with prejudice and marginalization only due to your nationality, religion, and appearance. It takes refugees in Sweden an average of nine years to find a stable employment. Nine years! Some of my classmates have been professionals for years, they sustained their families and most likely enjoyed respect and prestige in their communities. And now they sat next to me in an underheated classroom, the Swedish rain pelting against the window, trying eagerly to wrap their minds around Swedish language and culture.
There was so much underlying pain, heartache. So many untold stories. I remember on the first day, the head of the school welcomed us and said that the success of the course depended on many different factors. There is discipline of course, and will, and diligence. Your mother tongue plays a role, how long you've been in Sweden, if you have a feeling for languages, etc. But also: stress and trauma, sleepless nights, headaches, no space to study or do homework because you live in a refugee home. She said: "I know it's hard for many of you. Please come and talk to us if you struggle, if you're in need of assistance."
Even though mostly indirect, my classmates talk about loneliness, homesickness, anxiety, depression, experiences of exclusion and racism. Simple conversations can be tricky waters. After class, I am chatting with a classmate on the way out. "What's wrong with your leg?" I ask him who sometimes limps and uses crutches, whereas other times he seems to be fine. "I was injured by a bomb in the war.", he answers with a smile. I can't think of any appropriate response and utter a lame "Oh, I'm sorry". When we have to construct Swedish sentences to train certain grammatical issues, there are things like "He misses his children", or "He hasn't seen his family in two years", or someone asks if there was a Swedish word for a partner who lives in another country (the Swedish language differentiates between sambo which you use to refer to your partner who lives with you and särbo to describe a partner who lives separately).
After a couple of weeks, our classroom had split up into two halves, all men sat on one side, all women on the other. So guess which side was the vocal, outspoken, loud one?
And yet, despite all understanding and sympathy, I would frequently get so upset by the way the guys naturally and comfortably were taking up such a huge amount of space in the classroom. Whereas men and women sat to some extent evenly distributed in the beginning (even though there were clear-cut cultural groups that stuck together), after a couple of weeks, our classroom had split up into two halves. Apart from one exception, all men sat on one side, all women on the other. The male side consisted mainly of Arabic-speaking males, on the female side the rows were somewhat formed along the lines of common language and culture. The Arabic girls in the first row, the Chinese-speaking in the second, the Spanish speakers in the last, and then a handful of individuals I call "the randoms", which I was part of (story of my life). So guess which side was the vocal, outspoken, loud one? Unfortunately, our teacher did not possess much gender awareness, so for the most, the guys' side completely dominated the class. It wasn't only that most of them simply spoke more and louder. They would also always raise their hands to answer the questions, call out the right answer when it was someone else's turn to speak, and oftentimes disturb the class by chatting, joking, laughing, and answering their phones (while mostly still being annoyingly sweet and funny). I tried to address the issue at some point and although I do not think that this had anything to do with it, the dynamics slightly changed in the second half of the course. Although the males were still way more outspoken, the women finally started to participate more actively in the classes.
I remember one incident when we were discussing a newspaper article about barbecuing that contained very stereotypical depictions of men and women. Our teacher asked what we thought of that and some of the answers were hilarious. My favorite was something along the lines of "Standing by the grill can be dangerous and is therefore a male task". I did not get angry or anything - obviously, the gender discourse in Syria is different from the one in Sweden and I found the relative innocence of these answers almost heart-warming. Many men might think that way but are too politically aware to express their thoughts; the straightforwardness of these answers only proved to me that the critical discourses around issues like the social constructedness of gender, valuable and important as they are, are also highly specific, context-dependent, and oftentimes have the tendency to become elitist, exclusive, and overly judgmental.
I do not blame the guys for being so dominant. I do not blame the girls for being so quiet. Well, OK, perhaps I do blame the guys a little. But I think this is mainly a failure of the school who employed anyone able to teach Swedish, apparently without any pedagogical or intercultural requirements (which I can also understand because there are tens of thousands of immigrants in Sweden in need of education). Of course we touched upon gender roles as part of Swedish values and society but that was a bit like learning about Swedish politics - it felt rather distant and intangible. Our teacher missed the chance to address and discuss these things in our class, and instead simply accepted the gender dynamics as they were. We had to discuss so many topics that felt artificial, silly, and useless, ignoring all the valuable cultural diversity our class embraced and that would have been such a great way to connect learning the Swedish language with critically reflecting on our own values and traditions. I don't say that this is easy but where is this dialogue supposed to start if not at school?
There we were, a diverse bunch of intelligent, highly-educated women, having given up careers, plans, homes, networks for our men, all of whom had jobs in their respective professional field, a stable income and oftentimes a better social network.
Another issue that kept me pondering was the following observation: the majority of my female classmates immigrated to Sweden because of their boyfriends and husbands whereas that was not the case for any of the male students. In most cases (including my own), the partner was either Swede or moved here due to work. Isn't that interesting? There we were, a diverse bunch of intelligent, highly-educated women, all of us stuck in unemployment or precarious minimal-wage jobs, feelings of low self-esteem, self-doubt, social isolation and powerlessness, having given up careers, plans, homes, networks for our men, all of whom had jobs in their respective professional field, a stable income and oftentimes a better social network.
I think that shows how much work there is to be done, and how gender inequality is perpetuated in all sorts of cultural, political, and religious contexts. I have all these progressive, leftist ideas but find myself in the same situation as a woman who has potentially never used the word "feminism". Since all of us are between 25 and 40 years old, the topic of having children and becoming a mom was highly pervasive. Four women from my class got pregnant or had babies during these 7 months, others planned it or expressed frustration because their wishes were opposed to those of their male partners. And of course that thought occurred to me, too: I have all this free time, no career and not many friends, my partner has a stable income, and we live in one of the most child-friendly welfare states on Earth, so why not now? But what are the consequences? All the moms dropped out of the course to take care of their newborn babies. That means that they will delay the learning of the language by months and potentially years, and even though most Swedes speak perfect English, speaking and writing good Swedish is essential for finding a "proper" job in this country. Since their household depends on a single income, their partner is encouraged/forced to focus on their career to sustain the family. Consequently, the inequality potentially self-perpetuates over years to come, locking the woman in lower-paid jobs and taking away opportunities to merge with Swedish people, thus impeding integration and independence. This is the worst-case scenario, of course, and luckily I do not see that as my future. But then again, I am from a very similar cultural and language context, and I know how to navigate both private, public, and professional situations and interactions so much better than some of my classmates who have never been outside their own country or continent and who's language is so different from Swedish as English is from Chinese.
I could go on and on but this article already is much longer than I intended it to be. I hope I was able to illuminate different forms of privilege and oppression, and how they oftentimes are not clear-cut and fixed but fluid, fuzzy, negotiable, overlapping, and highly context-dependent.
I loved my Swedish class, even though I wasn't particularly happy about neither teaching methods nor didactic or content. Seeing my classmates almost every day over months, I could not help but grow fond of them, no matter how annoyed and disappointed I would get sometimes as we tended to be slow, bored, uncommunicative, and disengaged. Anthropologist at heart, it felt like doing a mini field study during which I was constantly practicing participatory observation.
I am immensely grateful, not only for studying the language but mostly because the course granted me so many important insights and made me meet/become friends with people I would never have crossed paths with otherwise. I also really appreciated the fact that we met on eye-level. It seems ironic but if this was Germany or I had already lived here for a couple of years, I would potentially not have sat next to them as a classmate but worked with them, advised, taught, supported, researched them. I have always enjoyed moving between different social spheres and it has not only kept me humble (or at least that's what I like to think) but also taught me many important lessons, about others, about myself, about the world and how it works and how it oftentimes doesn't.