Foreign fika tales I: "If I go back, I realize how much I've changed."
November 19, 2018
Since I've moved to Gothenburg, I've met many women who find themselves in the same situation as I do. Most of us are in their thirties or forties, highly educated, fairly cosmopolitan, multilingual, very ambitious. Most of us are also so-called "love immigrants" and came to Sweden to be with our partners, which means that we put our relationships before our own goals and careers. While our partners usually have well-paid positions in their respective professional field, we enjoy a lot of freedom and leisure time but also frequently struggle with feelings of inferiority, isolation, alienation, and a lacking sense of purpose and self-worth. Therefore, my friend Haydee, a Mexican photographer and communications person, and I, decided to portrait some of these women. We want to give voice to their stories, create and understanding for a particular female experience, and raise awareness for how much potential we think is wasted due to the difficult job market. Last but not least, we love to discover new places and people in Gothenburg and love the Swedish tradition of fika - a sacred ritual of shared caffeine and sugar intake at any time of the day.
For the first interview in our series, we talked to Finn, an artist and cultural worker. She grew up in Taiwan but has lived in many different places and spent years of her life traveling. 12 years ago, she met her current partner at a yoga retreat in India. He is Scottish but already lived in Sweden at the time, so after a few years of long-distance relationship, Finn moved to Gothenburg to be with him. They live with their daughter on Brännö. If she isn't doing events with her artist group Globala Tanter ('the global aunties'), she teaches Chinese and draws comics about life in Sweden. We met her on a grey and windy Thursday morning in a coffee shop on Avenyn and talked about culture, identity, work, motherhood, beauty ideals, language, relationships, and meat-shaming.
Before the interview, I feel nervous. I know Finn because we live on the same island but although (and maybe precisely because) she is my friend, I don't want to mess it up. Haydee and I have had a couple of fika meetings to plan this project but it still feels a little undefined and fuzzy. I have done some interviews before but all of them were academic, so I don't really know how to do one in a more journalistic way. Luckily, Finn is open and funny and and sharp-minded as usual, and has brilliant answers to our questions and beyond. Soon, I've forgotten my nervousness and am entirely absorbed by her stories and thoughts.
I already know about the why but am curious to know what her expectations were before coming here. Did she have the same idealizing image of Sweden as so many others (certainly Germans) have? And did these expectations then match with reality? “When I was little, I really liked the Swedish band Europe”, she says and laughs. “It’s this 80s heavy metal hair band and they were really successful in Taiwan. That was the only connection I had with Sweden.” Turning more serious again, she continues: “When I first came here to try it out for a couple of months, we rented an apartment in Majorna. Majorna is supposed to be this really cool place but I remember thinking that Sweden is so insanely dry and boring. All these rosy images started to crumble down.” She recalls a day trip she and her partner made right at the beginning of her time in Sweden. They went to a beautiful little fishing village somewhere along the West coast where they bought fresh shrimps and sat down on the rocks by the water to eat them. "He was like: 'This is Sweden as best as it gets.' Summertime, beautiful scenery, eating fresh sea food. But I just thought: 'That’s it?! This is lame!'” Haydee and I laugh, and she goes on: “Also, I was like: 'If this was top quality shrimp, you wouldn’t boil it in super-salty water until it’s super-small and tiny and completely dead, and then dip it in mayonnaise! Mayonnaise is something to cover bad taste! Have you ever tried real good seafood?!' Because you know what fuss Swedes make about sea food. So we were sitting on that rock and I was thinking about that and shivering because you know how it is, even in summertime when there’s a lot of sun, the wind is really strong. And I said to myself: 'If this is the best, it is real bad'”. She joins in our laughter but I can see that she actually means what she says. “But you still decided to move her?”, I ask, and she nods. “We applied for visa in Sweden, Taiwan, and Australia and it turned out that the Swedish one was easiest to get. This is how we ended up here.”
Although she emphasizes how grateful she is for what she has here, a family, a beautiful house, a network of people, a lot of personal freedom, there is certainly a deep frustration that she feels about her dissatisfactory work situation. Partly, she suspects that it is structural issues which make access to the labor market difficult for her, as an immigrated woman of color. Then again, most careers within the cultural sector are rather difficult. In her critical and self-reflected manner, she admits: “It’s simply a tough field, for anyone. There is not a lot of jobs for Swedish cultural worker, either. And honestly, if I turn it around and imagine some foreigner coming to Taiwan, saying 'I am going to start a cultural group', I would probably be like 'Um, why would you do that?'”
“My current goal is to find a sustainable way to do things I want to do and earn a bit more money to be more independent."
Then she says something that sticks with me long after our conversation is over: “As a middle-class person, having a job is who you are.” YES! I think, and that’s why the question “What’s your name?” is usually immediately followed by the question: “So what do you do?” And not having a proper answer to that denies you of a piece of your identity in our society. This simple phrase kicks off so many thoughts in my head that I must force my focus back to the conversation. “So without a job”, she continues, “you feel really insecure. There are certain jobs that guarantee a fast way to come into this society and all my closer friends choose this path. But I know myself well enough, I know I am not the person who becomes a preschool teacher or a nurse or a dentist assistant. These are things I’ve already decided I don’t want.” I remember how a few months back, I seriously considered applying for a Bachelor at Gothenburg University to become a nurse which would get me a job as soon as I’d finished my studies. The main reason why I didn’t do it was, besides my general indecisiveness, the fact that I had been bored and therefore dropped out of Swedish class before the final exams which means I would have to go back to school to finish my Swedish education before applying for a Swedish program. Which I really don’t feel like doing at this point. So what Finn says next resonates with me: “My current goal is to find a sustainable way to do things I want to do and earn a bit more money to be more independent. Don’t think. Just do. If you overthink things, you just get stuck in a vicious circle.” There it is, I think. We all know the theory so well. We know what we must do to feel better and change our situation, and yet, life and we ourselves can make it so hard to put this knowledge into practice. She adds: “Observing what most other people do, the best thing seems to be to get you any random job, start working there, developing relationships with people, develop your base. And through these connections, you’ll eventually be able to move on to the next thing.”
"We’ll always be guests. We are like an extra flower on the bouquet but they don’t actually want to have a completely different perspective."
I ask her if none of the jobs she previously did helped her to get into the job market here. I know that she worked many different jobs in several countries, among others for a children's rights NGO in Taiwan. But she replies that these “soft jobs” here usually prioritize Swedes. In the cultural field, there certainly is interest in different perspectives. “They want you on board but once the project is over, you’re done.”, she says frustrated, “they don’t want you to become a regular. That is something many foreign artists like me struggle with: we never going to be a constant there. We’ll always be guests. We are like an extra flower on the bouquet but they don’t actually want to have a completely different perspective. The most important thing for them is: are you a team player, do all of us who work here like you, do we have similar concepts? Being excellent at what you’re doing or bringing in a different perspective is secondary." Delving further into work-related challenges, she points out what big role a different language and culture background play. “It’s such a big advantage to speak your own language in your own culture. It’s like the air you breathe, you don’t even realize that you have all these things.” Haydee (a native Spanish speaker who lived in England for almost a decade before moving to Sweden) and I nod in deep understanding. We went to the same Swedish course and know the linguistic and cultural struggles well. As Finn has been here much longer than we have, her Swedish is good enough to communicate in Swedish in most work situations. Yet, there is so much nuance she knows she misses out on. She tells us about situations when she thought a meeting was going really well and everybody was happy about the results, only to realize that the Swedish participants weren't happy about the outcome at all. "It feels like I can't read the codes properly, there is so much subtle unspoken subtext in professional discussions that I am not able to pick up." Equally challenging are conflict situations. Saying openly when you disagree or criticizing someone else is not really appropriate let alone appreciated. I myself know many Swedes who shake their heads about their own culture’s extreme conflict avoidance. This is something that appears to be positive at first glance because everyone is so calm and friendly and patient all the time. Until you realize that they aren’t, they simply won’t express how annoyed and fed up with you they are.
After this, there is a long pause. We sip on our now lukewarm coffee and each of us thinks their own gloomy thoughts. I know that these conversations are a slippery slope. They can make you feel very understood and supported by people who face similar challenges as you are. But they can also be overwhelming in their negativity so that everyone ends up going home depressed, thinking ‘What on earth have I gotten myself into? My life is awful!’.
"Even though we know better, we still want to prove our value the same way a man does, having a job and all the tangible, visible values."
Luckily, Haydee steers the conversation back into smoother waters and asks: “Do you feel like you’ve made the most of what’s available?”, to which Finn replies firmly: “Yes, I think so!” She goes on telling us that she is a literature major, and also studied gender studies in Taiwan, even though she actually always wanted to study fine arts. But her mom never approved her applying for art school and, as she puts it, “I never stood my ground.”. It was only in Sweden that she had the chance to get closer to what she actually wanted to do, going to Valand (the art academy of Gothenburg University) and studying there for some time, getting to know the circle of artistic friends that she hangs out with and works nowadays. “If I had stayed in Taiwan or moved to some other English-speaking country”, she muses, “my career probably wouldn’t have gone that way. So in that sense, I am very grateful.” But she admits: “That doesn’t mean that I am not jealous of all my friends who are accomplishing something back home. Some of them are in the film industry, working as directors or producers. To me it looks like they are doing the real thing, they make films, fly all over the world, attend film festivals, and I am here, just trying to get like a little bit off the rim and that’s all I can get, even though I have lots of creative potential.” She tells us about her Taiwanese friend who’s a film producer. This friend has a son but also an extremely busy schedule. Finn says, she always wonders how she manages but the explanation is simple: hiring labor is much cheaper in Taiwan, so she has a nanny and someone to pick up the kids, etc. She lives her own version of the so-called “having it all”. But despite the envy she sometimes feels looking at her friend’s life, Finn is also very realistic: “I think ultimately, we all try to prove our own value, how much we are worth. Even though we know better, we still want to prove our value the same way a man does, having a job and all the tangible, visible values. I told my producer friend that I thought she is really burning herself out and she replied: ‘Yes but if I wouldn’t, if I didn’t hold on to all these jobs, how would I pay for all my son’s expense?’, at which I said: ‘But don’t you see that this is a catch 22? You want to spend more time with your son but instead of doing that you make lots of money and hire someone to take care of him…?’ But she was like ‘I know but my son will quickly grow up and then, what do I have? If I stay home and still am a mom when he is 10…. If I have my career now while he is still young, I’ll still have my career when he is 10.’ She knows it sounds very cruel but she thinks it is worth the sacrifice. There is always a trade-off, no one can really ‘have it all’.” This is so typical, I think angrily. Men would never be judged in the same way. It is completely normal that they are gone for ten hours a day and no one is like Oh but don’t you want to be there for your children? But as soon as a mother does the same thing, it’s seen as something unusual and gets judged.
In general, she says, the gender roles are much more traditional in Taiwan. There is the widespread notion of men and women being naturally unequal. The man is naturally assumed to be the bread-winner of the family. Sometimes, she would talk to her mother and tell her how depressed she feels about being unable to pay her share of their mortgage because she couldn’t get a proper job with a good salary. And her mother would simply not understand why that should be a problem as Stuart is the bread-winner of the family. At this point, Haydee nods and underlines how different these things are from culture to culture. Coming from Mexico, she knows a lot about conflicting gender roles. She tells us about friends of hers, a Mexican woman and a Norwegian man, who had a baby together. The woman got very sick after the delivery, so the father took care of the child, fed it, bathed it… His wife was very grateful and thanked him a lot for his help. He got almost upset: ‘What do you mean, thank you? This is my child!’ “When she told me that”, Haydee says, “I realized: Yes it’s true, we think it is our job and so we have to be grateful if the father is doing these things for us.” Finn has a similar story to tell: “My mom came after I gave birth to help us. She wanted me to rest and rushed to do all the work. And my sambo (sambo is the Swedish word for a partner that you live with but are not married to) said to me ‘Can you please tell your mom that I want to do some work, too? This is my daughter and I don’t want to miss out on anything!’ My mom thought that was very strange.” She shrugs her shoulders and joins in our laughter.
“Sometimes he would beg me to get a job, just any job that contributes financially."
Now this is my topic, of course. So I ask her if she feels pushed into a gender role that she would normally not assign herself. And what she says resonates with the experience of so many mothers, young and old: “Stuart is the bread winner, so naturally, taking our daughter to school as well as picking her up is my job. When he comes home, I have already cooked dinner and done all the laundry etc. So of course, there is this feminist question of how house work is not paid, or is not considered proper work. We’ve had some very serious discussions and arguments about the fact that just because I don’t have a nine to five job doesn’t mean that I am not doing any work. I am doing lots of work, it’s just that this kind of work doesn’t involve money. Also, the cultural work that I do is not paid well, although of course, it is work. But he sees it very realistically: every end of the month we have to pay the bills and if I do not contribute to this, then I may have to rethink my concept of work.” Looking at her face, I can see how difficult the topic is. “Sometimes he would beg me to get a job, just any job that contributes financially. And the thing is, I understand him! If I put myself in his position, being the only person earning money and paying the mortgage… This would be a huge burden on my shoulders!” She sighs. “Relationships... I always say ‘If anyone can crack the code of marriage, that person is winning the lottery.’” We laugh and she adds: “Financial independence definitely is important for me. No matter how stable your relationship is, if you don’t have financial independence or at least some balance in that respect, a lot of questions will be narrowed down to that.” We talk about our savings (most of them: long gone), and how stupid it feels to ask your partner for money to buy simple things as slippers. “But in the end, it’s team work.”, Haydee emphasizes, “you are doing things for him as well. You have to give yourself the value of the action you are doing.” Finn nods but feels torn about it. She says that her friends always say how great it is that she can spend so much time with her daughter and how much they would like to have chosen that path. “But this is a very contradictory narrative”, now she shakes her head. “They tell me how much they envy me but at the end of the day, they rather not have that kind of life because they feel good about having their good income and money on their own bank account and want to go on holiday and so on.”. This is something I recognize. I always get a lot of praise for the life style I’ve chosen, for being so free and independent, not subjected to a fixed work schedule and pursuing the things that I like, even if there is no money in it. Hardly anyone decides for that kind of life themselves though but instead prefers having their job and their income and their couple household (which I can perfectly understand, don’t get me wrong).
We've already talked for almost an hour but I still have some questions I really want to ask. We have touched upon the topic several times but I am really intrigued to hear more about how Finn feels when being back in Taiwan nowadays. Asked about that, she answers what most people who moved to a new country would answer: If I go back, I realize how much I’ve changed. She mentions the respect Swedish people have for children, something which nowadays is completely natural to her. Taiwan has passed a law that prohibits to beat one’s child, however, some people still think ‘But how do you educate your kids without beating them?!’. But it doesn't have to be as extreme as beating. That respect also implies that she would never just pinch another kid’s face or touch them. In contrast, back in Taiwan, complete strangers feel the right to tell her daughter to finish up her food or touch her face and hair. The difference in parenting styles are obvious to her even when she compares it to other European countries. She recalls a weekend spent at a holiday house with other families, some British, some Swedish, some mixed. The kids were playing and would naturally be wild, push one another, scramble. For the Swedes, that wasn’t a big deal but the British parents would always take their children aside and scold them: ‘You are very naughty! You are going to sit here now for 5 minutes!’, even though the child was merely three years old. Finn says she never heard a tone like this when adults were talking to kids in a Swedish setting. Swedish parents would be like (she imitates a very soft voice): “’Nej nej nej! Man får inte göra så här!’ (You can't do this!) Unless it’s a kid jabbing someone with an iron stick or something, they wouldn’t do anything.”
"In Mexico, you have to produce yourself even if you only go out to buy milk. Because if people see you otherwise, they are like ‘Is she having problems? Is she sick?’”
Another noticeable difference between Taiwan and Sweden are the opposing beauty standards. Swedish women over 30 oftentimes don’t wear make-up, or if they do, it is really light. “But if I go back to Taiwan, my mom and my friends are like ‘You are not taking care of yourself! You look like one of these moms that give up on themselves, your hair is just hanging, you don’t put on make-up or nice clothes, you just wear these mom-boots all the time.’ Every time I go home they tell me I should go to a salon, make myself look all smooth and shiny.” Again, this is something that Haydee can relate to very well: “In Mexico, we have the same thing. You have to produce yourself even if you only go out to buy milk. Because if people see you otherwise, they are like ‘Is she having problems? Is she sick?’”. Both Haydee and I like make-up and feel judged for that sometimes. To Finn, the pressure is not so much about appearance but more about things like organic food, for instance. She feels like the other parents watch who is eating/buying organic and who isn’t. She makes us laugh once more when she tells us: “Sometimes when I have lunch at my department and there is meat in my lunch box, I feel judged! If I heat it up in the micro wave everyone is like (she makes a grossed-out face) ‘OMG, what is this smell of MEAT?’. They are all either vegetarian or vegan.” The hype around healthy food can take on slightly absurd forms. “So there is a three-year old kid coming over to our house to play and she seriously asks me if our milk is organic. I have to explain that no, not this time because it was sold out at the grocery shop. And then I am like ‘Hang on, why do I have to explain this to you?!’”. Haydee and I both don’t have kids and just shake our heads in disbelief.
I ask Finn how she generally feels about her daughter growing up in Sweden. “I think she grows up in the right time to be mixed”, she answers. “It is very positive on the one hand but on the other hand I feel like my influence on her is getting weaker and weaker because she is more aligned with the Swedish mainstream, she knows what’s going on and she wants to be like that mainstream thing. She has expressed several times that she wants to be blonde, she wants to speak Swedish all the time, she wants to be just like her classmates.” Hearing this breaks my heart because I remember how desperately I wanted to look “like everyone else” when I was a little girl, mostly being the only non-white kid around. “Ultimately”, Finn adds, “I just have to accept that she is a Swedish kid.” Here in Sweden, it is striking how similar everyone looks. In average, Swedes are very well-dressed but no one wants to stand out, no one really wants to express their individuality, or if so, then only very subtly. Not even the teenagers really look differently, people basically dress in a similar fashion no matter if they are 15 or 65. All three of us noticed that and find it odd, even though to a certain extent, we’ve also started to “smälta in”, to blend in with the crowd.
The coffee shop has gotten busy. When we started the interview, we were mainly surrounded by male freelancers working at their laptops. Now there is more people, students, parents with prams, business people, and because we are in Sweden, some of them are having lunch although it is only 11.30 am. I could keep on talking for hours but the conversation has been very intense and now is naturally getting slower, the words become fewer, the pauses longer. Both Haydee and I recognize ourselves in many things Finn said. Yet, we learned a lot and got inspiring input and new perspective to think about.
I admire how uncompromisingly Finn is fighting for doing what she wants to do. How many of us sacrifice dreams and visions for a half-dry job, even when their privileges would allow them different choices? Despite all the struggles and frustration, Finn manages to put things into a positive light. She recalls an encounter with a lady she had after having lived in Sweden for about three years. Feeling very frustrated about her situation, she talked to that English-speaking woman who had spent over twenty years in Sweden. And to her surprise, that lady complained about the exact same things she herself used to always complain about. It seemed that she, as a very well-educated English native speaker, felt somehow entitled to something better and because it was not happening, she’d become bitter. “So I thought to myself”, Finn says, “that woman still has all these negative feelings even though she has been here for several decades! This is a mental state I don’t want to get into. This frustration will never go away unless I decide for it to do so.”. And she emphasizes how important that has been for her ever since. “Life is hard everywhere,” she shrugs, “if I went back to Taiwan right now, a hugely competitive country, I’d have to work really hard for six, seven days a week to build a career. So I have to remind myself to put things into perspective. It’s not going to be easier anywhere else. It is not that my life here is horrible and if I went somewhere else I would find paradise. The best place for me right now is here.”