“So, where are you from?” “Why did you come to Sweden?”
*Sigh*. Here it goes again. Whether it’s fellow parents at the playpark, random grocery store clerk (yep. I know, weird right?) or networking event, for example at the fabulous Mamamötet events, the questions of our origin seem to come up as an introduction to small talk 100% of the time. Now, it is a very natural and valid question. I’m quite obviously not Swedish. I can’t speak Swedish, though I try in my minimal way. I have an American English accent. Perhaps most telling is my wardrobe of North West USA casual flannel and t-shirts, with New England styling influences, plus a dash of busy mom of two where yogurt and banana smudges on shirts = accessories.
Where are you from and how did you get here questions are just another version of “What do you do?” or even the same “Where abouts are you from?” in our home countries. We use these questions to ground ourselves and start a conversation. It is a comfortable place. This is how we find out what we have in common and what else we can talk about from this fact filled intro. It’s like the golden egg of “easy conversation starters”. You can find out so much about a person that you wouldn’t normally be able to by asking this question. Had it been a conversation with a person in your home country, the answer would likely be a short, “I live in XYZ neighborhood.” End of conversation, moving on.
No matter how valid the question, it still gets exhausting repeating the answer daily, sometimes multiple times. It becomes a daily trudge of how to tell the story. What bits do you put in and leave out based on who is asking. And, unbeknownst to many, the origin story takes on a sense of personal validation that you have a right to be here. Like you’re trying to prove to this stranger you belong here. Perhaps it has even become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Something you use to reassure yourself that you and your family came here for a reason and it’s valid and good and you will be okay. If you will it to be, it’ll be, right?
The other day, I got thinking about my own origin story after being asked by a fellow customer in a nail salon why I moved to Sweden. It was a delightful conversation with someone else there by themselves. In truth, it was a moment of connection I needed as I had been feeling rather lonely. However, once I got on the train home, the happiness of the moment drained away and I felt exhausted. It had been so nice to talk to someone, but I had put on an upbeat tone and smile on my face. I realized that while telling this person my story, I was simultaneously seeking her approval. I wanted her to accept my story as true, and my family moving here as a positive for all. As if she had anything to do with it or her approval meant we could stay or meant we “belonged” here.
The emotional and social weight I have been giving my origin story and how I’ve delivered it to anyone who has asked hit me square in the face. So, I decided to tell myself my origin story. Writing it out was cathartic. I highly recommend it. Even if you’re not a journal keeping person, take a few moments to write/type for yourself. Put in the details you gloss over or make light of when telling others how you ended up here. Don’t worry about spelling or grammar or any other “perfection detail”. If you’re good at those things, congratulations, I am not so grand with spelling and grammar, but here I am writing anyway! Back to the point: this is for you. It’s a chance to let go of the power your origin story is having over you and take a step back to see it’s simply a part of your journey.
Sometimes we just need to take a moment to see the emotional heft we are giving something we never would have thought about in our home countries. Now, this caveat must be said, I am still relatively new to Sweden and living abroad. Perhaps these introduction questions gets easier to deal with as time goes by and those who have been here for 4, 6, 8+ years don’t think about this question as a daily trudge at all. I don’t know. I’m not there yet only having lived abroad for 11 months of my life thus far. I’d love to know. If you have been here for longer, or lived abroad in other places before moving to Sweden, how does the question and telling your origin story impact you emotionally? Does it start over each time you move? If you have lived abroad and have moved back home, does the inverse situation happen and you have to explain why you moved away then moved back?
Still, whether you’re new to life abroad or heavily experienced in it, no matter the amount of time spent away from home, I encourage this moment of reflection for anyone. We have purpose and value and a right to experience the highs and lows of our choice to live abroad. Maybe by writing out our origin stories we can learn to share the full truth with others without fear of how others will take it. Most importantly, we can learn to share it as is, no sugar coating or rewrites. Let it simply just be how that step in our journey unfolded and then be able to move on to the here and now.