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How we learned to embrace our awkward existence as a multicultural family in Sweden

A couple of beers made us realize we might never exactly "fit in" in Sweden. But in our third year here, we have come to terms with being different.

How we learned to embrace our awkward existence as a multicultural family in Sweden
We'll never quite fit in here in Sweden, but that's okay. File photo: Clive Tompsett/

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As our first year in Sweden was coming to an end, our family went on a late-summer day trip to the country to explore a historic castle and nearby nature reserve. After a busy morning, a nice lunch, and some walking, we stopped at another restaurant just outside the nature reserve where there was a lovely terrace and a little playground. Walking out of the restaurant to find a place to sit on the terrace, I felt like all eyes were upon us. It was as if people had purposefully stopped enjoying their fika to stare at us as we walked past.

Naturally, I immediately wondered if we were somehow being obnoxious. Were we speaking too loudly? Was it that we were speaking in a combination of English and Spanish? Were our children – then three and five years old – misbehaving?

Any of these could have been true, but it was only after we sat down and began enjoying our drinks that I looked around and realized another, more likely reason: While all the other adults were enjoying a coffee, my husband and I each had a beer.


When the children had finished their snacks and run over to the playground, my husband and I discussed how what had been such a normal and typical part of leisure time when we had lived in Spain now seemed like a major cultural taboo, at least at that place and time.

Initially, it was discomforting. In some ways, it felt like we were doing something wrong. At the very least, we were a source of wonderment to those around us. I personally felt like I had when, as a pre-teen, my family moved from New Jersey to Texas, and I was faced with the challenge of finding a balance between being true to myself and adapting to fit in.

Of course, I had also been in a similar position when my husband and I moved to his native Spain. There, I not only had to adapt to Spanish culture while also maintaining parts of my own culture, but we as a couple had to blend our two cultures for our children. It wasn't always easy, and there were certainly occasions where our multiculturalism made us stand out in uncomfortable ways. But life in Sweden added a new twist to this situation.

Sweden was new to both of us, and our experience that day made us realize just how much we were going to have to learn about – and learn to fit comfortably into – its culture and traditions. As reasonable adults, we knew that we neither could nor had to abandon our multiculturalism, either as individuals or as a family. But we also knew that finding a balance for ourselves and our family – and helping to guide our children in their individual quests for balance – was now much more complex and would take time and effort to achieve.


Now in our third year in Sweden, we're still a work-in-progress, and I expect we always will be. We are far from being Swedish, of course, but then we are also not particularly American or Spanish, or even Spanish-American. Instead, our previous multiculturalism is becoming a new multiculturalism. The blend of customs and traditions we brought with us to Sweden is now blending with those we are discovering here, creating a unique and multifaceted existence that I quite like.

This is especially evident in our children, who are almost seamlessly combining their three cultures. I couldn't have felt prouder, for instance, when our six-year-old daughter helped a new girl at school who spoke only English by interpreting between her and their teachers and classmates. That she felt equally confident in both her American, English-speaking identity and her Swedish, Swedish-speaking identity, and was able to happily and productively blend them was inspiring.

Though my husband and I may never attain that same level of confidence or comfort, we are finding a balance for ourselves and our family. We have come a long way from the day when we and our beer stood out like a sore thumb among all the coffee-drinking Swedes at fika time. Not because we no longer do that (we most certainly do), but because we're comfortable with how we're adapting our existing habits and traditions with new ones.

I have no doubt that there are days where we blend in quite nicely here in Sweden, and others when we most certainly do not, and I'm perfectly okay with it both ways. I've come to realize that our multiculturalism will always be something that makes us “different”, no matter where we live. But, at the same time, it will also always be something that connects us to diverse and interesting people across countries and cultures. And that is worth a few long stares every now and then.

Victoria Martínez is an American historical researcher, writer and author of three historical non-fiction books. She lives in Småland county, Sweden, with her Spanish husband and their two children.

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Three things not to do as a foreign parent bringing up kids in Sweden

Are you raising children in Sweden? Here are a few very personal tips for what not to do from Alex Rodallec, who was raised in Sweden by a French Breton mother.

Three things not to do as a foreign parent bringing up kids in Sweden

Raising children is hard enough as it is without having to do it in another country. The added difficulties of being a foreigner can be taxing: grappling with the language, the cultural differences, not being well acquainted with how the system works.

So how do you get advice from someone who knows a bit about the issues your child might face growing up as the child of an immigrant in Sweden? One way is to ask someone who was raised by an immigrant parent in Sweden.  Someone like me.

I am no expert in child rearing, and have no children of my own. I can, however, tell you a few things that you should try to avoid. Here are a few of my best tips for what not to do.

Do not reject your adopted country’s culture

This does not mean that you should assimilate completely. It is, however, a good idea to try to embrace your adopted country’s culture as a positive, rather than a negative, for the sake of your children.

Why? Because your children will not have your cultural identity, at least not entirely. And this will be true no matter what you do to prevent it. They will in part become Swedish, imbued with many of the values and customs of Swedish society, with the behaviour and norms.

This might not sound so serious, but if you are someone who is resentful of Sweden, or if you ever become resentful of it, it might become a serious problem.

My mother, who was French, first came to Sweden as a tourist and then later to work, but with no plans of staying. Then she met my father, a Bolivian man, whom she would eventually divorce when I was around two years old. After that my mother went to live in France with my big sister and me, and with the intention of staying.

The next part I am not so sure about, but I believe my father might have threatened legal action if she did not return with us to Sweden. Whatever the reason for her involuntary return, I do know that my mother’s dislike of Sweden grew with her resentment of having to stay there. And sad as that may be, because of our Swedishness she eventually began seeing us children – though only intermittently – as physical manifestations of the country she hated. Or perhaps we were a constant reminder of the fact that she could not leave. Why could she not leave? Because she loved us. How complicated the twists and turns of life sometimes play out.

Growing up, my mother would often tell us that it was our fault that she was “stuck in this country”, and her most common use of the word ‘Swedish’ was as a profanity directed at us, her children. Naturally this created a dissociation with Sweden and Swedishness, primarily in myself and my big sister, and to a lesser degree in my little sister.

And even though my mother had put my big sister and I in private schools with other children of immigrants (The Catholic and English Schools in Gothenburg), coupled with the fact that we went to preschool in France, we had still committed the cardinal sin of absorbing ‘Swedishness’. My little sister had it the worst when it came to this. She went to a Swedish public school, and never had the experience of going to preschool in France, and so was the most ‘Swedish’ of us all.

To this day, the subject of Swedishness and the like or dislike of Sweden is still a topic of conversation whenever I talk to or meet my sisters. My little sister has accepted her Swedishness, and lives in Gothenburg where we grew up. But my big sister and I both live abroad, and to varying degrees have issues with the country we grew up in. I am slowly learning to love and accept my Swedishness while living in France, but my big sister lives in London and baulks at the thought of ever moving back to Sweden. We are a separated family, in part due to our varying degrees of acceptance of Swedishness.

Perhaps I should stress that my mother was not a horrible person, but she suffered greatly from the circumstances of her life.

So, do not fill your children with your resentment of the country they will grow up in, it may very well be detrimental to their well being and their integration into the society they grew up in.

Do not ignore the complexity of cultural identity

Even though cultural identity can become symbolic of underlying issues, as was the case with my mother, it can also be a great resource, albeit one that might need some help along the way.

Being half French, half Bolivian, born and raised in a Swedish multiethnic suburb, had me untangling the threads that make up my cultural identity for decades. An experience common among multi-ethnic children. Your children might eventually need your support in this, I know I could have used some help.

My advice is to promote the idea that one can be many things all at once. And that to a certain degree these things are contextual. I myself am Bolivian to a greater degree when I spend time with the Bolivian side of the family, and more French when I spend time with the French side.

Having multiple cultural backgrounds also has benefits. Your reference points are multiplied compared to someone who has only one cultural background. You can act as a sort of cultural bridge, much like Commander Spock in Star Trek, for the Trekkies out there. Beyond that, having multiple languages is an asset, children who grow up speaking multiple languages struggle a bit at first, but then tend to outdo their peers in language mastery.

Do not be intimidated by how well your children adapt to Swedish society

This one might be slightly odd, but is an experience that many of my friends of immigrant background have shared with me.

Because your children will grow up as cultural insiders they will master the ins and outs of Swedish society much better than you. Most parents want their children to outdo them, but a parent also wants to feel useful and capable in front of their children. You might have a hard time coping with the fact that your children at a certain point, and perhaps much quicker than they would if you were in your home country, will outdo you. On top of that, in many cultures there is also a more authoritarian parent role, where children ought to know their place as children, and let the parent lead and decide.

My advice is: if you have an issue with your children making you feel inadequate, try to think of yourselves as a family unit. If your children can help you do better, that is good for all of you, try to embrace that. And why not look at it as a great opportunity to learn?

What are your best tips for parents raising children in Sweden? Share your experiences of parenting in Sweden with The Local by emailing us at [email protected]