In the latest in her series about relocating to Sweden, Duška Radosavljević Krojer explores the challenges of moving from one culture to another.
My eight your old has been given a school assignment to research the following words: belief, influence, and culture. On completion he was clear about the first two words’ meanings, but the third one was a bit of a blank. I am not sure exactly why, maybe it was something as simple as running out of time or that he got bored, and he certainly rejected my offer of help; but it got me thinking. And in the spirit of improvisation which I announced at the outset of this series, I take this as my cue.
Culture has been on my mind a lot recently. In multiple ways, both experiential and academic. The first Professor of Drama at the University of Cambridge, founder of Cultural Studies Raymond Williams, once famously defined culture as something ‘ordinary’ – an expression of a group’s daily behaviours. But that was back in the 1950s when culture was still a relatively static phenomenon confined by the boundaries of geographies and nation states. As a perpetual migrant and a co-progenitor of a thoroughly uprooted multicultural family, my most prominent feeling about culture has been a sense of resistance, incongruity, and misunderstanding.
Let me backtrack a little. My new homeland Sweden is known as an exceptionally welcoming country. In 2015 it received 162,877 applications for political asylum from refugees fleeing conflict in Syria and Afghanistan, 35,000 of which were unaccompanied minors, a number often cited as record high. For comparison, in 2015 there were only around 7.5 million Swedish-born citizens with at least one Swedish parent, living in Sweden. Those who are statistically inclined, might be interested to compare this ratio to some of the other European countries, but I am led to believe that Sweden most definitely tops the charts.
Another starkly different way in which this unfolds is the equally accommodating attitude towards highly skilled migrants. Lund, my new hometown, is also home to Tetra Pak (founded here in 1951 and employing around 3,500 people) as well as the large international employers linked to the university – the European Spallation Source (ESS) and the Swedish national facility MAX IV (which has, incidentally, brought my family here).
Some 15 years ago, the municipality of Lund had the foresight and the presence of mind to respond to a trend they’d noticed concerning foreign professionals who, although happy to relocate to Lund in the first place, did not show long staying power. As a matter of fact, they noticed the problem was the lack of immediate opportunities and career prospects for these highly skilled workers’ life partners. So several individuals who had themselves experienced similar issues acculturating to Sweden while accompanying their highly skilled spouses, initiated the subsequently much copied and admired example in the rest of Sweden – the Lund International Citizens’ Hub. Located in a small historic building next to the city library, the Hub runs surgeries, presentations, social events, and, twice a year, a 12-part course aimed at the international citizens seeking work in Sweden. I am a recent graduate of this ‘Kickstarter Programme’ which has taught me, in amongst other things, the importance of LinkedIn in the Swedish labour market, how to lay out my CV according to the expectations of Swedish and Danish employers, and where to go for networking purposes. Rotary clubs of Lund and Malmö, watch out!
I have spent 20 years of my relatively sheltered professional life building a career within British academia and theatre industry. I have helped birth multiple plays and theatre productions, coached hundreds of university students onto their career paths, and written highly cited books and publications; I have won cherished awards, and also helped give out various coveted prizes to British and international artists. One would expect this to warrant at least some interest and curiosity within another cultural context, if not a smooth transition into an equivalent workplace. However, after about a year of trying, I am back at square one – the sort of place I know from about 29 years ago when I first arrived in the UK.
Here is one way of looking at it: culture. To a newcomer, a culture – this expression of a group’s daily behaviour as Williams understood it – is inevitably a closed entity: a striking, slightly scary, slightly attractive fortress whose drawbridge is firmly shut on arrival. My birth culture Serbia has a characteristic circle dance, ‘kolo’ (meaning ‘wheel’), which is another very obvious manifestation of this paradox: a formation that simultaneously tempts you in with its rousing beat and also keeps you out until you have gone through the trouble of learning the intricate steps and can be admitted into the embrace. To add insult to injury, the fact that I have made culture my highly specialised – up to PhD level and beyond – area of expertise makes me far less hireable or ‘marketable’ in another culture’s ‘job market’ than my scientist husband. (And here am I using those terms I have just picked up by force of circumstance that are habitually odious to the ears of a Humanities academic).
Finally, it is various countries’ academias – propped up as they usually are by a mixture of monastic idealism, genuine curiosity, careerism, stray politicians, and fragile egos – that are the ultimate fortresses impossible to break into. (I am learning, for example, not to feel offended by the widespread fact that fellow academics in Sweden do not find it necessary to acknowledge non-essential friendly emails written with the aim of merely reaching out and suggesting a fika.)
Being a migrant – whether a refugee or a highly skilled worker – divests you of both material and moral privileges. Whether I like it or not, my Kickstarter Programme reminds me that I am now well and truly at the mercy of neoliberal capitalism that I once critiqued from the comfort of my ivory tower and needing to learn to ‘sell’ myself in order to find a job and survive. I even genuinely fantasised the other week about working for IKEA after I heard one of the company’s HR officers proclaim on the verge of tears that IKEA is only mistakenly perceived as being about furniture and is in fact primarily about – people and togetherness. Following the session, I also had this corroborated independently by my daughter’s best friend’s parents, both of whom, originally from Turkey, work for the firm in different capacities.
The Kickstarter Programme therefore functions also as a way of lowering the drawbridge and helping the newcomers across. One of the first and the very last sessions in it was delivered by charismatic and entertaining Christine Rundcrantz, an intercultural training coach from BBi Communications. In her sessions Christine taught us about Swedish values and etiquette, showed us grids derived from statistical research that placed various cultures on scales of, for example, conflict aversion or emotional expressiveness, boosted our cultural competence (CQ), and regaled us with anecdotes about intercultural misunderstandings. There was one about how Swedes frown upon overtime working and consider it a sign of inefficiency, but when a Swedish worker said to his Indian co-worker ‘Why do you work so late, shouldn’t you be thinking of your family?’ he received the reply ‘But I am doing this for my family!’.
Much as I enjoyed Christine’s sessions and found immeasurable solace and camaraderie in the Kickstarter Programme as a whole, when it comes to the questions of culture in particular, I also find myself in a lonely place as I don’t find that I fit into any of the statistically circumscribed categories. Nor do I really want to, to be honest. I mean I am the kind of person who doesn’t have a straight answer to the question ‘Where do you come from?’. Even though I have lived in the UK all of my adult life which amounts to at least 1,5 times longer than I ever lived in Serbia (and even when I lived in what is geographically Serbia, I took part in the daily practice of the culture of Yugoslavia); even though I acquired all of my professional qualifications and experience in the UK, gave birth to my children literally within the shadow of the Big Ben, and carry a British passport when I travel; my name and accent, and also probably some of my behavioural traits, will always determine me as Eastern European, and therefore a carrier of certain negative cultural stereotypes. The fortress of theatre academia in the UK, for all its limitations, did give me the tools to resist and challenge such stereotypes as needed and even at times an illusion of empathy, but in reality, the way that both privilege and discrimination work is by stealth: when they are invisible, obscure, and made justifiable by some unquestioned preconception.
So maybe it’s OK that culture is an unknown value for my eight-year-old. Williams’s mission had been to re-define culture as ‘ordinary’ as a means of defying the predominating elitism of his day and age. My personal mission has been to resist stereotype. As for the mongrels that are yet to come into the intercultural fray, we will just have to allow them to figure their own definition out from scratch.
Read the first part of Duška Radosavljević Krojer’s Migration Diary: An Improvised Life, the second part Language Lessons and the most recent instalment In Search of Strindberg
Duška Radosavljević Krojer is a writer, dramaturg and academic. She is the author of award-winning academic monograph Theatre-Making: Interplay Between Text and Performance in the 21st Century (2013) and editor of Theatre Criticism: Changing Landscapes (2016) and the Contemporary Ensemble: Interviews with Theatre-Makers (2013). Her work has been funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council in the UK multiple times including for www.auralia.space (2020-21) and The Mums and Babies Ensemble (2015). She is a regular contributor to The Stage, Exeunt and The Theatre Times.