Sunday, April 18, 2010

Tales from a Swedish language class...

So, when I was living in Sweden and attending classes with fellow immigrants we had to make numerous in-class speaking presentations. I did two that seemed to leave lasting impressions.

One was a Monday morning description of what we students had been up to over weekend. I had spent a weekend helping some friends move from an apartment into their first house, and I had arrived at an important insight that I wanted to share. While moving furniture and listening to the conversations it had occurred to me that homes, apartments, and furnishings are to Swedes what cars are to Americans--an important cultural object that shows the world who you are and what important characteristics you see yourself as possessing.

That one provoked an animated conversation that even the Swedish class instructor seemed to enjoy. The really fun part, though, was that during subsequent gatherings outside of class significant Swedish others of my classmates would approach me and let me know that they really enjoyed hearing about that comparison. Most felt that the focus on furniture and home as personal signifiers stemmed from the rainy climate and amount of time spent indoors.

The other presentation was one in a series of talks about our homelands. For mine I chose regionalism and tried to describe the foods, attitudes, politics, climate, and lifestyles that characterize regions in the US such as New England and the South, the Southwest and Pacific Northwest, the Midwest and West Coast, and so on.

That one honestly seemed to stump a number of people.

Apparently the widely held external view of the US is monolithic, with a general assumptions that people talk and think the same in Minnesota as in Texas. The idea that each state has its own flag and laws also seemed to come as a surprise. That some of the states predated the US was also news. A widely held belief among both Swedish friends and foreign classmates was that the states are administrative sub-units of the federal government, which in turn legislates laws for the nation at all levels. There were also some Swedes who thought that the states handle misdemeanor level offenses while felonies fall under federal purview.

My best guess is that much of this stems from from individuals applying notions of how their homelands work to the US despite significant differences in size and diversity. The countries that I have lived and worked in have had populations between five and eighty million people, and all of these were much more politically centralized than the United States. Most of my friends in these countries did not seem to realize how little the average US citizen deals with the federal government during their life prior to retirement. Also, there are only a handful of countries large enough to have the extreme variations of climate that mark out regions and drive regional politics within the US.


JensA said...

I think you are partly right about the comparison of cars and houses in our society's. It's more important for a Swede to live well, then drive well in general and it might have something to do with the climate. I saw in Thailand that you could live in a shed without walls and the first thing you bought when you got some money was a TV with a satellite dish. And the second thing was a car. I commented this to a local when we passed a BMW outside that kind of shed. She just said "That's normal".

Alex said...

Yes, the observation about it being climate based was one that a number of Swedes made. And I think that it holds true even inside the US. Here in the rainy Pacific Northwest apartments and houses seem to be better furnished, and cars are more compact. The opposite is common back in Nevada, where people spend a lot more time outdoors.