My Life as a Fake Swede

Every time I walk into a café or shop, I am lying through my teeth. It goes a little something like this:

Barista/cashier: Hej
Me: Hey
Them: [Something in Swedish]
Me: Nej/Ja, tack [I try to alternate daily and guess whether I’ve just said something stupid based on the other person’s reaction]
Them: [Something in Swedish]
Wait several moments, just to make everything more awkward.
Me: Uh, sorry…

Any time anyone speaks to me in Swedish, my first instinct is to pretend that I know exactly what they’re talking about. Which, despite three weeks of introductory Swedish, I don’t.

As you might have guessed, this is a terrible strategy for everyday life. I’ve said no when someone asked me which buses stop at Flogsta Centrum, and an emphatic yes when I was asked what kind of tea I wanted at a cafe. A friend of mine enthusiastically nej’d and ja’d her way through a conversation with a shop assistant at Lush only to leave with a bag of free samples and shampoo because, she explained, after a couple minutes it would have been more uncomfortable to admit that that she hadn’t understood anything the shop assistant was saying.

I’m sure I come across as obviously foreign or anti-social when I give a one word response then stare at the ground. But I can’t help it; I am constantly pretending because I wish that I was one of you.

I’ve been studying in Sweden for almost two months now, and I know that I have no reason to worry about speaking English. Swedish people have been extremely nice to me. Nine times out of ten, a Swede will apologize to me for speaking their national language when I admit I don’t understand. I’m not trying to be arrogant or rude when I pretend to speak Swedish, I’m trying to feel like I belong.

Language is a huge part of fitting in, and admitting that I don’t speak Swedish feels like turning on a big neon sign above my head that says “OUTSIDER.” Uppsala is a diverse city with students from all over the world, and I truly appreciate how welcoming and understanding Swedes are to us. All the Swedish people I’ve met have been accommodating and gracious, laughing at the way I butcher words like Göteborg and jordgubbe, and helping when I ask. And yes, I appreciate when people change to English without skipping a beat, but I am never more aware of my own foreignness than when someone speaks to me and I can’t understand.

We all want to fit in wherever we go and you Swedes, with your quirky traditions, minimalistic winter fashion and big hearts, are enviable role models. So I’m learning – listening to Håkan Hellström, saying ursäkta mig when I need to get past someone at ICA, and trying to catch at least one in ten words that are said to me. It might be irrational and it might make life more difficult (not might – it does), but I feel so happy when I get through a simple interaction without speaking English.

Thank you for everything you’ve done to make me feel at home here, Swedish people, but if you don’t mind, I’d like to pretend to be one of you for a little bit longer.



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