Note: This post uses the native names for locations. For example, Sverige is how you say Sweden in Swedish. It’s pronounced like sv-air-ee-yah. It’s anti-imperialistic and not difficult. Wikipedia lists the native name for a location.
6 years ago today, I arrived in Stockholm. When my husband got hired into Spotify’s headquarters, I thought we would have returned to San Francisco by now. I tried writing this post several times over the last year in preparation for my first Sveri-versary as a dual citizen. Trying to capture and organize all my thoughts about the emigration/immigration experience felt overwhelming. So, to help myself focus, I asked on social media what people would be interested in knowing about to help focus. The responses reminded me I didn’t know how much I didn’t know when I moved to a foreign land.
I spent my first year comparing every new experience in Stockholm to my experience in San Francisco. “Huh, there are more types of food available in aluminum squeeze tubes than there are types of shampoo for sale in the grocery store.” I learned to just let Sverige be Sverige. Life would be different and most differences did not need a value judgment of better/worse or good/bad attached to them.
Sverige is a physical place you can visit, but it also is a point in time to visit. Living in Sverige feels more like living in the future than living on a different continent. I moved to Stockholm a few months after Donald Trump became president. Even if Bernie Sanders had won with a Congress controlled by Democratic Socialists and they enacted every public policy program they championed, it would still take generations of compounding societal benefit to achieve common life in Sverige today.
Swedes my age often cannot relate to my life experiences. They grew up in a society dedicated to raising children well. Parents receive 16 months of paid leave per child to be fully present caretakers. Preschool, like school, is fully tax-financed. While I do not desire to be a father, I love living in a society where kids and their parents are taken care of. I smile every time I see groups of 10 year old kids hanging out in parks or taking the subway without adult supervision. Instead of being helicopter parents, Swedes collectively created an open world safe enough for kids to explore independently.
No one in Sverige worries about health insurance coverage or medical bills because everyone is guaranteed healthcare. My mother’s death from cancer nearly bankrupted my family in the US. The most an individual must pay for healthcare annually in Sverige is ~$250.
I took out an additional student loan to afford health insurance while attending college. I graduated $33,000 in debt even though I worked 3 jobs and received an academic scholarship. There is no financial barrier to higher education in Sverige. The government pays students a living stipend while attending university full time. The result is that every Swede you meet is as educated as they want to be.
This point usually is where my conservative-leaning American friends interject with, “But the taxes are so high!” My effective tax rate for my final year living in the US was 34%. My effective tax rate in Sverige last year was 49%. In my opinion, 16 percentage points more for a high functioning society is a fair exchange. If I had gone to university in Stockholm or had a child today, it would be an advantageous exchange. The wealth of a society should not be measured by its gross domestic product, but by how well the poorest people in that society live. I genuinely am grateful to pay taxes to live in a society where people are taken care of.
This point is where I caution my liberal-leaning American friends that Sverige is not a progressive utopia. Just because Sverige fixed many societal problems does not mean it should be idolized. The country has its own history, present challenges, and mixed desire to continue in a leftward direction.
Sverige suffers from majoritarianism, a disregard for problems most people do not experience. For example, I received my COVID-19 vaccinations in the US. When digital vaccination passes were required for travel and entrance to certain venues, Sverige did not have a method to recognize foreign vaccinations to obtain a pass until months after the passes were no longer required. Similarly, when a new immigration policy intended to restrict Syrian refugees from staying in the country long-term also forced foreign doctoral students out of the country, the Riksdag (parliament) acknowledged the unintended negative consequence and collectively shrugged. Problems that do not affect most Swedes simply get accepted as such. It’s your problem when your problems are not like others’ problems. A progressive society can do better.
The biggest cultural difference between the US and Sverige to me is that Sverige does not have a multicultural society and many Swedes do not aspire to have one. In the small towns of my childhood, I was taught the American dream of people coming from another land to build a better life alongside classmates who were first-generation Americans. Country music artist Brad Paisley described an American Saturday night as “a French kiss, Italian ice, margaritas in the moonlight.” Even Republicans opposed to present-day immigration will boast of a distant family connection to a European country in a family tree or genealogy test.
The absence of many cultures in Sverige can be attributed to few people from other cultures moving to the country. Until 1930, more Swedes left the country than people moved to it. The biggest waves of immigration to Sverige in the last 50 years came from foreign conflicts creating asylum seekers and refugees. Swedes barely celebrate their own culture. I cannot fault them for a seeming lack of interest in other cultures. It’s just different from the way US Americans love their mosaic.
Immigration dominated Sverige’s most recent general election in October 2022. The country accepted more Syrian refugees per capita than any other European country. Anti-immigrant rhetoric increased when many of them became eligible for permanent residency and citizenship. The left-leaning coalition tried to appease voters by making residency and citizenship more difficult. It was not enough. One in three Swedes voted for an explicitly anti-immigrant party and a right-wing coalition won control of the Riksdag. A neo-Nazi Nordic Resistance Movement member attacked the only political party leader who defended the value of immigrants to society and the economy during the election debates with a knife. She later resigned when her party lost support in the election.
The election occurred while I awaited approval on my citizenship application. I asked several Swedes to explain the situation. “People don’t dislike immigrants like you. They mean refugees,” they said. The answer did not make me feel any better because the immigration law applied to me the same way it applied to refugees. Also, because it lacked compassion and bordered on xenophobia.
Most Swedes will agree that diversity, equity, and inclusion are good ideals. One of the biggest protests during my time in Stockholm was a solidarity Black Lives Matter rally and yet race and ethnicity conversations here are stuck at “being color-blind”. Proposing an idea with uncertain consensus seems intimidating to many Swedes. I often joke that the primary rule of Swedish society is “Do not create an awkward social situation.” Addressing white fragility is inherently awkward and I wonder if this cultural aversion to difficult conversations is inhibiting progress. Learning about unconscious bias means recognizing one’s inner racism. Being anti-racist requires acknowledging systemic racism and advocating for change. If there is one thing Sverige can learn from America, I hope it’s this.
I don’t know what the next 6 years will be like. I move forward now as a hyphenate, a US American-Swede, forever a foot in both worlds. I know I am more happy, more optimistic, and better positioned to build a better future living in Stockholm than San Francisco. I feel done with the US. I don’t have the energy to fight in the quagmire of a culture war from afar. The imperfect future is already in progress in Sverige. I hope you’ll come visit and see for yourself.
Frequently Asked Questions
How big is the language barrier?
English is a “required” language in Sverige. Swedes start learning English in 3rd grade and consume much US media. Many Swedes speak with an American (not British!) accent. Some jobs require Swedish proficiency, but companies in Stockholm with an international workforce primarily use English. Nearly everything written is in Swedish, so learning Swedish is still useful. I have tried nearly every language app with limited success. I can read many words, but am not yet fluent conversing in Swedish.
2023-04-03 update: If you feel the need to tell an immigrant they are not being a good enough immigrant, no, you don’t. Adapting and surviving in a new country is difficult enough without your added criticism on their language acquisition skill or time management.
How difficult is it to make friends in Stockholm?
While most of my friendships in Stockholm are with other immigrants, I cherish the friendships I have with several Swedes. Swedes have a reputation for being difficult to make friends with. Many have strong friend groups from childhood and they tend to segment their friend groups more than in the US. I have found the best way to make friends in Stockholm is through participating in group activities, wearing a kind smile, and being willing to start conversation.
Loukas Christodoulou wrote that if Americans are peaches and Russians are watermelons, Swedes are strawberries with forcefields. This guide on how to make friends with a Norwegian is quite accurate for Swedes too.
Does the cold and darkness get to you?
After attending university in Boston, I swore I would never live in a cold climate again. I hated winter and moved to California. When my husband got the job opportunity to move to Stockholm, I was surprised to learn that the archipelago city of Stockholm was often warmer than most northern US cities in the winter. Temperatures in Stockholm hover around freezing most of the winter.
I learned of the Swedish phrase “There is no bad weather, only bad clothing.” I bought better clothing. During the pandemic, my husband and I took weekly hikes. I learned to appreciate the beauty of every season, including winter.
December is indeed dark. Stockholm gets just 6 hours of daylight on the winter solstice. However, Swedes are not particularly troubled by this. They told me to take a walk in the sunshine during lunch. Since I worked indoors, the sun going down at 3pm or 6pm should not matter. My home is now stocked with many candles and blankets for cozy winter nights. I also reserve a week of vacation in February for escaping somewhere sunny and warm.
Summer brings over 22 hours of daylight. The sun sets, but slides along the horizon and never gets darker than nautical twilight. Stockholm feels magical then.
What do you miss most about living in the US, other than specific people?
- Amazon Prime free same-day delivery to my door instead of corner store a kilometer away
- The variety of products available for purchase, from household cleaners to the most fresh produce
- Amazing Asian cuisine, especially Chinese-American takeout
Will you give up your US citizenship?
Maybe, but not yet. US citizenship is more of a burden than a benefit because US tax law assumes Americans abroad are either terrorists or tax evaders. However, my family is still in the US and and I might need a country to escape to if Putin escalates his invasion of Ukraïna into World War III.
Do you drive in Sverige?
No, my California driver’s license expired in 2021. I could not renew it because I did not live in the state and I did not want to pay California state income taxes on my global income. Sverige does not recognize US driver’s licenses. I would need to spend ~$3,000 and a month of effort to get a Swedish driver’s license.
I can take a bus or train everywhere in Sverige. I truly do not need to drive. My husband, Arthur, got his Swedish driver’s license while bored during the pandemic.
How difficult was it to immigrate to Sverige?
In 2016, the immigration process to Sverige was fast and easy as a skilled worker with employer sponsorship. Since then, the country stopped welcoming immigrants. See above. Minister for Migration Maria Malmer Stenegard basically told immigrants to fuck off and not come in February 2023.
Better or Worse
Better: Public restrooms
Most public restrooms in Sverige are non-gendered, fully private rooms with a toilet and sink.
Worse: Home bathrooms
Most home bathrooms are wet rooms. All of the walls and flooring are sealed against water with few barriers. Water goes everywhere. Toilets, sinks, and countertops are cantilevered from the wall and do not touch the floor. There are never enough power outlets.
Mostly Better: Internet access
Most areas of Stockholm had 100+ MbPS 4G LTE 5 years ago. Despite Sverige being the size of California with a quarter of the population, few parts of the country lack broadband or cellular coverage. My cell phone service costs ~$25/month for 50 GB of data. Over half the country has fiber Internet access. However, the IPv6 migration is far behind the US and many other European countries. The Swedes and the Internet annual report is always insightful.
Worse: Swedish cuisine
Swedes eat the same foods for every special occasion. They’re not great and the only vegan dish I can enjoy is boiled potatoes. There is a reason why there are no Swedish restaurants outside of the country.
Better: Work/life balance
~70% of workers belong to a union. Sverige requires a minimum of 25 days of paid vacation annually. Few people work more than 40 hours a week with a maximum cap of 48 hours.
Worse: Job opportunities
There are far more job opportunities with far better compensation in the US than in Europe. I hope this changes over time. The average salary for a software engineer in Sverige is the starting salary for recent graduates in the US.
Better: Public nudity and body image
Swedes are comfortable being naked in public. Nudity is not something to giggle about or be titillated by. It’s just a practical way to enjoy saunas and the many lakes. Stockholm gym locker rooms helped me develop a more positive body image and learn to be comfortable nude. Men of all ages and body types are at ease here.
Worse: Drug policy
Nearly half of US states have legalized marijuana and even more states have decriminalized some use. Swedes consume more alcohol on average, but think of marijuana as if it were heroin. Gang violence in Sverige is increasing primarily due to cocaine and other drug trade. Sverige’s right-wing government is increasing policing and punishments. These strategies failed to work in every country and it’s painful to see Sverige ignore the evidence from the US and Portugal.
- The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia by Michael Booth (book)
- Why is Sweden afraid of publishing this book on race? (article) and In Every Mirror She’s Black (book) by Nigerian-Swedish author Lọlá Ákínmádé Åkerström