Feeling settled — gaining and losing cultural references

Feeling settled

I was looking for a long lost friend on the Internet the other day when I stumbled across an article on her dad in a Swedish newspaper. Her dad was American and the article highlighted his 50th birthday with an interview discussing his life, how he had ended up in Sweden and what his wishes were for the future.

Growing up, I never knew much about him, other than that he was from North Carolina, that he worked at the post office and that he spoke Swedish with a heavy accent. My friend had the mysterious aura of someone who had access to a bigger world compared to the rest of the neighborhood kids – even though she had never been to the US. I think most of that was just a vague imagined perception on my part, but still the mystery was there. I didn’t know then that her father had ended up in Sweden as a young man in order to avoid going to the Vietnam War. I didn’t know that for many years he couldn’t return to his home country and his family.

I think we were about eight or nine when she announced that they were going to the US for the summer. As far as I know, this was the first time her dad would be back since he had left, and it was the first time my friend would meet her relatives and see her dad’s home country. I remember getting a letter from her that summer. It was written on Ramada Inn letterhead and I thought it was the most glamorous thing ever. I don’t remember what the letter said, other than that America was big and beautiful! Soon after they came home her dad took delivery of a gorgeous Harley-Davidson motorcycle, something none of us had ever seen. Oh, to have an American dad! I think about him sometimes – how hard it must have been to leave home, not knowing if he’d be able to go back. I wonder if he ever really felt at home in Sweden?

I remember when I first came to the US, how unprepared I was for the isolation and the loneliness and how hard it was to feel part of the community at large. After over 20 years in the US I can see that part of what makes you feel included in a community is your frame of reference. As a foreigner, your frame is different and you have to slowly but surely build a new understanding of the world around you. Still, there are some behaviors that will never seem natural to me, such as trying on clothes in a store and then leaving the “rejects” in a pile on the floor for someone else to pick up, or not bagging your own groceries.

Part of the struggle of the expat existence is that as you gain new cultural references you may also lose some of your old ones. How else do I explain, when I am visiting back home, my lack of patience for poor customer service or, why I look strangers in the eye and say “Hi” when sharing an elevator, sometimes only realizing it as I see the confusion on their faces?

About my friend’s dad – the article said he was looking to live in one of the southern US states and get a black belt in Karate before the age of 60.

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