My first experience with culture shock was when I was eleven and my family moved from the big city to the country. I didn’t know it at the time of course, but looking back it’s clear as day that that was what I was experiencing, and it didn’t even take moving abroad to trigger it. But then again, we didn’t just move to the country, we moved to the “middle-of-nowhere-country”, with nothing but a couple of farms surrounding us. Nearest (small) town was 20 minutes away by car. To make matters worse, we went cross-country, far away from everyone I knew. I might as well have landed in a foreign country — everything felt strange to me, the way people spoke, dressed, and socialized.

I am sure they thought I was strange as well, with my city dialect and my ideas about students’ involvement in school, not to mention my weird clothes. Looking back, I know I rubbed some people the wrong way. But I was just a kid and didn’t know any other way than to carry on as I was used to. I don’t think it was on anyone’s mind that culture shock could be an issue and really, who would have thought that moving within your own country could be such a disorienting experience.

I know my parents did the best they could to make sure we all got settled, and for my siblings, it worked out pretty well. For me, however, it never really happened. I couldn’t find a natural way to connect to my peers and even though I spent a large part of my childhood and teenage years there, I never came to feel like I belonged.

The fact that the nickname everyone called me by “back home” literally meant “rag” in the local dialect might have been a good enough clue that this place was not going to happen for me. Then again, as a grown-up with some international moves under my belt, I can’t help but think that a little bit of perspective would have gone a long way.

For example, I wasn’t mature enough to understand that there was a completely different school culture in this town. I assumed that I could behave the way I had where I came from, which was a very progressive teaching environment heavy on student involvement. Of course, it didn’t go over well when I tried the “tricks” I had learned at my old school — not with the teacher and not with the other students. The teacher found me to be an annoying “know-it-all” and the other students just thought I created more work for everyone. No one wants that!

It’s ironic that this is the place my own kids consider to be their Swedish home; that this is where they prefer to go if they get the choice. I often wonder how this is possible? Part of the answer is that they feel like they belong within a larger context when they visit — they have cousins and grandparents and aunts and uncles who look out for them and take them to local places that by now are connected to years of memories that hold deep meaning to them. The little town that felt stifling to me is charming to them, with its little cobblestoned streets and quaint harbor. The farmer next door is exotic and the dirt road outside the house perfect for practicing driving when you are not yet of legal driving age.

My kids can’t understand why I don’t love this place, why I don’t want to spend all summer there. I try to explain that I like it just fine, I just never felt at home there. My memories are not anchored in a feeling of belonging like theirs, but rather with the pretty harsh reality of simply trying to fit in and not succeeding.

By: Felicia Shermis

Sometimes, a little time is all you need
Expat life - challenging and empowering