In January the family and I will be landing in Växjö, Sweden, where I will join a team of researchers studying the multicultural incorporation of immigrants in Sweden. You can find out more about the project here.
Right now we are managing the hurdles (VISAs and work permit, apartment hunting, employment contracts, school registration) and one of the things that feels so familiar is that leap of faith required in undertaking an international move. Trusting that there is a logic and order (that I do not recognize immediately) to other national/cultural systems is a skill I developed in China. In dealing with the paperwork and in the face of all that is unknown and unsaid I find that I have to suspend my own presuppositions and bracket the meaning I impute to the process and behavior of others. Those instances in which I need to push through “the truth” I assign to situations often reveal so much about things.
Take the entire hiring process, for example. I applied for this position last March. The application was a beast – no CV and cover letter with supporting documents. Instead, there was a formalized application where I filled in the requested information, completed essays and attached a host of official and supporting documents as appendices that were numbered and referenced earlier in the document. Instead of putting out an application on my terms, I needed to fit myself into the boxes and essays on the application. After the application deadline I received an email stating how many applications were submitted and that they would be sent out for external review (in which an outside reader ranks the applications based upon the specific criteria included in the job posting). Fast forward 5 months (not so different from peer-review!). I received an email informing me that I was the top-ranked candidate. I soon learned that I would need to have an interview, that there were 3 concerns I would need to address in the interview (if I would really come to Sweden, how I would do my research as a linguistic and cultural outsider, and how the research related to my own larger research goals), and, if I addressed those concerns adequately, I would likely get the job. I had the interview and heard informally that I had done well and had nothing to worry about. A couple of weeks later they told me they had finished interviewing the top-ranked candidates and I was still the top-ranked candidate so I would be getting a job contract that included a salary within the range of X-Y. One month later I received a contract (not offer) for employment. It contained the information on the salary and period of employment as well as giving me a personsnummer – the number that puts me in the Swedish system as a legal worker with access to healthcare, 6 weeks paid vacation annually, schooling for the kids, etc (kind of like a social security number that actually carries benefits). There was no mention of these benefits, or travel expenses, etc in the letter. I signed it and returned it.
At many points in the hiring process (especially the last few months of it), I’ve imputed meaning to what I have experienced as a long process full of delays. Did it mean the folks I was going to work with were disorganized? Did they not want me to come but needed to take me because I was top ranked so they were dragging their feet in hopes that withdrew? But then I realized that the process was playing out exactly as folks had told me it would, that the people I was dealing with did not seem to be bothered but, instead, seemed to trust the pace and logic of the process. When the long-awaited “offer” arrived as a contract, I was puzzled. Am I supposed to negotiate for more money, perks, nicer office space, undesignated development funds, a reduced teaching load? Often when I brought up questions and concerns folks seemed surprised that I felt a need to ask. Folks said things like, “Of course, whatever you need to come and perform your work will be provided. You can tell us what you need,” “We can talk about what teaching responsibilities make the most sense for you” and “Your benefits have all been negotiated in the union contracts. You will find they are fair.”
And that, I think, speaks to one of my first cross-cultural observations. I am primed to expect things to breakdown and I interpret slow development as dysfunction. I believe that I, as an individual and unrepresented employee, need to be on the defensive, lobbying to get the most out of an employer whose own interest is in getting the most out of me for the least pay and benefits. But I was dealing with folks who trust the system and recognize it as fair and transparent. Despite the fact that the outcome was predictable, there was no need to “cut to the chase.” Instead, fair and orderly steps were necessary. The contract I signed was bare bones, not because I am going to get fleeced, but because I am supposed to trust that I will be taken care of. Imagine that.
This is going to be interesting.