The apologetic American

Yesterday when I was talking about how we are happy that are children are in a school with lots of other immigrants, I glossed over something.

I wrote: “kids are from Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia, Mexico and Gambia, to name a few…” but I stopped there. I thought about it for a bit – either taking out any mention of where people were from or discussing the issue at length. In the end I decided to let it slide. That was yesterday.

Today I had my Swedish for immigrants class. Home countries of other folks include Pakistan, Iraq, Indonesia, Thailand, Romania, Poland, Moldova and Somalia. We started the class with a påskfika (easter coffee break). We drank Sweden’s traditional holiday soft drink, påskmus, ate mini cinnamon buns and easter candy, påskgodis (sounds like goodies). Our teacher told us about Easter in Sweden then she asked if we have the holidays in our own countries. Most people said no. Then she turned to me and said that she knew we had Easter in the US. I fuddled around in Swedish about how not everyone (including me) celebrates Easter. When she asked why, I said something about if you are not Christian then maybe you don’t celebrate it. It’s up to you but it isn’t everyone’s holiday like in Sweden. I felt this underlying anxiety about my inability to explain the tensions and disagreement around the celebration of holidays that have their root in Christianity. I had similar trouble in China.

Then we moved on to reading some news briefs, answering questions about them and then talking as a group about it. There were 4 stories. The headline of the first was “7 dead in US Community College.” It talked about yesterday’s shooting in Oakland. The second was “Thousand of children tortured in Syria.” Followed by “People in Europe drink the most alcohol” and “China has the most executions.” In the discussions that followed she would do around the room and talk about each story and compare Sweden with the native countries of the people in the room. For example, “In Sweden is it legal to torture people?” We would all reply in complete sentences, “No. In Sweden it is not legal to torture people.” She taught us the word for human rights and then she asked each of us if torture is legal in our home country. Everyone else answered no but I figured they would know I was a big old liar if I said that so instead I made some comment about torture being illegal “inomland” (my guess for how you might say in country) but not necessarily illegal “utomland.” Then we moved on the executions, guns, etc. etc. I basically felt like a pariah the whole time.

Where I am going with this today is that so many of the other immigrants we encounter at the kids’ school and in SFI left their home countries in part as a result of U.S. involvement. Many of them are highly educated people starting at the bottom of the occupational ladder here in Sweden because they fled as refugees or managed to come and stay as asylees. And there I sit, an equal but not really, because I can go home whenever I like while most of them cannot, because I already have a desirable job here on account of the fact that my American university degrees are not discounted, because, on account of the power associated with my native language and passport, I can feel relatively safe and welcomed (or at least tolerated) wherever I go (and of course that comfort is only enhanced by my whiteness and comfortable class position). At the same time that I have this privileged status, I am answering questions that make the US sound like a pretty terrible place full of gun-toting, torturing, executing folks who don’t agree on anything. True or not, it sucks to be the person sitting there talking about it in mangled Swedish.

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