Sweden, immigration and a lack of smiles

I just wrote a short essay for Quartz on being an immigrant in Sweden.  I got a little nervous in the writing – since I*m such a privileged American – but I’ve had some feedback on Twitter which confirmed I was on the right track …

Here it is.  Since this gets to directly to what I write about here, I’m posting the whole thing:

To see the new Sweden, go to the mall in Kista in the late afternoon. Kista is a neighborhood far north of Stockholm’s historic center on the “blue” subway line, and it is both a world-renown tech cluster, known as Sweden’s Silicon Valley, and an immigrant neighborhood only one stop from Husby, where police shot a 69-year-old man a few weeks ago, sparking a week of rioting across certain Stockholm neighborhoods.

It used to be that the tech guys and the immigrants would trade off possession of the once-desolate, now glitzy mall through the day—at lunch it was thronged with middle-aged men in pressed jeans and blue blazers, while at night it was occupied by women in chadors, old men clustered on benches and diverse groups of teens laughing and bouncing where business deals were struck just hours before. Now it’s more of a diverse mix: the mall is so nice, it draws people from all over Stockholm, but you can still see the old patterns right at lunch time and on some evenings.

These are the two streams of the new Sweden: the innovative tech world and the incredible blend of immigrants from Iraq to Somalia, Bosnia to South America.  There is no conflict between the two groups, but there is also little positive interaction. It’s in this atmosphere that the kids from Husby hang out, in the shadows of glittering hotels and rising luxury apartments.

Maybe I pay special attention to Kista because I also live on a border of new and old Sweden, two blocks on the “right” side of a big street separating “us” from a series of gargantuan apartment blocks built in the 1960s and 1970s as part of the Million Programme, a much maligned effort to provide a million new apartments for working class Swedes, now largely housing immigrants and refugees.

My daughter goes to school right under the blocks, which, during the riots, were on a list of places to avoid sent out by the US Embassy. I love the school and sing its praises in our neighborhood, which has drawn more than a few quizzical looks, as if people didn’t even know it was possible for kids from our middle-class neighborhood to go to that school. Everyone knows—just knows—it’s horrible but can never explain exactly why.

Or maybe I’m fascinated by Kista because I’m an immigrant, albeit the most privileged sort. I’m American, married to a Swede and get to work at a white collar job in my native tongue. I’ve taken around 18 months of paid paternity leave, at seemingly no cost to my career (in fact, I’d say it’s helped). I’ve had Sweden at its best.

But, still, I get hints. I have a foreign sounding last name and look or sound neither obviously American nor obviously Swedish. While on all that paternity leave, I spent a lot of quiet moments being ignored by other Swedish parents, and my closest acquaintances from my first paternity leave came from the US, Iran and East Africa respectively.

They made fun of this Swedish reticence at the recent Eurovision Song Contest, hosted in Sweden. During a very funny song and dance, the host, Petra Mede, sangthese words:

Proper and polite and private is our style / Never, ever talk on a train / And if we see a stranger throw us a smile / He’s either a drunk or insane.

Being an immigrant is hard, and no society can have 15% of its population foreign born without friction. And when it comes to the integration “question,” there’s the welfare state, the Swedish job market, and the tight urban housing market to address. But I think the root of the problem goes beyond all that.

In my experience, Swedes want to be friendly; they want you to like living in their country; and they want to support refugees fleeing the worst places on earth.  And they are willing to put their votes and their tax money behind these beliefs. This is why Husby looks nothing like Detroit, but instead, a pleasant, if oddly isolated housing complex set quite close to some beautiful forest. This is why the schools there get extra funding and why the city of Stockholm just announced it would move many of its municipal offices out of the city center and into the suburbs.

But as a society, Swedes aren’t yet willing to renegotiate what “Swedishness” means, and they aren’t willing to break up a stable social structure built on close-knit groups of family and old friends. Sweden gives the immigrants and refugees of Husby an adequate place to live. But it doesn’t give them any Swedish neighbors or any Swedish jobs. And it certainly doesn’t give them many smiles, which sounds silly until you live in a place where no one smiles at you or your children.

My daughter’s school had a little spring festival this week, and as I stood there watching kids, with roots reaching into every corner of the earth, chatter in Swedish in utterly blended groups, I could only think about what all the Swedes who avoid the neighborhood, as well as Husby and the residential half of Kista, are missing: their future.

photography by a man who works next to a mall in stockholm, sweden

In the summer they said that global warming would make Sweden milder but with horrible mosquito troubles.  Now – in an Arctic November of snow and bitter winds – they say global warming could make the winters colder, which is so sad I don’t know what to say about it.

So, instead, I give you the next installment of my photo series, “man who works in an office building next to a mall.”  Today, we focus on the mall, which has nice shiny walls.

Note the amazing Nordic light.  Also note that this was the only clear sky we’ve had for days.  Last November, we had 14 hours of sunlight the entire month.  If that holds true this month, I am glad to have captured the brightness we did get.

a photo commute to “mobile valley” in stockholm, sweden

Trying something new.  My morning in Sweden in the pale late fall.

I start with this … at 4:30am.

Then I get on the quiet subway.

The rush off the train ends fast.  And the walk through the monumental corporate stillness begins.








That’s my building above.  I work all day.  It is good.

Then just as the sun goes down at 2:45, I see this out the office window.

And I go home to this.

And that is good.

it’s easier to leave Daddyland when everyone else has been there too

I do not have stable mornings right now.  I swing from complete routine – getting everyone dressed and out the door, just like always – to the horror of seeing my son fall apart when I shove him at a daycare teacher.  I have a moment of peace on the train and then fall into a less visceral but more existential despair as the train approaches Kista – the Silicon Valley of Scandinavia, also known as a mall and a bunch of office buildings in the middle of nowhere.  We pour out of the train – only the largely immigrant locals provide any color – a mass of tech workers funneling through one door and down one stair, just mingling and colliding.

Then I get to the office, and everything takes on a human scale again.  I like my job, and I like my co-workers but it goes deeper, I think, especially in the first days outside Daddyland.  The thing is – probably a majority of my co-workers are also parental leave exiles.  They’ve been off for months, maybe multiple times.  They’ve done the in schooling.  They have worked part-time.  And the ones that don’t have kids, well, they are influenced by the greater culture.

So it is a welcoming crowd outside Daddyland, one that is shockingly interested in my son’s adjustments, in my feelings about leaving the sand box.  There is a uniformity to Swedish experience that just doesn’t exist in America – for better and for worse.  Here in Sweden, especially in 2010 with more and more dads taking paternity leave, you don’t have stay at home moms.   You don’t have kids in daycare at six weeks.  You don’t have workaholic dads (OK, you got plenty but lots less than before).

It’s nice.  My son, by the way, has attached to all sorts of things in the past week.  He never showed any interest in blankets or bears or even pacifiers.  Now he wears his rain pants all afternoon and evening.  I know how he feels, and I feel quite certain that my co-workers would probably understand if I came to work clutching a large spoon that reminded me of Baby B, for some unknown reason.

the silence of scandinavia

In October, the dark descends with the gray mists, and the silence deepens.

The moon is out in late morning now, and the changing leaves of autumn are subdued by the rain and gloom, the color draining from the trees and sky and the earth itself.

You descend to a subway station on a Monday morning, and, deep under the rock, there is no echo. Instead the rock muffles what sounds there are, basically just you talking to your wife on a cell phone.

You get on a train, and the silence is more profound because the train is full of people, of the pale and colorless with their thousand-yard stare. The train goes in and out of tunnels, but not one head turns. There are no headphones either – this is not a silence with inner music. This is just silence.

Then you realize that the train is not all Scandinavian stock. Far from it. There is a black woman next to you. Two black men down the train. An Asian man slumps against a pole. There are two women with almost their entire faces covered. A Middle Eastern-looking man, a South Asian woman. The one woman talking on her cell phone – though so quietly you can not hear a word – she looks vaguely Hispanic.

No surprise on a train to an outer suburb, where the immigrants get shunted. But the silence was. People acclimate. You acclimate, with no headphones and your own thousand-yard stare. You take in the silence born of centuries of darkening damp Octobers.

You remember that your toddler screamed with joy when she could see the moon again on the walk to daycare. Screamed. With joy.

That was good.

the quest for the tastes of home

Nothing tastes the same when you live abroad.  Almost nothing.

Occasionally you find that one food that tastes exactly the same as home.  Same seasonings, consistency, everything.

You might think this has improved with globalization and the rise of the multinational food companies.  It has not.

When E was pregnant in New York, she only found one food that tasted of Sweden – cheap fish fingers.

I usually don’t have a problem with this.  But I have been teased then disappointed twice now in two days.

Both days, I went for walks at lunch, only to be drawn impulsively to the food court at the Kista mall.

Yesterday, I tried a chicken taco from Taco Bar, the only thing Sweden has that resembles Taco Bell.  The first bite held promise.  But then the seasoning was off.  And the chicken was not grilled, but sort of boiled and covered by very un-Taco Bell-like sauce.

Then today, I got a falafel pita.  And the first bite evoked New York City at the turn of the milennium.  Had I finally found a replacement for my beloved falafel shop on Broadway?


Well, maybe.  What was that purple thing?

Beets?  Ummm, that’s not like New York.

And what was that tang?  Oh, the veggies are all pickled.


I had trouble finishing it.

the flat world outside stockholm

You want to see what Thomas Friedman calls “the flat world?” You want to see a post-American world not dependent on any one center? You want to see the breakdown of the European idea of the nation, of the “folk”?

Come to lunch with me.

I work on the farthest outskirts of Stockholm where maybe 30 years ago they built expanses of apartments for the working class. They built out the subway too, coming out of the ground past the inner suburbs through the forest finally to Kista, which used to be a farm, I think. They also built a really big mall.

Like most of these outer suburbs across Europe, Kista quickly filled with immigrants, with Somalis and Iraqis and Turks and Kurds. Usually, these suburbs languish, either boiling over like in France or stagnating or become a rather lively incubator for a new Sweden. Whatever happens, it is out of sight.

But then Ericsson ran out of space south of town, looked around and settled on Kista. Bam, hello Sweden’s “telecom valley.” Now on one side of the tracks, you have all the immigrants in their apartments, and on the other side, you have an army of men and women in black suits working in telecom and IT and whatnot. And not just for Ericsson. Kista is a sprawling moniker now for working in the tech industry, for any number of companies. Stockholm’s tallest building is there, and it is not an Ericsson building.

I had lunch with my wife in that building today. Sitting in pink chairs on a pink shag carpet looking at exposed steel beams and mood lighting, she compared it to something out of Star Wars. But the real action, we agreed, is in the mall. For there, the two worlds meet. Every day, the masses of mostly white businessmen and women merge with older unshaven immigrants sitting in circles, with Somail women covered save for their faces, with running children of every possible color.

There is no real interaction, everyone in true Swedish fashion gliding around each other, paying no attention, tolerant but not really engaged. There is no tension, for the mall is nice for both, for the housing has been renovated and immigrants in Sweden seem to do pretty well. And the tech suits love the food court with its Persian, Indian, Thai, Japanese, Chinese, Mexican, Spanish, Italian, American, Swedish, Middle Eastern, fast food restaurants.

Kista is immigration from the south to the north. It is the interconnected world of telecom. It is sprawl but with buses and trains. It is isolation and mingling.

Oddly, in the end, it gets boring. Nothing really happens.