Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Kalles Kaviar in Swedish America

I’m in my third year of teaching Swedish at the university level. And every year I bring Kalles Kaviar in for my students to taste. (I had initially written that I make my students taste it, but that suggests an authoritarian regime that belies the 50 minutes of chaos that my classes tend to devolve into.) For those of you who don’t know, Kalles Kaviar is the orange fish roe that can be found in the blue tubes that are ubiquitous in Swedish grocery stores. It’s a glorious food. Salty, delicious, and great on knäckebröd. Knäckebröd tends to be translated as hard tack. It’s the Wasa crackers you can buy in grocery stores throughout the US. These are two Swedish products that were meant to be. No matter what country you find yourself in.

This is essentially what I tell my students. You know, university level indoctrination and all that. And so it was that last week I packed some Kalles and knäckebröd into my backpack and headed off to school. It’s always an exciting day, I love the reactions. Some people love it. Some don’t. And those who don’t, fail life. Not my class, just life.  

This year, I got quite a reaction. In fact, it was a reaction I had never received before. A squeal of sorts. A look of disgust. A hand flying in the air. And then finally, it was verbalized. There’s a maggot on my knäckebröd. Really? A maggot? Yup. A maggot. And it’s moving. Really? It’s moving? Yup. Look. It’s moving. Awesome.

At this point, the knäckebröd in question was in my hand. There was, in fact, a maggot. It didn’t look to be moving, but I wasn’t about to argue that point. I once had a boss in Sweden, who, in broken English, liked to say: You can’t make shit shine. And you can’t make a maggot look better, just because it’s dead.

But as I stared at it, two thoughts flew through my head. One. Gross. How did this happen? Two. I should just eat it. I mentioned that my class was essentially 50 minutes of chaos right? Luckily, my better senses prevailed as I realized that 50 minutes of chaos would quickly turn to 50 minutes of shit show if I ingested a maggot in front of my students. I chose instead to empty the knäckebröd and pick out the pieces that looked clean.

I passed the remainder of the knäckebröd and Kalles around. To my pleasant surprise, and to the credit of 19 first year university students, the vast majority of students took a bit of knäckebröd and a bit of Kalles. Some people loved it. Some didn’t. Even a maggot couldn’t change that.

Welcome to Swedish America. And a little extra protein in your Kalles and knäckebröd.

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Sunday, October 14, 2012

Cultural Stereotypes of High School and College in the US

Are high school and college in the US like the movies? I was asked that question more times than I can count the last two summers in Sweden and Denmark. Strangely enough, I never remembered being asked that question when I was actually living there. It might have simply been that while living there I was an actual adult with an actual job and an actual pay check. When visiting the last two summers I was a student hanging out with a bunch of other students, many of whom were much younger than me. My liver can attest to the age gap.

But that question. That question about movies and pop culture mirroring reality. It’s one I never know how to answer. Partially because it is a Hollywood depiction of something that tends to be a very individual experience for people. It’s a glorification of something that doesn’t necessarily exist in the form that is depicted on film. It is a cultural stereotype though that is transported across the Atlantic onto the screens of millions of Europeans. And it’s a cultural phenomenon that seems to leave a mark on those very Europeans.

So is high school like the movies? Is college like the movies? Yes. And no. You kind of make it what you want. I suppose that is the beauty of a system that has universities with only a thousand or so students, to universities like the one I attended in Oregon with about 20,000 students, to the one I attend now with about 40,000 students. And that’s just the universities themselves. Once there you can find your niche, whether it is with a student organization or just a group of like-minded people. Of course, for some people, it can still be a miserable situation that leaves them feeling more lonely than ever. Thankfully, I never felt that way, although as a teacher now, it is something I have helped students deal with more frequently than I care to admit.

The same can be said about high school. From the big to the small, from the good to the bad. It’s all there. Football teams and proms. Drugs and alcohol. Sex and pregnancy. Straight A’s and flunked exams. The jocks and the nerds. The bullies and the bullied. For better or worse. It’s all there.

It’s not like the movies for everyone though. Or maybe parts and parts aren’t. . I never once felt like high school was meant to be a movie life. Or that high school was meant to be the best time of my life. But I fit some of the stereotypes. And some I didn’t. I was a co-captain of the football and basketball teams in high school. I never went to prom. I went to parties. I never drank. I got straight A’s. I got accused of cheating. I graduated and I left town. It was time.

College was the same. I still have never done a keg stand. Although I have played a whole lot of beer pong. And taught a whole lot of Europeans how to play beer pong. I’m a cultural ambassador really. I never joined a fraternity. I never went streaking. I never snuck into the football stadium. That stuff happened. And I know plenty of people who did at least one of those things above, if not all of them. But not me. I had fun, met friends, got my degree, and left. It was fun. And it was stressful. And it was worth it. But it wasn’t like the movies. For me.

So yes. Or no. But this is the problem with some of that cultural exchange. The high school movies and college movies that get sent abroad glorify one aspect of high school and college. Mostly the sex, drugs, and alcohol aspect with the occasional hint of sports. Or the nerdy girl who, once she gets contacts, suddenly is the most beautiful girl in school. Just because the movies say it’s so, doesn’t make it so. It’d be like assuming that, just because every popular book and movie coming out of Sweden these days seems to glorify crime, Sweden is a criminal utopia filled with rapists, murderers, and drug dealers. And we all know that isn’t true, right? Right?  Good.

It’s not as easy as watching a movie and extrapolating. It never is when it comes to stereotypes. So go abroad. Be a high school exchange student. Or a college exchange student. Come visit. Explore. Just stop watching those crappy movies.

Welcome to Sweden. And America. And cultural stereotypes.

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Friday, October 05, 2012

How Much Wood Could a Woodchuck Chuck if a Woodchuck was on the Interstate?

Since moving back to the US, I’ve been in graduate school in a Scandinavian Studies program. For the most part, I study identity questions and what it means to be Swedish or Scandinavian. It keeps me busy. It also keeps me on the road every now and again as I drive around the Midwestern United States interviewing old Scandinavians.

Generally, these folks are second or third generation. Sometimes the interview is in English. Sometimes in Swedish or Norwegian (and hopefully one of these days Danish). Sometimes, these people, despite being born in the United States, grew up speaking Swedish. In these cases, they usually didn’t learn English until they went to public school for the first time. It’s always amazing to me that there are people in their 80s and 90s who, despite not using Swedish on a regular basis at all, still have the language in there somewhere. They are usually super excited to sit down with people like me who want to interview them and record them.

Just the other day, I was on one such fieldwork trip in the Upper Midwest. I found myself with a group of Norwegians and Norwegian speakers speaking to second and third generation Norwegian Americans who had grown up speaking Norwegian. It was a great opportunity to hear the language spoken, hear the different dialects preserved, hear the different Norwegian-American words being used. I sat, mostly quiet, considering they had a hard time with my Swedish. Not surprising really.

We got to hear about Norwegian being used at work in the area up until the 1940s and ‘50s. We got to hear about Norwegian being used in the church and eventually discontinued. And we got to hear about the continued love for lutefisk in the region. All in all a very interesting trip.

But the trip got even more interesting on the drive home. As it so often does whenever I leave home, potential disaster follows. Or at least delays. My friend (and research partner), DN, and I were driving home on the interstate following a semi-truck as he passed a slower moving vehicle to our right. We were at a safe distance, the requisite two second buffer. We had recently been commenting on the guy in the minivan who seemed to be on his cell phone as he drifted in and out of the lane next to him before realizing a large truck was trying to pass him. All in all, we were pretty aware of our surroundings. And that’s when it happened.

Out from under the semi-truck in front of us, a piece of wood came flying up in the air. It was maybe two feet long, a piece of planed lumber. Think a two by eight. A solid chunk of wood. And it was flying right for us. Which is unfortunate. There’s not a whole lot of time to react in such a situation. DN was driving. I turned my head towards the back seat. Despite my awful eyesight, I apparently felt the need to protect my baby blues. Or browns as they are.

DN seemed to slow down. I’m not sure. I never asked him. The wood hit the front of the car with a thump. Or a thwack. But it was loud. As I realized the thump was a thump and not a shatter, I turned back to see the piece of wood split in two and tumble through the air over the car. Had he sped up, there was a good chance that piece of wood was coming right at the windshield. And I know windshields are designed not to shatter, but I really didn’t want to test it.

As the heart rate returned to normal and the adrenaline dissipated, we drove on. Safely. Slowly. In the fight between wood and metal. Trees and cars. Nature and man. We won. Thankfully.

Welcome to Swedish America. And the dangers of fieldwork.

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