The Immigration Experience

In the summer of 1998 I came to Sweden. It was my first trip -ever- abroad. I was 25 year’s old. And so far I haven’t returned to Iceland for more than just a short visit. I owe my migration to a lot of very nice people, who helped me and supported me.

I remember the cobblestones when I arrived in Malmö for the first time. I landed in Copenhagen and took a ferry boat over (it was before the Öresundsbro). It was summer, so it was very bright even if it was almost midnight. And I saw all the brick houses and the cobblestone streets. It fascinated me and I thought I would never be able to view these things as common, usual, ordinary. Today I do though. I’ve lost the sense of awe although I can sometimes bring back the sensation of arriving here for the first time.

In Iceland it’s not considered a very big deal to migrate to the other Nordic countries. A lot of people do it, some just for a period of a few years and other’s for a longer time. It’s easy to migrate between the Nordic countries. All I had to do was sign in, more or less, and certify that I was an Icelandic citizen and had paid taxes there. After that I don’t have to be a Swedish citizen to have the same rights (more or less – there are some differences) that a Swede has. And he would have the same rights in Iceland had he chosen to move there.

The Language

The languages are similar (but far from the same) and the culture is similar. So migration for me was a breeze …  right. Of course it’s never that easy.

It took me a while to start to talk Swedish for several reasons. Swedes are very keen on speaking English and so I spoke English for most of my first year. By the time I started to speak Swedish I understood it mostly. I had learned Danish in school (it’s Iceland’s second language) and so learning Swedish wasn’t all that difficult.

I remember reading Lord of the Rings in Swedish during my short time at the Swedish for Immigrants course that I took. (It’s a great book to read as you are learning a new language. I’ve read it in English, Danish, Icelandic and Swedish so far.)

So I didn’t suffer the language difficulties as heavily as other immigrants do. Today I speak good Swedish. I’ve learned the singing tone of it all too well although I still can’t hear the difference between a y and an i properly and I fear I will never be able to learn where to put an e and where to put an ä when I’m spelling.

The language is the first thing an immigrant faces. It’s the first obstacle and it’s often an obstacle people choose to ignore since they have their own families to speak to they tend to focus less on the new language than they should. Language is also what you are judged by. If you don’t speak the language people will continue to mistake you for a “foreigner“.

My language difficulties came only later I realized as my Swedish took over in my head and my Icelandic started to slowly deteriorate. The two language being so similar mingled in my head and today I sound a tad strange, I fear, in both languages although some Swedes mistake me from “just being from another part of the country, the north perhaps?” My Icelandic friends laugh at me and tell me to stop singing Icelandic and talk it instead.

For some reason it’s quite hard to separate the two language in my head. I think partially in Swedish and partially in Icelandic and occasionally in English too. Still my English seems more or less untouched by this.

At the University here in Sweden I wrote some of my paper in English to be on the safe side. I learned later that attempting to write one in Swedish was a mistake as it was partially judged by language. This was a few years back.

The language never held me back much but I soon learned the importance of speaking good Swedish and it held me back a little when I felt I couldn’t speak it well enough to apply to certain jobs.

The Icelander

Today I have had dual citizen ships for only a few months. I could have applied for it a long time ago but never saw a big reason to do so. I will always be seen as The Icelander. I don’t think that will ever change and I don’t think I would want it to. This is probably the case with most first generation immigrants. And it’s one of the problems immigrants face.

Because no matter your reason for immigration there is still, usually, a part of you that really liked the old country, no matter what it was, no matter your reasons for leaving it. It’s the reason you are who you are. I have no reasons to dislike Iceland. It’s a good country to live in (although I fear it’s a different country today than it was when I left 10 *gasp* 11 years ago).  But I did face certain prejudices or -stereotypifation- as I’d like to call it when I came to Sweden. There are certain things an Icelander is supposed to know and certain things she’s supposed to be.

I’ve been asked a lot of questions about fish and the Icelandic horse. Some of which I could answer, other’s I could not. The first word out of a person’s mouth when they hear I’m from Iceland is often “BJÖRK!” *Shrug* and I’ve been told on several occasions that “all Icelanders are alcoholics“.

And still I imagine that my experience has been dampened greatly by the fact that I do come from a Nordic country, albeit a pretty strange one (or so I’ve been told) we are pretty similar.

In the new country you become somewhat of a representative for everything people believe about your birth country. You are asked to confirm or deny all truths and myths and in most cases it’s difficult to shoo the stereotype away.

I do not have my Icelandic family with me. So here I am always The Icelander. I know very few Icelanders here (there are many in my surrounding area) and although most people who know me might know an Icelander or two apart from me I am still always The Icelander in the group.

And it’s not a bad thing to be. But I don’t think my case is unique and sometimes these stereotypes are just prejudices. In modern society we are faced with a lot of migration and for that to become smooth all prejudices are a hinder, whether they come from the immigrant himself or from the people in the new country. I can only imagine what it must be like to be from Zimbabwe or Asia and move so far.

The little things

I often feel like I’m odd. In any given situation I often feel a little odd. Even today after ten years in the country. I feel like I sometimes say  or do strange things (then again I feel that’s more a personality trade than an imimgrant thing).

At first I felt the entire landscape was strange. I was used to being able to run up the next hill to see what was around me at any given moment. In Iceland you can see far away mountains and the horizon from almost anywhere. Here there are few hills and certainly no mountains.

This still gets to me at times but I’ve gotten more used to it by now. Still apart from missing my family in Iceland I miss the landscape the most. Immigrants are often asked the question, “aren’t you homesick?” and of course the answer is usually yes. Of course I miss it, but I would miss Sweden today too if I left it.

I am as split in this as I am in my citizenship.
The problem in the heart of every immigrant is to give up what you were to become what you have to be for the new country. It’s a compromise that’s hard and not made easy by the attitude you face in the hosting country. I have adapted and settled but other’s face a more difficulty.

Most Icelanders who come here don’t face much problems. They come with their families, they start speaking the language fairly quickly (albeit with their harsh r’s and their muted y’s) and usually they have a job when they come or soon after. We’re not the “typical” immigrants because we are almost same – although not quite.

So what do the immigrants feel that are considered – other – or stranger, those who come from further away?
What do they experience?

I’ve met a lot of immigrants from all parts of the world. I’ve met American immigrants, English immigrants, Zimbabwean immigrants, Russian immigrants, immigrants from the old Yugoslavia, from Iran, Irak and Afganistan, and I’ve met immigrants from Korea and China.

Let me tell you it’s never easy. You always leave a part of yourself behind even those who are the biggest go-getters and most determined to make things work in the new country. They are, like me, split in some way. They belong here now for some reason but whatever that reason it’s not easy to adjust. It’s not easy to know all the rules of society and all the social rules.

You are always different. Even though it’s a difference most Swedes welcome it’s still a marked difference. You are not same and this division causes problems, not to mention the prejudices that has followed the 911 attacks and prejudices that were present before that. It’s a struggle an immigrant faces and although some might try harder, learn the language and try to learn the social rules and regulations of what is accepted you still struggle with it.

What should be celebrated is the variety we bring. The multiplicity, the  joy of multi-cultural experience. Without immigration we wouldn’t have pizza, falafel or pita in most parts of the world today. Don’t be so afraid to let some of the things the immigrants bring into your lives. You won’t seize being you, you will just see a glimpse of something new. Embrace it. It’s a good thing.

At last: My name

It is the thing I bring with me wherever I go. And I don’t have a name that translates easily into other languages or flows well with them. My name is Eygló Daða Karlsdóttir. I am the daughter of Karl (his name is what my last name is made of – Karl’s daughter) and my first name is Eygló.

Ey as in the ay in maybe. And gló as in Glow without the w sound at the end. And (and I write this for my grandmother who shares my name) it is another word for sun, mostly used in poetry.

It’s hard even for the Swedes so I’m often called something else. Don’t call me by my last name though. I think it’s silly (this is one of the things I bring with me) and don’t be afraid to say my name. I don’t mind if you mispronounce it.

I am Swicelandic or Iceledish. I am a citizen of the world in any case. I bring you variety. Don’t assume you know what I am because of where I come from. Ask if you are unsure and don’t be afraid of it. I don’t mind some of the stereotypes. I just wish you’d be aware that they are stereotypes when you bring them to my doorstep.

It’s the beauty of the times we live in. We get to let go of some of what we’ve always been and we get to experience new things. Immigration isn’t a bad thing unless you make it so. Embrace it. Critizise what should be critized but be aware of prejudism. It makes the migration process so much harder and it can bring so much trouble.

A few Interesting Links:

Immigration (wiki)
Immigration in Europe (wiki)
Women crossing boundaries
The Social Psychology of Immigration, Greek/Americans
Fresh glance at Immigrants

One Comment Add yours

  1. kirtle says:

    Great blog post! As a soon-to-be immigrant to Sweden, I’m fascinated to learn of other people’s experiences. This made for very interesting reading, and I’ve told my husband he needs to read it too…



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