culture mash

My train of thought is often down the rail of culture and character. Most often my Swedish class is the trigger for these contemplations.

My Swedish course is filled with people from all over the world, with the majority of students being refugees from Somalia and Iraq. (In 2009 Somalians comprised the largest group of refugees to Sweden, outnumbering Iraqis.) My current class is a mix of students from China, Thailand, Slovenia, Palestine, Iraq, Somalia, Ghana, Germany and Egypt (and possibly more that I haven't yet identified). We range from those who never learned to read or write in our mother tongues to those that attended university in a second language, usually English. All of us slogging our way through the difficult grammar and seemingly-impossible intonation of Swedish.

The reasons why we are in this government-run Swedish course varies. Most, like me, are recent immigrants and need to learn Swedish in order to integrate. Others have been working for some time, and having lost their jobs in the recent downturn, enroll themselves in Swedish courses to receive social assistance as a student. Others still seem to be not doing much of anything, rather driving nice cars and using flashy mobiles, arrogantly popping in and out of class as they will, snotting at the teacher and sniffing at homework.

Each day is a new lesson in the relationship of culture and character. (I know there is a deep philosophical thought that I am skating over here -- whether human morality can exist without the reality of a just God. But for the moment I am simply interested in how our cultures can define our rights and our wrongs.)
"Were it possible that a human creature could grow up to manhood in some solitary place without any communication with his own species. He could no more think of his character, of the propriety or demerit of his own sentiments and conduct, of the beauty and deformity of his own mind, than the beauty of his own face... Bring him into society, and he is immediately provided the mirror which he wanted before". (Adam Smith, A Theory of Moral Sentiments)
It's especially fun when you've been looking in a Canadian mirror and suddenly you find yourself peering awkwardly into, say, an Iraqi mirror. In that mirror I believe I must look rather cold, distant, especially quiet and a little bit strange. I think they might find me selfish and possessive of my classwork, as I rarely "share" answers or work together with other students unless told to do so, believing that the best way to learn is to do the work. (This isn't particularly "moral" but still my reflection in their mirror.)

Cheating and lying -- black, white or gray? Depends who you ask. Professed religious beliefs seem to play no part in this area. For at least one culture in my class, cheating (or "helping") is perfectly acceptable and very common. I asked a friend if this is common in universities in her home country and yes, absolutely, of course. During a recent exam, another male student called me over and demanded that I sit next to him and "help" him with his answers. I refused and found another seat. He said later to me that he knew I might not help him because I was "American" and we don't "help" other students. Another exam found me desperately trying to shield my answers on all sides from at least three students who were avidly, and without shame, trying to read my papers.

Lying? It's rather a normal day in class to have students baldly and calmly lying to the instructor, whether regarding homework, missed class time, or absences. Somehow this would seem normal in a high school setting (although I am not sure why) but in a classroom of adults it's rather sickening. But, regardless of even the most devout of students, it's no big deal, even just another kind of humor.

We do have fun in our class. For example, if you disagree with someone, feel free to raise your voice. Perfectly acceptable (and commonly used) method of disagreement among my female classmates is a yelling match. (Always hard to tell who wins those ones.) Deadly gossip is another: literally. (One woman telling others that a fellow female student was involved in a murder in her home country and had paid a human smuggler to bring her to Sweden.)

But I also receive handshakes, kisses and hugs (the likes of which are rare in Swedish culture) and the women take an avid interest in my pregnancy, in children, and family. They talk about the female anatomy with humor and without self-conscious hang-ups, and a little body fat is nothing to sniff at. The laughter is without language barriers as we all meet on the limited plane of Swedish. There is a mutual understanding in the natural ignorance and frustration of being an immigrant and "intruder" in a small and tightly defined culture.

Just for the fun of it, totally random, cheeky humor with a "Swedish"- German-English twist: "Swedish" German English


cabbage baby

For whatever reason, I am not good at keeping track of where I am at in my pregnancy. Knowing I have an appointment with my midwife this week, I just used my "favorite" online due-date calculator. This particular calculator, while accurate, really cracks me up. This week, for example, I am 30 weeks pregnant and "my baby is the size of a head of cabbage". Other times it was "the size of a large bell pepper," or the worst, "the size of a large chicken breast." As Swedes say -- "va?" Could we not find something a little more human to connect it to? A chicken breast is the best we can do?

Now we are raising my own little cabbage head, so we have begun the rather daunting search for "things we need", such as baby car seat, stroller, and a larger laundry rack. It's a whole new, confusing world -- a new kind of Western excess that I haven't been exposed to before. A million contraptions, do-dads, gizmos and luxuries. We have come across a jetted baby spa, (in Canada) and a red pleather children's armchair (Sweden.) You can shop at "Retro Baby" or "Hip Baby" or even "cool baby".

There is every temptation to trap parents into dolling themselves up into eco-friendly (except the diapers, of course) yuppy parents. We bought a baby car seat last weekend, and I jokingly asked Martin if we were going to turn into "those people" (quite of few of them milling around in the store.) No, no, we are not. Phew.

Thankfully we live in the "countryside", where things are a just a little simpler. Not too many yuppies zipping around our neighborhood. I can't recall even seeing a Baby Bjorn. (I only learned what these things were about five months ago.) There's no noticeable social culture of having a new $1,500 CDN stroller, or the brand-name baby clothes. People are a little more practical, a little more earthy.

But maybe we'll buy into some of these crazy products. Why not buy a helmet for your child, so you can send them off to play without fearing they may konk their head? They even make them with little Mickey Mouse ears. At least, I think that is what they are. (Check out the website.) Or what about a prenatal education system? Electronics that you strap on your belly and expose your child to noises mimicking, for example, a mother's heartbeat. Or a fur changing pad?

Personally, I think a faux fur changing pad sounds very practical. An animal-friendly twist on Viking baby care.