An immigrant’s advice

I started writing on this post in the aftermath of the riots in Husby near Stockholm in 2013. I thought I’d share some hypotheses about why I never rioted and instead became a rather typical middle class, reasonably well-educated and somewhat boring citizen, with a clean criminal record (bar a few speeding and parking tickets). Now, with the unprecedented number of refugees flowing into Sweden at the end of 2015 the post feels relevant again so I finally hit the Publish button of my WordPress editor.

Let me first state, for the record, that I believe people of any race (if such a category even exist – we used to be exactly the same “race” only some 50 000 years back), religion, sexual orientation, gender and so on have about the same distribution of abilities and other innate characteristics. No one category of people has a monopoly on neither ingenuity or stupidity or any other vices and virtues of mankind. So by nature we’re all the same (in some statistical sense). Enter nurture.

It is no secret that the areas mostly affected by the riots were those with a large share of unemployed, frustrated, angry young men, many of whom are first or second generation immigrants. I am a first generation immigrant myself which I believe gives me a special authority to share my opinions on this topic. This is otherwise an area where politicians and common folks tread very carefully not to be accused of racism, prejudices or worse. This political correctness I believe hinders objective analysis and public discourse.

I came to Sweden from Finland as a nine year old in November of 1968 together with my parents and my three siblings. My parents’ main rationale for moving to Sweden was, they have told me afterwards, to give their children a chance to a better education. My father wanted to go to Canada for the bear hunt. My mother thought Sweden was far enough. My father had to make do with elk, deer, hare and other less ferocious game.

We ended up moving into a rental apartment on Saw Mill Road in the small industrial town of Skärblacka with a paper mill where my father found employment. The apartments were built as part of the Swedish “million program” the aim of which was to build one million new apartments. The area was not awfully different from Husby although it was smaller. There were already many other Finns living in the neighborhood. Our immediate neighbor was an elderly Finnish man, an alcoholic, who seldom walked or talked straight. There was also other types of substance abuse going on including the particularly nasty habit of sniffing thinner. The area was in many ways a “housing project” and perhaps not the likeliest starting point for academic excellence and a good career.

* * *

I had started third grade in Finland but was wisely enough placed in second grade in Sweden so as to give me a reasonable chance to learn Swedish. There were two other Finnish speakers in the class but we were explicitly forbidden to speak Finnish, even during the breaks. Whether this was a school rule or my parents’ wish I don’t know. What I know is that it was an excellent way to motivate me to learn Swedish. I also got individual tutoring several hours a week by a teacher who didn’t know one word of Finnish. The start of that tutoring was an interesting bootstrapping exercise. We worked with pictures mostly in the beginning. After about 6 months I spoke reasonable Swedish. Two years later I got the highest grade in the Swedish language and the only accent I have now is the somewhat rural accent of Ostrogothia, the area where I live. It’s not the prettiest of Swedish accents but it is very Swedish.

I observed the same thing with my eleven year old niece who moved to the UK with her parents a couple of years ago. After 6 months in a school with only native English speakers she speaks very good English (with a Manchester accent – her parents say they are glad they didn’t move to Liverpool). She didn’t get any additional support but was thrown right into the regular schedule. Her mother helped her with the language in the beginning but now it is the other way around.

I (perhaps uncontroversially) believe that mastery of the language of a country is the entry ticket to the society. Rightly or wrongly people draw far-reaching conclusions about you depending on what language you speak and how you speak it. It is for instance easy to draw the conclusion (again, right or wrong) that if you speak the language perfectly, then you also probably understand the culture and the values of the society that speaks that particular language. Speaking without an accent is probably more important in small countries like Sweden with relatively small variation in accents. My experience of the English-speaking word is that it seems more tolerant to different accents just because there are so many of them around the world and because people from so many different cultures have English as their mother tongue.

This leads to my Advice #1: put the immigrant child in a class full of native speakers and wait. This advice is both for policy makers and the parents of the child. If no such class can be found close by, do as the Americans did in the beginning of the civil rights movement 50’s, bus the kids to another school.

* * *

Skärblacka was a small community and children of all social groups went to the same school. There was less segregation of the kind we currently experience in Sweden with “elite” charter schools trying to attract “elite” students. Already from a young age I had a perhaps genetic interest in science and engineering. In elementary school I met several like-minded people who were typically sons (back then more seldom daughters) of the engineers and managers that also worked at the paper mill. On top of that almost everybody had a moped that they tweaked and tuned and there was a large body of mechanical knowledge and skills around. Common interests led to friendship that in turn strengthened common interests. The school sponsored two hours of “pupil’s choice” per week when you could do almost whatever you liked like playing football, doing athletics, learning to play an instrument or, like I did, build electronic gadgets (yes the transistor was invented in the 70’s).

I believe that our experiments involving compounds that would explode, marginally legal radio transmitters, the chemistry of moonshine, souped up mopeds and so on eventually led to my engineering career. I also learned through word of mouth about career paths and possibilities that I wouldn’t have known existed otherwise. And the fact that there was a group of people interested in doing constructive things probably kept me from doing many unconstructive things (even though “constructive” wasn’t always equal to “legal”).

This leads to my Advice #2: Put people from different social groups into the same school and the same class.

* * *

My parents came to Sweden to stay here. There was never any talk about moving back to Finland. This was made very clear to us, the kids, and we took it as a fact. My parents were never big fans of the Finnish clubs that sprung up everywhere in Sweden. Instead they were keen on becoming a part of the Swedish society. When my father was asked whether he would like to move to an all-Finnish shift at the paper mill he declined. His rationale was that he wanted to learn Swedish and that he would never do in the Finnish shift. With that decision he earned the respect and help in his language efforts from his Swedish colleagues.

Already during the first couple of weeks in Sweden, when I didn’t yet attend school, I started to study my father’s old language course literature and learned a few ill pronounced phrases. (He had been in Sweden in the 50’s for a short period and learned some Swedish.) I believe my motivation came from the certainty that this would be my new home and realization that everybody in school would be speaking Swedish.

Both my parents worked hard with extra shifts and extra jobs and after four years in Sweden they had saved enough money to build a new home in an old part of the town. It had a sauna.

As far as I know, ethnic segregation has never lead to many positive effects in terms of living standards and quality of life in general.

My Advice #3 is therefore: Act as if you will stay in your new country until you die, regardless of how certain your plan actually is. This implies that you should adapt as much as possible. Adapting doesn’t imply giving up everything you believe in but it does imply making some sometimes initially painful decisions such as not moving where many of your former countrymen are already living and adopting selected parts of the Swedish life style.

* * *

I firmly believe that Sweden is a very good country to live in for natives and immigrants alike. We usually come out at or near the top of surveys on the quality of life, innovativeness, happiness and many other parameters (there are some lows also such as the declining quality of our schools but that can hopefully be fixed). Sweden is also a very individualistic country and I believe everybody has an opportunity to pursue and reach his or her dreams here. I myself took advantage of the free school system all the way through university including one year of paid tuition at Stanford University. Any lack of achievement is thus entirely my own fault; the Swedish society has provided all the means to have a good and successful life. And it can certainly do that for all new immigrants who are willing to put in the effort and accept some intially uncomfortable changes in their lives.

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