A compilation of random things that I’ve heard and learnt about here in Sweden. This by no means represents anyone in particular, or an entire Swedish culture as a whole – it’s just probably a part of the city I’m in. I do not mean to discriminate against anybody.
Exchange is such an entirely fresh experience that it’s eye-opening if a bus comes on time, or I get a free bus ride. It’s strange to be able to eat on trains. It’s even more uncomfortable calling a teacher by her first name. There are things I try to avoid, quite naturally; I avoid eating on a train because I think people will judge me, and I avoid calling a teacher unless I absolutely have to.
So these are some of the little stories I’ve compiled over a few weeks so that I have a memory of it.
1) Anything strange is not Swedish. They like to know that they have their things in order. For example, there’s a roundabout here in Jönköping that’s neither round nor just a circle. There’s a random road that cuts across the middle of the roundabout.
What it’s for, and how it should work, was really hard to understand. It was a really strange roundabout.
What did the Swedish call these strange things they couldn’t fathom?
2) “There’s something like no littering and chewing gum in Singapore right? I don’t know much about it. It might be just a rumour I’ve heard.”
“Oh, yes!! That’s very true, it’s a fact that you’ll get fined for littering in Singapore, and chewing gum is banned there as well. You can’t eat it, buy it, or smuggle it in.”
“HAHAHA. Smuggling in chewing gum. It sounds strange.”
A very common understanding of Singapore from someone who’s not familiar with the country. Not just Swedish people, but many people in general. It’s quite amusing to learn that the things people know about Singapore are its ‘pretty silly’ rules, according to everyone else who can hardly believe there’s such a law not permitting chewing gum.
3) “Sweden is a small country.”
Oh yeah. Two Singapores can fit into Lake Vättern.
How can a country be so small???
4) Contrary to popular belief, most people don’t know what language Singapore speaks. Because we’re an Asian country, and literally all Asian countries have a native first language except for Singapore, people think that Singapore speaks a language that’s not English. But they have no idea what.
Many people ask me what language Singaporeans speak. We explain that English is our first language and everybody speaks that so that we understand each other in a country of many different races. Then we tell them that Chinese (Mandarin) is our second language. Different races will learn different languages as their second language.
And that Cantonese is my dialect.
Also, that Singlish is used extensively in Singapore – basically the English language with many additions of slangs, and Chinese, Malay and Hokkien words we commonly use. We also like to mix the languages together – for example, lapsing into Chinese in the middle of a sentence.
It’s difficult to explain Singapore to people. We’re not a country of ‘one race’ and it’s a new concept that people have to grasp. Most people are surprised that we speak English and when they ask why, we explain that it’s because Singapore used to be ruled by the British.
Then it clicks.
5) It was lunch time and a group of Singaporeans, Swedish and a Canadian happened to sit together at a table. One of the Singaporeans, F, FaceTimed her mother back in Singapore.
A little way into the conversation, F turned her phone to another friend, Z, who had been drinking her pumpkin soup.
“Hi auntie!” Z greeted F’s mum happily.
“Hello!!” Her mum very enthusiastically greeted back.
It was a light atmosphere, the cold seeping into the rather large and empty dining hall, when one of the Swedish guys spoke up.
“Hey, are you two related or something?”
“Huh?? No we aren’t.”
“But you called her auntie…?”
This was the lightbulb moment. All of us Singaporeans burst out laughing at the confusion we hadn’t realised we’d caused.
“Oh, ‘auntie’ is just a way of calling someone who’s older than you. In Singapore, we use ‘auntie’ and ‘uncle’ very loosely – basically anyone who’s older than you and who looks old enough can be called ‘auntie’ or ‘uncle’. It’s our way of greeting or calling people. We’re not related at all.”
“For example, if we were at a coffee shop and we wanted to order some food or drinks, we’d just call ‘Auntie! Can I have one ice lemon tea?”. We also greet each other’s parents like this. It’s our way of respect.”
They found it very interesting. Yes, Singaporeans do call their aunts and uncles as ‘auntie’ and ‘uncle’ as well. But we also use ‘auntie’ and ‘uncle’ for just about anybody who’s old enough (usually above 40 years old). We use ‘jiejie’ (older sister in chinese) and ‘gorgor’ (older brother in chinese) for the younger people who are still older than us. It’s just our way of addressing people, strangers or not, with respect.
In Sweden, they call everyone (not their family) by their first names. In classes, we have to call our teachers by their first names, without any ‘miss’ or ‘mr’ or ‘mrs’ in front. It’s the same in the workplace in Sweden – they address their boss by their first names. It’s a very informal setting even though the lines between teacher and student, and boss and employee, are still respected.
I felt really awkward and uncomfortable going up to my teacher and saying, “Hey Carina”.