FACES OF EXPATRIATION – SWEDEN
A strong desire for change and to continue her life journey elsewhere, former New Yorker, Germaine Thomas, uprooted and moved to Stockholm, Sweden. Without question, Germaine is brave but not without resources and a slew of skills. She works as aMassage Therapist, has recorded two CDs with the group “Big City Poets”, released her own solo singing project, and was chosen as a contestant on the Swedish version of the reality cooking show “All America Bakes” but that’s not all! Germaine is a published photographer that loves to travel and explore as well. She says, “The world is your oyster and you can have more than one (oyster that is).”
How difficult was it for you to leave the US and live and work abroad? How did your friends and family respond?
When I decided to move to Stockholm, I didn’t really think about it all that much. Of course, it wasn’t like saying “I would be moving to Seattle.” It was a journey across the pond and I had never lived abroad before. My family was nervous. I wasn’t within “arms reach”, so to speak and I told only a few close friends. They were worried, but they were very supportive. When other friends found out I was in Stockholm already, they were blown away. Most expressed their concern and also their support. The overall consensus was that this move was courageous. I never thought of it that way at all.
I remember telling my boss. She called me into her office after hours so we could talk without disturbance. It felt as though I was sitting in front of the desk of a Don, except a Doña Boss, with a softer Mafiosa feel. After she felt she had substantial information on my trip, she told me that she would keep my job position open for six months, just in case things don’t go as planned. At that time, I was a Program Director for Developmentally Disabled/Dually Diagnosed adults and children. I was shocked, humbled and grateful. I kept in contact with her via email. After three months, I came back to visit and told her that things were fine. She decided to continue the wait for the full six months.
Who wants to walk around and not understand what others are saying?
What challenges do you face professionally? Culturally?
The challenges took time to overcome but were not different than any I had faced back home. I think it was how I approached the challenges. First, I needed to learn Swedish. Although practically EVERYONE here speaks English, I knew it was best I learned Swedish for the need of work and acclimating to Swedish society. Who wants to walk around and not understand what others are saying? Most, if not all, of my massage clients speak English, but when they walk into the room, we are Swedes that speak Swedish. Swedes have strong traditions that they celebrate like Midsommar, Lucia, Julafton (Christmas eve), and it is best to learn about them. If you move to another land, be willing to enter into their cultural experience. That’s how you learn.
Are there any resources that would assist foreigners in acclimating to life abroad?
Nowadays, we have so many resources. Social media being the most abundant resource. Research is always great. Familiarizing yourself with the lay of the land, how things work and the general climate is beneficial. Search engines are your friend. Utilize them. Before you travel, make sure you know where your embassy is located and the phone numbers. Check maps to see where you will live and how central or not, it is to town, schools, bigger cities. It’s similar research you would do if you are travelling on vacation except this time, you plan to stay beyond the “honeymoon” phase.
Tell us about your journey to become a professional masseuse abroad?
Well, that was a nerve-wracking undertaking. After I finished SFI (Swedish For Immigrants) and SAS (Swedish As a Second language), I wanted to work but not in the same field I left behind in New York. I needed to speak more Swedish. I understood what people said but was very apprehensive to speak. After a short chat with my husband (yes, he is Swedish), I decided to take up massage and become a Certified Masseuse/Massage Therapist.
There was a line on the application that surprised me. It stated, “If you have difficulty with Swedish, please check this box.” Tick! The Students, who were mostly adults, were extremely helpful to me and I to them. My medical background helped them understand anatomy better and they helped me with the Swedish translations so I could pair them to the English anatomical counterparts. The instructors were friendly and very helpful and repetitive in all work.
I remember taking my certification test. I had an Instructor with me in the room to assist me with my language hurdles. I started my test, after ten minutes, he looked just to see how I was doing. He immediately said to me, “Germaine! Read those again and translate them slowly.” I did and realized that I translated the first several questions incorrectly. I immediately took a long calm breath and began again. Needless to say, I passed. He told me later that he knew I knew my work, and wanted to make sure I had a fair chance. That was May 2003. He and I are still friends to this day. A year later, I became a Certified Spa Therapist.
What continuing education opportunities are there for expats where you live?
Here in Sweden, education is basically free. Except for private institutes, like my massage institute. There maybe entry fees for applications and such, but for the most part, all education is basically free. You pay for your books.
How difficult is it for a foreigner to open/start a business in Stockholm? What does the process entail?
It is neither difficult nor easy to start a business here. It all depends on what type of business you want to start. It all begins with an idea and then how to carry it out. Sweden has lots of information packets on how to begin your own business from registration, taxation, F-skatt, etc. The biggest thing, as always, is finding your market. Your Niche.
How do your clients respond to your ethnicity?
Well, at first many assumed I was from Africa until they heard my voice. Some would just politely ask where I was from. I would say, “New York.” They would talk about loving it or wanting to go. A few would ask if I was from Harlem. HA! I would say, no I lived outside of Manhattan in Queens. Reply: “Oh, like the movie, “Coming to America.”
I had a client ask me what part of Africa I was from. I replied New York. He thought I misunderstood and asked where I was born. My reply again, New York. He seemed flustered and asked where my parents were born. It was apparent that Spanish Town Jamaica and Miami were not close enough to the motherland for him and then asked of my grandparents. I informed him that his massage was done and politely helped him off the table with a smile.
I did notice that there was a difference in hierarchy when it came to being African and being American, and being American was quite higher on social ladder. They do appreciate that I learned Swedish, especially when I first started working. Clients would tell me of the people they knew that have lived here for over 20 years and never learned Swedish. Sweden makes it easy for most who can speak English. I explained to them that since I have chosen to live in a land whose mother tongue is Swedish, then I need to learn it. It is important to be able to communicate well.
How do race relations differ in Sweden vs. the United States?
I don’t think they differ too much. I think it is all up to interpretation and what you want to see. I remember while walking with a friend, a man walked by us. We both saw him and her initial assessment of him was that he was provoking us. She felt he was staring at us and demeaning us with his gaze because we were two black women. I, on the other hand, saw a man bundled up in his coat trying to keep warm who happened to catch our eye.
I think racial relations are getting more attention now that there is such a huge influx of refugees and immigrants coming in and crossing through. The tolerance for beggars on the street and in front of train stations and grocery stores has noticeably decreased.
In regards to relations between Africans and African Americans; that is a slippery slope. Once folks realize I am not African but African-American, then I am “American.” In the beginning, Africans stared at me and never spoke. A friend told me that it was because they were trying to figure out what “tribe” I came from. I thought that was the craziest thing ever. The U.S. is such a mixed salad bowl and always has been. Yes, a salad bowl. Not a melting pot. We are not trying to be one person. We are mixing into a world where everyone is different and gifted in their own way. Each one compliments the other.
What are 3 things you would advise anyone considering moving abroad?
- Ask on social media sites about the country. Find social media expat sites and inquire on life and experiences.
- Get your passport renewed and take a 3-week trip there. I say 3 because the first 10-12 days are always a fascination and jet-lag.
- Evaluate if this is the place for you. A pro and con list. It’s a HUGE life investment to move to an unknown land. It is also a wonderful life journey.
What is the biggest lesson you have learned abroad?
Keep an open mind and spirit. This is your Big Adventure. Stop resisting! Be open to learn and listen and observe. This is how you discover what you don’t want to experience, or can maybe avoid on your next journey.
For more information about Germaine, reach out to her at the below social media site. Tell her GR sent you!