So everyone resembles a Viking, drives a Volvo and eats a staple diet of pickled herring and meatballs — right? Think again. Sweden today is a multicultural mix of flavors, tastes and languages from all over the world.
As a design student in China, Xiaoping Li used to go on field trips to IKEA. The popularity of Swedish design abroad brought the 26-year-old from Beijing to Gothenburg University where she is taking a Master’s of Fine Arts in Design. “In China, IKEA is seen as a luxury brand,” she says. “It’s very different here, where it’s affordable for everyone.”
Xiaoping Li received a warm welcome from the stereotypically shy Swedes in Gothenburg. Photo: Private
Indeed, perceptions aren’t always what they seem. Perhaps you’ve heard the average Swede is as socially cold as the country’s climate? “I always thought the Swedes were shy,” Li adds. “So I’ve been surprised by how friendly the people are and curious about different cultures.”
This should come as little surprise considering that around 20 percent of the Swedish population has a foreign background.
Sweden’s history of immigration
“Sweden is one of the countries in Europe with the highest percentage of immigrants,” says Kirk Scott, Associate Professor at Lund University’s Center for Economic Demography. “Historically, Sweden has had a more open reception policy than other countries.”
The first notable wave of immigration into Sweden came in the post-World War II period with workers from Germany and Holland, later spreading to southern Europe including Italy, Greece and Turkey.
From 1972 onwards asylum immigration came into focus. But Sweden had already welcomed refugees due to civil unrest in Hungary in the 1950s, the former Czechoslovakia in the 1960s and Chile in the 1970s.
Over the last 60 years, Sweden’s status as a homogenous country has been radically changed. But immigration has impacted the country for centuries.
From industry to academia
“Sweden’s economic base was basically built by migrants,” says Professor Scott. “In the 13th century, the Hanseatic League dealt with all Sweden’s foreign trade and the Swedish iron industry was developed by German, Dutch and Walloon expertise.”
Professor Scott hails from America and has been in Sweden for 19 years. Over that time he has seen the impact of a changing society on the educational system.
“We’ve always had a considerable exchange program, but there has been a huge increase in the number of international students,” he says. “It may have something to do with the free education, and that may change, but you will not find more multi-cultural universities in most of Europe.”
Students have their say
Lucy Elvis agrees. The 23-year-old from Birmingham, UK, is studying a Master’s in Visual Culture at Lund University. “All the Swedish students I know submit their papers in English and it’s never a problem conversing with Swedes away from the campus,” she says. “Still, it’s satisfying to know you’re never too far away from an IKEA and you will meet Swedes with blonde hair.”
Muhammad Shahid Chaudhry, from Faisalabad in Pakistan, knew Sweden was home to the Nobel Prize. Other than that he had very little knowledge about the country where he came to pursue his studies. Now, studying for a Master’s in Electrical Engineering at Blekinge Institute of Technology in Karlskrona, he has other ideas.
With students from all over the world in Sweden, Muhammad Shahid Chaudhry has enjoyed a varied cultural experience. Photo: Private
“I’m not in one of the bigger cities, but there are students here from Africa, China, India and more,” he says. “There’s a sense of cultural respect and whilst you have the opportunity of getting to grips with Sweden, you also have the chance of getting to know the world.”
Brazilian Suzana Muller has had links with Sweden throughout the last 30 years. As a 17-year-old exchange student in Stockholm in 1978, she returned in 1984 on a Swedish Institute scholarship and stayed to work until 1990. She returned in 2008 to visit friends and describes the difference as “astronomical.”
“Stockholm has become a vibrant cosmopolitan city,” she says. “There’s been a positive effect from the world’s influence; Swedes have become less conservative, more social, and if you look down a street from a vantage point, there’s no longer a sea of blonde heads, it’s a real blend of people.”
As with many other European countries, immigrants in Sweden are largely concentrated in the bigger cities, and there have been mixed experiences of integration. But the large ethnic variety that does exist makes it problematic to define what is typically Swedish today.
Swedish society today is a multicultural mix, especially in the bigger cities. Photo: Nicho Södling
“There is always talk about what Swedes stereotypically look like,” says Gillis Herlitz, Doctor of Ethnology and author of the book ‘Swedes: How we are and why we are like we are.’ “But what’s more important is the way we behave. Foreigners think we are honest, a bit naïve, not very conversational and we like rules and order.” But internationalization could be changing those characteristics.
“Culture is never static and young people especially are influenced by the same international movements,” he adds. “Nationality is not the most important cultural boundary today; one must look at age, education, a rural or urban background – because that is the key to ways of behaving.”
Interestingly, Xiaoping in Gothenburg, Lucy in Lund, and Muhammad in Karlskrona all expressed an interest to staying in Sweden to either pursue their studies or find work in Sweden’s ‘international’ environment.
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Christine Demsteader is a British freelance journalist based in Stockholm. She's not blonde, nor blue-eyed, and she doesn't drive a Volvo, but she does enjoy the typically Swedish delicacies of meatballs and herring.