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My Thoughts On Being a Hidden Immigrant

Looks Like a Duck, Quacks Like a Duck, but Not a Duck!

Hi, my name is Philip Andersson. I am the founder of Cross Culture Therapy and today I thought I would share with you my thoughts on being a hidden immigrant in my passport culture, Sweden. As most of you who are well-versed in Third Culture Kid terminology will know, the term passport culture refers to the country where your parents were born and the term host culture refers to the country that you live in. For me, my passport culture is Sweden and my host cultures have been England, Hong Kong and Japan. (If you wish to read about my experience growing up as a Third Culture Kid, click here.) About three years ago, in the early summer of 2015, I decided to move back to my passport culture after having spent my entire life living abroad. It was a very daunting decision for me, as moving to my passport culture would mean that I had to leave not only my friends and family behind, but also the places where I made most of my cherished memories. Most of all, it meant that a huge part of my identity would change. I would leave the countries where I had been the foreigner and move to one where I looked and talked like everyone else.

My reason for returning to Sweden was twofold. Firstly, I felt like living in a country where I was the foreigner or expat made it harder for me to fulfill my potential. During my last few years in Japan I realised that I would never be able to do what I wanted to do in their system. Both studying to become a therapist and actually being a therapist in Japan would have been incredibly difficult as my status as a foreigner would mean that my client base would be very narrow. Despite the fact that I speak and write fluent Japanese and would want to work with Japanese clients, it would take more time for clients to trust me than with a Japanese therapist and Japan is a society where therapy as a practice is still in its infancy. My second reason for returning to Sweden was to make life easier. I was tired of having to decide where to spend my holidays, worry about workplace visas, pensions and the like. My thoughts regarding my potential return to Sweden was instigated by a family event which I will not discuss on this website. However, the reason for me choosing to return was purely practical.


Hidden Immigrant Tip: Choose what to hold on to. This is a Japanese restaurant in Stockholm that serves my favourite dish Okonomiyaki.

Starting Life at 26

Moving to my passport culture felt like starting anew. For all intents and purposes I was starting life at 26 and had a lot of catching up to do. A lot of the people my age were already settled down and had kids of their own, or well into careers that they had spent many years preparing for. During the first few months I had to register for social security and pension programs and deal with a lot of bureaucracy, which a lot of the locals never had to experience. This is one aspect of relocating that I want Third Culture Kids to be aware about. How does your pension work? Is it transferable? The pension that I had saved up for in Japan wasn’t. In that respect, living and working in one country for the remainder of your life may prove to be a very good thing.

The job culture in Sweden was also very different from what I had experienced in Japan. In a previous article, I introduced the concept of Hofstede’s Cultural Dimensions (essentially a comparative chart for cultures). On the scale pertaining to Individualism vs Collectivism Swedes are considerably more individualistic than Japanese and on the Power Distance scale (which relates to how accepting people are of differences in status within society) Japan scored much higher. I experienced this difference first hand when I started working in Sweden. Until then, I had spent my entire career in Japan and adjusted to their way of seeing things, so when I started working in Sweden I insisted on working overtime for free to show my boss how committed I was to the job. I was also aware of my position as a subordinate and always treated my boss with the utmost of respect. This was how I was used to doing things. In Sweden, they view jobs as a right and not as a privilege and the boss as a sort of middleman between themselves and headquarters. They are also very strict with the amount of time they work and insist on not working overtime. So I had to learn how to adjust to my coworkers way of working.

I also experienced a lot of hardships in the social sphere. With me returning at 26, an age when most people already have an established social circle, it was hard for me to find friends. In Scandinavian countries people are very reserved and do not respond well to general chit-chat in public places. They are weary of strangers asking them questions and often require some form of social proof (i.e. mutual friend) in order for them to be accepting of others. Having grown up in Hong Kong I was quite used to striking up conversations with people I did not know and during my time in Japan people were quite keen to talk to me because I was a foreigner. So when I returned to Sweden I found it hard to get through to people, which was very frustrating because I felt like I had a lot to offer. It may have been easier if I had moved back at a younger age as there would have been more activities and different occasions where I could have met people. In Sweden, people tend to stop socializing with friends when they get married and have children. Eating out is also very expensive because of the high tax-rate and can be hard during the winter months because of the severe climate, which makes meeting people even harder.

The situation is also made worse by my Swedish. At times, I use words in a wrong way and pronounce them differently. So when people hear me speak and compare this to my very Swedish appearance they get confused as to who I am and on some occasions may think that I am unintelligent etc.

All of these factors have influenced the way in which I have approached being a hidden immigrant. Even to this day I am torn between committing to being fully Swedish (speaking properly and abiding to the social norms of the Swedish society) and in so betraying my past, or maintaining my identity as a foreigner and isolating myself. I don’t ever want to forget that I grew up in Hong Kong but I can’t go around pointing it out to everybody I meet either. On some occasions when I have told people where I grew up, they have responded to me in a way that makes me suspect that they felt that I had been arrogant towards them. When I first moved to Sweden I was a Screamer ATCK, happily reminding everyone that I was not like them, because I was so afraid of losing my identity. Until then I had been the foreigner in every country that I had lived in and I could not deal with the inevitability of me being a local, but as time has passed, I have become more accepting of the fact that I am Swedish and learnt to let go of my past, essentially becoming an Adapter ATCK. That is not to say that I have forgotten where I grew up. Instead of speaking about it, I have chosen to surround myself with symbols reminding me of my past, such as my Hong Kong hat, some Chinese furniture in my house and of course Japanese food.

(At the top left of this picture is one of two Chinese lions guarding the entrance to my garden.)

(Wearing my Hong Kong hat on vacation in Italy.)

What We Do!

Cross Culture Therapy offers 1-on-1 online therapy sessions. Although our therapy services are specifically tailored to Third Culture Kids (people who have grown up in a culture different to their parent’s passport culture) and Cross Culture Kids, we welcome all people who seek our help. Our sessions are conducted via Skype for a duration of 50-minutes and can be purchased in packs of 1-session, 5-sessions or 10-sessions. If you are interested in purchasing a session, click on the Book A Session tab on our menu or click here.

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