Tag Archives: Accent

Wolf in Sheeps’ Clothing – The Life of a Third Culture Kid Swede with an American Accent

adjusting to the American life...

Ever since I was in grade school growing up in the Philippines, I have had a confused relationship with America.  I love America but for some reason I have almost always ended up living in countries where anti-American sentiment could run high.

Breeds of anti-Americanism

In the Philippines there was the gratitude for American deliverance from Japanese control during World War II but anger at subsequent interference.  In Britain where I lived as a teen, politicians boasted of the “special relationship” that Britain had with the US while much of the population dismissed Americans as one giant, gun-toting Jerry Springer show.

I was studying in France when George W. Bush was elected the first time and I studied in Latin America soon after his election to a second term.  Those were bad – even dangerous – times to be identified as American.  But through it all I still saw the US as the place that had the most opportunity and I wanted my shot at living there.

Sounding American

I remember making a conscious decision at the age of 12 or 13 that I wanted to sound like an American.  By then I had already decided that I wanted to go to college in the United States and work there afterward.  I figured that any non-American accent would be a barrier if and when I moved to the US so pulling on my various stints in America (basically two six month periods), and the way my American friends and teachers sounded, I accent corrected until almost everyone mistook me for an American.

It helped BUT

I’m not going to lie – despite the fact that I got some crap from European friends for sounding “SO American”, the accent helped as soon as I moved to the US for college.  Somehow the barriers that accents created for other international students didn’t apply to me.  Americans assumed I was one of them until I told them otherwise.  And for the most part, I thought, “mission accomplished.”

Until I felt like a sellout.  Was I just masquerading as someone that I fundamentally was not?  Or was this simply the life of the Third Culture Kid (someone from a certain country/culture that has grown up in a different country and therefore created his or her own hybrid culture.)  I knew that travel and multiple major, long-term international relocations left me not entirely at home anywhere but very familiar with lots of different cultures.  But had I tried too hard and given up too much of my original identity to blend in with Americans? The question still bothers me today.

It Gets Touchy
My own wife confesses that she forgets that I am Swedish.  And almost everyone else does too.  As much as this can be convenient, conversations sometimes get tense when an American dismisses “socialist” Europe or I share my fairly Scandinavian views on the death penalty, divisive patriotism or the limits of American international influence.  As a disagreement brews and I sense that some sparring is coming up I feel really tense and I realize how American I am NOT.  I used to tackle disagreements head on (if you are a long-term CultureMutt reader you’ll remember some sharply worded opinion pieces:)) but nowadays I don’t think the fight is worth it.  Why not emphasize common ground rather than keep stressing about the things about America that I dislike?

Making it Work

Fundamentally I believe in this common ground and how it has to be the focus – not just for this Swede living in California, but for all of us internationally.  Helping to build international cultural common ground in order to do good things for society is one of the reasons I write CultureMutt.  I want to do my part.  The world is getting flatter and more connected every day.  Yes, this makes for a lot of confusion and tension.  But it can also lead to enormous progress and growth as we learn understand and accept each other.



Bjorn Karlman

Don’t Fake Accents and three other rules for keeping it real when abroad

back in my Europe-dwelling days on a three-day Paris trip

When I was in my teens I lived about an hour by train west of London.  My dad taught at a college that drew a lot of American college students, eager to “do Europe” for a year.   One of the most frustrating thing about some of these students was the accent that they would try to fake.  Nothing made the English roll their eyes more than the latest American attempt at copying their accent.  It was genuinely painful to listen to.

The irony of course, was that in this desperate attempt at generating street cred, the offending 19 year-old American was accomplishing just the opposite.  The locals would at best put up with or overlook the posturing.  When it got bad enough, the aspiring Hugh Grant actually took a social beating.

Sure, socially punishing those that fake their accent may have been a little harsh of the English.  But the root of the problem was deeper than just a question of accents – it had to do with the accent impostor’s lack of self-confidence.  More than anything, self-confidence and a belief in what you can bring to the table is important when you are abroad.  You’ve got to keep it real.

Be your “confident self” – you will be rewarded

If you present yourself confidently, as though you have “nothing to hide”, your unique qualities and foreign ways will come across as refreshing and interesting.  It pays to be different.  This is very different from being cocky.  Cockiness masks insecurity badly and most people can see right through it, especially when you are being cocky on their turf.  But a warm confidence speaks volumes.

Learn from but do not copy

A willingness to learn lies at the heart of any successful relocation experience.  Rather than coming with an expectation that you will teach others how things should be done, arriving in another country with a blank slate and a willingness to learn is so helpful to you and so appreciated by locals.  This does not mean that you copy locals as in the above example of inauthentic accent imitation.   Instead, this is all about learning from the good and letting it organically enrich your life and experience.  Have you relocated to a country that spends two hours on lunch every day?  Learn to appreciate this natural emphasis on life balance, natural rhythm and nurtured relationships and apply it to your life.  Are there tweaks that you can make so that your family and friends feel more appreciated and cared for when they are in your presence?

Be the “reasonable foreigner”

The opposite of the “ugly American” or Swede for that matter, is the “reasonable one”.  I am always impressed by those that arrive in a new country and context with a clear determination to build bridges.  There is so much that you could potentially disagree with and start judging when you travel.  RESIST THE TEMPTATION.  Instead, seek out the areas of common ground that you can build upon.  There is always a lot of good that can be celebrated about your host nation’s culture and ways.  Be the foreigner that seeks these good things out.  Make sure your hosts know that you appreciate them and their unique cultural qualities.  If you start by emphasizing common ground a near-magical thing happens – the locals around you start to think “she gets it” or “he’s adjusting so well” and they will be much more likely to want to invest time and effort in getting to know you and making you feel comfortable.

Travel and relocation can be some of the best adventures of life if you approach them with a gentle confidence.  Be real.  Be yourself.  This builds trust and goodwill – the currency of international success.



Bjorn Karlman


Surviving “Fresh off the Boat” (FOB) Parenting…

Junge Türkin bei Dreharbeiten

It happened WAY too much.  And it always happened when we were already running late.  Our old, disgracefully dilapidated beast of a Buick would shut off at the bottom of the long, steep driveway to the cookie-cutter Marietta, Ga. apartment complex where we lived.  My high-strung über-Scandinavian mother would then proceed to frantically wind down the car window, stick her head out as far it would go and yell “It STOPPED!!” with shrill, Nordic determination to the annoyed assortment of early-morning drivers behind us.  Humiliated, my sister and I would shrink down in our seats, willing the moment to pass.

This, of course, was only one of the whole smorgasbord of awkward experiences my sister and I had growing up with FOB (Fresh-off-the-boat) parents who had about as much interest in blending into local culture as we did in sticking out like sore thumbs.

I’ve met enough children of FOBs to detect some patterns.  The first of these is that immigrants often have an idealist, nonconformist streak.  It took guts and ignoring naysayers to move from their homelands.  Now that they are here, some of these qualities manifest themselves in a stronger-than-usual sense of motivation. They are also less likely to concern themselves with what others think.  While this singular focus has worked well for them, their children (who are more concerned with blending in) will often find this focus too narrow and abrasive.  I’ve rarely witnessed kids that have been able to change their FOB parents.  It seems that the best thing to do is to appreciate your parents’ work ethic and recognize that they are who they are.

Another thing about FOB parents is that although they (in most cases) chose to leave their home countries, they often are extremely patriotic and nostalgic about the homeland they left behind.  They will wax lyrical about the food, the culture and the beauty of home.  Ask them if they would like to go back though and they quickly shake their heads or talk loosely about what they might do in retirement. If you were born to FOBS and have to listen to your parents and their nostalgic rambling, take it all with a grain of salt.  It is good to be aware of your roots but realize that time and distance have probably embellished the memories of your parents’ home.

One of the more obvious things about FOB parents is their accent and how they carry themselves. Accents rarely change if someone learns a language as an adult so chances are that your FOB parents really sound foreign.  My mom’s accent used to embarrass me, but nowadays it is much more of a source of amusement.  As with most things about foreign parents and their cultural idiosyncrasies, if you can see the humor in the situation, you can actually enjoy it.  On that note, let’s conclude with a video from HappySlip, a YouTube-based comedy series by Christine Gambito, a Filipina American who plays all her characters and who has the funniest take I have ever seen on the FOB experience…


Bjorn Karlman

Well-Traveled, Multilingual and Clueless –Third Culture Kids Unpacked

At a wedding near LA with TCK friends I grew up with in the Philippines
At a wedding near LA with TCK friends I grew up with in the Philippines

I can go from zero to awkward, mumbling mess in no time when Western pop culture predating the late 90s is brought up in conversation. I have no clue what to say because a lot of the time, I have never heard of the actor/singer/quirky 80s celebrity of ambiguous sexuality being discussed. It is painful. I sound American. My Northern European genes make me look like I’ve got straight-laced, Mayflower Puritanical blood.  But I grew up next to sugar cane fields and coffee plantations in the Philippines and I have never seen a single episode of Miami Vice.

Luckily I grew up with other expat kids who were just as lost. We were all Third Culture Kids (we’d grown up in a culture different from that of our parents.)  Instead of being perpetually bummed about the fact that we didn’t completely fit into any culture or country, we bonded over our oddball similarities.  The transition to adulthood has changed very little so here’s my list of TCK traits:

1) Most of us speak English better than our mother tongue and are stumped if some zealous patriot asks us to recite the words to our own national anthems.

2) Whether or not we’ve ever stepped foot on American soil, our accents are often, to one degree or another, American.

3) We are flakes when it came to growing roots anywhere.  I’ve kept in touch with a number of my fellow TCKs and a lot of them have kept moving, never staying in the same place for more than a few years.

4) TMI!  We are used to sharing a lot very quickly because growing up we knew that we didn’t have much time to make friends before we had to leave again. But there is a flipside to this. Steph Yiu on denizen-mag.com puts it well:  “once you get to know us, you might find that we keep you at bay. We’re just so used to leaving (or being left by) people who are close to us that sometimes we don’t want to form very deep relationships, for fear of losing them.”

5) We were raised watching cultures clash on a daily basis so we are OK with grey areas.  We don’t expect life to be black and white.

6) We may have been mature teenagers but for some reason, we take our time “growing up” in our 20s.  For more on that, check out this article by Ann Baker Cottrell and Ruth Hill Useem:  http://www.tckworld.com/useem/art3.html

7) We are unlikely to take jobs in government or the corporate world that involve a lot of red tape/bureaucracy.  Neither do we often follow in our parent’s footsteps professionally:  http://www.tckworld.com/useem/art5.html

If you are a TCK or if you know one well and care to add to this list I’d love to hear from you.  Post a comment.  Just don’t ask me about the Jetsons.


Bjorn Karlman