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

2 thoughts on “Wolf in Sheeps’ Clothing – The Life of a Third Culture Kid Swede with an American Accent”

  1. What is an American identity? I think it’s about buying into certain ‘ideals’ or ideas. Having the accent is like putting on the party uniform so people can identify you as being ‘one of them’ without having to deeply explore your viewpoints. Surface assessment, but that’s the way it is I suppose.

    1. Good question! The American identity is a hard one to pin down. Partly because it is so many things to so many people. It’s hard to decide how much of a role the accent plays. Even within the country there is widespread discrimination solely based on certain accents or dialects that are looked down upon… Talking “with an accent”, READ: not sounding white-picket-fency, is often considered less than ideal. Not that I think only Americans react to accents this way… it is a very human tendency. Accents seem petty and peripheral and yet we make a lot of our judgments based on such pettiness.

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