Why did you move to Scandinavia?
I was recruited to work here in the late 90’s. It was a lateral move with an attractive twist of working at a smaller company. Maybe the quiet also had something to do with it. When I visited the first time, I felt that I could hear myself think.

What was it like when you arrived?
It was like being in one of those ornaments that you find in a gift shop, the glass bubbles filled with water, the kind with the miniature landscapes. It was idyllic, clean, and most of all, still.

How would you describe the people, in general?
Very pleasant. I’ve met some wonderful people from Scandinavia. I have a diverse group of friends: people of different backgrounds and interests, all ages really. Some of them are from families that have been around for centuries. Some are from mixed families. Some have partners from other continents. Some are adopted. Some are products of immigrants who fled as refugees from horrific living conditions in their native homelands. There are all kinds of Scandinavians. But if there was one common trait among a lot of people that I could name, it would be scepticism. It’s not a bad thing most of the time; we could learn a lot from the Scandinavians, in that regard. But sometimes, I’ve been at the tail-end when their scepticism has deterred or prolonged them from answering an email, hiring someone, or exploring a business venture. It’s a thin line, as the song goes.

How did you learn the language?
I took a crash course with a language consultant at the office for a few hours each week during the first month or two. Then nothing for about two years because everyone in Scandinavia under the age of 65 just loves to speak English. Life was easy. As soon as I would start fumbling for words at the grocery store or the Post office, someone would chime in with a story about when they were an exchange student, employee or backpacker back in the 60’s or 70’s. After the two-year mark, one of my colleagues showed up in the doorway of my office. “That’s it, no more English for you,” he declared. He told everyone on our floor and soon I was stranded at every meeting without the one thing that was left to feed my ego: my mother tongue. I suppose I have him to thank for my progress because that’s when I really started learning the language. Sometimes, it’s been more a case of unlearning my own language to avoid being ‘lost in translation’. One time I tried to open a meeting with a quick recap of a business dinner that I attended the previous week. My choice of prepositions was nearly fatal: “The dinner was really nice, and I had a very nice older lady on the table.”

Has mastering the language made an impact on your daily life?
Absolutely; language is the key to unlock any culture. The high point for me was telling a joke that got my Scandinavian friends to laugh. Then I felt like I could really speak the language. It’s important to take risks along the way, and that’s uncomfortable sometimes. Even after so many years of practice, my body still tenses up when I hear myself birthing phrases with anecdotes and metaphors. It will never be my first language, but it now qualifies as my second. It’s also fascinating to learn the cultural language, the unspoken truths that are not in the books. It’s not enough to use the right words. What if I’m waving my hands too much while I’m talking? That’s a cultural no-no in Scandinavia. I also learned that there’s a certain way to mingle, or rather, a certain way not to mingle: On my first day at work, my boss and I were on the elevator heading up to the office from the garage. Moments later, a man got on and said hello. He seemed intrigued that we were speaking English, so I introduced myself and asked him if he worked in the building. In fact he did, so I thought that it wouldn’t hurt for him to know that he was welcomed to call if he needed some help with a presentation, right? Wrong. You should have seen the look on his face when we reached his floor and he backed out with my freshly-printed business card in his hand. His mouth was still gaped in shock as the elevator doors closed. Then my boss broke out in laughter. “This is not the US! You can not do that here!” It took a while for me to figure that one out, but I’ve got it now.

What have you struggled with the most about Scandinavia?
Stereotypes. We all have stereotypes that we silently challenge to a duel from time to time. I’ve only seen it a few times, but it bothers me on a deeper level. American ideals may be popular here, but the stereotypical view of a boisterous American out-eating, out-talking, and out-ruling every facet of society is not attractive to Scandinavians, or anyone for that matter. It’s frustrating, but something that we have to understand in order to have any kind of impact on our future in the region. If when someone here says, “Where are you from?” they assume that when you answer “USA” it means that you were born and raised in in a house with a white picket fence or one of those apartments like the one that Chandler & Joey shared on Friends. You were fed a steady diet of junk food and talk shows, do not speak a foreign language, and have little or no grasp on world geography or politics outside of the USA. One time I had lunch with a colleague who interrupted our discussion with, “Aha… you use the fork and the knife together at the same time like a European. Most Americans don’t do that.” If he’d known anything about my background, he would have never said something like that. But it was interesting to hear.

How are African-Americans perceived?
Let’s put it this way: if some Scandinavians were playing the board-game Trivial Pursuit, they would assume that the majority of the answers pertaining to African-Americans were either in the category ‘Arts & Entertainment’ or ‘Sports’. The mainstream media is powerful and provides some people with captivating imagery of African-American athletes, singers and comedians. But I think for others, it’s easier to live under the auspices of the Northern Lights. If Marshall McLuhan was right and the medium is truly the message, Scandinavia will continue to trod along barefoot, in the snow, and uphill in its understanding of the breadth of the African-American diaspora.

How can we introduce the diaspora to Scandinavia?
It would be great to have book reviews from reputable critics or even a professionally-edited ‘infomentary’ because everything presented in Scandinavia has to be concrete. I think it’s just human nature for us to build opinions from concrete associations. But in Scandinavia, it is crucial for things to be tangible. It’s an effort for anyone to move out of their comfort zone to prove their stereotypes wrong. I’ve worked with branding for years, so my theories about this issue is deeply rooted in associative imagery. It’s still the strongest way to send any message. If someone was asked, “Are African-Americans in the other categories, if we use the board-game Trivial Pursuit metaphor?” would a person from Scandinavia answer Yes or No? We know that there are plenty of scientists and engineers, doctors and philosophers, but few of them have made it to the mainstream media, so they don’t exist. That’s why their answer would literally be No. It stems from the scepticism I mentioned earlier; everything new must be interrogated, which is actually a good thing because it means there is an opportunity to change perception if they are presented with the facts.

What have you learned from living in Scandinavia?
Sometimes small differences in culture or language can create clouds of confusion. I think every culture has the building blocks for isolating themselves to a certain degree. No matter where we travel, I think we have to figure out a way to break down the barriers. We need to meet in the middle, to get to know the people of that region. A few years ago, I learned that their word ‘neger’ can mean a range of things. It was odd to hear it used in the media from time to time or read it in classic books like ‘Pippi Longstockings’, so I looked it up. Norstedt’s dictionary translated it as Negro, nigger, blackie, or darkie. So a Scandinavian person who is disconnected from our culture, would probably use their word ‘neger’ as a label used for people of the negroid race, ie. Negro. In that case, it’s not an insinuation for nigger. I still found this to be strange, especially when the politically-correct labels have changed a few times since the English word Negro was widely used. But the fact is that some people outside of the USA didn’t get the memo. The ones who have an interest in civil rights or have business in the US are actively pursuing the issue. I can recall many discussions with friends and colleagues during the 2008 US elections, Scandinavians who were very concerned about their vernacular. I didn’t realize it then, but they were looking to fill the void that the mainstream media has yet to populate with information about the diaspora. And they hadn’t been exposed to anyone who could clarify things first hand, in their language.

What can African-Americans do to expose Scandinavians to the diaspora?
Get here if you can. Visit Scandinavia on business or as a tourist. Meet the people, exchange ideas, make friends, explore their history and culture. In turn, the people in Scandinavia will do the same. I’ve seen it happen many times over the years. The discussions don’t have to be deep, there’s no need to be teachy. I think it’s about being open. It’s been a real joy to be here.

What do you enjoy most about living in Scandinavia?
It’s pretty raw. I like that. Just about everything about it is raw: the nature, the food, the culture. There’s a bit of melancholy in the air which keeps things on the edge. Maybe the best thing about Scandinavia is also the worst. Or as they say, “It is what it is, and it’ll be what it’ll be.”


Photo credits: all images courtesy of Roland Williams

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4 Responses to “Scandinavian Insight with Roland Williams”

  1. Eric says:

    Glad to read about one ‘brother’ from the USA doing great in Nordic Europe. But, to use the term ‘Scandinavia’ and apply it to the whole region, well, that may be too general. Like Norway, Sweden and Denmark are all very different, in spite of the fact that the nations are very close in proximity. The ‘q and a’ here does not make it clear as to which country Brother Roland actually settled in. What is interesting is how my man was offered a job position BEFORE ‘hitting the ground’ there. He is very fortunate on that streak, and hats off to him for that. But, life can be tough there, too, on a lot of different levels.  Especially if you arrive there under different circumstances, even from the USA. I should know, having lived in both Denmark and Sweden, in the 1980’s and more recently, 2000 to 2001, respectively, with all of the correct papers in place, and even speaking and reading both languages reasonably well. So, it is good to read about one of us who has made a go of it, and can speak fondly of his experiences and life there now.   

  2. Nice to hear from you, Eric. Roland lives in Sweden. Thank you for sharing your experiences from your time in Sweden and Denmark.

  3. Angelas2k says:

    This was an excellent read. I hope that the editors of this magazine will consider using this sequence of presentation as a template for all of the narratives in future issues. The descriptions were so very rich and thought provoking. As opposed to being left with feelings of isolation and detachment as so many expat narratives are given to being, Roland’s narrative evokes a kind of connectedness and inter-dependence which I found delightfully refreshing.

  4. Reggie says:

    Thanks for both of your comments. We try to give the writers as much latitude as possible in telling their stories but we can ask for more detail next time if it is not clear. We agree, we are happy to see expat narratives on engaging the local culture instead of alienation.

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