Comfortably numb – the split personality of an expat

This year I’ve been a resident of Canada for about 23 years. I originally wrote this piece for my private blog, but I’m bringing it over here to share as well.
When I first moved to Canada it was kind of like being on an extended vacation. It was all exciting and new and amazing: oh look at those Rocky Mountains! wow, this Chinese food is awesome! look at the view from Cypress Mountain!, so this is a Ceasar/White Spot burger/Bella pizza/curried beef brisket!, and so on.
Buttle Lake, Canada.

That initial exuberance lasted a good while, though it wasn’t all easy of course. In the early days of my emigration/immigration, it was tougher than it is now to keep in touch: not as much internet, not as easy to share photos online or use an online chat. No Facebook. No Skype. No blogs. It was all down to (expensive) phone calls and snail mail letters. That made the distance feel even greater than now.

And of course I did miss things from Sweden. Family and friends mainly. (There was also the whole writing related weirdness of writing in one language – Swedish – and living in another language – English – though that’s a subject for another blog). Small things got to me, like not being able to find the right kind of spices for my Christmas glögg. Big things got to me too. My brother (10 at the time I think) cried when I left one Christmas. My grandfather died while I was away. My grandmother got sick, and I wasn’t there.

Burvik, Sweden.

But I knew it was all part of the bargain. Sure, I did lose some things, but I also gained so many things: a great place to live, lots of great new friends and relatives, a husband and eventually two kids I wouldn’t have missed out on for anything. “Bytt bytt kommer aldrig igen“, as the Swedish playground-saying goes (meaning that once you’ve made your bargain, you can’t take it back).

I had made my bed, and that’s what the bed was like: I was always slightly homesick for Sweden, even though I loved living in Canada and didn’t want to move back. I gained and I lost. Can’t have everything, all the time. You suck it up and move on. People do, all the time, all over the world, and often under a lot more difficult circumstances.

100% Swedish.
100% Swedish.
Eventually, I realized that when I went back to Sweden, I was homesick for Canada. I’m not really sure when this happened to me, but probably in the mid- to late 1990s. I can remember being in Sweden for 3 months in the late 1990s, and missing home a lot by the end of that stay. I missed my husband, our apartment, hiking in the North Shore woods… but it was more than that: I missed it, the whole damn place. I missed being in Canada.
One of the first years after moving to Canada, I can remember sitting on the plane, about to land at Skellefteå airport and feeling this sense of happiness to be home, in Sweden. These days, I don’t feel that rush when the plane lands in Sweden anymore. I feel that rush in other places: at the dinner table with my parents, waking up at their summer house, walking in the snow and hearing it creak under my boots. I guess it means I no longer really miss Sweden. I miss more specific things: specific places, specific people, the specific smell of glögg and christmas trees.
Getting married, in Canada.
Getting married, in Canada.
So this is the deal, this is the bargain, this is the bed that I made, that whichever country I’m in, I’m always missing something. It’s like there’s always a thin layer of sadness beneath everything else that I do and feel. That sounds kind of pathetic, but I don’t know how else to describe it. It’s not that I’m sad all the time, because I’m not. And I know I’m lucky that I’ve been able to visit and be visited by friends and family a lot over the years, and that obviously helps keep me connected. (And who knows, maybe that whole “layer of sadness” thing is just due to me being, at heart a dour, brooding, miserable, solitary Swede from northern Sweden (a “norrlänning“). Yay Swedishness!)
That sadness isn’t something that is hard to deal with. It doesn’t hamper my life, and I have no regrets. It just is. And as time goes by the sadness kind of dulls. Even saying goodbye to family when I visit Sweden, or when they visit here, is less painful now than it once was. Not because I love them less, but because I’m used to it.
My contributions to Canada.
My contributions to Canada.
I watch my kids and their much more raw emotions when they say goodbye, and I know that there are parts of me that I’ve made a conscious or unconscious decision to turn down, or mute, or numb over the years. It’s just hard to always think about and mull over things I’ve missed over the years and am still missing: funerals, my brother’s graduation, the birth of my sister’s daughter, and people just generally growing up and growing old without me being there. But I can’t be in two places at once, and until Star Fleet finally brings out a reliable transporter, traveling between British Columbia and Sweden will be a long, expensive haul. So being comfortably numb is nothing to scoff at.
I sometimes wonder what an alternate, 100% Swedish version of me would be like. I have no idea. I can’t even imagine it anymore. I am this Swedish-Canadian-good-for-nothing-mom-writer-more remix. I don’t want another life, I don’t want to be another kind of person. I just wish the world was smaller and Sweden closer. I wish there were easier ways of getting together with the people I miss: that Sunday dinners were possible, or quick coffees, or girls’ nights out with old friends, or just unplanned visits to sit down and chat and watch the kids play in the yard.
But again, that’s the deal, that’s the bargain, that’s the bed. And giving up Canada would just mean I would miss it instead. Every person who has moved away from somewhere to somewhere else, knows something about this kind of bargain. You give something, you get something. That’s life.

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