Living Abroad, But Never Through Anyone Else’s Eyes
A polyocular look at cultural difference, perspective, interpretation and experience
“See the world through a different culture’s eyes…” I was introduced to this quote by the exchange student organization, Youths For Understanding, prior to my exchange student year abroad in Norway. I was 16 years old, a little rebellious, ready for independence and completely naïve to the emotional roller-coaster ride and philosophical journey I was to embark on in the year to come. Before the exchange, I assumed, matter-of-fact, that by the end of the year I’d be able to speak and act like a Viking,”Seeing the world through a different culture’s eyes…” Recently, I was reminded of this quote while I was writing my Masters thesis last year.
What brought the quote to mind was a theory I had been looking at while studying the multifunctionality of farming. The theory is called, polyocularity, meaning ‘many eyes.’ The premise of the theory is to accumulate many different perspectives, preferably from differing disciplines, with regard to the same issue or topic in focus, over the same time period. Once perspectives were gathered, the goal was to illuminate a polyocular vision of whatever it was you were all studying.
The problem, however, was the exact same problem I had come to when I was an exchange student – when am I ever able to look at the world through someone else’s eyes? The perspectives or cultures I am better acquainted with still must be filtered through my own eyes, my own unique interpretation, based on my own history of experiences that are continually re-invented with new insights. This is not to say that I couldn’t develop a deeper understanding of a different culture, be it discipline(s) or locally distinct society(s). I could master the Norwegian language, the local mannerisms and dialect. The people might think I’m Norwegian due to how I dress and look (I’m already a redhead).
One ‘problem’ still remained, I could never (honestly) tell a story about my Norwegian childhood. I could fabricate stories based on the childhood stories I had heard from other Norwegians’ (a practice that I later found to be common while I was studying acting and theater – An actor is asked to create his own character history in order to understand his character-self, his relationships to others, his life drivers and/or intentions). But there would be many holes in this facade of a personal history. Obviously, this is because my childhood took place in Seattle, WA and my past experiences were already being recruited to help me shape my current understanding of Norwegians, their culture and my own ability to respond and communicate adequately. At some point in the year, I realized that I would never see the world from a Norwegian’s eyes, let alone anyone else’s eyes but my own! Any other perspective would always have to be filtered through my continually saturated, broadening and evolving understanding and interpretation tempered by my own unique past experiences.
This quasi-philosophical realization re-emerged like a slap in the face, while I was writing my masters thesis. How can I ever truly be objective when my subjectivity has shaped the very lens that poses the hypothesis I’ve written before me? …Good Question…
When Do We Get to Be Called ‘Swedish?’
Within the coming year, I will have the ability to apply for a Swedish Passport (I’ve been in a legal relationship with a Swede and living in Sweden for almost three years). If I get a passport, will that make me ‘Swedish?’ Legally, yes, I would be Swedish. Culturally, I guess it would depend more on who you asked and how strict their definition was for being ‘Swedish.’
This normative debate of identity has been more difficult for some than for others. For example, a second generation of immigrants, born and raised in Sweden but born without your stereotypical Swedish blond hair, white skin or blue eyes, have struggled to find a concrete identity in Swedish society. This is, of course, not the case for everyone and I am, by no means, saying that this demographic has not developed its own identity woven into Swedish society in its own dialectically unique way (as was illuminated in the recent Swedish film titled, “Play”).
But the fact that this demographic has only known of Sweden as ‘home,’ yet they are frequently still being called ‘immigrants,’ highlights this issue on Swedish identity. How far back in history must one look before he or she is no longer considered an immigrant? I believe that one of the issues is that racial differences in Sweden are highly correlated to classism differences. This link only exacerbates the often ugly, historical, embedded stereotypes over race, poverty and thus, social inclusion. As I said earlier, this is not the rule for everyone.
However, I believe it is perhaps more dangerous to ignore these social relationships than to acknowledge that, at the very least, they DO exist. I say this because I often feel that I get off pretty easy as a white-skinned, blue-eyed Seattle-American immigrant, raised during the pinnacle of Seattle’s grunge era, which seems to give me even more social clout (Every Swede seems to have loved Kurt Cobain at some point in their life). To top it off, almost every Swede has traveled to America which means I can almost always get away with talking to strangers (a Swedish social taboo) purely based on the American stereotype they all know, Americans like to talk to strangers. I’ve even found that speaking English in Sweden brings out more conversation than speaking Swedish.
In terms of my own identity, I think I’ll always consider myself a Seattlite in flux (even after I can legally call myself a Swede) – I can only tell stories of my Seattle childhood. But to be fair, I’m not stuck in limbo, I live in one of the most beautiful cities in the world – Stockholm, Sweden. As time goes by, more and more, I do feel the culture rubbing off on me. I find a greater and greater inclination to grow my beard longer, braid it, hoist a sail on a longboat, carry a pint of mead and scream, “Skåle!!!” like a Viking.