Ella is half-American, half-Swedish. She grew up in New York City and has spent the last 6 years living in Sweden. But now she has decided to return to New York.
Ella’s story isn’t a typical expat story because it’s a lot more about getting to know her Swedish side and finally realizing where her cultural home is – back in New York.
When you’re split between two different countries, having to decide where you want to settle down is a tough choice to make – no matter what you choose, you would have to give up something that you appreciate.
It’s the bittersweet part about exploring the world and living in different places – but it’s all the more challenging when it becomes an identity question as well.
In the end, it’s about finding a balance between honoring different parts of you.
Please tell us a little bit about who you are and your expat journey so far.
I’m Ella, I’m 31 and I live in Stockholm, Sweden.
I moved to Sweden 6 years ago from New York City. I grew up just outside New York City in a very tight-knit family that I still regularly keep in touch with.
Though I often dreamed about traveling to other countries, I never really fantasized about moving abroad.
New York has always felt like home to me, and I created a life for myself in NYC during my early twenties that I was pretty happy with.
“I can honestly say that I don’t think I would be in Sweden if I didn’t have dual citizenship; I have an American dad and a Swedish mom, and though I did not grow up in Sweden, I have had Swedish citizenship since birth.”
In a country like the US – especially New York – where so many people have an ancestry of recent immigration, my immigrant mother and our mixed cultural identity fit easily into the diverse fabric of US culture.
I moved to Sweden in 2015 only intending to stay for two years. I had decided to leave a job in New York and go back to school, and because higher education is so expensive in the US, I decided to take advantage of my dual citizenship and study in Sweden, where education for EU citizens is free!
My mom had recently moved back to Sweden after decades raising a family with my dad in the US, so my move was also fueled by a desire to explore the country and culture my mother had grown up in and live closer to her for a while.
I was excited; I saw my temporary move as a privileged opportunity to explore Europe while I studied, and I didn’t want to waste it or take it for granted.
While I was growing up my family didn’t have the money for overseas travel – my mom only visited Sweden a couple times during the decades she raised us in the US – so I had zero exposure to Swedish culture before moving here six years ago!
“When I moved to Sweden, I suddenly found myself in a strange but privileged limbo: I have all the benefits of a Swedish identity without any of the cultural or language knowledge.”
It wasn’t until I started trying to integrate into the local culture that I started to look deeper into my discomfort around my identity in Sweden, but it took a couple years before I reached that point.
By the time I had completed my degree at a Swedish university (in a program taught in English), I had met and started dating my Swedish partner, and had also unfortunately started the treatment process for a very surprising diagnosis of – thankfully a very treatable – cancer.
My life was thrown into a bit of a tumult, but my partner was an amazing support through that experience, which included a lot of very confusing maneuvering of a healthcare system I was unfamiliar with, and tons of Swedish paperwork.
As I recovered from that experience, my partner and I began to build our life together, and I attempted to integrate into Swedish culture. I started taking Swedish classes, and got a job at an English speaking school while I worked on my Swedish fluency.
“I quickly learned that, once outside of my diverse and international university friend bubble, I was definitely an outsider in Swedish society, and that learning Swedish would be my key to attaining some kind of integration.”
However, I’ve really struggled reaching fluency – because English is spoken so fluently by most Swedish people, I’m almost never forced to speak Swedish.
I actually have made some Swedish people uncomfortable by asking that they bear with me as I stumble along in my limited Swedish when they clearly would prefer to just speak English!
Unfortunately, even after 6 years and many Swedish classes, I am not where I hoped I would be with the language.
It’s also been very exhausting fielding questions and exclamations of disappointment that my mother didn’t speak Swedish to me during my childhood.
So when and how did the dilemma of “should I stay or go?” come up for you?
That question came into sharp focus after my Swedish partner and I broke up, and during the same period of the break up a close family member of mine in the US died.
As the waves of grief and loss hit me, I was so caught up in daily survival that the thought of quitting my job in Sweden and planning a move back to the US felt impossible.
I was tired. I was sad. The US is far away. And I wasn’t totally alone – I had my mom nearby, and a few close friends who helped me through that period.
That was why I stayed – a mixture of fatigue and depression that immobilized me (this is very dark and sad, but honest!), but also the love of a few people around me.
“The thought of moving back to the US and attempting to start over, looking for a job and a home, felt impossible. I also didn’t feel ‘done’ with Sweden.”
I had this mantra in my head of – “I need to give life in Sweden a proper chance!”, and for me that meant trying to build a life here when all the grief of those traumatic experiences had passed. I should note that at that point I had been in Sweden 3 years already!
The good things about Sweden – the high standard of living and amazing quality of life, the calmness and safety, the beauty – also made me feel safe and that it was worth staying just a little bit longer.
I also wasn’t super eager to go back to the US, where I felt uncomfortable with many things happening politically, and I worried the culture shock of moving home would be too much for me to handle at that time.
I sought out a therapist at this time, and they helped me work through a lot of the grief I was feeling, and I would talk to them about my struggle with adapting culturally.
Therapy helped me begin to separate my grief from the difficulty with integrating.
It was a chaotic period, full of change and loss, and through it I continued to study Swedish and tried to focus on continuing to build a life in Sweden.
“I often wonder if most people in my situation would have just returned to their home country at that point – I usually answer my own question with ‘duh most likely!!’ because it was definitely a few of the most painful and difficult years of my life.”
I missed my support system in the US like crazy. To go through it all in a country that was foreign to me definitely heightened some of the difficulties.
But after some of the initial grief from all that loss passed, I found myself with some defiant sense of pride; I had been through all this, and wanted to keep trying to build a life here.
After all, maybe my discomfort in Sweden – with the language barrier but also with the cultural differences I kept butting up against – would ease once my life settled back into normalcy.
“The perks of life in Sweden felt worth it.”
Sweden has some incredible infrastructure and societal support for its residents: affordable healthcare (I shudder to think what my cancer treatment would have cost in the US), amazing public transport, high standard of living in almost every sense.
In many ways my quality of life in Sweden is heaps better than it ever was or could be in New York.
Overall, I learned a slower pace of life that contributed positively to my overall health.
I didn’t feel rushed to leave a place where I had found everyday luxury. Even though I found the cultural norms difficult to understand, these positive sides were a big part of the reason I decided to tough out the rougher parts of integrating and learning the language.
Despite your past determination, you have still decided to move back to NY. What made you change your mind in the end?
Despite these realizations and deep appreciations for Sweden, however, I’ve found myself longing for things from New York.
My life in New York consisted of taking advantage of the immense amount of cultural happenings always going on in the city, and I was always meeting friends or coworkers out at restaurants and bars.
“In New York, life is lived outside, amongst other people, and it’s always easy to connect with people. Sweden, to that end, almost feels like the exact opposite.”
Swedes socialize indoors, at home. There are a few months in the summer when Swedes head outdoors.
One of my favorite things is the access to nature that can always be found here. The clean air and beautiful scenery, endless forests and lakes truly feel magical during a Swedish summer.
In addition to the differences in environment and places where people socialize, it’s also been difficult for me to understand how Swedish people socialize, because norms and social codes around behavior and how to build relationships are just so different from what’s expected in American culture.
“It’s taken me years to understand how some foundational Swedish values are the basis of expected Swedish behavior, and even still I constantly feel I’m a beat behind.”
Part of me – the part that considers the beauty of Sweden and the great quality of life – feels a lot of doubt about considering moving back to New York.
But after 6 years of loss and a lot of doubt about living here, I decided about a year ago it’s time for me to head home.
I thought I would move back to NY sometime this year, but then I got an offer of an extension at my job, and decided to take it.
Covid has made everything uncertain, and the offer felt like a safe and smart option. This pushed my plan to move back to NY back about 7 months, and now I’ve finally booked my plane ticket and temporary housing in NY for January 2022!
I’m so so excited to be going home. Incredibly nervous, too, of course, but mostly happy anticipation!
How will you go about closing this chapter of your life in Sweden?
I want to spend the next few months really diving into and appreciating all the things I love about Sweden.
I want to spend time with my family and friends here. I want to enjoy the nature as much as possible, maybe travel a little within Sweden.
I’ve spent so much time reflecting on the past few years that I want to try extra hard to just live in the moment. Truly enjoy the little things like the delicious coffee I get in cafes, the serene calmness of the nature reserve by my home, and the company of kind people.
I’ll have plenty of time when I’m back in NY to worry and plan my next chapter!
What are some worries that you have had or have right now regarding moving back to NY?
I worry that once I get back, I’ll feel I’ve made a mistake. I especially worry when I consider what I want for my future.
The past few years of hardship have highlighted to me what I find most important and fulfilling: family, a community of good friends, and one day soon having my own children.
Especially on the last point – children – leaving Sweden seems silly. The generous parental leave, government financial support for all children through their teens, and tons of other support and services for families in Sweden makes Sweden a safe and lovely place to have a child.
“But I have no idea at the moment how to reconcile those facts with my feelings that Sweden isn’t my cultural home, the place that I feel like myself and happy enough to start a family.”
New York is the place where I became who I am, and where I feel the most like myself. But Sweden is a home for me too, and it always will be.
This is my mom’s home, and wherever she is is home for me. And though I identify as an American, Sweden has definitely given a Swedish cultural tint to my perspective.
In many ways I’ve grown up a lot while I’ve lived here, and have internalized some Swedish values. I’m grateful for it all.
What parts of the “Swedish you” do you want to bring back with you to New York?
I’ve been thinking about this a lot.
I’ve become so much more comfortable with the parts of myself that enjoy taking things slowly – to take long walks, make dinner with friends, sit in coffee shops for hours – and I would love to carry those habits to the new version of my old life in NY.
The best parts of my life are lived in these small moments.
“NYC is of course known as a city that moves at a crazy fast pace, but I’m determined to find my own little cozy corners and spaces to live out these new sides of myself.”
I’ve also developed such a deep appreciation for and love of nature while in Sweden, and have decided that I will definitely make room in my next New York chapter for hiking trips and exploring more of the amazing nature throughout the US, and sharing that with family and friends – I can’t wait!!
I’ve also learned how important it is to find peace within and with myself. Spending so much time alone during these recent Covid times, and even before when I was struggling with the cultural adjustment, has had a profound impact on me.
It’s become so clear to me how important it is to be kind and forgiving to myself, and to celebrate all that I’ve accomplished.
“The paths I’ve chosen don’t always make sense to people around me, but what is most important is that I feel I’m being true to myself, and what I want.”
I’ve gotten some pushback since I started telling people I’m moving back to New York – primarily questions about how I will find a job, and I can tell others are often projecting their own fears onto my situation.
Totally understandable, but I have to put some effort into letting these comments roll off of me.
I want to bring this new self awareness and grounded sense of self with me back to New York.
It’s been a rough road the past few years, but I’m so proud of all I’ve accomplished and learned, and the person I’ve become (and am still becoming!).
I’m going to let this self love light the way on my next journey back to New York.
Katherine is a retired world traveller and former serial expat. Based on her professional work, PhD research and personal experience, she now helps expats, travellers and location independents decide whether to stay or go, where to should settle down or whether it’s time to move back home.