Johnstown, Penn.

On Being a Multicultural Mother

By Shelley Johansson

“Do you like Jason & the Scorchers?” That question would have caught my attention coming from anyone in 1987 – but coming from an attractive guy in Sweden, it was the ultimate pickup line. I was an 18-year-old native of Nashville on my first big trip out of the country, and the alt-country band Jason & the Scorchers was the hottest thing my hometown had ever seen. We were both smitten.

It wasn’t surprising that I fell so fast for Ola. I’ve always been fascinated by the relationship between where you grew up and who you are, and although being a Southerner is a big part of my self-image I’ve always been drawn to people from different cultures. And he had gorgeous blue eyes with a Scandinavian slant.

What was surprising is that it turned out to be more than a hot summer romance. We kept in touch through sporadic letters for the next six years, saw each other a couple of times, and dated other people. Eventually Ola, who was also interested in people and places, began studying cultural geography at Lund University in Sweden. He came to the University of Tennessee to spend an exchange student year and be with me, and we decided I would join him in Lund after I was done with my master’s a year later.  As much as I love the South, I couldn’t wait to leave.

I’d traveled a lot, but this was my first time living outside the South  –  I chose Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi for my undergraduate degree, and for grad school Tennessee made sense because of in-state tuition. But Sweden is as far north as you can get on the planet, and although I’d visited I didn’t truly know the culture. Everything was new, from how you flush most toilets (you pull up on a knob) to how you introduce yourself (you shake hands, say your first name, and that’s it  –  no small talk whatsoever). More subtle differences, like the Swedish aversion to saying anything positive about one’s own abilities for fear of being considered a braggart, took longer to understand. Naturally, the language was the biggest challenge of all.

I spent two semesters in school full-time to learn Swedish in an intensive course offered through Lund University, with classmates from all over  –  China, Iraq, Liberia, Algeria, and quite a few from Bosnia, this being the mid-1990s. I was the only American, and one of two students who had come to Sweden because by choice, rather than as a refugee. Unlike my fellow students, I was living with a Swede and could practice the language at home as well as in public, although my strong English-speaking accent never improved much. Most Swedes speak at least passable English, so it was a big deal the first time I completed a grocery store transaction in Swedish without the clerk answering in English.

Within a few months I found I could get through most of the newspaper, and graduated to Swedish translations of John Grisham novels. My language skills took off. But despite my fluency, my accent ensures that I reveal myself as obviously American the moment I open my mouth, no matter what language I use. Swedish-speaking Americans are rare, especially outside Stockholm, and I got used to being a novelty item.

Ultimately, in Sweden I am American, not Southern. Most Swedes don’t have a handle on the regional differences in this impossibly large country anyway  –  if they’ve had the chance to visit, first choices are usually big cities popular as film locations. It’s easy to draw a map to show roughly where Tennessee is, but much harder to explain that New York is almost as foreign to me as it is to them. So my Southernness didn’t resonate with them  –  or me, frankly. At least not then and there. I was too busy absorbing this new culture to think much about the one I’d left behind.

We spent two years in Sweden, and decided to go back to the United States for Ola to pursue a Ph.D. at the University of Tennessee. Once we returned to Knoxville, he continued to get to know my Southern culture as well as I’d learned his. We traveled all over, from long visits to my grandparents in Panama City to New Orleans to the Atlanta Olympics. He had his share of cultural surprises, too, ranging from his first experience with fire ants to taking a shower in Mississippi soft water (“There’s something wrong with this soap.”) I introduced him to Professor Longhair’s music, which he loved and was unlike anything he’d ever heard  –  and Roger Miller, whose work he still fails to appreciate, except for “King of the Road.”

Ola has native-like fluency in English with a barely perceptible accent – it’s  generally the unusual first name that tips people off that he’s not American. Even so, he occasionally needed help understanding my father, an accomplished businessman who often uses expressions like “that dog won’t hunt.” A quick study, Ola soon got what Southerners really mean when they say “bless their hearts,” and how to use “ain’t” for emphasis.

He learned to be a polite guest in the South, offering several compliments on the food, the company, the furnishings and so on  –  behavior that would be considered over-the-top in Sweden. He also had to get used to the pervasive cultural conservatism. On an early road trip, he tried to order a beer with dinner at a Cracker Barrel, and was completely mystified by the server’s response: “This is a family restaurant.”

When jobhunting time rolled around, he got a few interviews for tenure-track professorships, but the best one was at Valdosta State University in Georgia. We’d never been to Valdosta, but we knew what to expect  –  Tennessee was home, but the Deep South was well-known territory. The interview went well and we both thought that would be that.

As it turned out, Valdosta State opted to hire a geologist rather than a geographer (which is about like interviewing an astronomer and hiring an archeologist instead, but whatever). We got the bad news from Valdosta on the same rollercoaster day Ola got an offer from the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown, a small city in southwestern Pennsylvania. So a couple weeks later, we made our first-ever trip to the Keystone State, with the goal of buying a house  –  which was exactly as jarring as it sounds.

That first year in Pennsylvania was a Groundhog Day-like procession of cultural differences, big and small.  One of the funniest incidents was our first July 4, when we attended a symphony pops concert in Johnstown. The program was pleasingly familiar, Independence Day standards like Sousa marches, the Salute to the Armed Forces and so on, each introduced by the maestro. Toward the end of the evening, he exclaimed, “And here’s one that needs no introduction!” turned around and began energetically waving his baton. The audience sighed in unanimous recognition, clapping and swaying in rhythm as the music bounced along. Everyone but Ola and me, that is – our cluelessness must have been obvious, as the man to my left leaned over and explained with a grin, “The Pennsylvania Polka.” Right. In Nashville, the Music City, we do not polka.

So once again I was having a great time getting to know a new culture, this time experiencing a much heightened sense of my own Southernness. But because Ola knew and loved the South too, I didn’t feel like I was losing anything by moving North – on the contrary, we were getting to know a new culture, a new place, together. And once we got used to the idea, we knew it’d be a great adventure.

Because of who I married, I imagine I’ve spent more time than most thinking about cross-culturalism and what it can mean. It’s been incredibly enriching – becoming fluent in another language is the most intellectually interesting thing I’ve ever done, and understanding each other’s cultures as thoroughly as we do adds a whole dimension to the way Ola and I relate. (Heaven knows we have a rare appreciation for True Blood, with its Southern Gothic humor sprinkled with Swedish scenes and in-jokes, presumably written into the script with the help of Swedish star Alexander Skarsgård). We feel privileged to get to live at our very own, self-created intersection of American and Swedish culture.

So when our daughter was born in 2003, just over a year after we moved to Johnstown, we were determined to raise her with both cultures. We gave her a classically Swedish first name, Linnea, which is also the name of a wildflower that represents the region of Sweden where Ola grew up. She looks just like him, with blue, slanting Scandinavian eyes, and unlike either of us she’s blonde. More to the point, she is bilingual  –  that is extremely important to us both. We’ve even gone so far as to spend a full semester in Sweden when she was a kindergartner, making good use of Ola’s sabbatical. So when she speaks Swedish, her accent sounds like his, not mine. (Thank God.)

She’s eleven now, a newly minted sixth-grader. But only recently have I realized how much I miss raising her in the South, that we are in effect adding a third culture to our already multicultural household.

There’s something deep and primal about wanting to give your kid what you had as a kid, if what you had was good, that is. Ola feels it acutely  –  after all, we’re raising her in my country, not his. But the cultural differences between America and Sweden stand in sharper relief, and are therefore easier to teach and discuss. I mean, he never says a word to her in English. We can build a midsummer pole in the backyard, dance and sing the traditional songs, though the neighbors might think we’re nuts when we jump around during the frog song. We can go into her classroom and do a presentation on St. Lucia Day, and everyone will love it. But the subtler differences between the South and here are somehow much harder to convey.    

I miss spending weekends on Tennessee Valley Authority lakes for myself, but even more for her. Our basement contains just a few water toys, and a big pile of snow toys. In Johnstown we don’t have to raise our voices on summer evenings to be heard above the roar of the cicadas, and fall comes so suddenly, right on cue around Labor Day. Saying “ma’am” up here often prompts the response, “oh, don’t call me ma’am, that makes me feel old,” rather than appreciation for ordinary good manners. Even things that feel somewhat similar are motivated differently  –  the cultural conservatism around us comes from Catholicism, not evangelicalism.

For Linnea, halupki (a cabbage and noodle dish from Eastern Europe) will be familiar, and she might even like it. She’ll expect a white Christmas. Going to the beach will mean the Jersey shore, not the Redneck Riviera of the Florida panhandle. She’ll be used to last names that are Eastern European, can-I-please-buy-a-vowel unpronounceable, or Italian.  The term “ethnic” will imply Eastern European, rather than non-white.  Already she refers to the biggest nearby city and its favorite team in the local vernacular – the Picksburg Stillers. My parents, when they hear her talk, often exclaim, “Hey, you’re raising a little Yankee. You have to get her out of there.” They’re kidding, sort of.

In short, Johnstown will be Linnea’s home, where she grew up.

Years ago my dad gave me a hard time about cheering for the University of Tennessee’s basketball team over Kentucky, his favorite team, though he never went to school there. Upon hearing this, my mom snorted and pointed out that I actually hold a degree from UT. He reminded us (unnecessarily) that he was a Louisville native, and I retorted, “well, where the hell do you think I grew up?” That obvious answer didn’t satisfy him. I thought he was being ridiculous then, but damned if I don’t understand exactly where he was coming from now.

Yes, we could always try to leave. But academia isn’t the most mobile of careers in the best of times, especially after you get tenure. When people ask if we plan to stay here, my standard reply is, “I’m not sure we’ll retire here, but far worse things could happen to us.” There’s a lot to be said for Johnstown, and I’ve developed a genuine appreciation for this resilient little Rust Belt city and its history. The school system is first-rate, and the cost of living is low. We live in a beautiful, historic neighborhood, within walking distance of both a nature preserve and a park with a playground. We have wonderful friends, a whole community of people. As I expected, I’ve branched out and embraced this culture too, and we’ve been brilliantly happy in this non-Southern place. But motherhood made me realize my Southern taproot runs very deep indeed.

So what can I do about it? I play a lot of Roger Miller, for starters. When Linnea was younger, we played a lot of the kids’ performer Farmer Jason, the alter ego of Jason Ringenberg of Jason & the Scorchers, the band that’s meant so much to Ola and me – she’s grown out of it, but the alt-country seed has been planted. I tell family stories about my grandmother, who grew up in a Jackson orphanage during the Depression. We’ll keep cheering for all Southeastern Conference football teams  –  since Linnea was two she’s known to yell, “Touchdown, Tennessee!” when the ball crosses into that orange-and-white checkered endzone. I’ll keep wearing my beloved cowboy boots, and buy her some the moment she expresses some interest.

When she’s older, I’ll send her down to her adoring Nashville grandparents for longer chunks of time, and encourage her to read Southern literature. We’ll travel there as much as possible. I can hope she’ll go to college somewhere in the South. And I’ll remind myself that the beautiful mountains here in Johnstown stretch all the way down to Knoxville.

Because of who we are, Linnea can hardly help but grow up with an interest in different cultures. I’ll foster her appreciation of where her parents are from and what that means in all its cultural richness, and do everything I can to make sure she has a strong sense of herself as Swedish as well as American. But like everything else in parenting, this isn’t about us  –  it’s about her. So I’ll swallow hard and encourage her when she starts to display pride in being from Johnstown, adopting parts of its culture as her own. Multiculturalism is a family value in this household, so I’d best walk the walk.


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