• Nadia Henderson

A Birch Tree's Roots Run Deep: Thoughts On The Nature Of My Immigrant Experience

A few weeks after we moved into our new home in a small village in rural North Sweden, we had a drink with some of our neighbours, who’d invited us onto their porch. It was a glorious, sunny day at the start of the summer season and despite my cautious approach to socialising during a global pandemic, it felt nice to be getting to know the locals. Then came a racist comment I won’t be repeating here, and a declaration of support for Sweden following in the UK’s footsteps to leave the European Union. Needless to say, we left swiftly.

While the vile racist comment was not aimed at me, its overall sentiment and the ease with which it was spoken made me feel a little less at home. Going for a walk down to the lake, or even to the mailbox, became fraught with the possibility of bumping into these people. The nature around me--which, up until that point, had welcomed me with open arms--became a source of fear for me: might I cross paths with these racists while trying to enjoy a lungful of crisp morning air? What if they too decided to take a dip in the lake one balmy afternoon? In reality, the nature of the place my husband and I had chosen to build our futures hadn’t changed. Green buds were still emerging on the trees and bushes in our garden; droplets of dew still collecting in the miniature leaves of the as-yet-unidentified foliage spread out across the lawn. It was me who’d changed, or felt forced to; my brain running an involuntary re-calculation of my presence here and indeed my decision to move.

There is much discussion around the terms with which newcomers name themselves after arriving in a foreign land. My observation is that the vast amount of white newcomers--people travelling for work or love purposes from, for example, other parts of Europe, the US or the UK--feel most comfortable calling themselves ‘expats’, while people of colour moving for the same reasons, or those seeking refuge in Sweden, are labelled as ‘immigrants’. As a mixed race woman who moved here with relative ease during the transition period, I proudly call myself an immigrant, though the context and connotations of the word, as well as my own privilege, mean it is not a term I use lightly. My immigrant experience is not the same as the experience of an immigrant from a marginalised background, and this is something I take into account in how I refer to myself as a foreign-born person in this foreign land.

It is this privilege that, when our racist neighbour said the things they said, both protected and erased me. In my perceived whiteness, they saw a potential kindred spirit, not someone whose own father arrived in the UK from Trinidad to signs reading ‘No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish,’ echoing the national sentiment. Perhaps even more bizarre: in my white skin they saw someone who might agree with them that yes, Brexit was good, because immigration is bad--despite that someone being an immigrant themselves and having made it to the country of their choosing under the looming threat of a no-deal situation. My mixed racial background is like the birch trees in our garden: appearing to be one thing on the surface, but born from a network of vast, sturdy roots reaching out in many directions. I’m used to being read as white--that is the colour of my skin, which undeniably shapes how I experience the world--but to be read as a confidante to whom a racist might divulge their racist beliefs made me feel very uncomfortable indeed.

But I can’t ignore the fact that, in that moment on their porch, with the sun pleasantly warm against my bare arms, my whiteness insulated me against any threats to my personal safety. I was able to quickly extricate myself, return to my own porch to recover from the uncomfortable encounter. In the days afterwards, the beauty of my new surroundings felt dimmed, and I worried that living in such close proximity to people whose views differed so starkly from my own might tarnish the whole experience. In London, urban anonymity had made it easy to pretend I was surrounded by people with the exact same political outlook as me. But I didn’t worry, like many others with whom I share the moniker of ‘immigrant’ might, about my physical safety, or if this person’s horrible views would impact the way other neighbours saw me. Soon enough, the unsettled feeling in my stomach shifted; the trees were in full bloom for midsummer, the nights were long and we swam at the lake most days, every time feeling a little less fearful.

Sweden’s coalition government has so far kept their nationalist party, Sweden Democrats, out of decision-making positions in parliament for the most part. However, polls indicate that 18% of the Swedish population pledge support to this party, which originated in neo-nazism and, despite a media-friendly ‘clean up’ which, unsurprisingly, only washes out members who are publicly caught expressing racist views, has frankly stayed close to those sentiments in its policies and ideals. It’s not, I would wager, the ‘expats’ with whom supporters of SD take issue. Many Swedes have themselves spent time living abroad, likely feeling as though they had every right to, particularly prior to Brexit bringing down the curtain on freedom of movement (an estimated 90,000 Sweden-born people call the UK home). No, it is those whose presence contributes a visible difference in the demographic; people hailing from cultures more distant and more poorly understood.

When I ask my husband how he thinks we are perceived by our community--me, as an immigrant who cannot yet speak the language, he as a one-time city boy learning countryside life on the job--his answer surprises me. He tells me about the damage mass migration from rural villages to bigger towns and cities has done to places like where we live. Our village, with a population of around 80 people, once had a gas station and grocery shop; both are long-gone now. He is sure that our neighbours are very pleased that this house--to which many of the village’s inhabitants have familial ties--was bought by people who want to live here full-time and play an active role in the community, rather than city dwellers looking for a cheap summer home to visit a few times a year at most. This is the truth of our presence. We have poured our time, love and resources into renovating our home and tending to the garden; the improvements we want to make will take years to realise, but we’re patient, and in it for the long run. Now, when I walk the dirt path to the mailbox or wander down to the lake, I keep this version of reality in mind, letting it root me in rightful place here like the silver birch trees that line every road through the village.

Follow my journey from London-born city girl to well-adjusted countryside stan on Instagram.