“Speak American when you’re in America!” That’s what my grandparents told my mom when she asked why they didn’t speak Romanian with her. They probably responded in heavily accented English, at least I recall my grandfather’s English as being odd. I was six when he died, and found other things about him odd besides his English. For instance, that he was missing two fingers. I later learned that he had lost them in a workplace accident, but when I was six, I assumed that old men lost fingers like they lost hair. And spoke odd English.
My grandparents didn’t talk about the old country. Never ever. In fact, my grandfather’s sister even denied being an immigrant. When, as a curious teenager, I asked her about the old country and my heritage, she replied, “I’m American. I’ve never lived anywhere else,” and pressed her lips together. Those lips were sealed so tightly that no information about immigration could have leaked out, not even if I had pried. And I did pry by waving a copy of immigration papers in front of her that said that her family had entered the US in 1918.
Now it is 2015, and I find myself in a similar situation. My situation is re-integration to the US after 40 years in Sweden, a kind of reverse immigration. I planned my departure from Sweden well in advance, and had set into action the gigantic, squeaking, grinding bureaucratic wheels of the Swedish and American governments; the tax boards and social security systems of both countries and the educational and banking systems of both countries. I would like to give you a list of the things I had to do, but the list was so mind boggling that, as I worked my way through the items on it, I forgot them. Instead of ticking boxes on a check list, my mind obliterated them one by one. This could be the on start of Alzheimer’s, but I suspect it is a natural form of survival. My brain is saying, “don’t waste energy looking back. Move onward. Look forward.”
Americans ask me about life in Sweden, and after less than nine months in the US, I can’t remember much about those 40 years. Instead of providing a personalized reply about my individual and unique experiences in that country, I fry svenska köttbullar and bake lussekatter, and if I had a folkdräkt, I would probably put it on and dance a schottis. I have become an IKEA sales poster. I can’t help it. It’s the easiest way out. The past nine months I have worked diligently on re-integration and survival in my new country. Instead of looking at my life at large through binoculars, I have focused on the minutely detailed tasks of re-integration through a microscope. Microscopic vision has paid off. I now have an American teaching credential, American references, an American credit score, American bills to pay, and American friends to hang out with.
I don’t think I will deny re-integration to the US when and if any grandchildren ask me about it. But, I wonder. Will I reply, “oh yes, I once worked in Sweden,” and serve a platter of svenska köttbullar with lingonberry jam and leave it at that? Juxtaposed with planting permanent roots deep in US soil today, those 40 years in Sweden seem distant and long ago. Ephemeral. Like an Astrid Lindgren story that I vaguely recall, instead of something that has actually happened.