Wednesday, January 8, 2014

"Neither Jew nor Greek"?

Today was the first day back at school. First day of a last term of high school, at the end of which loom the IB exams which will take up half the month of May for me. Studying's kind of gotten to a fitful start; it's difficult to find motivation for something that seems so far away, and after putting so much energy into this program already. Ah, well. It'll kick in eventually.

But this post isn't really focusing on my day back (though it was lovely and calm, and I enjoyed seeing everyone again).

No, this post is about a rather unpleasant experience I just had on Facebook. "Groan," you say, "Don't be petty. Facebook is a breeding ground for dumb things, you can't let that get to you." True, but this connects to a wider experience of growing up in Europe as an American.

I was scrolling through my friends' posts in my Feed when an article caught my eye, titled "16 things Russians do that Americans might find weird." The article itself was pretty fun, with small cultural differences being pointed out. The article didn't bother me. But in a comment underneath the article, a friend of mine had written: "16 things that make Russians more human, cultivated, and authentic than Americans."

There are a few things that make me tired to my very core. 

One of them is the often blatant contempt toward Americans and their culture by the Swedish and Europeans in general. 

Now, I won't make the mistake people often do with the States and lump all of Sweden together. I'm happy to say that the positive experiences I've had here far, far, far (exponentially far) outweigh the annoyance of being poked and mocked for my heritage. But there certainly have been experiences of the latter, and too often for comfort in an international society.

A quirk about Sweden that I've often been amused by is the double-standard Swedish society has toward America. Authentic American merchandise is even more expensive in Sweden than the already-expensive 'usual' products. Shoes that cost 300kr in the States cost 700kr in Stockholm. A drink that usually costs $3 costs $7 at a Starbucks here. It's obvious that Sweden loves American products. Not only that, but in music, movies, TV shows, and literature, it's clear that general American culture is highly valued here, and for good reason. America has contributed a lot to the world in these areas.

But this love of American goods is strangely contrasted with sheer contempt of the American people, and especially their politics. Americans are ignorant, loud, rude, domineering, arrogant, and annoying. Conservative Americans are all of these things to the power of 10, and their opinion is worth less than a white crayon. Because of one presidency (probably more, but the complaints I've heard boil down to one), the entire American political system is backward and worthless, and the two centuries of American history are naught. 

Now I'm not going to claim that the Unites States of America are not flawed. It's true that education can be quite insular in places and lead to a less-developed sense of the world at large. It's true that America has a tendency, especially in later years (though not, if you're keeping up, at present) to get involved in the affairs of other nations whether they want them to or not. And it's also true that the political and welfare systems in the US need remodeling. 

What infuriates me about these pokes and jabs is the arrogance behind them. It's the idea that Americans are worth less than Swedes, indeed, worth less than almost any other people. It's the idea that American culture is worth less than Swedish culture. It's the sense that America is the one consistent exception to the Golden Rule, and that because of its military, political, and cultural past, anything negative you have to say about them is always given the green light. It's the sense that the States has somehow, by being a flawed, human-led system like every other nation, forfeited its right to the respect and consideration it deserves as a system representing people. 

I could go into the flaws of Sweden and its societal structure and culture. I could go into its political history as a conquering nation and an aid to Nazi Germany. But I won't. Because the point to this post is that it's unfair to lump an entire population into the box of its past. And it's hurtful to hear one's heritage thrown out haphazardly in an uneducated one-liner. Least of all from a people that boasts in its tolerance and openness to other worldviews.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

God jul!

Christmas Eve! and we're all relaxing as a family in anticipation of our traditional Christmas dinner before we open presents. Well, almost everyone is relaxing: my dad had to run to the store to fetch anchovy fillets after he learned that he can't fillet them himself. (I decided not to say, "I told you so.") My sister Claire is here for the holidays, so the apartment is pleasantly full.

Have to say, I'm loving Christmas break. 

Friday was our last day of fall term. We technically had class up 'til lunch, but when I arrived at school for math, I found it was only for the HL students, and so spent a lovely hour writing limericks for my family's Christmas presents. After Swedish julbord for lunch, we had our "julavslutning", which wasn't especially exciting. This is the second year that it's part of a school webshow with daily episodes that air from December 1 to 25. Now that our ending celebrations are connected with the show, it's very impersonal and at times unbearably awkward. Of course, I've ceased being surprised after two and a half years at this school.

After school ended, I spent the afternoon with some girlfriends, finally opening our Secret Santa gifts (after much, much thoughtful preparation so that they remained mysteries), and watching The Holiday, which I had never seen (and loved!). 

Break so far has involved lots of resting and reading. Sunday, I went to the first service at New Life with my sister, and then joined my parents at their church plant, Fridhemskyrkan, in the afternoon. Yesterday, I went to the Christmas markets downtown, including one at the central train station, which is decked out in decorations galore. Last night, we watched The Great Gatsby, and I absolutely loved it. 

Tonight, we open presents, and tomorrow, we have our traditional Christmas Day dinner with our colleagues. We're eating French raclette, and man is it going to be delicious! I'm rushing to finish Rick Riordan's House of Hades so I can return it to our colleagues' youngest son. 160 pages to go!

I can't guarantee another entry while the holiday season lasts, so merry Christmas, and a happy new year to you readers out there! 

God bless.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Introducing the IB

I figure there are two vital pieces of information in order for you to understand what I'm writing about from day to day. 

The first was my background. Hopefully that's somewhat cleared up. (I swear I did my best.)

The second is my high school program.

In Sweden, you apply to high schools in a much, much simpler version of college applications. In your final year of junior high (ninth grade), you send in these applications to different high schools you're interested in, and are accepted or rejected–kind of incredible, at fifteen. There are different programs you can take depending on what your interests are, like science programs or human behavior programs. I chose the International Baccalaureate.

Basically, the IB is a college-preparatory program that lasts two years. In it, you choose six different subjects along with a three-course core, which you then study for these two years. Lemme take out my trusty bullet-points again.
  • Six subjects. Each student chooses one social science, one natural science, one A language (native), one B language (non-native) or another A language, one math course, and either an artistic course, such as Visual Arts, Theater, or Music, or another social or natural science, etc. 
  • Out of these six chosen subjects, three are standard level (SL), and three are higher level (HL), a much more in-depth study course. 
  • A three-course core. This consists of a philosophy-type course called Theory of Knowledge, an extracurricular course called CAS (Creativity, Action, and Service), in which you have to have 50h of each component done by the time you graduate, and a 4,000-word Extended Essay, written in a subject of your choice.
  • Final exams. The program culminates in exams in all of your six subjects in May of your final year. These exams cover all the material learned over the two years (eek!). 
  • Those are what are ahead of me this May.

The subjects I've chosen are:
  • Biology HL
  • History HL
  • Visual Arts HL
  • Swedish B HL
  • English A Language & Literature SL
  • Math SL

Some practical lingo:
  • TOK - Theory of Knowledge - assessed by a final presentation on a controversial issue, and an essay.
  • E.E - Extended Essay
  • IA - internal assessment, meaning graded by our own teachers at school, as opposed to being externally graded by IBO, like most of our work is
  • IBO - International Baccalaureate Organization, the notorious examiners everyone knows about but no one's ever met.
  • Paper 1, 2, 3 - each subject has two "papers", or exams, in May. HL classes have three.

There's a popular culture around IB that it's the social death of its students. 

While it is a lot of work and can get really stressful at times, usually the procrastinators are the ones who create that culture.

About the author.

I guess now is a good time to introduce myself, for you readers who don't know me. If you exist.

My name is Laura.


It's now that my blog title feels especially apt, because it's difficult to know where to start when I'm supposed to give a summary of my first eighteen years of life. At least I've had to go through it multiple times recently for college application essays, so it's fresh in my mind. 

21/12: After writing and rewriting this a million times in various formats and failing miserably each time, I threw in the towel. This was meant to be brief, but if there's one thing you will learn about me (if you haven't already), it's that my writing is never brief.

Voilà: a timeline. In bullet form. I will now go eat lunch in despair. My blog title is validated.
  • 1995. I am born in Lyon, France, to American parents. These American parents are missionaries, who have worked with churches in Europe for nearly thirty years now, in 2013. 
  • The next nine (well, eight) years, I spend in a suburb of Annecy, a beautiful city nestled at the feet of the French Alps. (I advise you to Google it and marvel at how gorgeous it is. Go on.)
  • There, I go to a local preschool, and then the local elementary school, learning English and French at roughly the same pace. 
  • (Nowadays, my French is quite rusty, mais je sais toujours comment écrire, lire, et comprendre, so that's something, au moins.)
  • 2003. At this point, I feel very much a French girl, albeit with an odd family arrangement. My two siblings, an older brother and sister, are still living at home, and going through junior high and high school respectively.
  • 2004. My parents accept an invitation from New Life Church, in Stockholm, Sweden, and we move that summer.
  • At nine, I start from scratch. My French is suddenly quite useless, while my English is a lifesaver, and after being put in an international class that teaches Swedish to immigrant children, I quickly add a third language to my repertoire.
  • I spend the next few fitful years in Swedish elementary school, making and losing friends. My sister is back in France. My brother is in a local high school, taking the same program I'm now taking, the International Baccalaureate.
  • 2007. My brother graduates from high school, and as my parents need to return to the States for a regular social security check-up, we move to California for a year.
  • This year revolutionizes my life. I'm in a Christian school for the first time, and the constant social pressure I'm used to is largely gone. Nearly everyone around me speaks my English, and the language barrier I'm used to is definitely gone. I make some of my closest, dearest friends this year, and I'm still in touch with several to this day.
  • 2008. I cry essentially the whole way back to Sweden. My brother is left behind.
  • I change schools twice the next two years. 
  • I spend my final two years (out of four) of junior high in an international school, where I grow to enjoy Sweden again, and make great friends both with my classmates, and my teachers.
  • 2011. I start high school.
  • 2013. Present day. Half a year away from graduating.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The homestretch!

It's finally the last week before Christmas break! 

This semester has been absolutely insane, with all the work we've had to get done. Our math teacher told us last year that these four months from September 'til now would be the craziest we've experienced of the International Baccalaureate, and he was certainly right. We began the school year with all of our internal assessments, extended essays, and TOK presentations and essays to be imagined and completed, and we're finishing 2013 with all of those behind us.

Not without casualties, apparently.

Principals and TOK teachers are dancing with first-year students in the lab; our biology teacher forgot that museums are usually closed on Mondays only after we had traveled to one; TOK presentations are being conducted about measuring the height of mountains; our biology teacher (he's a busy guy) interrupted the study atmosphere on our main plaza today to have the annual chain-dance with Christmas music blaring, and it's enough to say "water lily" in a terrible Asian accent to send us all into peals of laughter.

To add to the festive mood, there were orange slices and gingerbread cookies on the plaza today, and after the chain-dance someone put on Michael Bublé's Christmas album, effectively extinguishing any desire to study that might have been left in us. Not that there's been much to study lately, at least not for me. Classes are super irregular now, and I only had two out of five classes today.

Yes, I can't wait for this week to be over! Bring on Christmas.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

"Wastahili ewe bwana…"

”…kupokea utukufu."

This weekend was a good one.

I went to see the Desolation of Smaug Friday evening with my old gang of friends from junior high. It'd been a year since we'd seen each other, so the atmosphere was strange, but it was fun. I loved the movie overall, though I spent a lot of time cringing at how they changed the story. (My friend Matilda turned to me afterward and said, "I think Tolkien would be proud of this, don't you?" and I slowly shook my head.)

Last night I went to a birthday party thrown by two of my good friends from school. I was a bit apprehensive of it, but I went with two girlfriends, so it felt much more comfortable and relaxed.

More on that later.

This morning, I went to church, bright and early. I've been in New Life (in Alvik, Stockholm) since I was nine, but the past two years or so I've gone on my own since my parents moved to a new church plant further in town. It still feels weird, but it gives me a sense that my faith, and my relationship to church, is my responsibility. (Camilla, I see you grimacing, but this is insight into my life.) The setup of an average Sunday service is pretty standard; we start with singing worship, which is followed by an offering and announcements, and a fika break before one of our pastors goes up to preach. We finish with another song.

Today, the worship was a bit different. One of our more charismatic members, a Dutchman named Tjebbo, was in charge, and organized it so that four different ethnicities led the singing one after another. At this point we were all kind of looking at each other wondering how this would work out, but once it got going, it was kind of amazing.

It started with a Filipino group. Then, some of our African members went up, and sang two songs in Swahili—at this point, we were all getting into it and clapping and laughing. Then a Mongolian group went up and sang "Bless the Lord O My Soul" in Mongolian, with the rest of us singing in English, still clapping and cheering.

It was at this point that I realized how amazing all of this was. Here we are, from every corner of the globe, singing together. I look around at all these people, many of whom I haven't met, and they are family. These cultures that by all accounts should not be able to mix are connected by our shared faith in God.

Often when people ask me questions about Christianity, they get hung up on the details–"You're Christian, so you can't do -insert socially acceptable practice here-", or "If you're a Christian, how do you explain -insert out-of-context Bible verse or unfair situation here–"—but that misses the point of what Christianity is. It misses the soul: the sense of belonging, the fellowship, a  relationship with the God who created you, and a certainty of a hopeful and bright future.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

A punch and a hug.

Normally I guess first posts are reserved for introducing the writer and all that jazz. 

But one of the many reasons I started this blog was so that my good friend Camilla could have something to read that gave some insight into my life. She's currently spending a year in the States. You can read all about her exciting new life on her blog–except no, you can't, because it's password protected. Ah well. You'll have to take my word for it.

Camilla, I did what you told me to! Punch and Hug were both hanging out on Torget during biology revision back on Tuesday, so I gathered them together and told them I had a message to give. Hug giggled and told me to give you a hug back from him. Punch gave his typical "I can't believe this"-look and told me to thank you and said that "he was glad you haven't changed." He called your relationship dynamic "cute", and I told him you probably wouldn't describe it that way. He laughed. I didn't punch him very hard, I'm afraid.

You now owe me. Be warned.