Time sure does fly, not only while you’re having fun, but also while you’re toiling away against challenges and deadlines. That pretty much summed up the first semester of my master program in Sweden. As a newcomer to both the country and postgraduate education, my life was like a roller coaster. I had my share of “first time doing this”, “wish I had known this before” and also quite a lot of “oops, I screwed up” and “I’m so glad I made it through”. It was probably not the smoothest 5 months of my life, but it was definitely a period of learning and self-reflection.
So here are my 4 lessons, with a decent amount of criticisms and lots of self-motivation being saved for a rainy day, as I still have 3 more semesters ahead to deal with.
Lesson 1: Learn to adapt because I’m not a long term tourist in Sweden.
That I actually live in this country is the mindset of which I feel the need to remind myself from time and time again. Rather than just merely enjoying and experiencing its beauty I also have to adapt to its customs. Adapting also means I have to drop some of the old habits that have been ingrained into my brain from my previous life and adopt new ones. Here are a few of them, just off the top of my head:
- Not waking over bike lanes while I roam around town.
- Cleaning milk boxes and folding them as neatly as possible before discarding them.
- Sorting my garbage into the appropriate bin so they can be better recycled
- Give second-hand products a chance.
- Reducing meat consumption and use more vegan products in my meals. (Btw, Oatly is a fine choice.)
Some habits are harder to adopt than others, but the general theme is to become more mindful of the community and ecosystem around you.
Also remember to take care of yourself from time to time, physically and mentally. The Nordic winter with its long night and cold sunless days can be intimidating. If you’re not careful, it can drive you inside, shutting your windows and your heart to the world for an unhealthy amount of time. On the bright side, people here are used to living a very long and dark winter, they come up with a lot of activities and events will surely drag people like me out of the comfort of my room.
Lesson 2: The cure of homesickness lies within your heart (and your stomach)
Though Sweden is definitely a lovely place to live, I started to feel homesick soon after I arrived. For me personally, as one coming from a place with a vibrant street food scene, that feeling is driven further by the lack of affordable and authentic Asian restaurants around. That leaves me with only one option, cooking for yourself. Certainly, it is not the easiest option but it is very rewarding. Fortunately for me, I found quite a few shops with an abundant supply of Asian ingredients in Stockholm (especially the area around Olof Palmes Gatan and Sveavägen). I learned to cook a lot more during the time I’m in Sweden than while I was in Vietnam. After a while, I found that as long as I still have Vietnamese food in my meal, I do not live that far from home.
Lesson 3: Academic life – Be patient with yourself
My very first challenge when studying abroad is quite humbling. And it is something so basic that many people would take for granted: limited English skill. It was so excruciatingly frustrating to write my first 10,000-word essay that I started to seriously doubt myself and my academic ability. I realised that weakness could keep me way behind my fellow course-mates, especially when pursuing a subject like social science.
So after 5 months, would it be reasonable to expect any miraculous improvement in my English? I don’t think so. I still have to exert a great deal of mental effort to read through a page of academic texts, and perhaps even more so when writing essays.
So while I don’t expect any huge breakthrough, I still keep at it. I force myself to speak up more often in class, to discuss more with my classmates during the seminars, to express my opinions during group work, to participate in the this Digital Ambassadors program for Study in Sweden and to share my experience through blog posts in English.
Lesson No. 4: Svenska – it’s not enough to just get a passing grade in Basic Swedish 1
What I regret the most in the last semester was not learning Swedish properly. Just like hundreds of new students arriving in Uppsala in Autumn 2018, I registered for the Basic Swedish 1 class. I thought that would enough and severely overestimate my diligence as well as my self-discipline. School projects, part-time job, seminar calendar or a night of self-indulgence… they all become my excuses for not spending more time learning Swedish by myself.
The reality is that acquiring a 3rd language is extremely hard. Unless you are innately talented, you shall not succeed just by attending a class for 4 hours every week. Even though I passed the final test, I still could not conduct a normal conversation with the cashier at the supermarket nor understand a handwritten short notice that someone posted on my front door.
And the irony of the situation is that I am surrounded by Swedes, so it was not that I didn’t have enough chance for practising Swedish. In fact, I had many, but I squandered all those opportunities.
I lived on the same floor with a native Swede, who I can consider a very good friend. We have talked a lot about various topics in the kitchen. Not once did I practice speaking Swedish to him. At school, there are times I was in the same group with a Swedish student, and not once did I spoke Swedish to them either.
There’s also the fact that Swedes are almost always very good at English. That becomes a comfort zone that I find myself retreating into more often for my own good. One day I realise that it has become a habit of mine to reply in English: “Thank you so much!” to any Swede who does me a favour on the street. Had I been a bit less lazy and also a lot more courageous, I would simply say “Tack så mycket!”. But I was scared that they would start talking to me in Swedish, and I would look like an idiot. In retrospect, that was my fear holding me back, and it was not good.
There are many blog posts about learning Swedish from other fellow ambassadors, who were undoubtedly more diligent than I was. So don’t be like me. Here are some of them.
- 6 Months to Learn Swedish – Sanjay
- How not to give up on learning Swedish – Raeed
- I’m finally studying Swedish – Leonilla
A promise to myself
So after 5 months with some hits and a lot of misses. I guess it’s time I should stop clinging to the excuse of “being new to Sweden”, and to drop the “just a visitor” attitude to become more integrated into this beautiful country.
A promise to myself for the new semester: to learn as much as I can and to take every chance to experience as many new things as I could while keeping the same excitement and determination as the day I arrived.