It wasn’t long until I was anointed with a nickname on the team. Honey Boo Boo. For context, “honey boo boo” comes from the American reality TV show on TLC “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” which centers around child beauty pageant contestant Alana “Honey Boo Boo” Thompson and her colorful family’s adventures in the small town of McIntyre, Georgia. To put it crudely, “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” is the modern American freak show. Sugar Bear, Mama June, Pumpkin and the whole gang’s lifestyle put forth an image, as Forbes so delicately describes it, of “lice-picking, lard-eating, nose-thumbing hooligans south of the Mason-Dixon line”
There was nothing about me (or so I’d like to think) that was remotely Honey Boo Boo-esque. Our connection ran cold at both being American. And that was our one similarity that mattered here. I was “the American”, like it or not.
It was interesting how I automatically became a representative for a whole identity/place when I stepped into this environment in which I was one of the only ones of my kind. I constantly fielded questions about how America does this or that. When I would be in a coffee shop or on the bus and someone would ask me where I was from after hearing my accent, I would say the U.S. and nine out of ten times someone would ask about President Trump, expecting some thoughtful comment or explanation. Teammates wondered if I had met Beyonce (perhaps more of an LA thing). With this, I quickly became aware of my shortcomings as a source on all things U.S. I found myself trying -- and failing -- to explain the electoral college and trying -- and failing -- to explain Kanye West.
I have never considered myself a particularly patriotic or “ra-ra America” person but I sensed my relationship to “my” country shifting and becoming more noticeable on foreign soil. Sometimes it was in a critical or uneasy way such as during conversations with Swedes about their free healthcare and free college. Other times, I was filled with respect and pride for the U.S.
I’ll give a tough example. It felt a little bit weird to be out of country on September 11th. As most Americans from my generation can attest to, there is usually some sort of reflection on or recognition of the tragedy in school. Of course, news networks and media are very much centered on the events that transpired. In short, it’s an important day in American history. We get this.
I wasn’t surprised that there was no mention of September 11, 2001 while here on the anniversary in Sweden. I was surprised, however, to find myself in a discussion with a Swede who believed that 9/11 was a hoax orchestrated by the U.S. government. Sure, I have heard this conspiracy before, but it was never the headline of the day in the environments in which I was immersed. Instead, the overwhelming collective sentiments and narratives I was faced with were ones of remembrance and grief. It wasn’t that this 9/11 conspiracy conversation with my friend couldn’t have taken place in the U.S., but I grew acutely aware of American-ness during the back-and-forth and found myself impassioned about the matter in a way I wouldn’t have normally anticipated.
The “Get to Know Your Nationality” street was a two way one. For as much as the Swedes around me were hammering the American for knowledge and implicitly reading me, I was doing the same to them. In more straightforward dialogue, I’d ask about the history of the famous Swedish coffee break tradition (known as fika) or the prevalence of gypsies on the Uppsala sidewalks. In the more casual day-to-day or locker room settings, I’d sting the smallest player on our team with a comment about how the Viking DNA never made it down to her or I playfully joked with others about how Sweden’s major contribution to society was IKEA (probably not helping the “Americans think they’re better than everyone else” stereotype).
I came to learn how anecdotal evidence or personal experience was so readily and easily blown into generalizations on both sides. Swedes are like this, Americans are like that. In drives between Uppsala and Enkoping, our coach would make comments about how Swedish players are less aggressive towards going to goal in a no-holds-barred kind of way. It was a comment that subconsciously guided me towards a particularly understanding of the attackers around me. On the other end, one night, the team caught me off guard by blasting John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads” and we laughed about how this is the song they think of when they think of the United States. It could very well have been our national anthem to them. It followed logic that all Americans like this song.
Of course, there are problems with generalizing a group of people, particularly when it comes to things that are perhaps a little more serious than an assumed predilection for catchy folk tunes. It’s hard -- frankly, impossible -- to get an accurate picture of a whole place or way of life or community. Often, I learned, in interactions I wasn’t trying to do this (and neither were my teammates and friends I believe) but it happens anyway as part of humans interacting with other humans.
Beyond the molding of attitudes, through our mingling, the more tangible exchange of practices and behavior also occurred. For example, before one game, Cheyenne (the other American on ESK, I’ll remind you) introduced a pregame ritual from her time at Tennessee which involved each player starting a rhythm with some object around them to create a team beat comprised of the banging of cleats, slapping of lockers and various other sounds. For me, I often consider how much I have gained by being immersed in this different soccer environment. I have been exposed to new drills, new ways of warming up and thinking about injury prevention, and of course, new playing styles/mentalities as I commented on in my last post. If I ever become a college soccer coach, a career I contemplate in thinking about what’s next after my abroad adventures come to an end, my coaching will certainly have a dose of what I’ve picked up here mixed in.
This is a Swedish team with a couple of Americans -- people from a different culture from a faraway place -- sprinkled in. We try to get to know each other as teammates a little more each day through practices and van rides and all the moments in between and through this, our understandings of the greater identities attached to each person becomes more nuanced and whole. Also, vis a vis our time together, it seems, we become more learned versions of ourselves with a few additions to our soccer player, teammate and human tool boxes.
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