A story I originally wrote for Roots of Southern Culture class at WKU. Thanks Mattias!
The Southern Swede
by Ryan Clark
We sit here, Swede and I, eating cheeseburgers in a steakhouse run by Chinese immigrants on Easter Sunday, 2002. His beard, which he shaves off, then lets grow back depending on the weather, is a scruffy mud color, and his glasses reflect the suns last rays. He wears a sweat-stained, khaki baseball cap (to cover the premature balding) and an open, plaid shirt. Underneath, theres a white tee and a silver chain around his neck, the one accessory that gives him away. Its a Thors Hammer a religious symbol and its the only visible link Mattias Karen carries from his hometown of Uppsala, Sweden.
Born on Sept. 11, 1978 in Uppsala, a town of about 250,000, Mattias (a.k.a. Swede to his friends) has become accustomed to Southern society. But it wasnt always easy. And sometimes it still isnt easy for the print journalism graduate from Western Kentucky University.
Swede and I chat and eat in this place because we like being different, yet we make sure our image doesnt stray too far from the edge of normalcy (after all, what could be more contradictory than eating cheeseburgers in a steakhouse run by Chinese people on Easter Sunday? We will surely call our parents and wish them a happy Easter afterward).
Acceptance by those in the South is a complex issue, and stereotypes run rampant. From Martin Luther King Jr. to George Wallace, from Yankee-transplants to Southern veterans, everyone in the South have opinions on the issue.
Mattias knows he is different. But he says its easy to overcome so long as he looks white.
The South is so racist it disgusts me, he says, taking another bite of cheeseburger. Its crazy. In my country, we had race problems in the early 90s, when an influx of Middle Eastern people immigrated to Sweden. But we accepted those new people over a period of five years. Its taken America over 200 years, and the level of Americas acceptance, especially in the South, hasnt progressed.
But Mattias has an odd respect for the South. He has lived in Kentucky for five years, one year as a foreign exchange student in high school and four as a student at Western. He has also lived in Florida and California. But his American roots are deeply Southern.
The South is more of an attitude than a location, he says. But one thing I havent figured out is why Southerners are the way they are.
He pauses, his light blue eyes looking out the window.
Why are Southerners the way they are?
Seventeen-year-old Mattias Karen gets off an airplane at Louisville International Airport in the summer of 1996. He has come to America for the first time, to serve as a foreign exchange student at rural Taylor County High School. Here, he will meet his host family the Southerners who will introduce him to country music and pick-up trucks, tobacco farming and squirrel hunting. He will enroll at the high school and immediately join the football team as a kicker. He will learn to drive a 4-wheeler. He will get picked on, then accepted, by the local high school students.
Mattias had no control over coming to Kentucky. At his parents urging, he enrolled in the foreign exchange program in Uppsala, which places its students in random schools across America. Mattias just happened to land in Kentucky, with no preset notions of what to expect. After looking at brochures that showed horse farms and green grass, Mattias knew his life would be different.
After picking up his bags, Mattias walks to the parking lot where his host family Dwayne and Theresa Brockman, and their three children, William (age 13), Brent (10) and Delaina (8) stand beside their dark blue Chevrolet pick-up. Theyre donned in overalls and blue jeans, and Mattias has one thought.
What in the hell have I gotten myself into? he says to himself.
Wake up, Mattias! Wake up! shouts 10-year-old Brent.
It is 7 a.m., Mattias first morning in his new home in Taylor County, America. Brent wants to go squirrel hunting.
Who the hell hunts squirrels? Mattias thinks. And who lets a 10-year-old go out with a gun?
I think Ill just sleep in, Mattias says, rolling over.
At 9 a.m. Brent comes back to make sure Mattias is awake. Hes holding a dead squirrel in front of his face. Thus begins Mattias first morning in America and his first morning in the South.
Many other mornings would follow, offering many other opportunities to experience America, Southern-style.
Mattias lives on a tobacco farm of several hundred acres in Taylor County. He thinks its the middle of nowhere. Before he leaves, he will learn to crop the product.
In late August, Mattias begins football practice, wearing 10 pounds of equipment in sweltering 95-degree heat. Hes not used to this kind of hot weather. In Sweden, summers are more mild. Mattias is also disappointed because Taylor County High doesnt have a soccer team. If it did, hed be a goalie, like he was in Sweden. And he wouldnt be wearing the hot, heavy pads. But football is the Southern way. And sports, as well as any kind of competition, is the Southern way. For Mattias, the decision to play is a no-brainer.
Mattias fits in fairly well with his peers at Taylor County High, where classes prove easier than high school in Sweden. Of course, he is a new kid, but he is much different than any regular new kid.
There is a period of adjustment. His palate has to adapt to the Southern food. He discovers that he loves chicken, biscuits and mashed potatoes. He discovers that he hates peanut butter and country ham (its much too salty). He discovers he misses Swedish bread. And then he has to deal with the Southerners version of the English language. Words like Y’all slowly creep into his vocabulary, as well as phrases like My bad. When he returns to Sweden in a year, hell have trouble shaking the accent hes picked up.
Mattias is universally liked by his classmates, who tend to overlook his shortcomings when it comes to Southern culture. That is, until one day when a group of students begin talking about The Andy Griffith Show. Mattias admits hes never watched the television show. The students are shocked, and proceed to call him Opie for a long while. Mattias, not knowing he was being made fun of, thought everything was fine. Later, after the nickname faded, he would watch The Andy Griffith Show and hate it, thinking it was ignorant. Even later, he would come to like the show.
Mattias has always had trouble depending on others for help. After all, one must be independent to be a foreign exchange student in the first place. But Mattias is almost abnormally independent, and he has to learn to rely on others for help all the time. He thinks how different this Southern culture is from Sweden. He knows that Sweden, where the people are very independent, would be reluctant to help an exchange student from another country. But here in the South, Mattias finds help on every corner, whenever he needs it.
But there are issues. Mattias cannot swear in his host familys home. After saying the word shit for the past several years in Sweden (it was considered cool) he has to force himself not to. It is very unnatural.
He thinks its interesting that Theresa, his host familys matriarch, stays at home to cook and clean while the father, Dwayne, goes to work. Mattias knows that in his country, there is a greater equality between the sexes women do many of the same jobs as men.
This is a different situation entirely.
He is also surprised at the young ages of married couples in the county. It seems to Mattias that when children graduate from high school, they are expected to get married. And sometimes, even at Taylor County High, girls get pregnant in their early teens. On average, this did not happen in Sweden, where sex was common at early ages, but marriage and pregnancy were not.
Religion is also an interesting topic. Mattias will go to Baptist church with his host family every Sunday, a typical Southern practice. But Mattias, a Lutheran, does not regularly attend church in Sweden (he will go maybe twice a year), and thinks its silly that Southern Americans still take the Bible literally. There is even a trend in Sweden where it is popular to not believe in Christianity at all. When William, his host familys oldest son, learns about the theory of Darwinism in school, then asks his mother about it that same evening, William is told the theory is false and that the Bible is correct. Mattias thinks these ideals are funny, but keeps his own feelings to himself. He chooses to accept his familys culture.
Most troubling, Mattias notices the lack of diversity in his school, as well as in the rest of the county. But he hasnt really encountered racism yet. That is, until a conversation with a fellow student leaves him speechless.
Hey Mattias! We need to go across town, where the good-looking black girls live!
Okay, Mattias says.
The student looks at him funny.
I was just kidding, man, he says. Who would date a black chick?
Mattias is appalled. And he learns a universal truth about America and the South: that racism still exists, and is just as powerful as it has ever been in some areas.
After a year in Taylor County, Mattias is ready to go home to Uppsala, where he can be reunited with his family. But his Southern roots have taken hold. In a year he will return to America, and enroll in journalism school at Western Kentucky University. In a year he will come back to Kentucky, back to mashed potatoes and Papa Johns pizza things he will miss overseas.
And he will always stay in touch with his host family, something he may not have done before coming to Kentucky and learning of the bond strangers can have. A taste of Southern culture, perhaps?
When Mattias comes to the Hill in the fall of 1997, he knows about Southern culture and American culture. Now he has stereotypical beliefs about the people and the area. Southerners are nice people. Down-to-Earth people. Hospitable. Hard-working. Laid-back. They listen to bad music (hed never quite caught on to the sounds of Country or Western). Some are not very well educated. Some dont know very much about the outside world. Some are racist.
Mattias is prepared. But he still wants to be accepted.
He joins the campus International Student Organization, but becomes dissatisfied when he doesnt get to interact with students outside the club. He leaves. He then decides that because he is a journalism major, he will work for the campus newspaper, The College Heights Herald.
Hi everyone, he introduces himself. My name is Mattias, but you can call me Matt.
No one calls him Matt. Mattias works hard and quickly earns the respect of his co-workers. He doesnt know it yet, but in four years he will become the first student journalist from a foreign country to serve as editor of the College Heights Herald.
College provides a different atmosphere for Mattias. He realizes that not everyone on the Hill fits into the stereotypes he has set for Southerners and Americans. The dependency on others is easier this time, and he finds the same kind of helpful people that he did in Taylor County. He notices that most college students indulge in the very Southern practice of drinking heavily (which most teenagers in Sweden get out of their systems before coming to college. The
legal drinking age in Sweden is 18). He notices the gun culture of the area, especially of Southern cities, and how many violent acts are committed with guns. This is strange to him, because in Sweden, only hunters have guns.
He lives in Barnes-Campbell Hall for a year, before deciding to move to Rodes-Harlin in the fall of 1998.
I live down the hall.
For three years Mattias and I work together at the Herald, always making time to go out, have dinner, share laughs and ponder the existence of the world. On a cool night in the fall of 2000, we sit at a table at a greasy restaurant (much like well do two years from now, when I ask him how he adapted to Southern culture). Were entertaining some girls neither of us have met before (theyre friends of another member of our group, whom we all know).
So its time for introductions. Our mutual friend, Jason, introduces us all.
Girls, he says. This is Ryan and Mattias. Mattias isnt from around here.
Really? says one of the girls, interest piqued. Where are you from, Mattias?
He gives a sly grin before answering.
Jason and I erupt into laughter. The girls look confused.
No, no, Mattias says, coming clean. Im from Sweden.
The girls, now suspicious, give him the evil eye.
You mean Sweden, like, the city in Kentucky? the other girl asks.
Or the country?
Swede looks to Jason. Jason looks to me. I look to Swede.
The country, he says. Definitely the country.
Later, after our greasy dinner, I wonder if this is Swedes patented game.
Do you always do this? I ask. Do you always use your foreignness
to start up conversations with girls?
Oh, yeah, he says. Oh, hell yeah.
So here I sit with Swede, again eating greasy food, this time on an Easter Sunday, talking about racism and Southern culture.
I guess I feel like the race issue isnt as apparent here in the college atmosphere, he says. But it is always going to be there. If youre white, or if you look white, people here will accept you.
Mattias should know. He has been accepted in the highest levels of journalism in America. He has worked for prestigious newspapers like the St. Petersburg Times and The Los Angeles Times. He has been to more states than me. He may be, by my definition, more Southern than me (I have never cropped tobacco. How can you be Southern if you havent cropped tobacco?). Here is my friend Mattias, who has come into my Southern white culture, who has succeeded in journalism more than even he ever imagined, telling me that my country, and that my area of the country in particular, has a serious problem with acceptance.
And I know hes right.
But dont get me wrong, he continues. The South is a good place, a unique place. The notion of Southern hospitality is definitely real, because I am a beneficiary of it. I couldnt have succeeded without Southern hospitality. I am proof.
And Southern hospitality isnt the only Southern trait that rubbed off on Swede.
By his own assessment, he says he is more friendly, more reliable, more outgoing and more willing to gossip about anything and everything.
He is developing a taste for country music, though it leans more toward the pop-country side than the western-country side (Shania Twain, Faith Hill). He also says he is a bit lazier, choosing to drive walkable distances, which hed never do in Sweden.
But overall, Swede said he wouldnt change a thing.
The transition to another culture, especially Southern culture, is a gradual thing, Mattias says, resting his hand on his scruffy chin. But if you stay somewhere long enough, youll adapt to it. Im proud of what Ive seen and done. Im proud of where Im from.
Ah, pride. Perhaps this is why Southerners, Southerners like Swede, are the way they are.