who’s the snowflake?

I was visiting in Sweden a couple of summers ago, and had to get up early for an appointment. On my way back I passed through a park. It was still early, probably before nine, and the air was cool the way it is in the summer when you know the day is going to be hot.

There were a couple of blonde girls raking leaves in the park. They looked like volleyball players, tall, and strong. I couldn’t figure out what they were doing, until I remembered that Swedish high school and college students often have summer jobs filling in during the regular staff’s summer vacation. (Swedish employees have 6 or 7 weeks of paid vacation time, and usually take 4 of those weeks back to back during the summer.) Outdoor summer jobs are the best, because, well, you get to spend all summer outdoors. When I was growing up you’d only get the outdoor jobs through connections.

Right now I’m also remembering an affluent young woman, one of my students in Silicon Valley. She had grown up on a ranch in Morgan Hill, in the south end of the San Francisco Bay Area. As an undergraduate she spent a semester studying abroad in London.

When she came back to school in California I asked her about her time in London. It was obvious there was something she didn’t want to say. It took some prodding, but finally she told the class that in London had been the first time she’d seen white people do manual labor. White people, looking just like herself, had cleaned, sold tickets to the Underground, worked in the supermarkets, and swept the streets. She’d never before experienced anything like it.

This Los Angeles Times story talks about how the California wine industry has such a hard time finding workers after president Trump’s proposed crackdown on undocumented immigrants that they are forced to pay way more than the minimum wage. From the story:

Some farmers are even giving laborers benefits normally reserved for white-collar professionals, like 401(k) plans, health insurance, subsidized housing and profit-sharing bonuses. Full-timers at Silverado Farming, for example, get most of those sweeteners, plus 10 paid vacation days, eight paid holidays, and can earn their hourly rate to take English classes.

The story’s headline? “Wages rise on California farms. Americans still don’t want the job.”

dear evelyn

I’m a member of a Swedish/American genealogy group on Facebook. People post there asking for help finding records for missing relatives in either Sweden or the US. Often Americans need help with translations of Swedish documents or correspondence left behind by older relatives. This morning a man asked for help with a postcard dated March 28, 1928. Here is the translation I typed:

Dear Evelyn I am sending you a view that maybe one day you’ll come visit along with my very best wishes to you and everyone at home from grandma!

One run-on sentence from Värmland to Los Angeles on the back of a picture of Mårbacka.

when ‘maja christina’ became ‘mary c.’

I’m working on a large project that involves a good deal of family research. I’m spending time on genealogy sites and in Facebook groups. I’m discovering a side of my extended family that no one knew existed.

As a child I was told that no one in our family ever emigrated. Why? “Because we were never poor.”

But we were poor. Some stayed poor in Sweden. Others improved their lives through education. And it turns out that three women related to my grandfather (his aunt, his cousin, and his sister) emigrated from Sweden to the US.

One of my grandfather’s aunts, Maja Christina, emigrated with her family in 1870. They became farmers in Iowa. My grandfather’s cousin Alice emigrated, by herself, in 1915. She worked at a notorious institution for the physically and mentally disabled in upstate New York. Then she married an American man and moved with him across the industrial north. He worked for car manufacturers and the rail road. Alice died in Chicago in 1970.

My grandfather’s sister Elna left Sweden in 1896, when she was 21 years old. She had listed “New York” as her destination, and I’ve seen a document confirming that she arrived there. But that’s the end of her story.

Many immigrant Swedish women share her first and last names. One was a nurse in San Francisco, another a bookmaker in New York. There are dressmakers, home makers, and many, many, ‘domestics’. I don’t think it really matters which one of them is our relative. They were poor, they crossed an ocean, and they continued to work.

the extension of our senses

Yesterday I had online conversations with 3 people in 3 different places, in the span of an hour or two:

  1. I discussed Japanese pens with a former student. (She’s in Los Angeles.)
  2. I learned about a really old friend’s new interest in genealogy. (She’s in Göteborg, Sweden.)
  3. I helped an online acquaintance find a person in Sweden using only that person’s email address. (She’s in Arkansas somewhere, I think. I don’t know her beyond our mutual interest in online sleuthing around the history of the mysterious Captain William Matson, the man without a past*.)

I completely love how I’m able to talk about random things, answer random calls for help, or just keep lines of conversation open with people. It’s instantaneous and deeply satisfying because it really does keep me connected to different parts of my life, and different times in my life. I can’t imagine being an emigrant and an immigrant without it.

* Matson is said to have been born in Lysekil, Sweden, in 1849, but there is absolutely zero trace of him in Swedish records. So, who was he before he became a Master Mariner and the founder of the Matson Line in San Francisco in the 1880s?


In the wake of the election, during protests and in discussions about the new political landscape, you often hear the notion that “we don’t have the luxury of despair”. This means that only those who aren’t affected by the new immigration laws, or lessened legal protection of diverse groups, can afford to despair. Despair becomes a sign of privilege. Those truly affected, on the other hand, know they will have to fight. No time to rest, no time to despair.

I experience despair.

You can argue that it’s because I am privileged. I am white, heterosexual, employed. I have a roof over my head, a car to drive, two passports. I can use gender neutral or gender designated bathrooms, no problem.

Or, I can tell you this:

I have two passports because I am a dual citizen. I am Swedish by birth, and American by choice. I became a US citizen in 2010. I received a certificate, a little flag, and a form letter signed by Barack Obama. For the past 6 and a half years I have felt increasingly American. I have become more and more comfortable thinking about myself as an American. I use “we” when I teach. I eat Peeps for Easter and I kind of like baseball.

I worked at a polling place on election day last year. The precinct where I worked voted around 70% democratic. The precinct where I live voted 80% democratic. But, we all know how it ended. Donald Trump was elected president.

And I find myself in a new situation. I don’t know where to turn. I see white friends in pictures from protests, defending “their” America. But I don’t identify with their America. Their America existed while I was still living in Sweden. Their high school memories live in a place I never knew. If we travel far enough back into their America we end up in a place where all I knew of America was negative: The Vietnam war, Nixon, and Harrisburg.

My America had a black president, and a black first lady. As a white immigrant I could fit into their definition of America, because their definition of America was an expanding, evolving, one. If I am to be defined by my skin color only I cannot be an American. I am lost.