For a lot of Americans, our understanding of culture comes down to the holidays we celebrate. Friday was St. Patrick’s Day and with a name like Cate Fogarty it should come as no surprise that I enjoyed a fair amount of corned beef and cabbage, Thin Lizzy, and a few shots of Jameson. But while I may look like a Fogarty, and have definitely been known to drink like one, I am actually way more Swedish than anything else. My maternal grandmother was 100% Swedish and used to say you could get papers on her like a purebred puppy.
The Swedes are known for many great things: affordable furniture, meatballs, and social programs to name a few. But as with everything there is also the bad. Jante Law, an informal set of Scandinavian societal rules that discourages individuality and pride in success has given rise to the so-called Swedish Jealousy. At 15, when I dyed my hair hot pink, my mother lost her mind because she’d spent her entire life trying to blend in by wearing beiges and browns. “I don’t understand why you want to stand out?” she asked incredulously.
She was raised in a small Wisconsin town surrounded by other Scandinavian-descended Americans who attended Lutheran churches decorated in the same plain brown and beige hues that dominated my mother’s wardrobe. Even modest Catholic churches seem downright gaudy in comparison. Her father’s favorite response to any of her accomplishments was, “That’s great. Do you want a medal or a chest to pin it on?” Translation: “Quit bragging.”
Understanding this quirk in Swedish culture has helped me understand why when I showed my mother an essay I’d written in first grade about how my grandmother was the nicest person in the whole world my mom proceeded to disparage her own mother in order to convince me that Grandma was in fact not the nicest person in the whole world.
Even more importantly it’s helped me understand where this dueling need for and aversion to attention comes from in my own personality. Living in Los Angles a city built on self-promotion often leaves me feeling like Dawn Campbell (Naomi Watts) in I HEART HUCKABEES. “I’m sick of this! I’m sick of you all looking at me! Look at me! Please! Please! Please, everybody. Everybody look at me now!”
I can’t stop being Swedish (and I don’t want to), but understanding my culture allows me to better utilize the parts that benefit me and ultimately let go of the things that hinder me. Through Mixed Mental Arts I’ve developed a better appreciation not just for my secret Swedish side, but for all aspects of my varied accumulated culture even if there’s no holiday to back it up.