Guest columnist: The American Emigrant

Editors note: Lisa Werner (now Lisa Carr) wrote a series of articles in the Swedish-American newspaper Nordstjernan in 1990 and 1991, describing the complexities, great and small, of living in Sweden. We are happy to reprint her articles, and we will include one with every update of kulturCHOCK! (until they run out, at which time Lisa will simply have to move back to Malmö and write some more).

By Lisa Carr
Originally published October 18,1990.

The name of this column is actually a bit misleading. I'm not a "real" emigrant, after all, for I'm not going to stay here in Sweden forever. And I'm not a political or economic refugee, fleeing in search of a better like, like so many emigrants - I lived in beautiful Chicago (take that, Sven!). But I've already been here long enough to say that becoming Swedish, even temporarily, is quite a process, much of it involving filling out forms and interfacing with civil servants.

The first thing I had to do upon moving to Malmö was be counted in the civil registration records. Everyone in Sweden has an identifying number called a personnummer. You don't exist in the eyes of the government without this number.

I'm not joking - someone at the Immigration Board began a conversation with me today by turning to the computer and saying, "OK, first let's see if you exist." What a bizarre thing to say! Keep in mind that our Socuial Security numbers are not for identification (it says so right on the card). Here, your personnummer is yours alone.

It's the easiest number I've ever had to remember. The first six digits correspond to your birthday. In my case, that's 661105, for the fifth of November some 24 years ago. The last four digits differentiate you from everyone else born on that day. (Some mathematician should try to figure out how many digits it would take for this numbering system to function in the US!)

One digit indicates by odd or even whether you're male or female, and another acts as a control number. Through some complicated algorithm, this control number enables the computer to determine whether your number is real or not. If it's not real, you don't exist. But you still probably have to pay taxes anyway.

Unlike the U.S., you apply for the personnummer at the pastor's office in your assigned parish, The system that makes it so easy for us genealogists to track down our Swedish ancestors is still in place (until next year, anyway), and the state Church of Sweden is in charge of keeping track of comings and goings. It's a bit of an anachronism, actually, in a country where nearly the entire population is registered in the state church, but few people actually go there.

Many Swedes don't like the idea that the government can learn so much about them from just their numbers. The number is connected with just about every aspect of your life: your car, your paycheck, your taxes, your bank, even where you live. It's recorded somewhere any time you change residences (which you must report), with any payment you make, any check you cash, on your driver's license and every credit card. Your name becomes really quite unnecessary. Especially if it's one a lot of people have, such as Andersson or Hansson or Nilsson or Eriksson, or - well, you get the idea.

But the numbers also give the Swedish Statistic Bureau a lot of genuinely useful information on age and sex demographics, etc., that couldn't be gleaned from our social security numbers. They can project how old their population will be in 20 years. They can also say - with much better certainty than we - how many people there actually are in their country.

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