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 April 18,1991.

Since I spent Christmas in Sweden, I decided to spend Easter in Chicago. I told myself I needed a quick dose of "home" to get me through the final months of my living project here in the motherland. I was thinking of Giordano's pizza, classic rock 'n' roll and Midwestern English. That's not all I got.

Even for someone who is supposed to be an observer for a living, some things just resist description.

How it feels to jump back into your native culture after being out of it for a while, for instance. It's somewhat like going back to the town where you grew up after a number of years. You're surprised by how different things are despite how little things have changed.

After living in Malmö, Chicago seemed even bigger than I remembered. After living in a predominantly homogeneous society for just 10 months, I was surprised by Chicago's racial and ethnic diversity. And how noisy the city is. I was delighted by the prices and could have gong through much more cash than I did - I walked around gleefully multiplying by 6.

But what stands out most in my mind is this: Commercialism. I had forgotten the prominent place in modern American culture of HYPE, what Webster's defines as "extravagant promotion or advertising."

I've always been on of those snobby people who resisted hype as much as possible; when the whole country was wearing Bart Simpson "Don't have a cow, man" T-shirts, I refused to. I even refused to watch the show. I saw it for the first time last week. If Air Jordan's are "the" shoes to die for - literally - on the streets of Chicago, I don't want them. I even saw a three-year-old with a tiny pair of them. They probably cost as much as my entire outfit. Who was this mom trying to impress?

I'm still reeling from Gulf war commercialism. Operation Desert Storm T-shirts and wetshirts and banners and bumper stickers and even tatoos. Yellow ribbons on cars and trees and street signs and mailboxes and in people's hair. No matter how you feel about the war or the military or American foreign policy in general, you have to face facts: They have packaged patriotism just like they did Bart Simpson. I wonder how long this fad will last.

I think the only way I will survive living in the States again is to avoid seeing TV commericals as much as possible. I still remember jingles I heard when I was five years old. I'm not going to give you marketing types out there any encouragement by relating which ones they are, but I do. Or maybe I'll have to start actually doing what I promised to do years ago: Keep a list of all the commercials I find insulting or manipulative and boycott their products. I wonder if I would ever find anything to eat or clean my clothes with.

We're not entirely immune from the hype effect here in Sweden, mind you. There are no TV commercials on Sweden's state TV channels; you get to pay for the "high quality" programming yourself. Yet even without the help of hype masters, the Laura Palmer diary and Twin Peaks soundtrack are selling pretty well.

I get to see Swatch and Air Jordan spots on MTV Europe and plugs for Danish dish soap on the Nordic Channel. I now know the word for "pimple" in five languages, a talent that enables me to buy Clearasil in any EC country. The choice not to do so, however, is still mine. My life may end if I walk the streets of Stockholm or Chicago without the right jeans, shoes, watch, makeup and attitude. But I'm willing to take the chance.

Despite my complaints about its content, however, when it comes down to principles, I support commercial advertising. Advertising is speech, and more or less free speech at thet. And while I abhor the exploitative use of it in the US, I prefer that to the denial of it in Sweden. I want the best of both worlds: commercialism with a conscience. These do not have to be mutually exclusive concepts. Do they?

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