IT HAPPENED TO ME: I Moved To Sweden As A “Love Refugee”

The decision to apply for the visa to move to live with my partner in Sweden was not an extremely difficult one to make.
Publish date:
July 14, 2014
It Happened To Me, Sweden, Europe, love refugee, language barrier, moving for love

Before I moved to Sweden for love, I was in love with Spain.

I took the opportunity to travel to Spain, a country I had been fascinated with since middle school, during the winter vacation of my second year in university. I was anxious, but somehow managed to work up the courage to make the trip down to Málaga by myself. The hostel I chose was bustling with interesting people from all across the globe, and there was a sense of camaraderie amongst the travelers who were away from family during the holiday season.

I met Daniel the day I arrived at the hostel. He had arrived a few days before me, having escaped the cold winter of his home country, Sweden. No, it wasn't love at first sight. He had hair like a mad scientist's and talked non-stop. But the more we spent time together, running around the streets of Málaga drinking cheap wine and devouring delicious food, it became clear to me that I was drawn to him.

Being 20 years old with very little relationship experience, I was always chasing men I was certain I couldn't be with. I honestly didn't believe that this time would be any different. When I left for Granada the day after Christmas without saying goodbye, I thought I had seen the last of Daniel.

Little did I know, it would be less than 24 hours before we saw each other again. He surprised me by showing up in Granada, and soon we both admitted that we had feelings for one another. This was the beginning of our cross-border relationship that had us spending what was probably an abnormal amount of hours at airports (I got the short end of the stick as I had to spend some nights at airports waiting for the cheap morning flights). We went on like this for a year and a half, seeing each other for a few weeks every two months.

The decision to apply for the sambo (co-habitee/partner in Swedish) visa to move to live with Daniel in Sweden was not an extremely difficult one to make. As a third-year international student at a university in the UK, I knew I was going to have to pack up and leave anyway. The only question was to where? I had three realistic options:

  • Go home to Malaysia where my parents live (but where I don't hold permanent residency because I'm a Japanese citizen)
  • Find work in the UK
  • Try my luck in Sweden

Out of the three options, moving to Sweden was probably the most crazy one. I mean, I didn't speak a word of Swedish back then, and I didn't know anyone in Sweden other than Daniel's friends and family. But moving back home meant most likely ending the relationship, and finding work in the UK that would sponsor me for a visa seemed like a near-impossible feat. Besides, we were tired of the cluster of explosive emotions that revolves around long-distance relationships. It was a difficult decision, just not an extremely difficult one.

Getting the visa was actually the easy part. An online application from the both of us and an interview was all it took for me to be granted a visa for two years, which I can renew for a longer permit as long as our relationship continues. We didn't need to get married or prove that we've lived together before. Everything went smoothly, and soon I had a ticket to my new life in Sweden.

I arrived in Gothenburg in 2013 just in time to catch the last of the beautiful Swedish summer after a hectic month of graduating, traveling, and working. It was a glorious summer. We made the best of the sunny days by taking long walks in the city and making excursions to the Gothenburg archipelago. Everything from grocery shopping to hopping on and off trams felt exciting. It felt surreal that we weren't going to be saying goodbye in a few weeks.

I must say, how I envisioned things would play out work-wise was quite naive. In that sense, I see a similarity between myself and Greg Poehler's character in "Welcome to Sweden," a comedy series about an American who moves to Sweden for love (airing in the US this summer). Bruce, played by Poehler (you guessed it, Amy Poehler's brother), arrives in Stockholm not knowing the language, expecting to start a new life and career right off the bat. If only life were that simple.

Something I didn't expect before the move was for language to be such a big factor in my adjustment process. I knew that I would have to learn Swedish, but I didn't realize just how little having English skills mattered in a country where most people are comfortably bilingual. Sweden's bilingualism is a double-edged sword for English-speakers; it's practical for everyday life, but it also means that it's easy to fall into the trap of not getting enough practice making oneself understood. And of course, finding a job is difficult without a decent level of Swedish.

A great deal of my time so far in Sweden has been spent at my language school. I started Svenska för invandrare or Swedish for immigrants (a tax-payer funded program aimed to help adult immigrants to learn Swedish) a few weeks after I arrived. While I advanced quickly in the program and graduated onto the next, I was not growing more confident in speaking Swedish as the higher level classes mostly focused on reading and writing.

People often ask whether I speak Swedish at home with my partner. The truth is, we rarely do. I know, I know, that's not a clever move. We do try once in a while, but I'm too emotionally unstable to speak Swedish with my partner.

“Come on,” I hear you say, “what sort of an excuse is that?” The best explanation I can offer is that I feel and am dependent on Daniel for everything at the moment, and it makes me feel quite helpless. When we speak Swedish, I'm at a disadvantage and I struggle to express myself, which often makes me feel more helpless. Then I get frustrated, and throw a tantrum. Just kidding (but not really).

Feeling dependent and helpless is common after relocating to a significant other's home country, according to this Gothenburg-based psychologist's website. Having read this prior to the move, I knew what to expect. Did I think I'd be so emotionally unstable that I'd find a way to blame my partner for every little discomfort? Did I expect to cry from shame and embarrassment whenever my Swedish failed? No, I couldn't have imagined that.

But I also couldn't have imagined how wonderful living together with my partner would be. We've grown stronger with every challenge we've faced, and support each other completely. As I start to gain a better understanding of the language and the way things work here, the brighter the future looks. Will there be more days when I break down because I just can't find myself ever feeling at home here? Yes. Am I being overly dramatic and will everything fall into place in a couple of years? Absolutely.