Young Chinese Love Everything About Sweden. Except Living There.
STOCKHOLM — After years working in China’s finance industry, Helen Wang was feeling on the edge of burnout. She was fed up with working grueling hours, then being expected to be on call during her precious time off. The 28-year-old wanted to find a new path: one where she could “lie flat” for a while.
Then, a friend gave her a left-field suggestion: move to Sweden. On Chinese social media, Scandinavia is often portrayed as a socialist utopia — a place where women’s rights are respected, parents of young children receive lavish support, and the working culture is relatively relaxed. What better place to start over?
Wang began following a few Chinese influencers living in Sweden, and she was captivated by what she saw. Last year, the Jiangsu province native took the plunge: She quit her job, moved her life to Stockholm, and began studying for a second master’s degree in the city.
Things haven’t gone to plan. To Wang’s surprise, her Swedish academic program is the toughest she’s ever done. Over Christmas, her school work completely took over. She couldn’t enjoy her winter holiday, and she still hasn’t had the chance to travel anywhere.
“Sweden isn’t as chill as I expected,” said Wang, who spoke with Sixth Tone under a pseudonym to protect her privacy. “I’m not enjoying my life here.”
Many other Chinese expats share similar experiences. Young Chinese have been migrating to Sweden in record numbers over the past few years, with many idealizing the country as an antidote to all the ills of modern China.
But after they arrive, they often realize life here is more complicated than it appears on social media. For some young Chinese, it can be a painful realization — one that forces them to reassess not only their views on Sweden, but on their own country.
The Chinese population in Scandinavia has surged in recent years. In Sweden, the number of Chinese residents has more than quadrupled since the turn of the century, rising from around 8,000 to over 38,000 last year. Lund University, one of Sweden’s top schools, told Sixth Tone that applications from students at Chinese institutions had more than doubled since 2018.
Social media has played a key role in driving this trend. On Chinese platforms, many young people have taken to calling Scandinavia their “ideal second home.” The phrase “Nordic style” has become a buzzword — used to sell everything from furniture, to clothes, to oat milk lattes.
Some of this is simply related to the success of IKEA: On Weibo, a Twitter-like social platform, the hashtag “NordicHome” has received hundreds of millions of views. But many Chinese netizens also admire Scandinavia’s generous welfare state and progressive social reforms.
In particular, Sweden’s policy of granting couples 480 days of parental leave — which they can divide up as they choose — has generated massive interest in China, where work-life balance is a major issue. On Weibo, users often combine “Nordic” hashtags with those focusing on gender equality and workers’ rights.
Chinese influencers, meanwhile, have hyped up Scandinavia even more. Vloggers living in the region often present northern Europe as a haven from the frustrations of life in modern China: its unaffordable housing, intense working culture, and conservative social attitudes.
Yet the reality is more nuanced. Young Chinese living in Sweden told Sixth Tone that many aspects of life here had lived up to their expectations — especially the country’s progressive social attitudes. But there were also a number of downsides they hadn’t anticipated.
For Wang, one of the biggest surprises was Sweden’s high cost of living. It has been a “tough six months” for Sweden, she said, with inflation running at over 10%. Many of the things Wang used to do without thinking in China — from eating out, to getting a takeout coffee — she now has to avoid to save money.
This has also had an impact on her social life. In China, Wang used to go for meals with friends on a regular basis, and craved time alone. Nowadays, she finds herself cooking by herself at home most days. “The cost of eating out in Sweden is really high, so often nobody wants to eat out with me,” she said.
Then, there is the food itself. For many young Chinese, getting used to Swedish cuisine proves to be a major challenge — it was an issue that came up repeatedly during interviews.
Cindy Zhao, a 22-year-old from Shanghai, recalled with horror a recent visit to a supermarket in Stockholm. After wandering the aisles for some time, she finally found some tomatoes she recognized from home — only to discover the price was five times higher than in Shanghai. The eggplants, meanwhile, were “terrible and tasteless,” said Zhao, who also spoke with Sixth Tone using a pseudonym for privacy reasons.
Liang Yajun, a 26-year-old from central China’s Hubei province, said she avoided Swedish food whenever possible. Like many Chinese, she found Sweden’s love of cold meat and fish dishes off-putting and hard to digest.
She has become a loyal customer of Chinese and Asian restaurants in Sweden, though there are few to choose from, she said. When she misses good Chinese food, she sometimes flies to Barcelona, Paris, and other European cities with a larger Chinese population, she added.
But Liang still hopes to stay in Sweden after graduating from Uppsala University. For her, living somewhere with a high level of gender equality is a top priority. She feels that Chinese workplaces remain unfriendly toward women, with female professionals expected to meet higher standards than their male colleagues.
“In order to be more welcomed, I have to act like a woman and think like a man,” said Liang. “But in Sweden, I can be myself.”
Becoming a permanent Swedish resident is also attractive to Liang because she is about to get married, and hopes to start a family soon. In China, the costs of raising a child remain high, and parental leave is far less generous than in Sweden.
Though Chinese authorities are taking steps to improve parental benefits, Sweden’s shared parental leave policy is far superior, Liang said. It means that fathers are also guaranteed time off with her children, and that employers are less likely to discriminate against women when hiring — a severe problem in China.
“To me, it’s very important that fathers spend time with their children as they grow up,” Liang told Sixth Tone.
On social issues, most Chinese expats who spoke with Sixth Tone expressed genuine admiration for Sweden. Andrea Li, another master’s student in Stockholm, said they had chosen to come here due to Sweden’s reputation for being progressive on LGBT rights. And people had been as welcoming as they’d hoped.
“No one treats gay couples differently,” said Li, who also spoke under a pseudonym for privacy reasons. “The Swedish can easily distinguish gay and transgender people, while in China the two are often mixed up.”
Siddharth Chadha, a lecturer at Uppsala University, said that his Chinese students are often keen to work on LGBT-related projects, as it is harder to do research in that field in China. “They go back and tell other students what they did, so sometimes we get more who want to participate in the course,” Chadha said.
But Swedish society isn’t perfect. The country still has a significant gender pay gap, and far-right parties have gained ground in recent elections. Vivian Liu, 23, said she had been surprised to find that racism and sexism remained serious issues in Sweden.
“Young people are indeed more tolerant of immigrants, but the older generation is not,” said Liu.
Yet Liu, who is currently looking for a job in Sweden, said that she still preferred the work culture here. In China, she feels that women are still widely disrespected and underpaid in the workplace.
“In Sweden, work is just work,” she said. “There is no fuss or messing around after work, and that’s why the Swedes can enjoy life.”
Every Swedish winter, however, tests the mettle of Chinese expats living here. In January, the sun sets before 3 p.m. in Stockholm; in northern Sweden, it never rises at all. The lack of daylight makes the body secrete less melatonin, which can result in insomnia and depression.
Wang said her local friends were concerned about her mental health last winter. Despite taking vitamin D supplements, she felt anxious and depressed through the dark months of December and January. She often ended up overeating to cope with the anxiety.
“I’m aware of the health risks associated with it, but I can’t control how much I consume,” said Wang. “When I woke up and went outside, it was still dark. Before I’d done much, it had already got dark again. I wondered why I was still working after dark.”
For Yuan Zhiqian, a 37-year-old who lived in Sweden for three years in his 20s, the short days weren’t a big deal. But he often felt like Sweden’s relaxed pace of life was slowing him down, making him “chilled and lazy.”
Swedes are known for taking things slow. Many locals cultivate the art of being lagom— a term that means “having neither too much nor too little.” A lagom life is balanced, sedate, and not too busy. It’s about as far from the relentless hustle of Shanghai and Beijing as it’s possible to get.
Yuan feels like he was somehow infected by lagom during his time in Sweden. He has been back in China for over a decade now, and he still can’t shake it off. “It’s in my genes after three years,” he said. “It’s in my bones.”
Before returning to China in 2011, Yuan thought about continuing to live and work in Sweden. But he chose to go back because he felt he was more likely to have exciting life experiences there. He ended up living in Shanghai, working in the IT industry for six years before going freelance and diving into the local culture and music scene.
“Sweden is too boring,” Yuan said. “If I’d lived there, I’d still be living the same life at 60.”
But Yuan looks back on his time in Sweden fondly. In his view, the gushing descriptions of the country on Chinese social media are “right.” Life is just as peaceful and comfortable as people say it is — the only problem was that Yuan wanted something more.
“Sweden is so nice that for someone who grew up in a messy place, it’s not easy to adjust to,” said Yuan, who is from northeast China. “Swedes can just ‘lie flat’ and win.”
When he’s busy working in China, Yuan sometimes thinks about the work-life balance he could have had in Sweden. He wishes he could have enjoyed Swedish-style parental leave after his daughter was born. But he doesn’t regret leaving, he said.
“Even if China is good, I’ll still miss Sweden,” said Yuan. “Few countries can replicate the Swedish model. It has achieved equality in the truest sense.”
Editor: Dominic Morgan.
(Header image: An intersection in Stockholm, 2023. Chang Minxiao for Sixth Tone)