12 June 2013

Being Foreign in a Country That Doesn't Know How to Deal With Foreigners

The Danish relationship with Everything Not Danish can at times be strained, to say the least. We all blame the weirdo right-wingers for saying absurd and maybe even racist things, but somehow seem to miss that it's not just the weirdo politicians. It's all of us, and a lot (too much) of the time. The latest thing around Aarhus appears to be that Eastern Europeans aren't let into nightclubs, solely on the basis of being Lithuanian, Bulgarian or whatever. Some of the people affected are furious, while others pull the ”it's private property so who cares and I'll just go somewhere else” argument, (even though there are some convincing arguments that it might be illegal. I don't know the giurispudence, but I'm fairly sure this particular way of discriminating guests won't hold in court.) But this is just the latest example of often tiny things that make people feel not welcome. How does it feel to be foreign in a country that does not know how to deal with foreigners and would rather have them go away so as not to think about them?

I obviously don't know any answer to this first hand, but I look and listen, and countless times have I been asked to explain the deal, and I still don't have a good answer to why Danes are so weird about other people.

A friend lived in Denmark for 1,5 years and didn't make a Danish friend in that time beyond some guy from his dormitory who was friendly enough but mind-numbingly racist. No, Polish people are not on average more criminal than Danes, no, Lithuanians don't come here to steal your jobs, nor do the Bulgarians want your girls. Jesus. The lack of friends was not for lack of trying, Danes simply didn't care to make foreign friends, and the only jobs given to foreigners at that point where low-skilled low-paid ones where the colleagues were foreigners too. So yeah. Apparently “why bother make friends, the foreigners are leaving soon anyway, so it's a waste of effort to even try” is often heard around these parts. He hated this place, got out of here fast as he could, never setting foot here again.

And not the only one to do that. Someone else told me that the only thing he was going to miss about this place [apart from all his wonderful new (international) friends, yay!] was the feeling of safety, in the sense that you can walk home at 3am and nobody tries to rob or kill you. Uh, of course they don't? Apparently only Danish people take this for granted. Chilling thought.

But alas. I also heard stories of people getting attacked for being foreign. Get the Polish guy for trying to secure decent conditions for Polish workers in Denmark, because it's totally his fault that work is hard to find for Danish people too?

Or people being treated differently, no direct violence included: “People treat me different when they find out I'm Lithuanian,” said by maybe the happiest and most friendly person I know, who would never hurt a soul. It kind of makes me feel ashamed to hear this.

But, you say, all of those examples are random people who met random people, that doesn't mean everyone is like that, it's always easy to find bad examples. The plural of anecdote is not data, yada yada. Well, I have another one for you, perhaps less random.

A police officer was explaining things at an exam at the police station, and as part of his admonishment to silly us told people to not leave their stuff outside, since it was public space and stuff gets stolen. Someone asks, “even at a police station?” “Yeah,” police guy explains, “anybody can come and go here. Also, well sorry, the Romanians.” [My face, for the record: O.O – I would like to be able to say I called him out, but several days later I still don't know what I could or should have said, and anyway he would probably just have kicked me out of the exam room rather than mend his ways. Not that that's an excuse.]

This was not your regular guy on the street, this is a police officer supposed to be educated on these things and knowing that saying such stuff is highly counterproductive, and who's in any case not supposed to say it at work, even if he thinks so. Now we have a bunch of 18 year olds firmly convinced that Romanians do steal by simple virtue of being Romanians, 'cause the police says so!

There seems to be changes in who are the 'bad guys' at any given point in time. For as long as I remember, people have been freaking out about the “Turks” and the “Arabs” and what have you, largely referring to the children of the 1960+70's immigrants. Then came the EU-25, and all of a sudden everybody was whining about the Polish workers, plumbers and whatnot. Next thing, all those thievy Lithuanians (apparently some Lithuanian men robbed someone at some point, and naturally, all Lithuanians must therefore be criminal, by a certain logic *shakes head*). Then Romanians were the bad guys who stole from everybody*, in organised gangs!, and now all the empty bottles are being taken by the dangerous Chinese mafia (really, Denmark?). It's tiring, yet predictable. It's almost tempting to make a bet on who will be the next people to be vilified.

Denmark is a discriminating place, equal and happy as we claim we are. Maybe not so much out in the open, but in all the small things, discrimination there be. It's pretty hard to become bff forever with a Danish person, or even just get invited to dinner. Of course it happens, and some Danes are also perfectly open and international. There are just so very many who aren't, and who are happy with their own little world. Many foreigners complain to me about drunk Danes being all “you and me, friends forever, love youuuu” at the parties, only to completely ignore their existence the next day, not even remembering they ever spoke. Faux open, I guess. Hard to make friends with people who are unreadable and incoherent to such a point.

Let me go anthropologist a bit. This is what appears to be the deal: Danish people are equal (referring here to an abstract “value of the person”), and they're similar. Denmark is a very homogeneous country, or used to be. Small population, the dialects from one end of the country to another used to be more or less mutually intelligible, not sooo great disparities in wealth. The last century we also had a strong middle class, the difference between wealthy and poor was not that great, nothing like in other places. We're used to our neighbours being more or less like us, and if we move to the other end of the country, they'll still look and talk more or less like us. Of course there are urban/rural differences, social class matters, etc., but the differences are manageable. Until approx. 1970's there were no significant linguistic minorities (except perhaps the small detail of the Atlantic colonies, but out of sight, out of mind). As a general rule, Denmark has only acknowledged the minorities it has been internationally obliged to acknowledge.

In Danish, the word for equality, lighed, is the same as that for similarity, lighed. (Sometimes anthropologists use enshed to denote the latter, for analytical clarity, but it's not a word normally used.) Very often, regular people are not able to distinguish between the two concepts; they do not have the vocabulary for it and never learned there was even a difference between them. That thing about language forming our vision of the world. To be equal in Denmark means to be similar. It therefore follows that if you're not similar, you're most likely not equal either. You're weird, and possibly less awesome than us. You may even appear dangerous. Don't think you're more than us.

A short nod to the idea of “Danish values”, whatever that means. For some, it seems to mean “we're open and tolerant, and all those who are not like that, are not really Danish and their values are foreign and intrusive”, for others it means “Danish blood, eating pork, having a Christmas tree on your front porch”. I'll leave it at saying that I think both are missing the point. Trying to define values as “Danish” on its own makes the assumption that any values can be assigned any specific nationality, or that we share anything inherently apart from the tag on our passports (a social construct if ever there was one!), and whether the so-called Danish values are positive or negative they're only a short step from the logic behind outright nationalism. A full discussion is not for here, but I don't think it is fruitful to think like this. We need to go outside the nationalist box.

I mentioned the language. In order to be similar and equal to us, you have to speak like us, speak Danish like a 5th generation native, because something. All the while we're kind of proud that it's so hard to learn, and make a big deal out of its difficultness. Not exactly encouraging for a happy someone recently arrived who wants to integrate into a new and exciting society (to bad no one told them that integration = assimilation). And then people refuse to speak Danish to them, switching to English whenever, because omg our English is awesome! Maybe it is, maybe it isn't, but I'll betcha it must be frustrating wanting to practice your Danish language skills buying stamps, and then they speak English to you at the first hint of an accent. Every single time. [Speaking from experience, this is annoying! It used to happen constantly in Barcelona, to the point where I simply stopped even trying to buy my groceries in Catalan. It is counterproductive for making people want to learn your awesome language!]

Then on the other hand you have social occasions where the 50% Danes of the party will start speaking in Danish, leaving the other half of the company not following the conversation, for whichever reason they didn't learn Danish (maybe because no one ever lets them practice in more simple settings?). Or the three Danes will just speak Danish, leaving the one foreigner to mind his own business in the corner. This is also not helpful for making people want to learn the language, or feel like you're nice people in general.

I don't know how to propose any easy and effective solutions, except maybe being more easy going. Don't assume people are idiots or criminals based on their nationality, don't assume they're inherently different for whatever reason... not meaning to imply that this is that hard. Be a little more reasonable and patient about the language – I realise it's a hassle trying to speak in Danish back to people and they don't understand, but then you deal with that as it comes. Talk to our grandmothers and friends about why running away from the Latvian guy in the supermarket who's just trying to be helpful is not necessary and may actually be a hurtful thing.

First we demand that people learn our language, but we refuse to help them do it. Then we treat them like criminals for no reason. And finally we wonder why they get the hell out of here as soon as they get a chance to go somewhere else. Surely we can do better than this.

*Apparently this is the same case where Lithuanians were accused in a previous link. Maybe Lithuanians and Romanians ganged up? I don't mean to joke on the poor man's death, that is of course terrible. But the circus about which foreign nationality to blame for it is over the top.

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