The right sort of immigrant

I’ve watched with increasing horror as Trump’s first week as president has lived up to our worst fears for his presidency. Just days into his term and his administration have legitimised the feelings of those who harbour racism and xenophobia in their hearts. They have attacked the value of truth itself, trying to give it a shifting, subjective status.

I’ve felt sick, reading all this news, feeling so powerless.

These problems, they seem in some ways, so far away. Distant wars in distant lands. A distant president I had no right to vote against. In other ways they feel right in my heart. Families torn apart, grieving. Families just like mine. People who just like me live in a foreign country, speaking a language that is not their own, wondering who of their neighbours want them gone.

I live in safety. What have I to complain about? My whiteness protects me. My passport is for a country I could choose to return to at any time. No border control tried to strip me of my assets when I stepped off the plane and onto Danish soil. Nonetheless, sometimes I struggle, trapped between the local populace and the sort of the immigrant they fear.

If I add the years up, I have spent 14 years of my life living in countries that are not my own. Denmark is the fourth of these. It has also been the most difficult to live in. Perhaps that is because of the language. Perhaps that is because of the rhetoric stoked up by politicians who pander to the nationalists that live among us.

Worldwide the papers write about immigration, about immigrants. Words they want the West to fear. Meanwhile bombs fall on hospitals. Where will the sick people go we ask? We wring our hands. Meanwhile bodies wash up on the European coast. Tsk tsk, we say, those traffickers – shameless. A Dansk Folkeparti MP goes on TV, says we should shoot at the boats. His party put out statements – it’s not official party policy.

Sometimes the polite mask falls, and we see what they are really thinking.

If you are lucky, they will let you in. And they will tell you to integrate. You chose to come here, they say. Now you must leave your foreign ways behind too. Don’t they know, you have left enough of yourself already? Everything familiar, and everything you knew, and every place you can associate with memory. Reshape yourself and how dare you try to hold on to what you can. Be more like us or we will never accept you. Some will never accept you anyway. No matter how much like them you become, you will never be like them.

I see and hear criticisms of immigrants who live and socialise in enclaves. But how do we break out of these enclaves when we can’t speak to you? How many times has a stranger on the street dismissed me as rude? How often do they think I just want to keep to myself when the opposite is true. I’d love to have easy chats with them. Yes, the sun is lovely isn’t it? He’s four. The chemist? Just around that corner. Instead I nod quietly, mind racing, and the moment passes, they have gone, and the words have not reached my tongue yet. Every interaction I can’t avoid weighs heavily. I repeat myself over and over, hvad siger du?

I go to playgroups with other immigrants. We speak English to each other. It is the lingua franca. Our partners all have jobs. Some of the mothers do too. We talk – where can I buy…what are the best shoes for winter…did you know… Our children play. Many are pre-verbal, or only just beginning to speak. It hardly matters to them which language we use yet. They rely on the other cues we give, the tone of voice, our clapping of hands, the universal instinct to catch them as they fall.

My children are lucky. They are young enough to learn. If we stay they will at least have the privilege of looking like they belong. The only barriers to integration they will face come from those with hate in their hearts. I do not believe we have anything to fear from the next generation of immigrants. Unless we turn our back. Unless we mark them as other. As the Danes do of course; some believe you cannot truly be a Dane without Danish parents. My daughter was born here, but in their eyes she will always be efterkommer. How easy would it be, I wonder, for the tolerance we enjoy here to collapse? Could fascism rise to power in Europe again, and strip people like her of a vote?

Now, lists of countries are deemed a security risk by America. Countries where bombs are falling, and famine is imminent and rapes are commonplace. And a sad, pathetic white man sits behind a desk, huddled with a nuclear code, and deems the children ‘dangerous’. Deems them ‘other’. Deems them ‘collateral damage’. Deems them anything other than simply people who will die because he is frightened, hateful man bullying his way through the world supported by other bullies.

Sometimes as a New Zealander it is hard to understand the nationalism they rely on. The white politicians who talk about keeping New Zealand for New Zealanders have always struck me as ridiculous. Embarrassments. They are all descendants from immigrants. How can they lay claim to a sense of exclusive identity when they are not the tangata whenua of our land?

Living in Denmark has opened my eyes somewhat as to why the far-right hold such sway in Europe. It is a view I vehemently disagree with, but we can learn from listening to those on the other side. For centuries Denmark was a poor, homogenous country, and existence here was tough. Agriculture was about scraping out a living, people ate cabbage and apples and potatoes, they worshipped at church, they spoke one language, and they all knew from birth the unspoken rules of what it means to be a Dane. When opportunities came to leave, Danes took them, emigrating to countries like America, and New Zealand.

Then, like places the world over, people began to move into cities, and agriculture became centred on exports. Denmark became prosperous. In the post-world-war period, the principles of egalitarian, educated Denmark we are all familiar with began to form, coupled with a rise in low-skilled manufacturing type jobs. Labour began to be imported, “guest workers” predominantly from Turkey. Naively Denmark did not anticipate that these guest workers would want to stay, but stay they did. And it changed the face of Denmark. The homogenous society of old was disrupted. So as much as it pains me to say it, when people here complain about immigrants bringing in their foreign ways and changing what it means to be Danish, they are not incorrect. Yet, Denmark would not be the prosperous country it is today without that continuing supply of labour. Denmark has a long history of civil tolerance and freedom, and it is hard to argue that the ugly rise in xenophobia is not in itself a change in Danish values.

Putting that aside, I cannot understand these men in America, so blind and removed from their country’s colonial history that they believe the land, and the power invested in it, is rightfully theirs. This anger they have, directed at people without their privilege or their power. Directed at people like me. People who are just like me. As long as people like Trump believe power and privilege is theirs by right, nothing will change.

Trump and the US administration are not the root cause of our current problems. Kenneth Kristensen Berth and the Dansk Folkeparti are not the root cause of intolerance here. Politicians like Phil Twyford and his ‘tsunami of Chinese investment’ comments are not the root cause of the racism in NZ. They are only the problem manifest. The root cause is all the people who sit at home and quietly nod. Those who label me ‘the right sort’ of immigrant. Those who allow these divisions to creep in and quietly, quietly dehumanise those on the wrong side. The problem is those who want all the advantages of trade and travel in a globalised world, but do not recognise that a globalised community will come with that.

Just like the useful labour brought to Denmark in the ‘60’s from Turkey, immigrants the world over contribute to local economies. Only yesterday a NZ public policy think tank released a report saying just that. Fears of immigrants taking jobs and driving up house prices are proven time and time again to be just that, fears, not facts. Being an immigrant is hard. By welcoming those who want to join our communities we can only gain. Keeping immigrants and their children on the outside is how we create problems for our future. That is where the real terror risk lies.

The current Syrian refugee crisis is a much bigger issue, though, than a question over whether they will contribute economically. What is at stake is our own humanity.

I read the news, and this is what I hear: build a wall and keep them out. Watch the boats sink, and watch them drown. Politics has become the gladiatorial sport of our age. Give Trump a chance we were told. It’s just rhetoric, he doesn’t mean it. The hate crimes count climbs. We discover he did mean it, all along.

And I look at myself, standing on shifting sand in a country that is not my own, and I feel so lucky, and I feel so sick, and I feel so sad.

I am sure of one thing though – I would rather be as I am, on the outside of a society looking in, then at the core of something as rotten as Trump’s vision for the world.

hygge ⟨n⟩ cosy atmosphere

I feel a bit remiss in not having written about hygge yet, that most quintessential value of the Danish experience, or at least the most cliché. It is almost impossible to overestimate the enthusiastic use of this word in Denmark. Hygge is not just a noun, it is a verb and adjective, as well as being used in many compound nouns. We have received Danish party invitations using no less than four different conjugations of the word hygge. Hygge is having a bit of a moment in the English speaking world, with a proliferation of publications extolling its virtues. We may have finally reached peak hygge, with Slate’s bizarre headlinescreenshot-4Hmm, I wouldn’t exactly translate hygge as “candlelit uterus’. Literally hygge is a cosy, convivial atmosphere. Generally hygge is something you create with other people, although some will say it is possible to be hygge on your own, curled up by a fire with a good book for example.  So while Danes love candles, and mood lighting, and while we in English talk about a ‘womblike atmosphere’ as being somewhere comforting and cosy, I have to say I find the idea of a candlelit uterus quite far from hygge. In fact I would say I find the idea quite the opposite – uhygge.

Halloween decorations are hygge

Uhygge is the much less well known word. While u is a prefix akin to “un”, uhygge doesn’t mean uncomfortable, or uncosy, it means creepy or scary. So ghosts are uhygge. Haunted castles are uhygge. Halloween is uhygge.

Halloween has been embraced enthusiastically by Danes, going from something that happens in America, to taking over the shops for the month of October, in roughly a decade. The non-American English speaking world seems to have controversies every year over the proliferation of Halloween celebrations and paraphernalia. I’m sure plenty of Danes feel the same. Yet, there is something about Halloween that seems to mesh well with the social character of Danes. They love to dress up. Why not have another reason to party dressed as a skeleton? Despite the sugar taxes, they love to eat sweets. They also already have one holiday based around burning witches – Sankt Hans Aften.

I’ve never really been into Halloween. It seems out of place in the New Zealand and Australian spring. Here, though, the days are getting shorter, the nights longer, and the leaves are falling off the trees. It is the only time of year pumpkins (a relative newcomer here too) are readily available in supermarkets. It is the time of year that people start to hunker down inside, light candles, sip drinks and do what they call hygge sig: have hygge with each other.

My children have a favourite TV character Hr. Skæg, whose shows teach the basics of arithmetic and literacy in a light-handed way. We have his ABC book and CD, and one of our favourite pastimes is to sing along. You could say, it’s a very hyggelig way to spend time. One of his songs is about a ghost who haunts his friend, ultimately scaring him to death so that they can haunt together, because
‘det hyggeligste er/ at være uhyggelig med sin ven’
The most hygge thing is to be uhygge with your friend.

I think that lyric says more about Danish culture than is immediately apparent, beyond the assumption that it is perfectly appropriate for preschoolers to sing about wanting friends to die. The Danish winter can be very depressing. It is dark and cold. Historically Danes were very poor. The coming together of people inside, in warmth and light, with music and hyggespise (comfort food) was the antidote to this. They even have a word for Christmas atmosphere: Julehygge. But they also have a sense of humour that leans towards the dark side. Two of my favourite Danish films are great examples of this: Adam’s Apples, and In China They Eat Dogs. So Halloween with its uhyggelig decorations – the witches, the ghosts, the candlelit pumpkins – slots right in.

My son’s daycare have had a whole week of Halloween celebrations. They ate a Halloween themed menu, serving up dragon’s teeth (rice), kitten brains (meat), even vomit (porridge). They made decorations. They dressed up on Friday. They even led the children on a haunted house style tour of their building, with one of the staff dressed up as a witch. MJ definitely found the tour a bit uhyggelig; he has emphasised that the witch was ‘only Connie, and she doesn’t eat children’. Which makes me wonder exactly what he was told at the time…

I’m what I would call craft-challenged. It’s alright, nobody’s perfect. MJ is really interested in craft at the moment though, so I am trying to give him the opportunities he desires to explore creativity. Halloween has been a great excuse. The kids loved the cornflour slime I made last week. One day we spent his sister’s nap making uhyggelig monsters from fluffy pompoms and glue. I thought we might do more, but the next day he chose to build a rocket ship, which was fine. It is rare for the stars to align the way they have, but we’ve had a few really good, fun, creative, hours together.

The last few weeks have been challenging. The temperatures are dropping. We’ve had doctors’ appointments and our first winter colds. We really have had some particularly challenging behaviour, with AJ discovering the word ‘No’ and even worse, MJ going through a more stubborn than usual phase. We’ve had more tears and yelling than anyone likes. This makes all the good stuff even more important. Sometimes parenting can be like a compliment sandwich; you’ve got to fit some fun on either side of doing terrible things like dressing and washing your children.

Joking about eating vomit for lunch is not really my cup of tea. Playing with cornflour slime with two kids might make an enormous mess. Making gluey monsters is even worse. But these are all things that make my son happy. That Hr. Skæg is right. Sometimes the most hygge thing really is to be uhyggelig together.


I wonder.

I wonder about those who cannot walk in another person’s shoes. Those who only see the opportunities taken, but cannot see the price paid.

I wonder about those who feel so threatened by people like me they can only respond with hate. Oh, I know, not really people like me. I am the right sort of immigrant. But, I am still an immigrant.

I wonder if they have ever thought what that would entail.

I wonder if they have ever walked off a plane, out of a railway station, and looked around, lost, no landmarks they recognise. And not with the excitement of a few days to bumble around a city, but with the knowledge this is your home now. Find your way, make it work. This is where you stay.

I wonder if they have had to register people’s surprise, when they open their mouth and begin to talk. Oh, you’re one of those.

I wonder if they know how it feels to stand in a queue, at the shops, the post office, mentally rehearsing the conversation you need to have once it is your turn. Hoping it stays on predictable tracks.

I wonder if they have ever felt the hopelessness of not being able to make yourself understood. I wonder if they know the moment the conversation moves beyond you; if they have ever felt that blank stare on their own face, searching their mind for words and grammar they don’t have, only for it to be met with a flicker of irritation.

I wonder if they know how exhausting even a trip to the supermarket can be. What it feels like to stand in front of all the cleaning products, trying to guess from the pictures which is the one you want. How bewildering the selection of flour can seem. How sometimes you buy something and get it wrong, or you don’t buy, only to find out later you were looking at the right thing after all.

I wonder if they know how it feels to be the person who spends too long reading the signs: the notices up at daycare, the notices to residents of your apartment block. This is, I suppose, what it is like to be functionally illiterate, lacking the access to information everyone around you takes for granted.

I wonder if they know how unpredictable the world can seem, when all the little social rules are so clearly ingrained, and yet so impenetrable to you. That nobody ever knows you didn’t know until too late. The sort of clothes your children are supposed to have, what to take with you to parties, what foods you are supposed to eat and when. That every public holiday is a surprise.

I wonder if they know what it feels like to have a child more fluent in the local language than you. The pride, mixed with frustration at not being able to follow them into conversations they want to have.

I wonder if they realise that these language problems are fleeting and generational. Adults will manage and muddle through and if allowed children will integrate easily. Bi-lingualism is not a threat. It is a skill, an asset, a bridge between worlds.

I wonder if they know the nagging question I ask myself. Is it worth it? So far from ‘home’, from family? Do the benefits outweigh the costs?

I wonder if they understand that we make new homes. We grow to love places that were not ‘ours’ to begin with.

I wonder if they know the doubts. The way parents question themselves, as they watch their children assume a new identity. Will they be accepted?

I wonder if they know how it feels to watch their child play with their friends; the funny-sounding parents as important as who does or does not have a cat, less important than who does or does not like to dig holes with you. I wonder if they know how it feels to think that all it takes is media hype and careless words for your children to discover that they were not welcomed after all. Merely tolerated.

I wonder how it would feel for that toleration to disappear. To find decency is no longer required. To find yourself put up for public judgement and the verdict is you are not welcome.

I wonder.

Nobody is taught language.

The perils of raising a bi-lingual child (when you are not)

Your child will engage adults in conversations you are not capable of following.
This is especially fun when the adults then turn to you and you just have to leave them hanging, or mumble something you hope makes sense, but judging from their reactions usually doesn’t. But don’t worry…

Your bi-lingual child will explain things
They will learn to carry on the conversation by explaining ‘my Mum doesn’t speak good Danish’. They will also occasionally pass on this factoid to other children at their daycare. As for the woman who said hi to them in the supermarket, why not tell her too? How about that guy who just happens to be sitting in the bus stop at the same time as you, it’s probably good information to pass on to him.

Auto-correction is always at hand
No need to go look at phonetics in a dictionary. Your three year old will be ready and willing to correct your pronunciation at any time.

Don’t forget they are only three
But don’t take their word for it. This can lead to embarrassing errors. After mixing up fro and frø, my son told us he had eaten bread with frogs in it. Seeds, he meant seeds.

Reading is a great way to learn
Reading together will boost both your vocabularies. It is great bonding and snuggling time. Just don’t forget the auto-correcting. Reading will suddenly turn stressful as you are unable to produce the desired level of fluency.
‘Kan du finde kurven?’
‘No. Kurven.’
‘No. K-Uurven.’

Enjoy children’s TV together
There is no better boost to your ego than being able to follow the plot of Postman Pat/Per. You can almost convince yourself you have the language skills of a three year old. As long as you are only listening and not trying to join in the conversation that is. And if you get a bit lost by the intricacies of why exactly he misdelivered the post (again), and why he is still considered a local hero just for sorting out the mess he started, don’t worry. I’m sure if you watch it often enough you’ll understand the complexities of Greendale society eventually.

Worry about children’s TV
But beware, if you leave the TV on for something you don’t know well, you may find yourself sitting there wondering if this show really is age appropriate? It can be hard to tell sometimes. If this happens, don’t panic, just switch it off abruptly, and deal with the following tantrum in a calm and respectful manner.

Sometimes you will have to explain things to them
They won’t understand everything, so they may still call on you for help. Leaving you with the conundrum of whether or not to translate ‘lort’ so they can keep up with the other pre-schoolers. Hint: it involves bodily, uh, excretion.

Pass the buck
When your child calls names at daycare, be sure to disapprove. But secretly console yourself that they definitely only learnt that word in one place. And it wasn’t at home!

Dance. Dance. Dancing your sorrows away.

Last weekend two really magical things happened.

On Friday night A slept from 9ish to 6am. That’s like all night! Not only was that her longest sleep by a reasonably long shot, it coincided with her brother’s best night’s sleep in a long time. It is amazing how different the world seems when you have some sleep in your system.

Saturday was kinda drizzly, but we got some chores done, and I made pizza for tea. We fed the kids first and put them to bed. We do usually eat as a family, but it is nice, every now and again, to have some time that is just my husband and me. We drank wine and watched TV and it was lovely. It ended up being a late meal, and a late night. Of course the kids didn’t repeat the sleep of the night before. But two nights sleep in a row would just be greedy, wouldn’t it? (Would it?)

But that wasn’t the second magical thing. The second magical thing was we took my son to his first concert, featuring his favourite TV host, Rosa, from the Danish children’s channel Ramasjang. Rosa hosts a show about baking cakes; M Loves it. So we thought it would be special for him to see her show.  Also M is quite obsessed with asking if things are real or not. So seeing his hero Rosa in real life, for real, on a real stage, singing real songs, was quite exciting. Really.
We approached it with a small amount of trepidation. M is quite sensitive (for lack of a better word) and doesn’t always cope well with large crowds and loud noises. But the thrill of the occasion was enough to compensate. Sure he spent some of the show with hands over his ears. Sure he was only brave enough to get off my lap towards the end. But I don’t think that mattered to him.

This is what mattered to him: M and I watched the show together – just the two of us. My husband sat far off down the back with A, who ended up falling asleep. And just like parents need time to ourselves, it was a reminder he needs time with just me as well. Lately we’ve spent a lot of time together, while he has been too sick for børnehaven, but always with his sister present. It was good for him, and good for me, to be able to devote my attention to him. To have me to himself. And Rosa. And cuski, his cuddly, because it was a cuddly animal themed concert. And cuski is not really an animal, but cuski is very loved and an integral part of our family. He sits with us at breakfast, so there was never any question of ‘who’ would go with us.

As we waited, my son giggling and bouncing with anticipation, a teddy polar bear wandered through the crowd. The band arrived on stage, but where was Rosa? To pass time they invited the bear up to dance. Then, the mask came off – the bear was Rosa! A gag as old as time. My son’s genuine surprise and delight was magical to watch.

There are no cliches in childhood. They haven’t learnt them yet.

And that is one of the joys of being a parent. Seeing everything through their unjaded eyes.
It has been hard lately. When it is hard, it is easy to question yourself. To wonder if you are doing the best for your children. The world is full of articles about the perils of modern childhood inflicted by inadequate/over-bearing/distracted/lazy/busy parents. Sometimes you just have to tune out the world, and look at what is in front of you.

And so for forty-five minutes, while the sun shone in Aarhus and we could believe it was summer, while the band played and the teddy bears danced, while Rosa sang and we waved our hands and sang along to tunes we didn’t know, in a language I don’t actually speak, while all the sleepless nights and battles and stress faded away, while we laughed and listened, we found it.

The magic of childhood.