"I am now making the 5th of a series of presentations that deal with matters in my life that deal with taboos and "The things we do not talk about”.
My article will be about my life as a foreigner in Denmark.
Every time there is an election in Denmark, the talk about foreigners is a hot topic. As a rule, the debate is about whether there should be more austerity or fewer austerity. Some want more highly qualified people entering Denmark and others do not want more foreigners with a non-Western background in Denmark. There is thus a lot of talk about foreigners in Denmark, but what we are not talking about is the impact it makes on people like me, who feel quite integrated, want Denmark and want to live and contribute to Denmark.
My purpose with the article is to share my experience as foreigner in Denmark. I have received a lot of help from ethnic Danes to be able to become integrated, but it is important to emphasize that when you move to a new country, you as a foreigner can only succeed with the integration if you are willing to take against the new rules of life and traditions. It is also equally important that the new country is also willing to accept their new citizen and respect its traditions, where these are not in conflict with Danish culture and legislation.
For me, a good integration is not about us all being similar to each other, or that you should be happy to get drunk or eat pork.
No, for me, good integration is that as a new citizen, you look at your new country, as a country where you are willing to invest in your future, and help to make a difference, with the hope that the new country will also invest in one. It is important that you have a feeling that you are welcome.
From male dominated to independent:
I came here, as I said, when I was twenty-one years old. My then husband was a refugees, he arrived to Denmark two years earlier. He just came to me one day and said he had to move and that he was leaving the following day. When I then followed him here after 2 years, I had two suitcases with clothes, shoes and other private belongings. When I arrived in Vejle, I found out that my husband lived in a collective. We lived eight people in a large house, with shared toilet and shower out in the garden. I was in shock when I saw where we were going to live. I came from a 5-room apartment of 150 m2. My first impression was: “Stop it! Are you poor in Denmark? ”I found out, however, that my then husband had chosen a hippies lifestyles, where he built all the furniture and bed from old pallets in the nearest activity house and that this was not the norm in Denmark.
I came from a very male-dominated society and had a hard time understanding that women could lie on the beach and in the parks with bare breasts and sunbathe. Just the fact that the women went without bras was inconceivable to me. People were open about their sexual desires and kissed and touched each other in public. It was unheard of in my home country. And I was deeply envious! In Iran, one could not do the slightest thing without people starting to talk. In Iran, as a woman, you could not go outside a door without doing a lot of yourself, but here in Denmark, women could go out in jogging pants without makeup. In Iran, I was dependent on what our neighbors and strangers thought of me, here I could be free from that kind of claim. However, It has been my choice in Denmark to not walk without a bra or sunbathe topless or walk in jogging pants on the street 😊, but I enjoy that it is my choice and not gossip that controls me.
I understood that women in Denmark were much more independent, and I wanted to be independent as a Danish woman. I made some really good Danish friends. They taught me a lot about what was Danish. I was still dependent on my then husband financially (I thought he supported me, but it was the municipality he got the money from — also my newcommer benefit). To become self-employed, I had to learn to support myself.
It's been about me having to look at my successes. Especially the little ones, like finding my way to the local gym (google did not exist at the time) or just learning a new Danish word that gave me the courage to communicate more. These small successes gave me courage and got me into the 9th grade with danes, where I was there only because of my willpower, as I only understood thirty percent of what was going on around me, but still completed with a nice average.
I was divorced from my husband when my daughter was only 4 months old, and I want lucky that I was given a home by the municipality. I started studying and went to high school and later, when I started university, I got a special benefit from the municipality so I could take care of my studies while I was alone with my little daughter. I fought myself to be able to become independent, but I can not express enough that I got a lot of help from the municipality and especially Danes who were willing to take me in and show me how Danish society and culture worked.
I have retained the parts of my culture that I feel I can take with me and that do not slow me down in my own development, but it has been difficult to adjust from the fact that others have made the decisions for me to that I have taken control in my own life.
I think much of the harsh rhetoric that characterizes the foreigners debate today is rooted in uncertainties and misunderstandings. It is very easy to give a wrong impression if you confuse "Contribution" with "Deception". I'm pretty sure the employee I once had to say goodbye to did not have the dearest thoughts of me when, after finishing service, I thanked him for his deception. 😉 You know, "Contribution in danish is Bidrag, and deception in Danish is bedrag", just a small misspelling, made ashitstorm in the company. NOT GOOD.
There are, of course, quite clear cultural differences and where a way of communicating in Iran is quite common, it can be seen in Denmark as inappropriate or directly rude. I had to spend a lot of time learning not to interrupt. Danes find it very insulting, but in Iran and other Middle Eastern countries it is simply the way you communicate and I have, when I have interrupted, not had an intention to insult, but thought that people got mad at me by others causes. I have also, for Danish companies, learned to wait to eat until it was said: "Værsgo". I I was used to eating when the food was served without waiting for others or the host to sit down.
In my experience, you do not say things straight out in Denmark. It is said, for example. not that it is considered rude to start eating without being offered. Instead, I have heard several Danes say: "Can't you wait?". Another misconception you can come across is that in Iran you spend four to five hours making and preparing the food nicely, but a maximum of minutes to eat it. In Denmark you cook the food and can spend hours at the table. I think it's really nice and good for the community to sit and be together about the food, but at first I was terribly impatient and annoyed over the long dinners and thought: "Do those people nothing but eat!" I considered it well-being.
These small misunderstandings can make one give up. In the example of interrupting, I could think that the person did not like me. Because I experienced that this one got annoyed with me and withdrew for both this and future conversations with me.
Another big difference between the Danish culture and the one I come from is that you do not directly deny someone who comes and asks for help, their help. In Iran, you have great honor and when you finally ask for help, it is because you really need it. If the person you ask does not have the desire or opportunity, then you make a negotiation about the scope of the help. You never just say "No". It would be highly arrogant and insulting, but here in Denmark you say, perhaps a little apologetically, a blank "No", if for one reason or another you do not have the opportunity. I have often become very angry about getting a direct "No" and felt very rejected!
I have with the small misunderstandings with big consequences had to think a lot about what had gone wrong. It's all too easy to think that the person who, seemingly unfounded, distances himself from one is xenophobic. It is far too easy to think that it is not due to a misunderstanding, but that something is "happening" in the other.
One of the funniest misconceptions was in the context of a release at Nokia. We had to work overtime and "Smørrebrød" were ordered for everyone. I thought it sounded pretty boring with "Smørrebrød". I therefore ordered a salad. When we got the food, I sat drooling over the nice "Smørrebrød" and looked quite disappointed at my own boring salad. You know, I thought the others ordered bread with butter 😉 There was a lot of laughter around the table, and since then I have been a big fan of open the "Smørrebrød".
One of the most tedious misunderstandings occurred with one of my bosses at work. I had my mother, my sister-in-law and my nephews visiting me in Denmark. It was after the divorce and I had bought a small apartment in Vanløse. Too small apartment for 5 people, but very nice to have them visiting me and my daughter. I needed a lot of love from the family side. There was a party in Nokia and during the lunch break, one of the leaders I was referring to was sitting next to me. He asked if I wanted to join the party and I said I would rather be with my family because they were leaving the week after, he looked at me in surprise, then he told me, have they been with you for 3 months? Then I said yes, they have. He started laughing and looked at the others at the table sitting next to us and said! "Yes, those who perk up, they come from miserable conditions, and when they come to Denmark they do not want to leave again". I was so shocked, and could not believe what I had just heard. I went home quite upset and told my mother she was boiling over with anger. She came from a 250 sqm apartment to 65, just to be there for me. I needed family love after my breakup with my ex. I chose to confront my boss the next day. He was of course very upset, and told me that he wanted to be funny, and he could retrospectively well see that there was nothing funny about what he had said. Of course, he apologized many times.
Uncertainties lead to frustrations. I do not need to explain that it is very easy to feel insecure when you dump into a foreign culture, as the Danish was for me.
When you move to a new country and say goodbye to all your friends and family, you are so hungry to find some kind of compensation, you are very vulnerable, and everyone who is kind to you is considered your family or friends.
The big question then is whether one is accepted both as a human being, a woman and as a foreigner.
In Iran, family is incredibly important and that makes the loss very strong. So of course I was looking for relationships as a replacement for my family. However, it can be extremely difficult, is my experience, as Danes immediately seem very closed. And with my background, it seems very demotivating and could easily make me give up trying. Fortunately, I have understood how to ask the right questions to the right people and I have slowly learned that in Denmark you take things more calmly, and that you approach at a calm pace if you can approach a human being. The direct style makes most people withdraw a little and you can feel rejected.
It is far too easy to get the mindset that it is just because you are a foreigner and that you still do not have a chance, but it is here that you as a foreigner have a great job in learning to think differently and take one defeat in his search for relationships one after the other so as not to end up as someone who only deals with other foreigners and never manages to integrate. I myself was about to fall into that trap because my new-husband had fallen into it, but I wanted something else and as soon as I got divorced from him, I started to build my Danish relationships.
It has worked well for me and I did not give up and it gave me the courage to also try to find acceptance in the men's world and have fought a long and hard battle to be accepted as a woman and respected for my competencies in a leading position as a computer engineer.
To fit in:
As a foreigner, it has been my continuing struggle to prove that I fit into the herd and that I am just a human being like everyone else and one of them, and I am here to make a difference. That I am as good as my Danish colleagues, that I am as good a leader as the other colleagues, that I am as good a mother as all the other mothers and so on. But it's hard, because it does not happen too rarely that I feel rejected because I have a different skin color or am a woman. But every time, I force myself to think that I am the only one who voluntarily chooses to step into that prison and I am definitely the only one who can break out of that prison again. I can easily be Danish without eating pork or celebrating Christmas. On the other hand, I can easily celebrate Christmas and be Iranian.
I do celebrate Christmas. When my daughter was little, I participated in all the activities in the kindergarten and school with her. She should not feel that she was a foreigner, she should feel that she was as Danish as the other children. One day she came home and asked: "Mother, why does" Lullemand/means jule mand = Santaclaus "not come to our house?" She was three or four years old and could not say "Julemand/Santa Claus". Yes, I sat and thought about it, and it dawned on me that Christmas in Denmark is a tradition that is about being there for each other. So of course "Lullemanden/julemand/santa" was welcome in the future. And we've been celebrating Christmas since and my now grown daughter is still getting Advent gifts.
So in order to be accepted as a foreigner in Denmark, I felt that I had to fight. I have struggled with my own culture and the ideas I had about how the world was connected here in Denmark. I have struggled with my insecurities and my need to be recognized. I have struggled to understand Danish and the Danish culture. But I have done it. I feel Danish, or Iranian-Danish. With my own strength and the help of others who have shown me that people are people despite their skin color and cultural background, I have fought and created a dignified life for myself.
Eg. when I went to high school I broke my ankle and everyday life became impossible with an infant on my arm, but what happened then: The daycare mother came and picked up my daughter and took her to the kindergarten, and my classmates picked me up in a shopping cart and drove me to school and they carried me up and down between the floors. It was people who helped people.
Of course, there are many who have helped me on my path, and each time I have felt happy, and I am grateful that I have experienced it. And glad I can pass on my story.
I would not be successful either with my education or my jobs if it were not for the lovely and wonderful people I have met on my way. In addition to being surrounded by the world's most beautiful family and friends, I can thank:
- The elderly lady from Jehovah's Witnesses in Vejle who became a father to me
- My social worker in Vejle, who helped me with my first home.
- The schoolmates in 9th grade - adult education in Vejle
- My Danish teacher and the principal while I was studying GIF.
- My first manager who believed in me and gave me my first job.
- Jan, who gave me my first managerial job.
- Jesper, who has been my mentor since 2004.
- Ludmila, who showed me the amazing world of self-development.
- My doctor. When I came home from Greenland, I got a lot of help from my doctor, who went personally in the case, and was there for me as a mother.
- And the list goes on.
I mostly feel like I do not have a different skin color or other cultural background. I'm just a human being, with some good relationships. Of course I fit in and I am accepted. I choose to focus on that.