Initially, I intended to end this blog with my “Farvel Danmark” post but I wanted to give myself some time to process my transition back to the U.S.   I definitely have experienced waves of reverse cultural shock but it has all made me reflective of my own country and culture.   And I think many of my friends have probably become pretty annoyed with me comparing everything back to Denmark.  I guess that is all a part of living there for a year, the enchantment of having discovered a small country and feeling like it was my home.

As I am preparing for another world adventure, this will be my last blog post.  I have enjoyed sharing my experiences in Denmark.  So bare with me as I put on my philosopher hat and share with you 3 life lessons that living in Denmark has taught me:

  1. Live within your means.  As I reflected on this principle, I was immediately met with the challenge of the American Dream.  Initially, I would argue that the American Dream meant striving for economic independence and the opportunity for social advancement through thrift, hard work, and financial gain.   Now is has come to mean, finding a way to instant wealth!  Ultimately, in a capitalist society meaning that life is almost ruled by money and assets such as having a big house and nice car is what separates the successful from those who are not.  This is not to say that there are not threads of this thinking in Denmark but I think for many Danes, life is about being content with having (at the very least) your basic needs met.  Therefore, living within your means doesn’t mean denying yourself of what you feel might make you happy but it’s learning to separate your needs from your wants by satisfying your wants when your needs have been met.  I guess now I can see that maybe having a big car or house isn’t really necessary. Maybe with a change in focus on living within what you already have and not just the pursuit of acquiring luxurious assets, maybe many Americans could save more.
  2. Work to live and don’t just live to work.  Try to find a balance between work (be it a job or school) and make time for yourself, family, friends, and/or leisure.  Most jobs end by at least 4pm in Denmark and that means people are usually on their way home to spend time with family or friends.  There are 24 hours in a day.  8 hours would be ideal for sleeping, 8 hours for work, and technically you should have 8 hours left for whatever.  If you’ve worked 7-8 hours already, why go home and work more?
  3. Humor has the power to counteract some of life’s worst situations.  Danes have a way of adding humor to every aspect of life.  Although, it takes some getting used to, I’ve come to appreciate it.  So learn to laugh more and see the lighter sides of things.  Maybe we should learn to live life with no regrets because a good day gives you happiness and a bad day gives you experience!

So in conclusion, I just wanted to thank all the people that have read, followed, and commented on my blog.  I always welcome different perspectives as they help me expand my understanding of U.S. and Danish differences but also allow me to become aware of my own biases.  Thanks Denmark for the incredible life lessons!

I have now been back in the U.S. about a little over a month and every part of me, feels as though I was plucked from Denmark before my time.  As I try to re-establish a routine and re-adapt to the U.S. lifestyle that I left behind for a year in Denmark, I can’t help but feel like I’m having an outer-body experience.  I keep noticing things such as the obesity epidemic in the U.S. maybe because of the use of high fructose corn syrup in almost every food product (even food products such as applesauce) and how culturally, eating healthy is still like a vice.  Still there is a strong focus on living a lavish and extravagant lifestyle (so indicative of what many perceive of as the end result of the American dream), pushing them to live beyond and not within their means.  And most of all the visibility of the low-income/poor class, so indicative of the growing gap in wealth within American socio-economic classes.  Not that I didn’t notice these things before, but now I have an outside frame of reference that almost makes these experiences seem uncanny to me.

But, I can also smile as I notice the biking lanes that have been implemented in St. Louis and people are slowly taking a liking to it.  Although, I know it will probably take some time since most of the bikers here really stand out with biking attire, consisting of everything from biker shorts to helmets as though they are competing in the Tour de France.  When in Denmark I became accustomed to bikers ruling the streets, babies riding in the back of bike seats, women riding bikes while wearing dresses, or men in business suits, as biking has become an everyday way of life.

Each day, as I try to re-adjust to American lifestyle, I can’t help but to really look at my hometown with a fresh set of eyes, wondering how much do I really know about my own hometown.  You know how you can live in a place for years, get so use to it and then not really know much as you thought you did about it?  Oddly, I don’t even feel attached to my hometown!

There are still challenges with even applying my public health studies, the study area of my Fulbright research.  I felt so empowered from the high quality classes that I had taken about how to improve health for populations.  But now I realize just how difficult it is to apply my public health knowledge from Denmark to just the lifestyle of my own family.

I’ve noticed that in terms of healthy eating, it isn’t that people don’t necessarily want to eat healthy it’s just for many with the already tight squeeze of finances spending a bit extra on something healthy doesn’t seem cost-effective, beneficial, and/or isn’t even a top priority.  It’s more like, why buy wheat or whole grain bread for just a little bit more when I can buy white bread and apply that little bit more to a future bill payment.  This is the reality that I realize I live in (as I can only speak for myself).  Then, I begin to think about the high taxation of Denmark, how it feels so justified with all of the welfare benefits that the Danes receive, universal healthcare, paid higher education, and overall just a high quality of living.

I don’t know if I could quite call all of this reverse cultural shock.  It’s not that I am looking down on the U.S., I just seem to notice all the subtle intricacies of American culture or my life that I either took for granted or had become so accustomed to, that it wasn’t any need for me to be conscious of it.  In many ways, it feels like I didn’t just leave behind friends in Denmark but it feels like I left behind an extended family!  I really miss you, Copenhagen!

I am sure that this phrase haunts the many that have decided to move to another country.  It is the words that produce the feeling of you don’t belong, so just go back to where you came from.  No matter where you live there will always be good or bad, positive of negative issues with your environment.  Just because you are living in another country doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t be able to express the challenges or problems that you might face.  Speaking about your challenges, doesn’t mean you are necessarily verbally attacking the country that you are in, but it is acknowledging that this is something that might be difficult for you.  It provides an opportunity to create discussion and analyze how your situation be changed.  In fact, it could even show how invested you are in the country, based on the fact that you have so much to say.

I’ve heard this said to so many people in Denmark and even to me and it’s such an unfair statement.  Not everyone completely loves the place that they are from or wants to continue their life in their home country, and some for many different factors have been forced to leave their home country (such as refugees, asylum seekers, or other groups of migrants).  Everyone has a voice and ideally should be able to use it, within reason of course and hopefully with some reflection that words have consequences and we are accountable for what we say.

On the other hand, I am aware of those that move to a country and do nothing but complain and focus on all the negative aspects.  This is not to excuse those that are guilty of such behavior.  But with an increasing globalized world, many countries are experiencing demographic changes which undoubtedly will bring about challenges with co-existing with people that you probably are not use to (culturally speaking).  So, the next time you think about telling someone, “If you don’t like it then go back to your own country… ”, at least try to understand their perspective.

Initially, I had plans to extend my stay in Denmark after the completion of my Fulbright year.  I was accepted into the University of Southern Denmark in Esbjerg and was pretty sure that everything would work out.  However, non-EU students have to pay approx. 10, 200 EURO (75, 000 DKK) per year and in Denmark there is definitely not a large degree of funding as in the U.S.   With the relatively late application deadline (disqualifying me from major scholarships and grants)  and non-allocation of funds to my subject for this year, it was quite challenging to raise the funding.  My back-up plan was to apply for U.S. federal funding as one would usually do for their studies, but unfortunately the University of Southern Denmark doesn’t have a federal code, blocking any attempts to find a way to receive U.S. federal funding to complete my Masters.  Therefore, my “chance” to extend my stay in Denmark did not quite work out.  However, I say this all with a smile because I would not take away any of the experiences or personal growth that has occurred this year.

Even though I studied abroad in Copenhagen in 2008 for a semester, coming back last year in 2010 was a totally different experience.  This time I had an idea of how the Danish society works but I realized that I only had a surface level understanding.  As a Copenhagen Youth Ambassador, I’ve learned that Denmark is difficult to market because it is a “lifestyle experience”, something you have to actively engage in or live the life to appreciate or make sense of why people like to study, work, and/or live here.  Before, it was always difficult to define what makes Denmark, Denmark!   After this year, I can understand why.

So, I’d like to briefly discuss some but not ALL of the big topics that I seem to have always found myself discussing while in Denmark.  This is not intended to go in much detail but just to provide some food for thought.

Religion
In Denmark the official religion is Lutheran-Protestant.  I’ve always been fascinated that in Denmark (church and state are not separate) yet it’s still a relatively secular society; whereas in the US. (church and stare are separate) and we are still very much a religious or spiritual society.  However, it seems that in Denmark, God (in the Christian sense) is perceived as an antiquated idea that is overshadowed by humanism and scientific thought.  Thus, creating an overall feeling that some Danes might think that Danish society has transcended the very notion of God.

Politics
Politics in Denmark and the U.S. are also quite interesting.  First, a huge distinction must be made.  Socialism has such a negative connotation in the U.S.; it’s been quite amusing when people have to said to me, welcome back to capitalism now that I’m back in the U.S.  But what I’ve noticed is a huge misunderstanding in Americans about socialism in Denmark.  I think many Americans think that socialism and communism is the same thing.  But I must say that Denmark is a social democracy.  On a scale progressing from liberal to conservative, Danish politics would almost always be to the far left of the U.S. political scale because every one of the 9 major Danish political parties are in favor of the welfare state (socialism), they just disagree or vary on how it should be implemented.

Humor
Danish culture seems to be riddled with humor that has a very dark nature.  Danes can easily find a way to make a touchy topic into something funny, especially something like death.  One time at a BBQ picnic, a couple of friends and myself were all talking about the windy weather and all the debris that was flying around in the air, and a Danish friend replies, just imagine if the picnic shade just blew away and impaled me.  Everyone kind of just paused, trying to erase the gruesome image that we collectively thought about, but then we all couldn’t stop laughing.

However, a contradiction might exist.  If you make fun of Danish culture, you might be quickly reprimanded.  It’s almost like Danish humor works best on other topics but not so much when it’s applied to their own culture.  It’s almost like in criticizing Danish culture, you are brutally attacking them and they can feel the physical pain (I say this of course, with humor).  It could be the small country mentality that creates a strong sense of insularity and nationalistic pride, thus warranting the need to protect what is already so small and is seeking to maintain its survival.

Janteloven
If you want to learn about Danish culture then you should definitely be aware of Jantelov.  The Janteloven or “the law of Jante” was first coined in 1933 by the Danish writer Aksel Sandemose, which is about 10 “unwritten or secret codes” in Danish society that helps create egalitarianism or an unchanging, collective mentality.

  1. Don’t think that you are special.
  2. Don’t think that you are of the same standing as us.
  3. Don’t think that you are smarter than us.
  4. Don’t fancy yourself as being better than us.
  5. Don’t think that you know more than us.
  6. Don’t think that you are more important than us.
  7. Don’t think that you are good at anything.
  8. Don’t laugh at us.
  9. Don’t think that anyone of us cares about you.
  10. Don’t think that you can teach us anything.

In essence it could mean that people are not supposed to consider themselves better than anyone else.  For example, students who win awards should not brag about it, grades such as a 7 on the Danish scale or a C on an American scale, for most academic disciplines, is considered really good because it means you are relatively in the middle.  Janteloven may act as a leveling mechanism to keep a flat hierarchy and to preserve egalitarianism in Denmark but I’ve noticed a contradiction.  Many Danes on the outside don’t want to be perceived as any better than their fellows but on the inside, most Danes actually seem to think they are very special.  Or as a Danish friend put it, we all think we’re special, instead of saying it ourselves, we just like for other people to say it.

Cultural Exchange
My whole year as a Fulbright Research Fellow was supposed to be about cultural exchange.  It’s a funny notion to me now, because I thought cultural exchange was about changing someone’s opinion about your own culture.  But you learn that it is more about learning to agree to disagree.  It’s realizing that everyone won’t approach cultural exchange the same way that you do because not all cultural exchange is visible.

Being open-minded doesn’t mean dispelling all of your beliefs so that you can keep yourself open to new beliefs or perspectives.  That’s actually almost impossible because no matter how open you are, you still have your own core values and because of our faculty to judge as human beings we will always be biased by nature.  Cultural exchange is then, choosing to respect while trying to understand.  Respecting and understanding does not mean you always have to agree. Disagreements as well as agreements are essentially a part of the cultural exchange learning process.

Overall, although, I’m continuing to look for work in Europe with hopes of getting a Work Visa, until I can figure out how to finish my Masters, I have really enjoyed my year in Denmark, the good and the bad, the positive and the negative.  So until then: Farvel Danmark!  Jeg håber snart til at komme tilbage.

Some of the things that are so desirable to many about Denmark is the relaxed lifestyle with a focus on family and friends, biking as a main source of transportation and a great way to experience the city, and the tropical weather. Well, maybe not the weather, consisting of gray skies, gusty winds, and rain.

But one of the major attractions that I have heard the most about is Danish jobs.  Danes work about an average of 37 hours per week with a minimum of 5 weeks’ vacation plus national holiday.  Liberal employment regulations, a broad net of social security and a pro-active labor market policy are all combined under what can best be described as flexicurity.  Although, a 37 hour work week might be the norm, the career oriented might tend to work more. In the U.S., besides a handful of national holidays, the typical American worker might get anywhere from 2 to 3 weeks out of the whole year for vacation and most of the times there are strings attached.  Some U.S. companies might not like for employees to take more than 1 week off at a time or expect employees to be relatively on call.

A big reason for this major difference is that employers are not obligated under federal law to offer any paid vacation, so more than 25% of American workers (based on government figures) don’t even have access to it.  However, in Denmark, paid time off is mandated by law.  So with all of this in mind, I think that Danes work to live and Americans live to work.

Last month, I attended a Work in Denmark seminar about the Danish workplace, since I am looking for job opportunities in Denmark.  And the speaker described his first experience with a Danish job, in which he had a very similar work mentality of the U.S. mentality that working long hours per day is a measure of ambition, success and drive.  So when he first received his job in Denmark, he said he worked to about 7pm one night while every Dane at the office went home by 4pm at the latest.  So the next morning, he said he sort of bragged about having worked so late and his Danish employees were actually not impressed.  Why?  Because of the construction of the work life in comparison to life, one is supposed to create a balance, meaning you still work hard but efficiently so that by 4pm you have time for family, friends, and leisure.  Working longer than the typical Danish work day, might actually be interpreted as not being efficient enough within your allotted work hours and that you have the potential to become a costly employee!  In Denmark, balance and moderation are highly honored values.  This would mean that ideally (and in practice) you are supposed to center your work around your life and not so much the other way around.  You are supposed to make time for family, friends, and leisure.

However, in the U.S., many Americans are faced with the fear of layoffs and the increasing pace of work which would mean that many American might be a bit reluctant to take time off.  This could be because of anxiety that they are not committed to their job or worry about dealing with the backlog of work that will be waiting for them after vacation.  Also, based on a study in the Journal of Happiness Studies (http://www.springerlink.com/content/33078107768v8044/),  working actually makes Americans happier than Europeans because Americans believe more than Europeans that hard work is associated with success!

Lastly, I think the attainment of the American Dream, as a way to sum up our national ethos is still very much a driving factor for many Americans.  And work is the way to achieve this dream, which is not something I have come across in Danish culture.  Denmark has one of the highest employment rates, so it is not that Danes are lazy and don’t like to work, it’s just that work life is taken in moderation. But based on welfare structure, the U.S. has a liberal residual welfare model (but in practice is more pluralistic) which would mean you only get welfare assistance if you really need it.  In Denmark, because of the high taxes, ranging from 40-60% which essentially helps maintain the universal welfare state, even the unemployed receive a high level of benefits as well as comprehensive retraining for new jobs.

Therefore, the welfare state in Denmark produces a sense of security and comfort that the U.S. does not have in terms of unemployment.  Even maternity leave is about 12 months (paid) and paternity leave is an option.  Overall, it seems to me that if you were to take a step back from the U.S. and Denmark, Danes work to live meaning work is meant to be scheduled around one’s life while Americans live to work meaning that life tends to be scheduled around one’s job.  However, based on each country’s welfare models and socio-cultural values this might be quite relative.  Could the U.S. learn something from Denmark and could Denmark learn something from the U.S.?  What do you think?

Earlier this month, I had my first Danish oral exam in my class, Refugee and Immigrant Health.  In Denmark, oral exams are used as a method to test the students’ knowledge and ability to understand and expound upon the readings in light of the core objectives related to the course.  It is a very common testing method compared to papers, mid-terms, or oral exams in the U.S.

So, oral exams are usually 20-25 minutes in length.  First, I walked in and was asked to pick a question, read it out loud and then confirm that I understood the question.  After that, I was asked to sit down and was introduced to the external censor.  A piece of paper was provided for me to jot down my thoughts.  Next, I gave a short presentation on the question I had chosen.  After that, the course lecturer then asked questions that tested the breadth of my knowledge surrounding the question.  I didn’t feel like it was a grilling session but more of a conversation and a chance for me to express my understanding of the course.  After what felt like eternity but was only like 15 minutes, I was asked to leave the room while the lecturer and external censor discussed my grade.  After about 5 minutes I was asked to re-enter the room and was given my grade and the rationale behind my grade!

My first impressions were oh God, I am about to be grilled for 20 minutes, what if I choose a topic that isn’t my strongest area?  Actually, I did choose a question that wasn’t my strongest area but the main point of this oral exam is not that you know all the answers but that you’ve taken the time to reflect on the readings in light of the course objectives.  Also, if I didn’t know something I would take the question to an area that I was familiar with.  If I wasn’t too sure about a question, the lecturer would ask a question that would help me to continue contributing to the oral exam. So it was really designed to be conversational.

You aren’t talking the whole 20-25 minutes, that time span includes walking in, choosing a question, giving your presentation on the topic, being asked questions about your short presentation, and the discussion of your grade.  Unlike having multiple coursework or exams throughout the semester in the USA, in Denmark the oral exam is your final and only grade.  It was definitely a different experience and it teaches you to articulate your thoughts about the course.  Overall, I think I could get used to oral exams.

It’s amazing how fast time has passed in my time in Copenhagen as a Fulbright student.  I’ve been here for 9 months and have learned so much about myself, about Denmark and perceptions of the U.S. on a global level.  I’ve now pretty much decided to stay in Denmark a bit longer.  First, I would like to finish my education and hopefully get a job.  I’ve been battling this decision for quite some time in light of all the media attention about immigrants coming to Denmark.  Every time I’ve read a new article, it’s been something about immigration in Denmark, whether it’s about non-Western immigrants taking advantage of the welfare state or how the new points system is unjustly weeding out skilled workers that Denmark actually needs. Undoubtedly, the media plays a large role into what we are informed about but also how we might react to what we are informed about.  I have mixed feelings about the Danish points system but I digress from really taking a stance on it.

I’ve spent much time, looking through the Immigration Website to see what are some of my options for extending my stay/moving to Denmark and it can actually be quite confusing.  You are either stuck between the feeling of being in a society that does not want you here or being afraid of applying for the wrong type of permit and ultimately losing a decent amount of money, especially for a student.  So after checking the website, I decided to check things out for myself and visit the Immigration Service Centre to navigate through some of the confusion.

Upon entering, I noticed all types of people and most appeared to be non-Western immigrants.  But that was only from my own biases of what someone who belongs to the non-Western immigrant group might look like.  I mean sometimes, I’ve been even classified as a non-Western immigrant (not that it is a bad thing to be called a non-Western immigrant, as it seems to carry a negative undertone sometimes in Denmark) until I’ve said I’m from the U.S.   But I can say, most were not people who would be perceived as ethnic Danes.

From the picture that the media has depicted of the Immigration Services and all the controversy, I really expected rude customer service and people who probably wouldn’t be that helpful because they just want to get foreigners out of the country.  But from observation and experience alone, I experienced something completely different.  The customer service representatives were friendly and helpful to everyone.  The guy at the Information desk basically walked me through what I was and was not eligible to apply for and then gave me the correct forms, as I watched him do the same for every person before and after me.  This also applied to the other lines that I could see or the Danish that I could understand.  The guy even cracked a joke, dredged in typical Danish humor.

Maybe it was the combination of expecting something only to have a completely different experience or that I just wanted to feel welcomed despite everything that the media keeps saying about the state of immigrant affairs in Denmark.  We can easily blame the media but we must also keep in mind that the media is not a monolithic force, it can very much be a reflection of society, be it some or most of society.  That part, I am definitely not ignoring.  I do know that I experienced friendly and helpful Service Centre Representatives at the Immigration Office and that totally made me feel a bit more at ease about the Danish society compared to what I’ve been constantly reading about in the Danish newspapers.  I only hope this continues to be characteristic of my experience as I continue through this process.