Posts Tagged ‘Danish culture’

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!


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.

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 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.

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.

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.

Yesterday, I walked into a Danish sandwich shop and at first I thought I’d just order it in English.  But I’ve been to this sandwich shop before and I promised the person fixing my sandwich that the next time I came by, I would order in Danish.  So, I walked in and she had actually remembered my promise from about 2 months ago.  At first, I was a bit hesitant but it was about time that I put, “Jeg vil gerne have” (I would like…) to use.  So, I went for it and what transpired was actually a good moment.

I was actually able to order my sandwich and work my way through the payment, all in Danish.  We didn’t switch to English and I didn’t get a “Hva’” or “Hvad siger du?”  This may not seem like a big deal but for me it was truly a confidence booster. At this stage of learning Danish it’s all about learning the grammar, definitely the pronunciation and listening, but most importantly building confidence.

After the year 1864 in the Second War of Schleswig when Denmark suffered a series of defeats and territory losses that reduced it to its current size now, Denmark has been strongly focused on preserving its culture, its national identity, its welfare state and most of all its language. When putting the population size into perspective, Denmark is a country of about 5.5 million people and maybe 95% of the people speak English.  Danish only really needs to be learned if you plan on living in Denmark for an extended period of time.  So you’re constantly battling with the question of, should I even learn Danish?

My reply is, yes.  I think learning Danish is a gateway into the culture.  Danish is a straightforward language riddled with dry humor.  Compared to English, I don’t think Danish has that many words.  But, when comparing English to Danish, I think English is quite metaphorical and can sometimes tend to not be as straightforward or specific. For example, the Danes have four different words for “to think”, (at mene, at tro, at tænke, and synes).  I mean how specific can you get?  And trying to distinguish between the four verbs can sometimes be quite challenging.  I think when I figure those four words out and how to effectively use my glottal stop, I will have mastered Danish.  🙂

What yesterday’s experience taught me was that many foreigners learning Danish could benefit from more Danes that are willing to give them the opportunity to practice.  Many foreigners learning Danish actually love to practice but keep encountering Danes that keep replying back in English or have the belief that one should either speak Danish 100% correct or don’t speak it at all.  I’m sure many of the foreigners that are learning Danish have experienced, the notorious “Hva’ ” or “Hvad siger du?”, that just makes you feel like you are never saying anything right.   But as one that is actively learning Danish, I’ve learned 3 practicing tips in helping to build confidence in this stage of learning.

  1. If you want to avoid, a “Hva” or “Hvad siger du?”, try to speak up a bit more.  Sometimes when you think you might pronounce the sentence incorrectly, one has the tendency to speak softly.  Therefore, it might not always be that you have said the word incorrectly.  Sometimes, speaking with confidence helps build confidence.
  2. Don’t always feel bad about speaking slowly; the rule of thumb has been it’s better to pronounce the words correctly than to try to just say them quickly to prove your proficiency.  What I’ve discovered is that although Danes know English they are usually pretty self-conscious when they have to use it.  So, putting this into perspective, you’re just two self-conscious people trying to find the best way to communicate with each other.
  3. Until you have built up your confidence start with, “Jeg vil prøve at tale dansk….” which means “I will try to speak Danish…”  This helps prepare the Danish person, so they can know that you’re practicing Danish and most find it quite exciting that you would even take the time out to learn their language.

Overall, this is just a beginner’s advice as I am only in Studieskolen, Module 2.2.  Of course the obvious key to all of this is to practice as much as possible but I think often the confidence building part of learning Danish is sometimes missing.  Even as I am giving this advice, I still have to remember to apply it to myself. J

Imagine you’re cycling through a city consisting primarily of 17th and 18th century buildings that produce a cozy and intimate atmosphere.  Everywhere you look, there are cafes and authentic Danish bakeries.  You see small kids walking around in their onesies.  Outside of the stores, are baby carriages left unattended while the parents are inside shopping.  Today is a lucky day, because the sun shines vibrantly in the sky, piercing through the grayness you’ve become so accustomed to.  As you cycle, you see nature and parks incorporated into the city life. Right in the center of the city by one of the most popular train stations, sits the Botanical Garden.  Even more, you see lakes that as the sun beams in the sky produce scenery that is bound to be displayed on a postcard.  In the middle of the lakes are snow-white swans, perched so elegantly in the half-frozen lakes, making you think of H.C. Andersen’s fairytale of the Ugly Duckling.

Next, you try to find street signs, only to discover they are on the corners of the buildings and many have different vowel sounds (æ,ø,å) that you can’t even begin to pronounce.  You want to speak to the people as you would do in a typical American city, only to discover they’re actually quite self-reserved.  Also, the people are very fashionable and black seems to be the most favorite color.

You continue your bike trip all the way to the extravagant Amalienborg Palace where the Royal Family is housed. As you cycle through, you try to get the Royal Guards to break focus and look at you.  Good luck with that. Eventually, you ride by a woman with a fish tale perched on a stone quite close to the shore and you flash back to your childhood where this statue is a Disney classic in American pop culture.  But as you continue to cycle around you see statues situated on top of buildings that one would have to really observe to become aware of.  You realize this city is like an enchanted fairy tale, where every building, every canal, every lake has some historical aspect to it that just sends you into a curious frenzy.  Even more, the buildings are vibrant colors and if you veer off main streets you eventually start riding down cobble stone streets making you feel like you’re living in the 17th century!  You eventually stop and realize the freedom riding through the city produces and the joy it incites from being able to explore the city at your own pace.

Describing Copenhagen to others can be a difficult task because as I’ve said before it’s a lifestyle experience.  You have to come to Copenhagen to experience the beauty within and the richness of culture that is so deeply entrenched into everyday life.  Copenhagen may not be the top city on everyone’s travel list and when you see the Little Mermaid, you think wow she’s kind of small.  Honestly, if she were bigger I wouldn’t think of it as a special Danish trademark, because keeping things small and moderate are also elements of Danish culture.

Every time, you go into a café you should expect candles in a dimly lit room, which are there to produce the Danish concept of hygge, which means “cozy”.  People will speak Danish to you, even if obviously you look like a foreigner.  Also, biking is such a huge part of the lifestyle here.  Every Danish person I know has a bike.  It’s healthy and a great way to get around/experience the city.  I think that Denmark definitely wants to attract tourists, but at the same time it manages to keep its originality.  Overall, Copenhagen has a small city appeal, but there is always something waiting to be discovered.  Therefore, to really appreciate what Copenhagen stands for, you have to actively engage yourself.  So in visiting, I challenge you to not only be captivated by the beauty but to also try to explore the lifestyle.

One of the biggest cultural shocks that I’ve had in Denmark, is how the Danes leave their babies outside!   They leave their babies outside when they go into the store or even when they are at home and this can even be in the winter!  In the winter, it isn’t like they leave the baby out in blizzards or anything, they usually have the baby wrapped really warm and in their insulated pram.  In the states, they would be charged with a long list of criminal charges ranging from child neglect to child endangerment.

But in Denmark, it’s totally okay for a baby to be left outside for a nap or outside the store while the parents are shopping.  The explanation that I’ve received is that it’s all about making sure the baby gets as much fresh air as possible.  I remember, when I first saw this I really wanted to walk up to the parents and tell them that they had left their baby outside!  But Denmark is safe in that regard and I haven’t heard of any cases of babies being kidnapped.

Also, in my limited interaction with Danish kids, the little kids are quite mature or independent.  I have yet to experience a Danish child having a temper tantrum in a store.  Also, I’ve witnessed little kids riding the Metro or biking by themselves.  I must wonder if this is because of the safety in the city of Copenhagen or just Danish culture in general?  It could be a combination of both.  However, I am very fascinated that babies can sleep outside, that the little kids can ride the bus by themselves and still be safe and it’s not a stigma or criminal offense in Danish society.

Oh Denmark, you continue to amaze me. 🙂

The whole month of December has felt like such a big preparation for Christmas day!  Some Danes also honor, what is called the “Advent” (pronounced El-vent in Danish), where the four Sundays leading up to Christmas there was a small gift to open.  All the streets were decorated with Christmas lights and other festive decorations such as stars or reindeer.  There was just so much of a vibe that Christmas was in the air.

So on Christmas day (celebrated December 24th here), we went to Frederik’s (one of my Danish roommates) house at around 3pm. Usually his family goes to church but there was also a broadcasted church showing that came on around 4pm. So the family sat in the living room and watched the televised church show, while we ate cookies and candies with tea and coffee. Before coming to the Christmas dinner, I even baked Cinnamon Roll cookies for everyone and I think everyone loved them! Well after the church show, we all just socialized and watched a bit of television.

Then EXACTLY at 6pm, dinner was ready and we began to eat. I stressed the 6pm, because apparently at 6pm EVERYONE in Denmark is having Christmas and usually eating the EXACT same thing, EVERY year without many divergences.

Dinner was as follows:
Flæskesteg (Roasted Pork Loin with a crackling top layer)
Andesteg (Roasted Duck, usually cooked with apple and prune stuffing)
Brun Sovs (A traditional dark gravy made from the meat drippings and used to cover the pork, duck, and boiled potatoes)
Boiled White Potatoes
Brunede kartofler – Potatoes cooked in caramelized sugar
Rødkål – Red cabbage that has been pickled, and has a sweet-sour taste

Risalamande med Kirsebærsauce – Rice pudding, served cold, made with rice, whipped cream and almonds and topped with a warm cherry sauce.
There is even a game involved with this dessert. So there were 2 whole almonds in the dessert and the point was to eat as much as possible so that you can get the almond. The person who finds the almond usually gets a small present. It’s a fun way to eat dessert!

After dinner and dessert, we all joined hands and sang around the Christmas tree, for about 15-20minutes! It was really funny because most had actually forgotten some of the words, but it was still a great time.  Then after singing around the Christmas tree, we all sat around in the living room and opened each gift, ONE by ONE.  Because it was 10 of us and a lot of gifts, this took about 2-3 hours!  Now this was definitely different for me. So instead of just rushing to the Christmas tree and ripping all the wrapping paper to shreds to see what you received for Christmas this added a very relaxed and appreciative aspect to Christmas. The whole point of the gift opening part was so that everyone could look at all the gifts that everyone has received and then maybe give an explanation for why they bought the gift. I loved looking at everyone’s faces as they opened the gifts and were usually happy with the gifts.

Now to be a bit reflective, I have to admit I had mixed feelings about the Danish Christmas. At the beginning of December, I felt like it was a bit too much because I thought it was about purchasing multiple, very expensive gifts. But this was really my bias from the commercialism that I am slightly annoyed with surrounding Christmas.  That is not to say it is not sometimes the same feeling here but from what I experienced, Christmas here was just something a bit different. In my family we usually have 1-2 big gifts, but I saw most families here receiving probably 6 gifts minimum per person. But to give this more context and perspective, the focus of the gifts wasn’t so much about the expensiveness.   It wasn’t like everyone went out and spent a fortune on multiple gifts, providing each person with the newest iPhone or iPad. Each gift was something thoughtful, usually necessary, and quite moderate in spending, that was more to send the feeling around of traditional gift sharing and family togetherness. Even more, this was about appreciating the gifts and the process that was put into making this a Christmas family event.

Christmas turned out to be just what I love about it so much: family togetherness, a time for joy/happiness, and best of all, good food!  I received really good gifts and it made me very happy to see the expression of everyone’s faces as they opened the gifts I bought for them.  Overall, I couldn’t have asked for a better Christmas in Copenhagen.

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So on December 15th, the Copenhagen Youth Ambassadors had our last meeting of the year. I have to say this has been a phenomenal experience.   It’s a combination of everything from the access to some of Denmark’s top companies along with the opportunity to network and just an inside view of what Denmark has to offer to the world. We discussed our roles as Youth Ambassadors and what we are expected to do in the following year. Our main responsibility is to promote Copenhagen/Denmark using our own networks, talents, and experiences. In essence this is a talent development program and we are charged with the task of using our talents to promote Denmark!  I very much look forward to connecting with my undergraduate college, the University of Copenhagen, or whomever to really market Copenhagen as a great place to work, live, and/or study.

On a personal level, the opportunities that the Youth Ambassador program has provided, has really made me appreciate living in another country.  I believe that studying abroad is more than just a “taking a vacation”. Sure it’s a great time to explore the world and then brag about all the places that you’ve visited. In a way that was me, 2 years ago. However, now things are changing. I’m back in Copenhagen for the second time, so obviously something is drawing me here.  I think this time I am here for a deeper appreciation of this small country’s lifestyle or culture in general. I am simply fascinated, not in a exoticizing sense, but truly fascinated by the culture here. It’s a combination of everything from the relatively high gender quality in society, being able to bike everywhere, the drive for renewable energy instead of using fossil fuels, a general health consciousness, the welfare state, and the list just goes on. In the Youth Ambassadors program we kept debating how could we really market Denmark and it’s very challenging because Denmark is really a lifestyle. It’s something you have to experience to really appreciate. You can stay at the surface of experiencing Danish culture or really dive in and try to make an effort to understand. One of the things I love to do is having a dialogue with Danes about Denmark, danishness, etc. This has really helped me get a broader and more nuanced perspective about Danish culture. Many times I notice contradictions and sometimes I notice similarities. That isn’t to say that Denmark doesn’t have many flaws. It’s known for its very tight immigration policies, not being open to foreigners, high taxes, and many other things. It’s just really easy to allow first impressions or even just what you’ve heard from other people to shade your view of Denmark, but you can either choose to experience for yourself or just look at this country from a very surface value.

So far, I think my Danish language skills are progressing at a fairly decent rate. Not only do I have to work on pronunciation, I have to really focus on intonation. It’s the intonation and stresses that prove to be the most challenging because we don’t have that as much in English. I also, have to learn to take the Dane’s reactions to me trying to speak Danish with a grain of salt. Nevertheless, it’s a fun challenge and comes with the package of coming to another country. Some things are only as difficult as you allow them to be. Okay I just wanted to write a short reflective piece of what Denmark has come to mean to me as a Fulbright researcher and as one who is trying to integrate himself into Danish culture.

Also, I’m officially on winter break so I’ll try to update my blog more often! 🙂

Lastly, since I’ve updated my blog a lot about the Copenhagen Youth Goodwill Ambassador program, feel free to check out the short video providing a snapshot of the program.