The Welfare State

Recently a few friends of mine were asking me a bit about the welfare state, so I thought I’d put down some of my thoughts here. As with most things, Norway’s comprehensive social welfare system comes with its pros and cons. Here are the ones that struck me the most.

Pros

People worry a lot less. Norwegians live in a society where they really don’t have to worry too much since the welfare system is there to help those who are struggling. No one in Norway really worries over things like current or future medical bills because if the unimaginable were to happen, it would either be taken care of or it would be affordable.

There aren’t very many visible signs of poverty in Norway. While there are beggars, they aren’t many of them (granted living up in Trondheim means that few beggars stick around for the 7 months or so of winter).* In the entire time that I’ve lived in Norway, I have rarely seen places that look run down, and, if I have, in Norway a run down house is one that hasn’t been given a new coat of paint in the last year (a ridiculously high standard). In other words, people are generally taken care of and there is a substantial middle class in Norway.

The possibility of earning a living wage combined with the welfare system contributes to Norwegians having a good work-life balance. Because people don’t need to worry about working three jobs just to survive, they can take time to relax and go on nice Sunday hikes. This system also means that people are able to do what they are genuinely passionate about. Talking to students in Norway has been fascinating since none of them worry about their future or their jobs. They know that regardless of what job they end up in, they’ll be fine. To quote one of my students, “It doesn’t matter if I end up being a garbage collector. If that’s what I really love to do, then it’ll be fine. My parents don’t really care where I end up in so long as I’m really passionate about it.” The freedom to do whatever it is you’re most passionate about is a luxury few people can afford, and it’s incredible to see how common it is in Norway.

Cons

The social welfare system is going to cost you. Having such great peace of mind does come with a price, and it’s a bit sobering to look at how it affects your paycheck.

People don’t appear to be quite as driven as we are in the States. In the US we talk about how the welfare system can stifle innovation, and I would say that it’s true up to a point. People feel comfortable with things in Norway, so they don’t necessarily feel the need to hustle like we do in the States, but a more relaxed environment doesn’t mean that great things don’t come out of Norway. Case in point, this year’s Nobel Prize winners in medicine were a Norwegian couple.

Overall, I think Norway does a great job with social welfare and has a model that really works well for its society. It’s a nation with a small population, great resources, and has a strong belief in equality. I think that whether or not you think the welfare system is good ultimately drives at a different question: who do you cater your society towards? Do you cater towards those who are less well off, those who are average, or those who are star individuals? And once you decide that, how do you try to balance that with the sacrifices each group has to make. In Norway, the answer is clear: you try to make things equal for everyone. While that may affect your star individuals the most, at the end of the day it seems as though Norwegians think it’s worth the cost.

*Interesting side note about beggars. If you ask most Norwegians about the welfare system they will say that everyone is taken care of. If you then ask them about beggars, many of whom are Gypsies, their response tends to be “Oh, well they aren’t taken care of because they aren’t Norwegian.” An interesting response, and one that is actually false. Gypsies technically have the right to Norwegian citizenship and are considered a special minority group.

Winding Roads, Flat Lands, and Dreary Skies

The next day we decided to tackle the second national tourist route, Jæren. While Ryfylke had directed us North, with Jæren we were headed South into Norway’s agricultural area. Now I’m used to seeing soaring mountains and towering peaks in Norway, so it was pretty strange to drive through the Norwegian heartland and not see a single mountain (granted it was raining so poor visibility might have had something to do with that). The sheep that we had seen on our Northern drive were replaced with fields, and, in one case, small trees that marked the beginning of a Christmas tree farm. Both Abby and I suspect that planting and harvesting happen later in Norway than in other countries, since it didn’t look like there was anything even beginning to sprout.

Not only does Jæren pass through one of the flatest parts of the country, it also passes by some of Norway’s most dangerous coast. The area is highly treacherous for ships, so while there are a number of beaches along the coast, there are also quite a few lighthouses. Although Abby and I did try and visit one of the lighthouses, it, as well as most of the sights along Jæren, was closed. Additionally, the weather was simply too miserable and rainy to really warrant getting out of the car and going for a quick adventure.

But we still managed to have a good time. We even managed to see one of the sights, Hitler’s teeth, largely from the warmth of our car. The “teeth” are cement blocks that were made during World War II to prevent the Allied forces from making landfall (see the second row of pictures).

IMG_3232  IMG_3231  IMG_3221IMG_3208  IMG_3210  IMG_3212Another stop at MingarWalker Glassblowing studio was actually a huge success. Abby was able to buy a wedding gift, and the local glassblower was incredibly helpful. We had originally planned to stop our drive at Ogna, the end of the tourist road; however, the glassblower advised us to continue past Ogna and on towards Tengs and Egersund. This ended up being great advice. The terrain slowly started to change and became more rocky and hilly, and of course was beautiful. To top things off, we even passed one old place that was modeled after an old American saloon.

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Our last notable stop was at Varhaug old cemetery. Our glassblower had told us that it was worth a stop since it has an incredibly quaint church on the premises. To give you a better idea of how small it is, it’s about 15 m² (161 ft²) and fits only 14 chairs. Lucky for us, we were the only visitors, so it wasn’t too cramped when we went. We even got to have some fun ringing the church bells.

IMG_3242  IMG_3236  IMG_3246IMG_3248  IMG_3241  IMG_3243After that we slowly made our way back to Stavanger. Thanks to the generosity of Heather, one of the Roving Scholars, we were able to use some of her accumulated hotel points to stay the night in Stavanger.

Once we arrived, our first task was to find the parking garage. We got directions from the hotel and then parked the car in what is by far one of the strangest car parks I’ve ever been to. The parking lot was solidly underground, and it also came with handy things like sinks. We speculated that it used to be a bunker, and sure enough after inquiring at the front desk we had our suspicions confirmed. Compared to most European countries, Norway doesn’t have many visible reminders of World War II, so it’s always a bit shocking to stumble upon something that shows the impact that it had on the country.
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The weather continued to be a bit dreary, and because it was a Sunday most things were closed when we walked around town. That being said, we still really enjoyed looking around. Compared to most Norwegian towns, Stavanger is filled with vibrant colors and quirky parks. Abby and I had a lot of fun playing in a playground next to the Norwegian Petroleum Museum. The park is made out of repurposed shipping tools, so we had fun bouncing along on buoys and crawling along old shipping pipes. One of the things we also enjoyed seeing was a memorial “DEDICATED TO THE MEN AND WOMEN OF NORWEGIAN BLOOD WHO HAVE CONTRIBUTED TO THE BUILDING OF AMERICA.” Stavanger even has a Norwegian Emigration Center that has an exhibit on Norwegian emigration to the United States.

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After that, we gratefully returned to our hotel and put our feet up. We felt like we were living the life of luxury by being in a hotel and having access to a TV. Neither Abby nor I has a TV in our student housing, so we had a lot of fun channel surfing and trying to decipher some of the Norwegian ads between our combined (and limited) Norwegian vocabularies. If you’d like to try it out, I’ve included the link to the one commercial that we did manage to figure out.

What we deduced is that this is an advertisement for Jarlsberg, one of the two big cheese brands in Norway (the other being Gulost). Things come to a head when the guy asks for Jarlsberg and is told that Gulost is fine since cheese is cheese. For the rest of the advertisement, the woman essentially says that “x is x” (even though it’s clearly not the case) and that her significant other should be satisfied. So for example, she says “hjem er hjem” or “home is home” when he’s being admitted to a mental institution. Basically the point of the advertisement is that cheese is not in fact cheese and that only Jarlsberg is Jarlsberg. Screw Gulost! Basically Abby and I spent a significant amount of mental energy deducing a Norwegian commercial for a cheese that neither of us particularly likes, but hey we felt somewhat accomplished by the end of it.

Transitions

It’s strange to think that my time here is slowly coming to a close. My mother recently reminded me that I only have about six weeks left (and that she’s counting down the days to my return). I’ve even been given my walking papers by the Fulbright Commission and asked to fill out my final report. I’ve also talked to my successor! I definitely got a sense of deja vu doing that. It seems like just yesterday that I was up early Skyping my predecessor and having her answer all of my questions.

Yet even though there are all of these tangible signs that I’m leaving Norway, I’m definitely not quite ready to go. It’s funny how at the beginning of my Fulbright I felt overwhelmed, and how now I don’t feel prepared to leave. I’m sure I’ll soon be joining the ranks of Norwegian Fulbright alumni who regularly come back to visit.

So, even though I still have a few weeks left, much of my remaining time has been spent thinking back on what I have accomplished so far. So I thought I’d leave you with something that I wrote as part of my final Fulbright report:

When I first arrived in Norway I was nervous. I had never lived in another country for more than a few months, and I had never taught high school students in a formal setting. I had a million and one questions about what would happen in the next year: How would I handle winter? How good would my students’ English be? Would I get homesick? But because I happen to be a huge fan of Google, I made sure to Google just about everything I could find on Norway, Trondheim, and on being an ETA. What people don’t really tell you is that no matter how many blogs or Norwegian guidebooks you read, there is nothing quite like just doing things. So although these resources made me feel a bit more prepared when I arrived, there was nothing quite like just setting off on my own and creating my own new experience.

Arriving in Norway was an adventure. There was definitely a bit of an initial culture shock: Where did all the people go? Is that BROWN cheese or just really weird peanut butter? Does everyone have a hand knit sweater? Why is everything so expensive? It was also strange arriving in a country where the majority of the population speaks English almost fluently. It made everything seem slightly familiar, even though it was clear that I was placed in a new landscape. But I adapted. I can even say that I like brown cheese!

Being in student housing helped me form a friend network and my predecessor even connected me to a few Americans in town. Through this, I managed to feel more at home and branch out and try new things. These new friends encouraged me to take up one of Norway’s great pastimes, hiking, and to even get involved in local community groups, such as TEDx Trondheim. These friendships, both international and Norwegian, have proved invaluable to helping me get a better sense of what it means to be Norwegian and live in Norway, and they have also given me a deeper sense of Norwegian culture.

As for teaching, the teacher’s strike made for an interesting start. Luckily both of my co-teachers were very communicative and I was able to keep on top of what was going on. Once the strike ended, I soon managed to settle into a schedule. My time was divided between working at NTNU and at Byåsen videregående skole (my inability to say videregående is always capable of making my students laugh). In the fall, I spent most of my time at NTNU helping with two classes, Academic Writing and Communication for Engineers. Here I helped hone the writing skills of my students by helping them work on things like structure, topic sentences, and annotated bibliographies. Because the students were supposed to send me weekly writing samples, I could really see how my students improved over the course of the semester.

Although I spent less time at the upper secondary school in the fall, I was able to make up for lost time in the spring. I primarily help with two International English classes and a Social Studies class. In International English, we look at multiculturalism, working and studying abroad, and global issues. It was here that I was largely able to talk about about immigration and race relations in the United States, something that I think my students found enlightening.

With the Social Studies class, I have helped teach both British and American history. Race has also been a huge conversation topic in this class, and I’m happy to say that my students did a great job of delving into To Kill A Mockingbird and looking at the various ways that America has grappled with race. I have also enjoyed teaching them about the American political system and explaining difficult questions such as: Why does the second amendment exist? Why do states have so much power? It’s been a joy to explain these things to my students, and to help them see both the good and the problematic sides of America.

When I’m not in one of those three classes, I have also enjoyed going into a variety of vocational English classes and teaching there. Things are taught at a much slower pace, and the focus is more on getting students to feel comfortable speaking English. Because of this, I have often had more everyday conversations with my students and gotten to learn more about the life of the average Norwegian teenager.

Overall, it’s hard to believe that this year is already drawing to a close, but I couldn’t be more happy with the way that this year has turned out. It has taught me a lot about both Norway and myself and, although I’ll be sad to go, I can’t wait to bring some of the best aspects of Norwegian culture with me.

Is This Country Crazy?

One of the best parts of the Fulbright retreat was being able to shoot the breeze with other American expats (if you are interested in another account, my colleague Lud Baldwin has quite a funny one on his blog). Living in another country will always present a new set of challenges ranging from the mundane to the more complex, and while that is common to expats everywhere, I think that being American presents its own set of challenges. As the token American in most conversations, I am often asked a lot of questions about my home country. In the classroom, I’m asked to go a step further and teach about America. But although Norwegians tend to be too polite to ask me hard hitting questions, it is clear that they are uninterested in the very tired refrain that America is the “home of the free, and the land of the brave.” Not that I would necessarily even provide them with that song and dance.

Since coming to Norway, I have been asked to talk about some of our more controversial topics: immigration, Edward Snowden, the war on drugs, the Vietnam War, our political system. Because most of my conversations about America do take place in the classroom, my role has largely been to try and present America in an unbiased way. To give my students the facts and to clearly articulate the pros and the cons of American thinking and American policy. Yet it is not unusual for my students to be confused. Teaching the facts does not always result in acceptance. I am occasionally left with the impression that they think America has gone crazy.

So this leads me to my title. One of my co-teachers, Maria, who also happens to be an American expat, sent me this article on the Huffington Post. Entitled “Is This Country Crazy?” (yes, I stole her title) the article is written by Ann Jones, a fabulous, if intimidating, former Norwegian Fulbrighter, and it spends some time delving into the American expat experience and the broader perception of Americans abroad. And while Ann does a great job of talking about the ways in which Americans are viewed today, talking to other American expats makes me realize how far back this negative perception of Americans extends. As someone who hasn’t lived in Norway for an extended period of time, it’s been interesting to talk to Americans who have been here since the 1960s. It is from them that I learned that being an American was not something people have advertised in Norway until the election of President Obama. The Vietnam War was highly unpopular in Norway, and if my students are any barometer of popularity, still is. If anything, our reputation only went further south with Bush, although it has recovered somewhat in recent years. And yet…I still wouldn’t necessarily say that we have a great reputation abroad.

Since coming to Norway, a slew of major events have happened back in the United States that I have found difficult to explain:

  • Explaining the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner in a country where racism isn’t talked about and crime, much less police brutality, is not a major concern.
  • The midterms elections having the lowest voter turnout in 72 years at 36.3%, while Norway routinely has a voter turnout of over 70%.
  • The Rolling Stone article “A Rape on Campus.” The article was later questioned for accuracy, but it gives an incredibly damning portrayal of sexual assault on college campuses. And while the reporting was later shown to be inaccurate, that does not diminish the severity of sexual assault in the U.S. People in Norway are rightly horrified when I say that 1 out of 5 U.S. women will be assaulted in their lifetime.
  • The difficulty of implementing Obamacare (it’s on round two in the Supreme Court) and why so many people reject the idea of national healthcare, when Norway has had universal healthcare since 1956.
  • The measles outbreak in the United States and why so many people question vaccines (granted Norway as well as other European countries also have their share of people who don’t believe in vaccination).

These events, and many others, are shocking. But it’s strange to be in the position of an outsider. While I get status updates on these events on my Facebook Newsfeed, that is hardly the same as experiencing them or their reactions myself. I had no civil rights rallies to attend or extensive conversations to engage in over these issues. Reading about these events is not quite the same as living through them. Yet I am the person who is called upon to give a voice to what is going on back home. To explain these events which I cannot quite experience by virtue of being abroad.

This in between, or this sensation, is even well articulated by the very word “expatriate.” “Ex” meaning outside and “patria” meaning country. As expatriates we our outside of our country, yet it is unclear where we are instead. We are stuck. Not quite being a part of our home country and yet not being a full citizen of our host country. And yet we are still largely held accountable for what goes on in our home countries.

I may not have a good answer as to whether or not the U.S. is crazy. Some days it feels as though it is, while on other days it feels quite good to be an American. The only thing I, and the other Fulbrighters, can do is to serve as cultural ambassadors. As representatives of the U.S. government and the State Department, we can only hope that we can explain some of the more “crazy” aspects of American culture and even talk about the aspects that we disagree with. Overall I hope that when I leave Norway I leave people with positive memories of Americans and fewer questions about America.

Politics and Social Science

I was invited early on in the week to guest teach in a Politics and Social Science class. While I readily agreed to teach the class, I have to admit that I was a bit apprehensive considering the small disaster my last guest lecture was. This time, I consulted with my main co-teacher at Byåsen and was told that the students I would be working with would have a pretty good grasp of English. Still, just to be safe, I made sure my lecture was on the simpler side, which I think helped make the lesson a success.

I was asked to teach about voting in the United States and started out by covering some very basic voting qualifications:

  • Be a US citizen (in Norway if you are allowed to vote in regional elections, municipal elections, and stand as a municipal candidate as long as you have been a legal resident for at least three years)
  • At least 18 years of age on election day (the same policy applies in Norway)
  • A resident of the state in which you register (not applicable)
  • Not currently serving a prison term (felons are allowed to vote in Norway)
  • Not currently on parole or other post-release supervision (felons are allowed to vote in Norway)

After covering these basics, I explained that in the United States you need to register to vote–something that is not required in Norway.

Then I went on to explain the political parties. Again, my students thought that the Republicans were a bit strange and had a much easier time understanding the Democrats.

From there I talked a bit about what Americans vote on in elections. I didn’t get too involved when explaining presidential voting since I was pretty sure explaining the electoral college would get too confusing for the students. Next, I talked a bit about what sorts of issues Americans vote on. In order to engage my students a bit more I showed them a commercial for this November’s midterm elections. Most of the students that I’ve worked with are very very quiet so I was hoping that showing these students a celebrity studded commercial might make them a bit more talkative:

Thankfully my strategy worked! They liked watching Lil Jon transform his hit song “Turn Down for What” into a song about voting, and they had fun identifying some of the other people that appeared in the video. The video also gave them a really good idea of ballot issues. The commercial is almost overwhelming in the number of topics that it raises, and from a teaching perspective it meant that none of my students had a problem raising their hands to answer my question “What are some of the things Americans vote on?”

After that I talked a bit about how despite star laden commercials and encouragement to “Rock the Vote,” the United States experienced its lowest voter turnout in 72 years this past midterm election. The number is pretty grim at 36.6%. Because I didn’t want to leave my students with the idea that most Americans are wholly indifferent to politics, I spent some time explaining some theories on why voting rates in the United States are low. Some of the most popular theories are:

  • Voter Registration. The United States is one of the few democracies that requires voter registration in order to vote.
  • Tuesday Voting. Voting on Tuesday made a lot more sense when America was a predominantly agricultural society. Because people lived so far apart most voters would travel into town from long distances. This meant that having voting on Tuesday allowed eligible voters to spend Monday traveling into town before voting on Tuesday. Weekend voting wasn’t a practical option at the time because citizens were going to church on Sunday. Clearly the  Tuesday voting system doesn’t make much sense in a modern day context, but we have yet to catch up with the times.
  • Felon Voting. Again, the United States is one of the few democracies that does not allow current (and in some cases former) prisoners to vote, disenfranchising a significant number of the population.

If you look at the first two reasons you can see that they have a lot to do with convenience. In fact, studies on this last midterm election show that states that allow for mail in voting or early voting have high voter participation rates. But making voting easier won’t necessarily solve America’s participation problem. In fact, even though some states have made it more convenient for their residents to vote, no state had a voter participation rate higher than 60% in this year’s midterms.

After this I talked very briefly about how the United States has implemented different types of voting restrictions over time. I decided to show them part of another video, this time one showing current Harvard students taking and failing Louisiana’s 1964 literacy test. Literacy tests were designed to disenfranchise different groups of people because they were almost impossible to pass:

If you want to learn a bit more about the test you can go to the YouTube page and read more under the video’s description.

I then wrapped up by talking about modern day voting restrictions. Currently many people in the United States are talking about photo identification laws. These laws require photo ID in order to vote in certain states, and they currently disenfranchise an estimated 23 million voting aged Americans (approximately 11% of Americans).

After that I was done lecturing and it was time for an activity. I provided my students with a list of potential 2016 presidential candidates and groups of two were supposed to report on a candidate to the rest of the class. Unsurprisingly, Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden were the first candidates that my students wanted to present on. I did however stop them from only reporting on Democratic candidates and made some of them look up Republicans. While not all of the students were enthused about their candidates (none of them liked the Republicans) it was fun walking around and helping them understand what these candidates believed in and explaining political terms such as “polling” and “pro-choice”.

Visit From a Rover

Now it would be utterly remiss of me not to mention that one of the Roving Scholars, Heather, recently came to Trondheim. The Roving Scholars program is probably the coolest thing that the Fulbright Commission offers in Norway. The Rovers travel from school to school and have a series of workshops that they teach throughout Norway for the duration of the school year. If you’re interested in learning more, information can be found here. Anyways, the Roving Scholars are all amazing and well established teachers and I was really excited to see Heather and to see one of her workshops.

Heather dropped by my International English class early on Friday morning and really managed to engage with my students. The topic of her workshop was the makeup of the United States and American universities. Before this workshop, I got the impression that my students tended to view the United States as one united country. They seemed a bit surprised to learn that there are some pretty significant regional differences across the United States and that these differences range from things like accents to personality traits.

One of my favorite parts of the workshop was when Heather showed my students the infographic below. Having already given my students some background information on different areas in the United States, Heather asked them to look at the infographic and tell her what area of the country they would go to if they had a free plane ticket.

US Personality Map YouGov-01

Considering the adjectives, it came as no surprise that no one wanted to go to the East Coast. Sorry New York. A few students wanted to go to the South, more wanted to go to the Midwest, and the majority wanted to go to the West Coast. As a Californian, I am proud to say that even Norwegians know that the West Coast really is the best coast.

I also enjoyed watching my students learn more about American universities. I think the thing that they found most shocking was the cost of higher education. In Norway, higher education is free, so the price tag for an American university seems like pure insanity. We calculated out the price in NOK for attending a four year $40,000/year institution and the students were a bit stunned to learn that a bachelors degree costs some Americans around 1.2 million NOK. We did put in a good word for financial aid, but that didn’t stop my students from being taken aback at the initial price.

Overall, I think that my students learned a lot and had a good time. Personally, I’m looking forward to seeing Heather again later in the school year, and I hope that I’ll get the chance to see more of the other Rovers in the spring.

Happy Thanksgiving!

If you have no idea what I’m talking about I refer you to Wikipedia. For all of the Americans (and apparently Canadians) out there, I wish you a very happy Thanksgiving!

Thanksgiving is hands down my favorite holiday. It’s essentially all of the great food you would get at Christmas a month early–plus you eliminate the stress of gift giving. And I suppose if you’re into sports there is a lot of American football that you can watch–I tend to ignore this part of the holiday although a few of the Brazilians that I know here have not. Personally, I’m all about the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

And while Thanksgiving provides you with an excellent opportunity to gorge yourself on a ridiculous amount of food, it’s also a day to reflect on what you are thankful for. I know that I have a lot of things that I’m grateful for (don’t worry I won’t bore you with the details, although I will say that my family deserves a huge shoutout) and I encourage all of you to think about the same, even if you don’t celebrate Thanksgiving.

So, happy Thanksgiving wherever you are and hopefully you’ll all get to have a delicious slice of turkey and reflect a bit on some of the wonderful things you have going for you.