Diversity in Norway

As with all countries, Norway has a few stereotypes. The biggest one is that everyone has blonde hair and blue eyes. This means that I’ve been asked multiple times about diversity in the country–usually by people who have a thing for blondes. Well first things first, not everyone has blonde hair and blue eyes. As a brunette, I’ve been quite happy to see a number of kindred spirits walking around. But I will say that asking about diversity in Norway is asking a bit of a broad question, and that a simple yes or no answer doesn’t fully address something so nuanced. I would argue that the better question is perhaps, what does it take to be considered Norwegian.

In the United States it doesn’t necessarily take a lot to establish that you are an American. If you have citizenship that is enough for most people, although as someone who has Asian heritage, I am often asked the annoying question “No, where are you REALLY from?” (to which I will refer you to this video). Although Americans are perhaps not the most skillful at talking and thinking about race, there is no real way to question how American someone is. Because the United States is a nation built of immigrants, there are no real grounds for someone to say that you don’t look or act American enough.

Things are a bit different in Norway. As I mentioned earlier, there does tend to be this idea that there is a Norwegian, or Scandinavian, look. I was talking to one of our current Fulbrighters, Jenna, who came to Trondheim to do a TEDx talk on race, and had the chance to talk to her about her research on race and ethnicity in Norway. Her take on things was interesting. In Norway, race is something that isn’t widely talked about, in fact it is something that a number of academic researchers even avoid in their work. When Norwegians do address race they tend to use the term “non-Western features” to talk about immigrants, or those with immigrant backgrounds. But this labeling is a bit problematic. Jenna was talking to one student whose parents were from Somalia and who asked her about studying in the United States. She gave him encouragement to go study in the States, but said, “Just so you’re aware, people might not initially believe you when you say you’re Norwegian.” His response was, “It’s okay. Not even Norwegians think I’m Norwegian.”

Clearly not all Norwegians have Western features, but unfortunately in Norway it appears as though looks do matter. It’s not enough for someone to have been born and raised in Norway. If they don’t look Norwegian enough, then they have trouble being considered Norwegian. But even for people who do look more Western, things are far from smooth. From what I’ve seen, immigrants who come to Norway from Scandinavian countries, particularly Sweden, are quite widely accepted, whereas immigrants from other European nations tend to be considered outsiders. In my classes, most of the students who are immigrants are ones who come from Eastern Europe, but to be honest I would have never known these students were immigrants unless my co-teachers hadn’t made a point of explicitly telling me. Turns out looking more Western isn’t everything.

So then what’s the other component to being Norwegian? From what I’ve seen it’s culture. Once immigrants arrive in Norway, Norway focuses a lot of energy on integration programs, or on teaching immigrants how to do things the Norwegian way. Some of the Fulbrighters even send their children to Norwegian integration schools, schools specifically set up to teach foreigners how to become more Norwegian. Unlike the United States, there is a desire to make people Norwegian. Those who don’t fit this mold seem to face difficulties.

Now all of this begs the question of what does it take for someone to become accepted as Norwegian. Is it looks, culture, or a combination of the two? I would argue that it’s a combination of the two. Through my Trondheim activities, I’ve seen a range of immigrant experiences in Norway. It’s pretty clear to me that right now it takes more than a perfect knowledge of Norwegian language, history, and culture to be accepted as Norwegian. It takes looks too. Those lucky enough to balance looks and cultural understanding are often the immigrants who seem to do the best. It’s no wonder that Swedes seem to do quite well in Norway.

Norway still has a long way to go when it comes to the ways in which it looks at what it means to be Norwegian and in the ways that it grapples with race. Norway’s struggles are clearly different from those faced in the United States; however, especially after my conversation with Jenna, I would have to say that I agree with her in that the only way to really start to wrestle with these issues in Norway is to start having a conversation about them.

Norwegian Language

Considering that I’ve spent about a year in Norway, many people have asked me if I’ve learned Norwegian. Unfortunately the answer is no, although I can navigate the grocery store quite well and say things like hello, thank you, and have a nice day. I have to admit that my greatest struggle with the language has been pronunciation. Even properly pronouncing the name of my upper secondary school, Byåsen, has been a bit of a struggle. Now I would argue that half of my trouble stems from the fact that there is no standard form of spoken Norwegian. But before I can address spoken Norwegian, it’s necessary to spend some time talking about written Norwegian.

Written Norwegian breaks down into two official norms, Bokmål and Nynorsk. The reason for the two written languages can be traced back to the 19th century. Norway was a part of Denmark from 1397 to 1814, and their union meant that the Norwegian elite spoke and wrote in Danish (albeit with a Norwegian accent), while the lower classes, or the other 95% of the population, communicated in dialects that had sprung up under Danish rule.

However, this all changed when in 1814 Norway was given to Sweden. Part of the agreement stated that Norway would only enter the union as an equal partner. In other words, Sweden and Norway would be two equal and independent countries ruled by one king. This newfound independence ended up having a huge impact on the language because the Norwegians had to decide if they were going to:

  1. Stick with Danish
  2. Create a written language based on Norwegian dialects
  3. Create a more Norwegian version of Danish

While the first option was rejected, the other two were put in motion.

The second option was undertaken by Ivar Aasen, a linguist and poet. After studying different dialects in the western and central parts of southern Norway, he developed what later came to be known as Nynorsk, or “New Norwegian.” It later included dialects from Eastern Norway, but to this day has never gained much popularity with Norwegians. Only about 10-15% of the population uses Nynorsk. In fact, Nynorsk is one of the required classes that my students constantly complain about.

Bokmål, on the other hand, was the answer to the third option. It was developed by Knud Knudsen, and although it originally corresponded to the informal language used by the upper classes, it later came to include the language of the lower classes. Today approximately 85–90% of Norwegians write in Bokmål.

As you can see from the numbers, most people use Bokmål in their writing. I’ve been told that using Bokmål tends to show an affinity for urban culture, while using Nynorsk tends to display conservative and nationalistic tendencies. In order to keep things somewhat balanced and to protect Nynorsk, the government has passed laws requiring the use of Nynorsk. For example, 25% of national broadcasting has to be done in Nynorsk.

As for spoken Norwegian, due to the way the written languages were created, each dialect will either relate to Nynorsk or Bokmål. Because dialect is the spoken language, there is no standard spoken Norwegian per se, although foreigners tend to be taught spoken Bokmål, which is close to the Oslo accent. To give you an idea of how accent is (still) debated in Norway, one of my co-teachers told me that back in the day there were riots over how to properly pronounce the name of my city, Trondheim, and that people will still occasionally squabble over it now. My students have even quibbled with their teachers about writing in Bokmål instead of in dialect (in other words the students want the teacher to write out how the Trondheim dialect sounds).* Alix was even told off by some of her colleagues when she said she was trying to learn Norwegian pronunciation by listening to the way the bus stops are pronounced on the automated bus system–apparently the voice over for the public transportation system has an Oslo accent, something that caused an uproar in Trondheim when it was first implemented.

But it’s not all about accent. Each dialect tends to have something unique about it, whether it is certain turns of phrase or even the number of swear words used (I’m told that Northern Norwegians have a vocabulary that would make a sailor blush). As you can see, it all gets a bit complicated quite quickly. And although I didn’t manage to master Norwegian in my brief time here, I have to admit that I appreciate the depth of thought that Norwegians have devoted to language.

*Students are taught in either Bokmål or Nynorsk in primary school and are then taught the other language in secondary school.

Rainy Berlin

I had been warned by Alix that Berlin is a gloomy and rainy winter city, so I was hardly surprised to be greeted with clouds and stormy weather when I landed in Berlin. Thankfully, I had remembered to pack an umbrella so I didn’t get too wet on my way into Berlin. Getting to the city itself was also pretty easy. My previous trips to Germany meant that I knew Google Maps would work with the public transportation system, and sure enough it only took a few clicks on my smartphone to look up a fast and easy way into the city. Once I had that planned out, it was easy enough to buy a ticket and board the next train. My prior experience in Munich meant that I paid special attention to actually buying a ticket and validating it (there are red boxes for this along every platform), something that worked to my advantage since my ticket was checked on my way into the city.*

I had decided to arrive in Berlin a day before the conference (which started on a Sunday), and I spent most of my first day walking around and trying to familiarize myself a bit with the city. That being said, I did manage to accomplish two major things my first day. The first was getting a SIM card. Thanks to my college roommate, Julie, the one I stayed with in Munich, I was told that I could easily buy a SIM card at a Saturn electronics store. I dutifully made my way over to the nearest store and quickly realized that I couldn’t even begin to understand the phone advertising in front of me. Bowing to the inevitable, I asked a store representative for help (the first thing he did was kindly informed me that I had actually been looking at iPad SIM cards instead of phone SIM cards), and after getting a bit of help, I walked out of the store with a brand new German SIM card with 250 MB of data–not bad for €5.

After that, I spent most of my time wandering around. Alix had warned me that in Berlin graffiti does not necessarily denote crime, and I enjoyed having the time to myself to look around and appreciate both Berlin’s street art and its architecture.

IMG_0128  IMG_0134  IMG_0135Through my wanderings I really noticed that Berlin is a city with a remarkable relationship to the past. It is a place that is caught in inbetweens, for although it is clearly a modern bustling metropolis, it is also surrounded by monuments to the past. Some of the scars the past has left behind are more obvious, remnants of the Berlin Wall, Checkpoint Charlie, etc., while others are more subtle, the concrete buildings that pervade what used to be East Berlin. And while this was something that I picked up on more and more as I spent time in the city, the first time I really noticed this grappling with the past was on Museum Island, where most of Berlin’s most prominent museums are located.

Walking around Museum Island is stunning. The island itself is quite small, but the buildings on it are impressive. Many of them have undergone some sort of renovation since World War II, but you can still see the marks that World War II has left behind. There are plenty of chips in buildings’ facades and old bullet holes in the colonnade.

I particularly noticed this in the Neues Museum (pronounced Noy-es), or New Museum. The Neues was my second big triumph of the day. Now the Neues is a bit of a contradiction. Although it is called the “New” Museum, it was originally built between 1843 and 1855 and designed by August Stüler. The museum was severely damaged in World War II, and this resulted in it closing for 70 years. It was finally reopened in 2009 after undergoing a redesign by David Chipperfield. Like much of Berlin, the museum embraces parts of the old, while trying to integrate it with the new. The result is amazing.

IMG_0182  IMG_0179  IMG_0185IMG_0187  IMG_0190  IMG_0188IMG_0192  IMG_0204  IMG_0199While the Neues is well known for its Egyptian artifacts, I was much more blown away by the building itself. Chipperfield did a wonderful job redesigning the building and many of the rooms were purposefully designed so that they echoed ancient structures, for example some rooms would mimic the floor plan of an Egyptian temple. In my mind, the museum itself was its own work of art.

IMG_0147  IMG_0153  IMG_0155IMG_0157  IMG_0159  IMG_0160IMG_0165  IMG_0170  IMG_0175That being said, there were still a number of impressive things housed inside the museum. I admit that my favorite was the bust of Neferiti. It was amazing to see in person, and the attention to detail was stunning. One thing that surprised me was that the museum even had a replica of the bust that the blind could feel. Unfortunately pictures were not allowed, but feel free to check it out on Google Images.

Although the Neues is perhaps most well known for its collection of Egyptian artifacts, this is only a fraction of the museum’s entire collection. I enjoyed walking around their Greco-Roman collection, and actually found it a bit funny once I started to read the descriptions around the room. Many of the information plaques talked about Heinrich Schliemann, a German adventurer who discovered the original site of Troy. However, Schliemann got into trouble for illegally smuggling some of his findings out of Turkey. He was later fined by the Ottoman Empire and eventually paid triple the fine in order to legally own his smuggled goods. Unfortunately, many of these artifacts were later taken by the Soviet Union, something that the Germans have clearly not let go of due to the number of sentences in the museum like this “In 1945 the bulk of the Trojan treasures were taken as booty to the former Soviet Union, where most of them are held to this day in breach of international law.” A bit ironic considering how the treasures first found their way into Germany. But then again questions of proper ownership are always interesting in museums.

After that I went back to my hostel to meet up with Iman, my hostel roommate and an Italian Fulbrighter who I met when I was in Rome. Because Iman got in late, we didn’t really do much other than get dinner together. We ended up being seated with a group of five men at a seven person table. About 45 minutes into our dinner conversation the man next to me interrupted me and the following conversation happened:

Man: Excuse me I couldn’t help but overhearing, but do you live in Norway?
Me: Yes I do! I’m based up in Trondheim for the year.
Man: Oh wow, we’re all from Norway! From Ålesund.
Me: No way! I’m hoping to visit Ålesund later in the year.

Iman later told me that she was amazed that 1) it took them almost an hour to ask me if I lived in Norway 2) that I didn’t realize that they had been speaking Norwegian. To be honest, I was actually surprised that the men sitting with us had said anything at all. Norwegians are renowned for being a bit anti-social. It’s actually not uncommon for Norwegians to go out of their way to avoid people, so I was surprised that they even mentioned being from Norway.

As for not recognizing the language, Norwegian actually has a large number of cognates with German, so I simply assumed that they were speaking German.** Clearly I haven’t picked up a lot of Norwegian since moving to Norway.

But the day ended on a high note and Iman and I enjoyed a late nightcap at the hostel bar before calling it a night.

IMG_0221  IMG_0227  IMG_0234

*I was asked for my transportation ticket three times when I was in Berlin, so I would recommend getting and validating all transportation tickets when traveling around the city. That being said, the fine for being caught without one isn’t horrendous (€40), or at least not when compared to the ones you are subject to in Norway (~$150).

**My favorite language misstep happened with the word “ostbahn.” In Norwegian “ost” means cheese and I knew that “bahn” meant train. My gut translation was that “ostbahn” was the “cheese train” instead of the “east train.”

Trip to Tromsø

For those of you who are wondering, the ø in Tromsø means that it’s pronounced more like Tromsa than Tromso. While Tromsø is not as far North as Svalbard, Tromsø is Norway’s northernmost town and boasts a population of roughly 70,000. It’s the biggest town in Northern Norway (and I believe the only place in Northern Norway that can technically claim the title of town) and, to my surprise, is pretty much shut off from the rest of Norway. The train system in Norway doesn’t go much further than Bodø, where Alix and I went for part of our trip to the Lofoten Islands. As far as I can tell, the only really ways in which Northern Norway is connected to the rest of the country is by car, boat, specifically the Hurtigruten ferry, and by plane.

I’ve been interested in visiting Tromsø for a while but I decided to plan my trip in early February so that I would be able to attend Tromsø’s Sami Week. The Sami are the indigenous people in Northern Scandinavia, specifically Norway, Sweden, Finland, and the Kola Peninsula (part of Russia). To make matters more complicated, there are different kinds of Sami, and they have different rights and living situations depending on where they live. In Norway, the Sami are well known as reindeer herders and to this day reindeer are an essential part of their culture. Sami have a much stronger presence in Northern Norway than they do in Southern Norway and they even have their own capital, Karasjok, and parliament in Northern Norway. That is not to say that everything is rainbows and butterflies. The Sami have historically experienced a good amount of discrimination in Norway, and this discrimination continues to the present day. According to recent a survey, the Sami experience ten times more discrimination than ethnic Norwegians (United Nations Regional Information Centre for Western Europe). Other obstacles the Sami face include the loss of their native languages and issues surrounding land rights.

Tromsø’s Sami Week coincides with Sami People’s Day, or the Sami national day, on February 6th. This date marks the meeting of the first Sami Congress in 1917 in Trondheim. Why Sami Week is not so well celebrated in Trondheim or even in Trondheim remains a mystery to me. Anyways, Sami People’s Day has grown into a week long celebration in Tromsø and consists of things such as a lasso throwing competition, winter market, cultural events, and reindeer races. Yes, reindeer races are a real thing. In fact, the races were the main reason I was in Tromsø.

Lucky for me, flights from Trondheim to Tromsø are pretty short and easy to catch. My hope was that I’d be able to see the northern lights in my time above the clouds, but unfortunately the sun was up for the duration of my flight. Once we descended however it was a completely different story. I was greeted with snow.

Thankfully the Fulbrighter that I was staying with, Kari, gave me very detailed instructions on how to get to her place, and it didn’t take me too long to find the correct bus into Tromsø. Once I arrived, I was pretty happy to settle in for the night and to curl up with my chosen post-Svalbard reading: The Golden Compass. I’m proud to say that I got unreasonably excited over the Svalbard sections of the book and of  my ability to identify terms such as sysselmann, or governor.