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.

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.

The House in the Woods

It’s been a while since I’ve gone on a cabin trip so I was excited to be invited on one this past weekend. Because TEDx Trondheim isn’t hosting any more events for 2014, the group decided that it’s be a good idea to get some bonding in and talk a bit about plans for 2015. The founder of TEDx Trondheim, Martin, happens to have a cabin in Gjevilvassdalen and graciously offered to let us spend the weekend there.

There were thirteen of us who were able to go on the cabin trip and Friday afternoon we all piled into two cars and headed to Gjevilvassdalen. Considering that my last cabin trip had an old fashioned wood burning stove, no electricity, no running water, and an outhouse, I was originally prepared to rough it. So I was a bit shocked when I was told to bring toiletries like shampoo with me on the trip. Yes, there was a shower at the cabin, there was running water, electricity, a refrigerator, and even a dishwasher. Even Martin admitted that it wasn’t a cabin in the woods–it was a house.

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We spent that first evening more or less relaxing and playing games. After dinner we played a get to know you game where we all wrote down a fact about ourselves, shuffled the facts around, and then voted on who we thought each fact belonged to. Shockingly enough, most people believed I had dreamed of being a professional athlete. I dislike most forms of physical activity but I guess I come across as athletic. The other fact people thought belonged to me involved playing bongo drums for a band that makes stoner rock music. I guess I shouldn’t have talked about Venice Beach earlier in the evening. In case you’re curious, the fact that I did submit was that I have ridden an elephant. Only one person out of the thirteen guessed that it was me so I felt pretty successful.

The next day was a day mostly dedicated to hiking. Martin has a five year old son and he told us that the path we were taking was one that even his son was capable of. So, with this extra bit of motivation we all set off. Within ten minutes of leaving the house we encountered reindeer! A whole herd of them calmly crossed the road in front of us. For our part, the only people who remained calm in our group were the Norwegians and the Swede. The rest of us were shutterbug happy.

IMG_5955  IMG_5961  IMG_5966Once we had finished taking pictures of the reindeer, we continued on our hike. The hike wasn’t too strenuous, but it was incredibly windy. Because of the weather we didn’t spend too much time at the top of the mountain, but the views we got at the peak made everything worthwhile.

IMG_5970  IMG_5979  IMG_6019After the hike, we warmed ourselves up in the house and started to discuss the organization of TEDx Trondheim. The objective of this was for the group to determine how TEDx Trondheim should be structured in the future. It was a long three hours, but by the end of it I think most people were satisfied. Or at least just happy to finally eat dinner.

We spent the rest of the night lounging around the cabin until Martin convinced most of us to play Cranium and Cards Against Humanity. I decided to sit out both games in favor of reading a book, but as the only native English speaker I was occasionally called upon to help with both games.

Our last day at the house was very relaxed. There happens to be a beach in Gjevilvassdalen so we took the cars and drove down to it. Considering that the weather wasn’t exactly what I would call warm, we spent most of our time just walking around the beach and exploring.

IMG_6052  IMG_6118  IMG_6145After that it was just a matter of heading back to the house, cleaning up, and then hitting the road. I would say that the trip was definitely a success and I came out with it with some nice memories and closer friendships.

TEDx Trondheim

One of the great things about the Fulbright is its flexibility. The Fulbright limits the number of hours I can work to 26 hours/week, the idea being that I will have enough free time in my schedule to explore Norway and to better understand and interact with Norwegians and Norwegian culture. One of the things that I have taken up in my free time is volunteering with TEDx. I have always been a huge fan of TED talks and was excited to get involved with the local organization here in Trondheim. I became a volunteer about a month ago and have been working as a member of the creative team, which means that my primary job is to work with speakers on their talks and general stage presence.

The speaker that I primarily worked with leading up to our main event was Espen Holmgren. Espen runs drug and behavioral rehabilitation programs in the wilderness, and the focus on his talk was on how the wilderness can help you break down barriers, start to embrace yourself, and start to fix your own problems. It was really wonderful working with Espen, someone who is so passionate about what he does, and to help him craft a compelling story that he could tell to the audience.

While I primarily worked with Espen, I gave feedback to some of the other speakers and found it fascinating to hear from so many different people and experts. One of the people that I really enjoyed listening to was Åslaug Kihl, a social worker who works in Norwegian prisons. It was fascinating to learn about how in Norway the focus of prison is less on punishing prisoners and more on rehabilitating them to make them productive members of society. Part of what Åslaug does to help fascilitate this process, is to work with other people involved in the justice and prison system (primarily police officers and drug addiction specialists) to help gain the trust of prisoners and encourage them to be lawful citizens after they leave. I think the most fascinating story she told was of a prisoner who had been released and was contemplating taking drugs again. This person called the police officer he had been working with inside prison and asked him to come over and support him so that he wouldn’t in fact take any drugs. The police officer responded to this call and helped the man stay on the right path and out of prison. This story blew me away not only by the amount of trust that was displayed in this relationship, but also because it was hard for me to envision someone in America calling up the police and asking them to support them and stop them from committing a crime.

While working with the speakers was a lot of fun, it was even better to finally see them up on stage. We had our big event for 2014 last night and had a total of ten speakers. The event went really well and it was good to see everyone’s hard work pay off. If you’re interested in seeing some of the speeches from last night, the video should be added to this page in the next week or so.

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