Reverse Culture Shock

Culture shock is one big things people talk about when it comes to moving abroad, but the less talked about, and just as relevant, shock is reverse culture shock. In other words, the shock that you feel when assimilating back to your home country. I’m not exactly home yet. I’m currently bumming around my dad’s house in the UK before my final move back to California, and while I don’t necessarily consider the UK home, I have enough ties to the country to make it feel somewhat like a second home. All of this is to say that while I’ve experienced some reverse culture shock in the UK, I’m sure that I’ll experience more when I return home to Los Angeles, and still more once I start my new job in September.

To give you a slightly better idea of what reverse culture shock can look like, I’ve included a picture that I stole from the U.S.-Norway Fulbright Commission. I’ve been told that it’s generally called the W curve of cultural adjustment, and have definitely felt a number of the feelings on the chart at various points before, during, and after my Fulbright.

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As of right now I’ll say that my reverse culture shock breaks down into four big categories:

Everything Looks Weird

One of my first reactions when being driven home from the airport was “Why is there so much brick everywhere?” In the little village where my Dad is based, most homes are made of brick and brick is a common building material. It just looks wrong. Although I myself lived in brick housing for my Fulbright, I would say that the majority of Trondheim is made up of wood. Wood is the dominant building material, especially in smaller towns in Norway. In the UK it’s pretty rare to see a house made completely of wood, and its absence something that I’m adjusting to.

Why Are There So Many People?

When I tell people that I lived in Trondheim for a year, they tend to think that’s code for living in a mountain cave and having a troll for a neighbor. Trondheim is far from being in the middle of nowhere, and it is Norway’s third biggest city. That being said, the population is tiny. A 2012 survey registered the population as being 178,021 people. While I find my Dad’s village manageable (it’s so small that there isn’t even a proper grocery store), I do find larger cities, such as London, to be almost completely overwhelming, specifically when it comes to the number of people that live there.

Friends! (& Family)

One great benefit of being home is being more immersed in an establish social network. I don’t have a particularly strong network of friends in the UK, but the relationships that I do have have been established for much longer, and in many cases are much stronger, than the ones that I had in Norway. It’s also been great to see my family again, and to catch up with them since I last saw them.

I CAN UNDERSTAND EVERYTHING

The biggest shock by far is the fact that I can now understand everything. I didn’t realize exactly how much I’d tuned out of my daily surroundings until I started to feel a bit overwhelmed by simply walking around. I can read advertisements, newspapers, and can even understand my Spotify ads! Out of all of this, I have to say that the thing that startles me most is the ability to inadvertently eavesdrop on people. Because everyone would generally switch to English when talking to me, it’s a bit of a shock to hear English constantly and to realize that it’s not always aimed at me.

Trondheim Wrap Up

Writing the wrap up for the city that has been my home for the past year has been bittersweet since it marks the end of my Fulbright, but here it is:

  1. Public transportation apps for the city are AtB Reise (maps and navigation for public transportation) and AtB Mobillett (to buy tickets). 
  2. Nidaros Cathedral – Is a must. I would highly recommend an English tour and a trip up to the top of the tower for some good views. Depending on what you are interested in, you can also check and see if the cathedral has any concerts going on when you’re there. You also have the option of buying a combined ticket and getting access to the Norwegian crown jewels and the archbishop’s palace. I think that the crown jewels are a nice, if small, exhibit, but personally would give a pass on the archbishop’s palace unless you’re interested in the church’s medieval history.
  3. The Resistance Museum – a free museum in the same complex as the crown jewels and the archbishop’s palace and worth paying a visit.
  4. Bakklandet – The old part of Trondheim is very adorable and nice to walk around. It also showcases the town’s old bridge, Lykken’s Portal or “The Portal of Happiness,” and the charming old aspects of the city.
  5. Fjord Tour – Depending on when you come you can take a small fjord tour (it’s seasonal). It’ll take you around the city as well as out to one of the nearby islands, Munkholmen.
  6. National Museum of Decorative Arts – Very nice, if small, museum, especially if you’re interested in design.
  7. Stiftsgården – A nice place to take a tour. It’s the royal family’s old residence in Trondheim and really gives you a good (if brief) history of Norway and reminds you of how poor the country used to be.
  8. Sverresborg Folk Museum – great museum that’s a little bit out of the way. Gives a good sense of the old city and provides nice views of the city.
  9. Hiking – If you want to hike you can hike to your heart’s content in Bymarka (which is easily accessible via tram) or take a walk along the fjord.
  10. Food & Drink
    • Ni Muset – great cafe/coffeehouse with some nice food and snacks.
    • Tyholt Tower – It’s the large radio tower in town and will give you good views of the city. The restaurant at the top is just okay.
    • Den Gode Nabo – You can go have drinks out on the river and the food is good.
    • Bakklandet Skydsstation – great for traditional Norwegian waffles or a light traditional Norwegian meal.
    • Antikvarietet – a good cafe/bar.
    • Mat fra Hagen – a trendy vegetarian restaurant in Bakklandet. Not even their bread is bread–it’s really mashed chickpeas.
    • Fairytale Cupcakes – this great little cafe looks as if you’ve tumbled down the rabbit hole into something inspired by Lewis Carroll. Excellent cupcakes, but be prepared for pink.
    • Kos – trendy Japanese restaurant with good sushi. I’d highly recommend splurging and having all you can eat sushi for 299 NOK.
  11. If you’re around for a more extended period, it’s definitely worthwhile to take a two hour train down to Røros for a day trip. It’s this adorable old mining town that’s an UNESCO site. If you happen to be around in February then definitely go to Rørosmartnan.

Last Walks Around Town

Unfortunately I’ve left Norway behind, but I thought I’d do a few last posts to finish up my musings on Norway. Before I left Trondheim, I was lucky enough to have a few sunny days to wander around the city and get a few good pictures. I’ve really loved living in Trondheim and think that it offers a great mix of traditional Norwegian architecture and a bit of modern design. Although it’s definitely a small place, it’s certainly never dull. Here are some of my favorite spots:

Bakklandet & Lykkens Portal

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Solsiden

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Nidaros Cathedral

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Trondheim Harbor

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Sverresborg Folk Museum

I discovered the Trondheim Folk Museum pretty late in my Fulbright year, but have become somewhat enamored with it since then. Like most folk museums in Scandinavia, the one in Trondheim consists of a museum as well as grounds. Unfortunately the museum is a bit haphazardly done, or at least it felt that way because everything was in Norwegian, but it was still fun to quickly walk around. I enjoyed looking over a few of the historical displays, particularly the ones featuring Elvis and what appeared to be old punk rock clothing.

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While the museum wasn’t the best, the grounds were pretty great to walk around. There wasn’t an abundance of information for each of the ground’s buildings, but there was the odd sign post and the occasional human to answer questions. Thanks to them, I now have answers to two questions that have been bugging me since I arrived in Norway. The first involved wanting to know the reasoning behind Norwegian building’s grassy roofs. I was told that the benefit of the roofs were that they were cheap, long lasting (they last around 30 years or more), and they provide good insulation. The other question I had was why most of the buildings were red.* Turns out that one of the byproducts of iron is a red pigment. Because iron mines were in Norway and Sweden, getting the pigment was cheap, it was a byproduct which no one wanted, which made it cheaper, and it was also long lasting. The mystery of the red houses was officially solved.

The museum also has a few more well known places in the grounds. One of the most well known is the remains of King Sverre’s castle. The castle is in ruins now, but it was originally constructed in the winter of 1183-84. It was the first stone castle in Norway, although it was torn down and rebuilt twice. After the civil-war years, the castle didn’t serve a purpose and was abandoned and left to deteriorate. It was later reclaimed by the Germans during World War II due to its strategic significance, which I’m assuming was namely that it has a sweeping view of the city.

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Other highlights of the grounds included seeing an old catapult in action and following a few rogue lambs around the property. As for the buildings themselves, several of them were quite stunning, particularly one farmhouse that was redone and repainted.

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Nicole and I also had a lot of fun at a farmhouse where we were able to interact with a few Norwegians who decided to show us around in character. The farmhouse they gave us a tour of was from 1906, so we had a bit of fun playing along and saying that we had arrived in Norway by boat after many weeks at sea, and that while America’s streets were not paved in gold, they were paved in silver. They in turn had fun showing us around. I would say that the two biggest things that we learned were that most homes had a Sunday room, or a very special room only used on Sundays or for guests, and we also learned the proper way to sleep. Apparently it’s incorrect to sleep horizontally because angels flying overhead might mistake you as dead and come and take your soul. The proper way to sleep is to sleep upright, as if sleeping in a chair.

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We also paid a visit to the old town. The old town consists of buildings that used to be located in downtown Trondheim. There they have several exhibits featuring a dentist office, apothecary, and even a telephone operating room.

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My favorite spot was however the ski museum. I had never really thought too much about Norway’s favorite sport, so it was nice to gain some insight into it.

Skiing only started to take off in Norway in 1850. There were several factors that led to this, but they can be summarized by saying that an increase in wealth gave people the time and money to take up the sport. While more and more people were able to take up skiing, skiing only started to be closely linked to Norwegian identity after Fridtjof Nansen, a national hero and polar explorer, popularized his arctic explorations. This caused people to associate this hero, and Norwegians, with skiing.

Skiing was originally advertised as a masculine sport, and one that solely in the domain of men. The first organized ski trips in Norway used to be organized by groups of men, and they often ended in drinking. Women were allowed to go skiing for recreation, and it was common for small groups of men and women to go skiing together. Although women were encouraged to ski for leisure or for practical purposes, during this time they were largely kept away from competitive skiing, such as ski-jumping and cross-country ski racing. Women were only able to truly gain acceptance in competitive skiing in the 1970’s.

The Norwegian tradition of Sunday skiing started to gain popularity in the 1950’s and 1960’s, but these days skiing has become less and less popular. Only about half of Norwegian children own skis, and an even smaller percentage actually use them. Some Norwegians worry that this downturn in skiing will cause it to fade out, eventually stopping the phrase “Norwegians are born with skis on their feet.”**

Overall, I really enjoyed going to the Folk Museum and would definitely recommend paying it a visit, especially on a nice sunny day.

*Generally speaking the houses in Norway are one of seven colors: red, green, blue, brown, yellow, black, or white.

**Alix can testify that she’s happy that this saying is inaccurate.

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.