My humbling journey into a surprising Scandinavian life

by Kenyan Mom Abroad April 18, 2017 22 comments
Scandinavian life

Adjusting to the Scandivania life, in particular, the Danish one has not only been humbling but challenging. I took a big risk by moving abroad, leaving my comfort zone, and embracing a new culture.

The inspiration for this story came from a documentary series on Al-Jazeera about the untold life of Africans in Europe.

Perhaps to give a preamble, I feel fortunate to have first arrived in Europe 10 years ago, on a foreign correspondent program in Helsinki. That trip marked a journey that would see me experiencing mundane things like flying in an aeroplane for the first time.

It was also a remarkable paradigm shift that would lead me back to Europe in 2008, on a full scholarship for a Master’s in Journalism in with several European countries, and an eventual return in 2013 for marriage, family and career in Denmark.

In the course of my life and education in Europe, I have witnessed a myriad of experiences. Several of which were, naively, hitherto unknown to me. Well, living in a student bubble back then didn’t open up my mind to the realities of adult life.

That notwithstanding, many of the Kenyans that I had met during my initial trips to Europe hardly ever narrated the not-so-rosy reality of life in their respective countries.

In retrospective, I see this as an important coping mechanism against the sometimes unfamiliar realities of life in Europe for an African migrant, and the mismatched utopian perception of life abroad. It is not unusual for many Kenyans, in Kenya, to romanticise life in developed countries.

By experiencing the following events of culture shock in various homogeneous Scandinavian countries, most notably my current home, Denmark, I have not only learned different cultural facets but also ways of developing a thick skin while retaining my identity, and sanity, in a land where I am an outsider.

Niggerization

I have been called ‘nigger’ about three times by random people. It first happened when I refused some drunken advances from two men outside a club in Helsinki, to which they called me a ‘nigger’ while staggering stupidly into the dark. I paid no heed to their foolishness.

Years later when studying in Aarhus, I participated in a cross-cultural dressing party with my classmates. Each participant was meant to dress as another classmate. Patricia from Spain dressed like me, complete with blackface, while I dressed as her with a whitewashed face for the full cultural effect. We were oblivious of the ruckus our cultural appropriation was about to cause to the public.

As soon as we boarded a public bus, we heard a visibly disturbed woman muttering obscenities under her breath. She would look at me, and then curse out. Eventually, she snapped and called me a ‘nigger’.

To this day, I remain baffled by why the woman took offence with my costume, all I remember from that event is a group of youngsters rallied her up and gave her a piece of their mind. Some of them later approached me and apologised for her behaviour, citing that not all Danes were as racist and ignorant.

Some of them later approached me and apologised for her behaviour, citing that not all Danes were as racist and ignorant.

To be honest, being called a nigger has never hurt me. Perhaps it is due to the cultural and historical dissonance from the term. Not many people understand the history behind the word nigger or even that of black slavery. However, vile and ignorant people will niggerize all black people as a way of dehumanising, dishonouring and devaluing our blackness.

Deeply entrenched ethnocentrism

Ethnocentrism is a culture shock that I have experience on a personal level, more so when people expect me to behave like them while seemingly negating the fact that I am an adult who is well shaped by her Kenyan culture.

Ethnocentrism occurs when people say: “Well, now you are in Denmark and you should behave like the Danes.” This assumption makes people believe that just because they are in a more technologically and democratically progressive country, their culture and way of doing things is, therefore, more superior, say than that of Africans.

Their knowledge of Africa is shaped by what they see or hear in the media, and most ironically it is the belief that Africa is a country or a dark continent.

Understandably, Denmark is a small homogenous country, therefore when someone says to me that I should behave like a Dane, I acknowledge their fear of cultural erosion, and at best informs them that my integration will never erode my Kenyan identity.

I will admit that this element of ethnocentrism scares me.  I don’t want ever to lose my identity while integrating into the Danish culture. I want to share my Kenyan culture, language and food with my children. I want them to become respectful citizens of the world, to be open-minded and wise.

See, the problem with an ethnocentric worldview is that it closes up minds rather than open them to accepting others with a different worldview; it focuses its ideology on the ‘US vs. Them’ way of misunderstanding and understanding diversity.

Racial bullying

Sadly, I have witnessed a fair amount of passive and aggressive racism in Denmark. Some time ago my husband and I were victims of racial bullying from a self-confessed Neo-Nazi who believed that white people should not marry black people.

She accused my husband of ‘racial genocide’, according to her; he was tainting the White ‘superior’ race with his mixed race children. An elderly Danish man who had been eavesdropping on the hate-filled monologue proceeded to tell her off by questioning the authenticity of her gene pool. His argument was that she could be anything else but a pure-blood Dane.

This kind stranger singlehandedly shut down a racist in a classy way that probably left her reeling in doubt about her identity.

All in all, societies in and out of Europe have their varying degrees of racism. There will always be the close minded, the indifferent and the open minded. Tough luck if you have to deal, marry, cohabit, work or live the former two.

Anonymity

For a Kenyan like me who comes from a collectivist culture and a small town where everyone seems to know the other, the European culture, specifically, the Scandinavian one feels very ‘cold’. Their individualistic way of life is one which I doubt I will ever become fully accustomed.

This element of anonymity remains one the biggest cultural shock when I first arrived in Finland. In true ‘African’ fashion, I knocked on my neighbour’s door, which he ignored at first but after persistence, he opened the door only so slightly, peering at me with suspicion.

I eagerly introduced myself, ready to strike some friendly small talk, only for him to stare back, stunned while only mumbling an almost inaudible response before shutting the door to my face. I went back to my room, crestfallen, wondering what I had done so wrong.

Since then, I have learned my lesson on anonymity, thus why today, I have come to accept the silence of my next door neighbour albeit us nonchalantly passing each other on the same staircase, without a word, for the past three years.

On the other hand, anonymity can be a good thing. It allows personal responsibility and freedom, although it can be severely alienating if one doesn’t have an established social circle and support system.

Well, culture shock has been an important aspect of my enculturation. It has shaped and continues to mould, my understanding of life abroad, as well as integration into life in Denmark.

Real growth comes when we abandon our comfort zones. The uncomfortable situations have forced me to grow up, to view life objectively rather than with a utopian mentality.

Life abroad has so far been an exhilarating experience. However, it often invites a sense of feeling lost, as I continue to integrate into a new language and culture.

I am privileged to have a strong Kenyan cultural background, a stable family, and a future in Denmark of learning, change, and growth.
In conclusion, my transition to life in Denmark may not have disillusioned me, but it has made objective and pragmatic. It has also made me realise the subtle, yet imporant difference between intergration and assimilation.

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22 comments

Mette Ravn says April 18, 2017 at 1:03 pm

Thank you, Judy, for sharing. Very interesting read.

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Justin Schaar April 18, 2017 at 1:05 pm

I do not agree with due to your exact situation. The strange and sad thing is that Danes don’t use the word nigger in a racist sense. It’s fucked and stupid but they will argue that point until blue in the face. It’s a fine line between being different culturally and being ignorant. In this case in my opinion it’s the latter.

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Irene Mburu April 18, 2017 at 1:10 pm

This was eye opening and very well written. It was also nice that someone can be honest about what many of our friends, family are going through. Side note though you are strong I would pack my bags so quickly at the first sign of racism.., I can barely stand it here at home what of abroad??

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Kenyan Mom Abroad April 18, 2017 at 1:24 pm

Thanks for reading. I try to paint a realistic picture of life in Kenya and Abroad so that others can make informed decisions. Out here you have to be strong, stronger than one has to be back home.

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Andrei Catana says April 18, 2017 at 1:11 pm

Although I`m coming from a “closer” culture than yours, I have encountered same shocks as you and made me feel hindered and guilty (for nothing, of course).

“Since then, I have learned my lesson on anonymity, thus why today, I have come to accept the silence of my next door neighbour albeit us nonchalantly passing each other on the same staircase, without a word, for the past three years.”

The only solution to this kind of problems, regardless of the environment, state, culture is to encourage young people before they get to be young adults into intercultural programs and volunteering, such as the ones AIESEC and Erasmus plus are doing.
Very nice article!

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Ólya Mari says April 18, 2017 at 1:13 pm

Thanx a lot for this article, it was very interesting to read! I so much agree on this one: Deeply entrenched ethnocentrism! I was often wondering too why diversity is not appreciated here, but instead “be like us or you seem weird” attitude is a norm? Considering the global world we live in, its a very narrow-minded approach to life and people around you.

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Kenyan Mom Abroad April 18, 2017 at 1:14 pm

Thank you for reading. That attitude continues to baffle me. It is like one is expected to completely forget who they are, and adopt a new identity as an adult. I don’t get it!

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Ólya Mari says April 18, 2017 at 1:15 pm

me neither! Why should you reject your own identity? I can take some good things from Danish culture, but I want to keep my own cultural and ethnical background and identity. Its just a pity how people can be so indifferent – instead of getting to know another culture and be curious, they prefer to have “i dont care” vibe, staying in the same mental boxes for whole life. Cultural exchange is always a development!

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Zandra Po says April 18, 2017 at 1:57 pm

I feel you all. I was called the Asian brown monkey by the kids and ex-live-in partner of my Danish husband. The reason why I ask for a divorce, two years of being discriminated in my house on my marriage. I work. I got pregnant. I serve all of them, and I was never treated as the wife never treated as human. I was even shouted at by my ex-mans kids the Asian Maid. 🙁 🙁 🙁

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Frank Brilhuis says April 18, 2017 at 1:59 pm

Judy Wanjiku Jørgensen, This desensitisation is a big part of the problem I think. I keep remembering a comedy show by Eddy Murphy where he starts the show by calling every black person who comes in a ‘nigger’ and explains the controversy of that. It left a big impression.
Other than that, very interesting read! I like it that you don’t just point out the negative things, but also the good things/differences (something that’s sometimes forgotten in this group)

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Katie Kurtz Says April 18, 2017 at 2:01 pm

A lot of people here and in Europe don’t know or don’t care about the power/taboo nature of the word. People say to me “It’s Europe, not the US, so don’t be upset”. It’s just an awful word to me though, and I continually try to explain it to my friends here.

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Kenyan Mom Abroad April 18, 2017 at 2:02 pm

It is a crazy word, with an extremely dark and painful history. Using that word is almost the same as saying the Hitler didn’t massacre any Jews. It carries the same insensitivity. Unfortunately, American films and music by black people, in the modern day play a big role in the desensitisation of the word ‘nigger’.

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KATIE KURTZ SAYS April 18, 2017 at 2:02 pm

That’s exactly how I feel. By the way, thank you for sharing your experience Judy Wanjiku Jørgensen 🙂 It’s not easy to talk about this sort of thing, but it’s a conversation that people need to hear.

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Kenyan Mom Abroad April 18, 2017 at 2:03 pm

Katie Kurtz , I agree. We need to have such uncomfortable conversations. It is the only way to learn and grow.

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Tcuguh Rose Jaymes April 18, 2017 at 12:35 pm

U r glowin mami

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Mercy Mwangi Ngugi April 18, 2017 at 2:13 pm

Thanks Judy for speaking on behalf of the majority.Its not that rosy in the scandinavian countries.

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Lee Mwiti says April 18, 2017 at 6:45 pm

Great write-up Judy! Really enjoyed reading this. Cc Seth W Kwatemba Ochieng Juma

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Georgina Nabwire says April 18, 2017 at 7:31 pm

Well My Dearest friend thanks a lot for your beautiful Blog, I have in Denmark for over 22 years now.
When I first came to Denmark those days there were very few Africans, One was so glad, just meet an African on the streets, I was living in a student hostel and it took me at least 3 months to meet a Swahili speaking person.
My first winter snow day was shocking and it was the first day I experience racist remarks apart from being called Neger by kids from time to time in Hellerup, in a daycare, I passed by every day going to college. I was standing at a Bus stop waiting for bus to go to college, it ha snowed like crazy, the bus took long to come and I was getting late for classes, then I asked a middle-aged Danish man, what the time was, and he looked into my direct into my eyes and said to me – IT IS TIME TO GO BACK TO AFRICA. I never replied, I just ignored him.
But the most discrimination I have experienced over the years is the education institutions to this date. My first is when I received a grade 12 ( A) in my first individual project in fashion & design, the whole entire class stopped to talking to me or even working with me. unfortunately, I was the only black student in that University for at least 2½ years, So it was only me, my book, projects and teachers.
But then over the years i have experienced all different kinds of discrimination, e.g indirect discrimination, ( structural) institutional discrimination and most commonly is perceptive discrimination, whereby both fellow students and teacher in Danish universities think you are dumb because you are an African, Or worse when you are having sensitive topics or conversations like colonialism & postcolonialism. My both my kids, Africans, boys ages 17 and 14, have been called Neger so many times but every time they told the teachers nothing was done, but when they took matters into their hands they were punished for it. So my take is one needs to have a thick skin and develop a good coping mechanism to be able to live and prevail in life in Denmark. And this is what I have taught my kids too. All in all Am a proud African, Kenyan I still embrace my culture in everything and that will never change.

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Parisha Zarmeen Brinch says April 18, 2017 at 10:42 pm

Wonderfully written, and I like the tone of positivity that you have in challenging experiences.

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Diana Niabattei April 18, 2017 at 10:31 pm

Beautiful writing, honest and eye-opening piece

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Paul Kaliisa says April 19, 2017 at 9:07 pm

I have read Judy Wanjiku’s blog three times one because she wrote her pain in a very articulate way that draws you in if you are an immigrant of colour, 2 because I felt her pain and lastly I wanted to understand her pain being a woman of African descent living in a Scandinavian country.
When I was done and commented on her post and think deeply about it, later on I realised that it’s not only us dark skinned people going through such pain, it’s a problem faced by everyone dark skinned, dark hair, Asian, but I feel like Eastern Europeans get it worst here, they are treated like trash and called all sorts of names from prostitutes to thieves. I work in an environment that’s so abusive when it comes to eastern Europeans, it’s so bad that sometimes I have excused myself to go out so I can relieve myself of the fury going on in my head.
We all suffer in one way or another, we are forgotten, no one has actually come to ask how we feel or what we find odd, or better yet what kind of help we require, everything we have got has been assumed that it might work for us. We have adjusted, found jobs, learnt the language, paid our taxes and our dues to society and the state, but still, we are treated as nothing with no voice.
I get pissed off when a Dane decides to end a conversation with ” if you don’t like it the go back where you came from” I get so pissed off that if I was white it would take me 5 seconds to turn red, who does that or thinks like that today.
All am saying is Judy, God bless your soul you made all of us think deeper about what life has given us, which is “humanity ” to go beyond the colour of our body and hair So we can unite in this tiny state to lift and encourage each other because in one way or another we are all stigmatised, just because we ain’t called Jensen, Jakobsen, Annalise or Maria Louise. Unity will make us transpire over this hate, and some day having a silent war against a system that asks 150% integration but gives us nothing back can actually notice that we are here and are willing to adopt but into a state that does take pride in us too. United we stand, divided we fal

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Ana Paula Torres says April 23, 2017 at 10:56 am

Judy, I just wanted to congratulate you for the post. It is brilliant and many of us will see ourselves in your story. I am Ana Paula, I am from Brazil. And I feel exactly the same. Continue your flight for a better world. ? Go girl! Kisses.

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