The One Year Anniversary Post

As of July 25th, we’ve been living in Denmark for one whole year! Yay! Of course, I missed this anniversary because morning sickness, so I never did a post for it. So I figured that would do that now.

Obligatory photos of us. I've been a really bad photographer lately and haven't taken any recent photos. I think this is of us on our way to the US in August.

Obligatory photo of us. I’ve been a really bad photographer lately and haven’t taken any recent photos. I think this is of us on our way to the US in August.

Also, I’ve been thinking that it may seem like from some of my blog posts that I’m a little down on Denmark. I have the habit of writing more when I’m upset or unhappy about something (which actually has many health benefits because science!). It’s a way of working through it for me. But when things are going well, I don’t feel as much compulsion to write. And the transition to living in a foreign country as a first time expat is rather difficult, especially for someone like me who is not always excited about big changes. So I’m worried that I’m not sharing the good, happy, and fun parts of our experience with you guys as much as I should be. Because we do have a lot of fun! And there’s a lot about this experience that I’m grateful for.

So, without further ado, reasons why I am grateful for Denmark and this experience:

  1. Brian can work and earn his PhD at the same time. This is a big one. This is the reason we came to Denmark and what makes it all worth it. In the US, this situation would pretty much be impossible. Companies and universities are not at all used to sharing information and copyright possibilities. But here in Denmark, they encourage industry and academia to work together (which really sounds like a good idea to me). So they have this thing called an Industrial PhD which allows Brian to work full time – and get paid – in a company while also earning his PhD, using the same work for both, basically. If it weren’t for this, Brian either would not be getting his PhD or we would be living on a PhD student’s and a librarian’s salaries, which I guess would have been an adventure all on its own.
  2. Denmark is a westernized country full of very proficient English speakers. You will have some expats who argue that it is a negative that so many Danes speak such good English (“you don’t learn the language as quickly”) or that Denmark is so similar to other Western European countries. These are usually the adventure hungry, wanderlust expats. Just to be clear, you will never hear that argument or complaint from me. I am so thankful, every day, that I can communicate in English. I just, I can’t imagine what it would be like to live in a country where that isn’t a possibility. Of course, we are both learning Danish, and I try to speak Danish whenever I can. But there are so many situations in which my Danish is not going to cut it. For instance, I had to call the insurance company today to figure out how travel insurance works. I just can’t have most of that conversation in Danish and know what’s going on. So, this is a big one that makes our lives here much easier. Denmark is just different enough, and I like it that way.
  3. It’s taught me to deal with being outside my comfort bubble. Ugh, it has taken me a while to see this one as any kind of positive or to be grateful for being forced soooo far outside my comfort bubble. The thing is, I don’t mind change or new experiences. I just like them a little bit at a time so I can adjust before moving on to the next thing. A lot of change all at once kind of overloads my system. This was especially hard for me with Danish, for some reason. There’s just something about learning a new language that makes you feel about 5 years old and 2 feet tall. But I have come to realize that it’s a necessary skill to have, to be out there and to be uncomfortable and to get on with what you have to do anyway. Recently, I think the baby-to-be has really pushed me through a big barrier, again with Danish. I’m always uncomfortable starting a conversation with Danes in English because I don’t want to be…I don’t know, the rude foreigner I guess. But as I said above, there are certain things that just work better for everyone if we all speak English. Doctors’ appointments, for instance. And recently there have been a few times where – due to baby-to-be – we’ve just had to get things done and I’ve just had to get over my weird hang ups and do them. And it all turned out OK. So I’m learning to not judge myself so much for feeling uncomfortable or for not being the perfect Danish speaking foreigner, for being who I am where I am on my Danish language journey.
  4. It’s taught me how to make friends. This has been a big one for me and probably is the thing that I’m most grateful for after #1 up above. I feel like after high school I kind of fell out of practice of making new friends. It comes so easily when you’re young, but it got a bit harder as an adult. You have less down time with random strangers, I guess. Everyone has their lives, and it takes more effort on both sides to build a new friendship. So when we moved here and literally knew no one, it was like back to basics in making friends. And the thing is, I actually really enjoy the process. It’s fun to meet new people who are going through the same things we’re going through. It’s fun to compare notes and share embarrassing experiences and complain about Danish. I’m hoping this all just continues when the baby comes and I start meeting fellow mothers. I’ve learned that in adult friend-making, it’s pretty important to have one big thing in common: expat, country of origin, mother, love of reading, etc.
  5. All the great new friends we’ve made! And thanks to my new found ability 😉 we have made some really great new friends. Since everyone in the expat community here is missing their support network, it seems like you bond pretty fast, especially with the people you meet when you’ve just arrived. And it is a HUGE help to have people that are going through the same thing who can share stories and resources. We are definitely grateful for our awesome friends.
  6. The ability to travel. This is also a really big one. Living in Denmark means we get to travel a lot more in Europe, which is usually pretty difficult for an American. So we get all these added bonus experiences, which so far have been totally awesome. It’s not as easy – or as cheap – as everyone tells you it will be before you move, but it’s still easier than coming all the way from the US for each trip. Plus, we get to go places we never would have visited before like Stockholm or some tiny dutch town. I think next on our list are Iceland, Finland, and Norway.
  7. Living on our own. Brian and I have always lived in the same city as our families. And we’ve loved it. There is so much to be said for living around family, and we’d like to end up back in that situation. But I do think that it’s good for us to have this time to try and figure things out on our own. It’s that last push into adulthood, if you will.
  8. The change in our perspective. Brian and I are pretty open minded anyway, but living in another country just further broadens your horizons and forever changes your perspectives on a lot of things. Suddenly you really see that there’s not only one way to do things or one way to live.

So I think those are the big ones. I am also, of course, grateful for little things about Denmark, like the awesome public transportation system, the bike paths, living by the sea, the weather (yes, apart from the darkness I do quite like Denmark’s cool, mild climate, come to St. Louis in August and then we’ll talk). It’s nice to go through this list every once in a while, especially when I’m feeling frustrated about something having to do with being an expat in Denmark, and remind myself why this experience is actually quite positive and why we decided on the move in the first place.

Well, one year down, two more to go!

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Our Experience (or lack of it) with Reverse Culture Shock

I feel like all I ever read about these days on expat forums in “reverse culture shock.” It’s all anyone ever talks about, probably because no one ever used to talk about it. What it means is that while living abroad you adapt to life in your adopted country. You change a little bit. Maybe the pace of life slows down or you have become more direct in speaking or you discover a liking for salty licorice. Then, when you visit or move back to your original culture, you have to go through the culture shock process all over again. You assume it’ll be no big deal. After all, you grew up in this culture. But you’re surprised to find that certain things just don’t fit anymore. You hate driving everywhere or you can’t stand how friendly the waiters are or you can’t find your favorite candies at the grocery store because Americans don’t eat salty licorice. (And for good reason.) 

So I was all prepared on our trip back to the US in August – for a month! – to experience some reverse culture shock. I was braced. And then…nothing. 

Well, not nothing. There were a few little things. It was weird being able to understand all the conversations around you – and a little annoying, people talk about the dumbest stuff! I remembered how ridiculously frustrating traffic is when you’re the one driving and how annoying it is to have to drive everywhere. The weather was almost unbearably hot at one point. I had forgotten what the St. Louis humidity felt like.

But mostly, it felt instantly normal and kind of awesome. We were surrounded by our family and friends. I could talk to people in stores without stress, without cringing at my bad Danish or at my need to speak English. I could go to the grocery store and choose between 30 different kinds of cereal! (Who knew this would become such a big deal for me?) I could eat Saltines! I could get cheap, fast, casual dining or takeout and didn’t have to cook every night! (That last one is a big one.)

Now, we’ve only been abroad 1 year, so that probably isn’t enough time to fully adapt to another culture and lifestyle. Also, I don’t think you could say that I’ve fully integrated here. For one thing, I spend much of my day at home alone. (Imagine an old school housewife only lazier and without the retro housedress.) And during the “morning” sickness period, I felt so bad that I stopped going into my volunteer job and Danish classes were on summer break (thank god), so I don’t think I spoke any Danish for about 3 whole months. And it’s really true, the language barrier will keep you from feeling fully a part of the culture around you. 

So given all of that, I was a little apprehensive about coming back to Denmark. I was worried I’d have to adjust all over again. But then we landed, and I was so glad to get on the train from Copenhagen to Aarhus and see the familiar countryside whiz by. We got home, and we just picked back up with our lives here. Even if we’re not 100% comfortable here, it’s still familiar, and we’ve got our little routines and we’ve got our friends (all of whom I was excited to see) and we’ve got our life that we’ve made, just the two of us.

So I would say, the weirdest thing about this whole reverse culture shock experience is the realization that we have two totally different lives in two totally different places and we could go to either place and pick up with either life fairly easily. I’ve never had that before, and it’s a bit of a strange feeling. I’m not entirely sure how I feel about it, but I’ll tell you one thing, it’s wonderfully reassuring to know that we have something to go back to and people at home who love us.

Standing Out In Denmark: Discovering the Jante Law

One of the biggest differences between Denmark and the US is also the most subtle. You won’t notice it right away, but it will start to sneak up on you as you begin your job, talk to your new Danish friends and coworkers, or send your child to daycare or school. This difference has a name: janteloven, the Law of Jante (or, more succinctly, the Jante Law).

Janteloven was created by Danish-Norwegian author Aksel Sandemose in 1933 in his novel A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks (En flyktning krysser sitt spor). {{Side note: I find it so incredibly fascinating that something with this much cultural influence came from a novel. Ah, the power of literature.}} The novel is about a small Danish town called Jante which abides by these 10 – rather harsh – laws:

  1. You’re not to think you are anything special.
  2. You’re not to think you are as good as we are.
  3. You’re not to think you are smarter than we are.
  4. You’re not to convince yourself that you are better than we are.
  5. You’re not to think you know more than we do.
  6. You’re not to think you are more important than we are.
  7. You’re not to think you are good at anything.
  8. You’re not to laugh at us.
  9. You’re not to think anyone cares about you.
  10. You’re not to think you can teach us anything.

These can all be boiled down to one sentiment: you are no better than anyone else here.

It’s claimed that in writing these laws Sandemose was inspired by a belief that existed in ancient Norse culture that to preserve one’s happiness one should be cautious and humble. In the book, these laws ensure harmony and stability in the town. But interestingly, it sounds like Sandemose wrote these 10 laws in a moment of Danish irony and actually meant them as a criticism of the restrictions of narrow-minded, small town life. Which begs the question, how did it go from a criticism of this way of thinking to being a defining cultural norm of Scandinavian society?

Because the general gist of these laws can still be felt in Scandinavia and in Denmark.

I was recently listening to a podcast by Kay Xander Mellish about raising children in Denmark, and in it she raises the issue of the Jante Law. In Denmark, children learn these rules very early in life. The whole podcast is very interesting and you should go listen to it all (it’s fairly short at only 5 minutes), but the most interesting part for our discussion is this:

The Jante Law is part of all Danish education. There’s no elite education here, no advanced, or gifted and talented programs. If your child is better than the others at a certain subject, his job is to help the students who are not as good.

If you come from a very competitive society – the US, the UK, China, India – that can be a bit of a shock. There’s no competition in Danish education. The kids work in groups. There are no competitive schools you have to fight to get into. There’s almost no standardized testing until the kids are 15 or 16. And there are relatively few tests within the daily school lessons.

In Danish school, your child’s social life is considered what’s most important. Does she have friends? Can she get along with the other children in the class? Does he like to go to school? Does he fit in?

The idea is that if a child is socially comfortable in school, if he or she wants to go to school, then academic success will follow.

No advanced or gifted classes?!, I hear you Americans saying. No awards for being the best reader or the most participating or the one with the best attendance?! This is at the heart of what is so difficult for many Americans to understand about Denmark because it’s such a fundamental difference, and it shapes every aspect of life from how we raise our children to how we interact with our coworkers to what we expect out of our governments.

You must understand that above all else, Danes value equality and community. It’s like they took the principle of democracy – which plays as equally important a role in Danish history as it does in American history – but instead of running with the “individual freedom” part they ran with the “equality” part.

How does this affect every day life? Let me give you some examples. Everyone does some kind of sport in Denmark. If you admit that you, in fact, do not like to run and don’t play a sport, your are met with disbelieving blank stares. And then you are nicely but persistently asked to join 1000 different sporting activities. It’s a nice gesture, really. You’re being included in the most Danish way possible. Plus, everyone knows you’re supposed to exercise. But. It feels a bit like peer pressure, which coming from the US immediately raises a huge red JUST SAY NO flag.

Another example. There are a few consumer products in Denmark that it seems like everyone has: Kahler vases, PH lamps. Almost as if, if you’re really Danish you’ll have these items in your house. You will also notice a similarity in how people dress. If you’re a girl, it’s skinny jeans, black leather jacket, fancy athletic sneakers, hair in a messy bun.

None of this is bad. Indeed, you see people buying the same things or wearing the same clothes all the time in the US. It’s human nature. Hell, we own two Kahler vases and an imitation PH lamp. (The real thing is freaking expensive!) And I’m thinking of buying my own leather jacket.

But.

I can count the number of times I’ve seen someone with brightly dyed hair, unusual facial piercings, distinctive clothes – anything that would visually mark them as different – on one hand. It’s such a shock coming from a country where everyone is trying their hardest to be unique and special. One of a kind. Different. I mean, come on, I come from the land of Lady Gaga for crying out loud!

We’re desperate to be different.

It’s kind of comforting to not have to worry about being special or unique, to be OK with being normal. To feel good about being normal. There’s a whole school of thought out there about Generation Y (aka The Millennials aka me) that says that the reason they’re so screwed up is because their parents told them that they were inherently special, that they would go on to do big and special things. Then they turned 25 and found out that really they’re just the same as everyone else, and it hit them hard. And thus the quarter life crisis was born. It’s a lot of pressure, to be special, to be unique. And as we all know if you try to be different you just end up doing it in predictable ways, ways that actually make you the same as everyone else who’s also trying to be different. Thus the punks, goths, and hipsters were born.

Plus, from a fundamental belief in equality comes the social welfare state, the drive to ensure that every citizen is educated equally, the belief that everyone deserves to be healthy and happy. Here, the care you get from every doctor, the education you get from every school is (theoretically) equally good. Denmark doesn’t have a large gap between the wealthy and the poor like there is in the US. (Ah the god ol’ 1%.) We say in the US that every American has the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” but I don’t know that we really mean it. Or rather, we emphasize the pursuit bit rather than the actual achievement of happiness. You’re free to try and be happy as much as you want, but you’ll do it on your own. Good luck with that.

But.

It’s still hard to adjust to, the idea that you don’t want to call attention to your differences. And sometimes I find myself wondering about some of its other implications. If there’s such pressure to fit in, are bullying and peer pressure problems in Danish schools? How is it handled? Do people in Denmark even think about peer pressure in the same way that I do? Questions like that. Sounds like I need to do some more research and some more investigating.

How Many Steps Back Does It Take?

Ugh, guys, learning a language can be so frustrating. So frustrating! I’ve never thought of myself as a language person – someone for whom learning languages is fun and easy – so that was my biggest fear about moving to Denmark. Also, I can be a bit of a perfectionist, and the try and fail method of language learning that you just have to go through to get to fluency was not made for someone who is a bit of a perfectionist. I knew this about myself going in, so I’ve tried to just grit my teeth and push through it, accepting my mistakes and laughing them off. It hasn’t been nearly as bad as I feared, particularly because we can get by with speaking English. These days, we usually speak some muddled version of both childish Danish and simplified English depending on where we are, who we’re talking to, and our mood/confidence level on any given day.

But it seems like every time I start to feel like I’m getting somewhere with Danish, I take five thousand mega steps back. First, it was Christmas break over which the language school was closed. So I went for a whole month without speaking Danish at all. Coming back after that was…challenging to say the least. Most recently, it was our Easter trip. We were gone for a measly 10 days, and yet it still feels like I’ve lost the flow. I’m no longer in the zone.

I’ve never learned a language like this before – in the country with the language all around me – but it turns out that regularly hearing and seeing that language, even if just for a few minutes a day, is a huge help in quickly learning it. And being removed from that environment really drags down your progress. Who knew?!

So I’m just dutifully doing my Danish homework and trying my hardest to speak Danish when I can. It’s especially hard right after coming back from a break like this because I can hear myself stumble and falter, and even words and phrases I know I know don’t come easily to my tongue. But I’ve been through this before, and they do eventually start coming more easily. It’s just “grin and bear it” time.

This is me when I try to speak in Danish lately. My brain short circuits!

The Return

The Grand Place in Brussels

The Grand Place in Brussels

Well we’ve just returned from our first official Easter Holiday Abroad. See, the Danes get three days off for Easter: the Thursday and Friday before and the Monday after (what they call Second Easter Day, hilarious). Which is a lot of days off, even for Europe. So over Easter, everyone goes on holiday. It’s kind of like spring break in the US only the whole country is off at the same time.

Brian and I wanted to take advantage of these extra days off since he has so few vacation days this year. He was also scheduled to be in The Netherlands for a conference the week before Easter, so we turned the whole thing into a 10-day long European extravaganza that took us from Amsterdam to Wageningen to Bruges to Brussels.

It was our longest trip abroad since we’ve moved to Denmark, and I’ll have many more details and more posts in the days to come, but I just wanted to take a moment to talk about returning to our newly created home as a brand new expat. Because it’s a little surreal.

It probably didn’t help that we didn’t get home until midnight last night. But when we pulled up on the train, walked to our apartment, and opened our front door it sort of felt like I was in a dream. Or like I was trying to remember a dream right after waking. Everything was almost familiar, but I found myself reminding myself: yes, this is your living room, yes, your walls really are that white, yes, that is where you keep your sugar and flour.

And today, my first day back to real life, I keep finding myself in the middle of that feeling you get when you walk into a room and suddenly forget what you’re doing or why you’re there. Again, I have to consciously tell myself: this is what you were doing before you left, this is what your routine used to look like.

I think it’s different for me, a “trailing spouse,” than it is for Brian, the working spouse. He has a routine to go back to, to immediately fall back into. (Whether that’s good or bad is up for discussion since he had to get up at 6:00 this morning and go to work while I got to sleep in and sleep off some of our travel from yesterday.) Whereas I don’t really have a routine. Or the one that I do have is set by me. So it’s harder to slip back into it, I think.

But of course, it’s coming back to me, and really it’s almost normal again now that I’ve made my usual gym-library-grocery store trip. And of course I’m busy editing all our photos and coming up with lots of topics to post about (Things I Learned in Brussels, Why I Love Danish Public Transportation, Why The Netherlands Shouldn’t Actually be Called Holland, etc. etc.). But until then, I wanted to post this small observation.

Happy Belated Easter Holidays!

I’m Back!

I’m back snitches!

Sorry for the lack of posts the last couple weeks. Though it’s not really a good excuse for a blogger (because apparently blogging is unlike other jobs and you keep doing it NO MATTER WHAT!), but it was the holidays and my mother-in-law was in town so I kind of unplugged from everything. I’ve never had so many emails to catch up on!

We had a wonderful Christmas and New Years here in Denmark. I may do a post with a few pictures soon. But now it’s back to real life and all that that entails. Coming back from a trip or the holidays when you’re a new expat is a little weird. On the one hand, it’s nice to be back to your usual routine and surroundings that are more familiar than where you’ve been, even if only slightly. On the other hand, it’s like your subconscious recognizes this “coming back” process and expects to be coming back to the very familiar, a.k.a. your home town. Coming back to your new home can be a little jarring at first. But overall, it’s nice and surprising to realize that our little apartment is starting to actually feel like home and that we can relax here in Aarhus because it is indeed beginning to be familiar.

{And to those of you in Copenhagen who told us Aarhus is boring, boo to you! I much prefer our reasonably sized and not ridiculously busy city to the hustle and bustle of Copenhagen. But then I’ve never been a big city girl.}

I Really Should Have Done My Research

So a couple of fellow bloggers – specifically Marian von Bakel and Susanne from Fit Across Cultures – have brought something to my attention about the culture shock curve. Apparently, there is actual academic research that backs up my personal feelings of frustration with the curve as an inadequate model for the normative expat experience.

Despite being widely used and acclaimed in “so you’re going to be an expat” books and training, the traditional curve has never been conclusively supported by scientific research. In fact, its applicability, relevance, and usefulness has been questioned by the academic community for many many years. Though many studies have tried to validate it as a good model for the expatriate’s experience, they have repeatedly been unable to do so. The main complaints? The model is too simplistic, it assumes one mode and method of adaptation for everyone, and it assumes a honeymoon period (which many expats are unhappy to realize that they’ve skipped right over, going straight into stress time because, duh, you’ve just moved countries and have to set up a home and a whole new life all at once).

The Berardo Cultural Adjustment and Transition Training Presentation from Culturosity.com, which Susanne brought to my attention, was especially enlightening. It tells of the history of the curve, gathers together much of the past research on this topic, discusses why the curve got so stuck in culture shock discussions, and proposes alternative ways that we might talk about culture shock. (My guess is that it’s staying power is due to its simplicity. It’s easy to use and talk about, while describing the reality of culture shock would be messier and more complicated.)

So thanks to my readers for inserting some actual facts into this rather personal discussion! Maybe next time I’ll do some Googling before I post…

 

Let’s Take a Moment to Talk Culture Shock

So in between all this holiday cheer (because I have more holiday posts coming!), I wanted to take some time to talk about homesickness and culture shock because, let’s face it, even the veteran expats are probably getting a little homesick this time of year.

I saw this video come up on ExpatInDenmark.com the other day.

It’s a good video, and I like the way it succinctly describes something called the “culture shock curve.” But ever since watching it I can’t really stop thinking about it. Because I don’t think that this really describes my experience so far as an expat. (All 4.25 months of it.)

The traditional culture shock curve looks like this:

I drew my own based on the video because I can't find a simple one that I like online.

I drew my own based on the video because I can’t find a simple one that I like online.

It’s important for non-expats – for family and friends who are left behind – to understand that there are these multiple periods of culture shock instead of just the one initial period. Because from afar the expat life can seem like one big exciting adventure. You can see how there would be an initial period of adjustment, but it’s harder to understand from afar how the more serious period of culture shock may come later after you’ve superficially adjusted to life in your new country.

However, the way it’s usually drawn makes it look like a fairly natural ebb and flow, like a steady progression through stages. But there are two things that I would note:

1. Not everyone gets to the final “acceptance” stage. Some people get stalled in one of the various culture shock troughs. I read this in a “so you’re moving overseas” book before we left the US, and I will admit that it kind of freaked me out. Because I would be just the kind of person to get stalled. But I think it’s important to note that adaptation isn’t easy.

2. My personal experience is not represented by this graph. Rather, it looks a little more like this:

You are here...somewhere

You are here…somewhere

This may be due to the fact that I’m only 4 (.25!) months into my expat experience, so I may not be seeing the big picture or larger pattern. But it definitely feels like these culture shock periods come much more frequently than just twice in your whole expat experience, and they’re not necessarily so prolonged. The whole experience feels much more up and down rather than smoothly curving through sequential stages. I feel like I go through one whole cycle of this maybe once a month.

Also, I don’t think that these two states are mutually exclusive. I can be in the throws of a serious homesick binge when we have a good day and learn something really cool about our host country. Or I can feel like things are going fine when something happens and I feel like I’ve fallen back a couple steps.

So while the culture shock curve is a very helpful graph in introducing future expats and their families back home to the fact that there are multiple moments of culture shock and that adaptation is hard and may not come easily or right away, I think it’s a little too simplified. And as an expat who’s read many many articles about this “normal” curve, it’s starting to get a little annoying.

Not every expat’s journey looks like that. Your journey and how you handle the experience of moving abroad is very personal and unique. Comparing yourself to some standard of normal – or to what other expats are doing or feeling – can sometimes be more harmful than helpful. Just have faith in yourself and your ability to grow and adapt. Know that you will get there someday in your own time in your own way. Or you will go home, and that will be OK, too, because this is your journey.