Mar 16, 2013

Funny thing about being foreign

The funny thing about being foreign is that I don't talk about being foreign.

Norwegian TV came to my place of work and interviewed some of our non-Norwegian employees during lunch. They managed to find one of the noisier places in our cafeteria to do so, but also a pretty visible one. (We assume it's NRK and the show "Migrapolis", which is about foreign nationals living in Norway.)

One of my co-workers grinned at me and said I should be interviewed, too. I responded with a quick "nope, too assimilated". But then I offered the real reason:

I never talk about life in Norway as a foreigner. I have read how other foreigners feel about living here, I've sometimes talked to them about it, and it's never good. I don't watch "Migrapolis" because the foreigners arriving now seem to be taken better care of than when I first came here. Norwegians now are more curious about foreigners and therefore friendlier towards them; I'd rather not feel the envy.

I can remember how cold and lonely this country felt to me when I came back in 1981, but I met individuals who brightened my day. According to the Norwegians themselves, the natives of Bergen are pretty sociable and cheerful, so I've lucked out. This is one of the few places in this country where you can strike up a conversation with a stranger at a bus stop and get a friendly response. And I love when that happens.

I don't criticize the Norwegians for being the way they are. They themselves are aware that not all their national quirks are advantageous. I don't feel the need to find fault like I used to, perhaps because I really am assimilated and perhaps because the Norwegians themselves are getting less provincial. (And to be honest, Americans seem to be getting more provincial.)

A sample of Norwegian culture

When my company bought some major US software in the 80's, a number of American consultants came to our head office in Bergen to work during installation. I gave up talking to them; they kept finding fault with the Norwegians (the roads, the food, the prices, the etc.) and I felt they were both being unfair to Norway and reminding me of my own struggle to fit in and not be so homesick all the time. Hordaland will never be South Carolina, 'K?

My grinning co-worker has just had Polish painters redo his living room. One told him that he avoided talking about Norway with other foreigners; it was too depressing. His experience was like mine: It's hard to focus on the good when others keep reminding you of what's wrong.

It's not that Norway's perfect, but it's also not the US (or Poland), and never will be. May as well just get used to the idea and find out what's good about Norway. It's unfair to compare one country with another, anyway. They all have advantages and disadvantages. This is why I love traveling abroad on my vacation: To give myself a break from the Norwegian way of doing things. And to return home to Bergen, Norway, with gratitude.