CULTURE IS FLUID
Cultural difference is something I didn’t really dwell much on when considering Denmark as my destination of study abroad. Perhaps it is because I had already successfully integrated into one caucasian culture once that I thought this would come more easily. I was born in Seoul and moved to California in 2006. At the time, “culture shock” wasn’t really a notion I could process because I was too young to understand the holistic concept. As I learned English and spent most of my childhood in America, it was natural to understand the flow of things as an insider. I thought I could do it again, this time with more knowledge and familiarity.
However, I had forgotten that Denmark and the U.S. are located on completely different continents with very different historical context and cultures. Yes, there may be some overlaps, but these are two very different countries we are talking about here!
First off, Denmark is very homogenous. Nearly 90% of Denmark’s population is comprised of Danish descent (blond hair, blue eyes, all hitting an average height of like 6 feet…!) and it’s hard to find people of color around. Compared to Copenhagen, my hometown feels incredibly diverse (Mind you, I live in Yorba Linda, CA where Richard Nixon was born…)
Secondly, from my personal experiences with the Danish culture within and out of classroom settings, I would say political discourse with Danes is not really recommended. A few days ago, there was a heated conversation in my Danish Language class on cultural appropriation. A girl mentioned seeing Danish children dressed up in traditional Native clothing as costumes at an amusement park. My professor explained how natural that is in Denmark and that it is out of “admiration and curiosity” that they dress up this way.
The conversation escalated between a fellow student and my professor and I could feel all of my blood rushing to my head. My professor continued to justify cultural appropriation as a means of cultural difference. She “sympathized” and “understood” why we as Americans would be so incredibly upset over cultural appropriation due to the deep history of colonialism. However this specific American history did not pertain to Denmark, so they could dress up this way if they wanted to because their intentionality was not to offend.
I was confused. Was I the only one finding everything she had just said disturbingly problematic? Everyone was silent.
These thoughts ran through my head:
- She spoke as though Denmark was never involved in colonialism
- Culture is inevitably fluid and drawing the line between America and Europe as if Denmark is immune to cultural appropriation or any other problems involving race, classicism, and etc is absolutely flawed
- The issue here is not about intentionality. There is an inherent problem in the holistic concept of white supremacist ideology and them historically (and still) stripping people of color from their culture in adoption of their own, which loses value in so many ways and also goes back to colonialism + oppression. Therefore, no matter what the intention or the process of “cultural appreciation” they undergo to purify this whole mess, this is the (very small sum of) consequence of history (actually present day too) pertaining to white supremacy and colonialism.
- This is a white professor here speaking on behalf of other people’s (marginalized, oppressed POC) experiences that do not pertain to her own
- Despite Denmark’s impressive social/progressive movements (most of which I agree are far superior to that of United States and will talk more about at the bottom half of this blog), this nation will continue to be a homogenous, uncomfortable place for people like me and other POC by drawing the line on empathy
She also used the analogy of our cultural difference by stating: “We don’t dress like Adolf Hitler because that history is more relevant in Europe”. As if one’s geography influences one’s values and beliefs and what’s right and wrong as we cross borders. I mean, no one in their right mind, even in America that is thousands of miles away from Europe (unless you are a white supremacist nazi), would dress up like Hitler. Come on.
Overall, I was just absolutely floored to hear my professor drawing the line by saying “this is the Danish way of doing things”. Not only was she using cultural difference to justify cultural appropriation, it was also a real life example of white supremacy manifesting itself in a classroom setting. At this point in time, I was shaking from anger, fear, confusion, rage, but mostly discomfort. I was infuriated that this discourse was happening between my white professor and my white classmates. I was even more disgusted by my American classmates who agreed with her and even said cultural appropriation is not a thing (you guessed it, they were all white). But really, I was mostly infuriated with myself for not being able to say a single thing. Apart from the shaking that made speaking difficult, I knew very well that speaking up as a minority in a room full of entitled whites would just smother my words and make the rest of my Danish class experience absolutely miserable. I couldn’t dare to disagree or offer anything when there was such an inherent hierarchy as a student receiving a grade in this class.
During our next class, at this point I hoped that we could all just move on, our professor brought up the previous conversation and told us that she had a passionate discourse with her colleague because she couldn’t stop thinking about it. She said that conversations like these are not relevant at the moment. That they just don’t talk about it. She said maybe in 5 years they will start talking about it more, but right now, no.
But how was there no relevance when we were talking about it at the moment, in present day? When this was brought up in her classroom multiple times before my class? Did they ever try to sympathize or make an effort to understand anything at all?
She closed with a cherry on top: “Yes, America has a deep history with slavery that went on for centuries, but in Denmark, no. Yes, we were involved in the slave trade, but not like America.”
(this is called an interrobang – I learned from Sophia – and I felt this way during the whole class)
And I promise I am not exaggerating this to make the blog more dramatic. Of course, those were not her exact words as I did not take notes verbatim, but she used those terms in that context, in that sentence to justify I guess what she believes to be “cultural difference” and I am not mistaken here.
Walking out of the classroom absolutely defeated by this terrible academic hierarchy and oblivious racism, I couldn’t help but think 1) I really want to drop this class, but I can’t because Pomona requires it 2) Denmark is really just a dystopian society.
~ DYSTOPIA ~
The Danes like to describe Denmark as a “tribe”. It’s a small country with a very efficient system. They are ranked at the top as one of the happiest countries in the world. They all ride bikes. They are going to be the first country to be carbon neutral by 2050. They take serious pride in the fact that they are the first country to legalize same sex marriage (except for the fact that it never really goes anywhere intersectionally aha). They seem so progressive and sustainable. Their taxes actually do good work. They have amazing healthcare and education is free. Tips are not mandatory because everyone has sustainable pay and can actually make a living without having to rely on extra tips working at restaurants. Danish parents can leave their infants in strollers just parked outside the store and run their errands because there is a sense of societal trust among the people. They cannot absolutely fathom Donald Trump as United States’ president and they all ridicule America to be objectively less.
So yes, the Denmark society feels absolutely out of this world and almost too good to be true. However, as an outsider who conveniently does not fit in the societal norm of the Danish tribe, I am constantly disturbed to first handedly experience all the flaws that the privileged constantly miss out on. It’s like I am in a dystopian novel with freaky tall bike riders all doing the same thing and I am the rebel, the only one conscious of what is really happening. Denmark has an attitude of “because we have all these amazing benefits and a seemingly perfect system, all the other uncomfortable things regarding race, gender, or the intersectionality of everything else alike do not have to be discussed. And it’s uncomfortable to talk about them, so why even do that in the first place when we are all so happy?”
They say they don’t see color here and I wish they would. I wish they would care enough to discuss these yes, uncomfortable, but important issues without using “cultural difference” as a justification. They need to acknowledge that these issues are not contained in one country or the historical context of one country, but are universally relevant. And if they cared (they should) enough, they would try to learn and understand.
I acknowledge that this one experience does not mean that everyone in Denmark holds this perspective, but they are very likely to. My Danish Language class caused a lot of frustration and discomfort, and this made me realize that I was very privileged to be at Pomona College to have (most, if not some) students and faculty members who could resonate with my experiences, and if not, constantly fought in support to understand and empathize.
I have come to peace with myself that it is not my responsibility to emotionally and physically drain myself every time I enter my Danish Language class, especially when these discussions will not change my professor’s mind. The classes at DIS makes me miss Pomona very dearly, but I will not let this consume my study abroad experience as there are also wonderful things about being here.
I am mainly thankful for my suite mates who (thank goodness) were at least on the same page as me (I love them dearly) and have supported me since day 1 of arrival (honest shoutout to the 5th floor <3). There are also a lot of unfinished/underdeveloped thoughts and discoveries that I hope to reflect more on during my stay here. I am just thankful that I have a space for reflection and friends who support me.
I also promise I had a wonderful week. We went to Reffen, a street food market next to the ocean, and shared delicious foods as we watched the sunset. We visited Malmo, Sweden for a short day trip. My visiting host family invited me to paint pottery with them. You can find pictures of all of my fun trips in my gallery. Thanks for reading and sending so much love to everyone.
Until next time,