Expat, foreigner or something else?

In the aftermath of an election in which non-Danes were very much in focus, blogger Melanie Haynes looks at how labels can both define and separate us.

Expat, foreigner or something else?
Do the terms we use for ourselves and others define us? Photo: Colourbox
Recently I was taking part in a focus group for non-Danes and the facilitator asked an interesting question: how do we define ourselves? Expats or foreigners? I have lived here for nearly eight years and I don’t think I have ever really defined myself as either. I am British but I live in Denmark. I met many new people when I first came here at my Danish language school and I don’t think any of us defined ourselves by either term but rather by our nationality.
I was interested in what the words ‘expat’ and ‘foreigner’ bring to mind when applied to me and others like me. 
The term ‘expat’ tends to be used, certainly here in Denmark, to refer to people who have come here from other countries for work on a short term basis, yet I know many people who have lived here for a long time who refer to themselves as expats. 
Interestingly a friend from Scotland who is moving here from Berlin was refused a rental property as she wasn’t a ‘real expat’ since her husband had a permanent contract here. Retired people from England who live in France refer to themselves as expats. To me the term seems to be used by people who want to separate themselves slightly from the country they live in and to hold onto their own identity. Almost as if they don’t want to immerse themselves too much in a place that may be a temporary stopping ground. 
Many expats exist in a very carefully-created environment and this can be a way of self protection. This is often a choice I understand. If you are moving every three to four years, you need to have some continuity in life. So international schools for your kids, a social life centred around other expats who ‘get it’ and not learning yet another new language (what’s the point for a few years?) seems to work for many. To me this is an ‘expat’.
‘Foreigner’, meanwhile seems to be a word with very negative connotations. Whilst many expats live quite separately from the community they live in, the use of the word foreigner to me excludes the person from the community. I have never been called a foreigner here in Denmark but I was regularly referred to one, and most often in a negative way, when I lived in Berlin. In playgrounds I heard mothers telling their children not to play with my son because he was a foreigner. To be generous, I hoped it was because they thought there might be a language issue but I doubt that is really a problem for two year olds! Foreigner puts an emphasis on ‘the other’. Foreigners are different and to be defined as such can make integration difficult. 
When we first moved here we planned to stay for at least three years and to me it was important to learn to speak Danish, to understand how Danish society worked and to explore as much of the city as I could so to that end I never really put a label on myself. 
I suppose being European, there was very little obvious difference between me and many others around me, at least until I opened my mouth, so fitting in was a little easier. I also didn’t feel the need to hold onto my national identity too much and now I am not sure how British I actually feel anymore – I find that, on rare visits back, it is a place that feels quite alien to me. 
When people ask me where I am from I always say I am British but I have lived here for a long time. My son is clear about his identity but I think others struggle with it. Born in Denmark to English parents with grandparents in France and the US – he has no clear idea of what being British is, he’s never been to the UK and we have our own hybrid of traditions melded together from our own upbringings and our life here in Denmark. I suppose the slightly pretentious term of ‘global citizen’ applies to him. He is not an expat nor a foreigner and, I suppose, neither I am.
Melanie HaynesMelanie Haynes is originally from the UK and has lived in Copenhagen for seven years. She writes about life in Denmark on her blog Dejlige Days

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.


Ten surprising things that happened to me after moving to Denmark

Relocation expert Melanie Haynes shares ten things she wasn’t prepared for when she joined the Danes.

Ten surprising things that happened to me after moving to Denmark
A shameless approach to public nudity caught the author off-guard. Photo: CandyBox Images/Iris
Moving to Denmark is a great experience but there are some things that catch most expats out at some point. So here are ten of the things that have surprised me most in my first few years here.
1. I had a hard time mastering the local lingo
Remember that episode of ‘Friends’ when Joey thinks he is speaking French? That will most probably be you at the start of learning a new language. You hear what your teacher says, repeat it exactly how you think it sounds but she still looks at you with a complete lack of comprehension. Eventually it gets better, and you might even be ‘complimented’ by being told that you sound like a peasant or a Norwegian (even though you are neither).
2. I learned that not everything is as it seems
Careful what you pour in there! Photo: dimakp/Iris
Careful what you pour in there! Photo: dimakp/Iris
Things at the supermarket look like they should until you get home, ready for a hot drink and find yoghurt plopping into your well deserved caffeine injection. Yep, Europeans love yoghurt and it comes in litre cartons, just like their milk, so be vigilant.
3. I found out suppositories are a thing
You're putting my medicine WHERE?!? Photo: erllre/Iris
You're putting my medicine WHERE?!? Photo: erllre/Iris
Babies are not given oral medication. Yes, that means paracetamol for your baby (and up to the age of two) needs to be administered at the other end. My shock at this was not understood by my doctor.
4. I got hooked on salty food

Pass the salt, please! Photo: Sebastian/Iris
When I first moved to Denmark I found the food excessively salty. Now I immediately reach for the salt on the table when in the UK as I moan about the lack of seasoning.
5. I had to accept that nudity is no big deal
Danes have a relaxed attitude toward nudity. Photo: Dmitri Maruta/Iris
Danes have a relaxed attitude toward nudity. Photo: Dmitri Maruta/Iris
Changing in a Danish swimming pool can be an awkward experience for people from more conservative countries as there are rarely many or any private changing areas and the changing rooms are full of naked women (or men) wandering around, showering and enjoying a sauna. Eyes down is the best policy if you are shy and remember no one is looking at anyone else – we all have the same bits. And try not to be bothered by the mums who look like super models in bikinis at the baby swim classes.
6. I discovered that doing laundry can be an eye-opening experience
Shared laundry rooms can tell you more about your neighbour than you'd care to know. Photo: Brenda Carson/Iris
Shared laundry rooms can tell you more about your neighbour than you'd care to know. Photo: Brenda Carson/Iris
In some old apartment buildings in Northern Europe you have a communal laundry room with drying lines. You’ll never look your staid neighbour in the face again after seeing her sexy undies on the line.
7. I have no shame when it comes to getting what I want
You may have to occasionally go to extreme lengths to get your point across. Photo: zoryanchik/Iris
You may have to occasionally go to extreme lengths to get your point across. Photo: zoryanchik/Iris
I mimed being a duck (with added quacking) at a Berlin department store butcher’s counter when they couldn’t understand me when I was out shopping for our Christmas dinner. The assistant didn’t even crack a smile but showed me where they were. Luckily here in Denmark this is less of an issue.
8. I learned to prepare early
Want champagne for New Year's Eve? Best to be safe and buy it in early December. Photo: tiero/Iris
Shops selling champagne will be closed by 4pm on New Year’s Eve and those that are open will be sold out. But you will still be able to buy fireworks to fire off on the streets, willy nilly. Before any public holiday make sure you have what you need as many shops will be closed.
9. I found the search for everyday things to be harder than expected
I just want one of these – how hard can it be??? Photo: Pabkov/Iris
The search for an everyday item like a drying rack can become a mission of epic proportions with people in shops looking at the picture of what you want as if you are looking for a mythical creature. Two weeks later you haemorrhage a huge amount of money for one in the best department store in Europe as it’s the only place you find one.
10. I learned to be wary of the Danish love of liquorice
Danes not only eat liquorice by the handful, they also sneak it into everything from ice cream to beer. Photo: cyclonebill/Flickr
Ice cream that looks like Oreo cookies? Nope, that’s liquorice. Ice lollies that are called Kung Fu that look fun? Again liquorice. Learn the word lakrids before any other when moving to Denmark to avoid inelegantly spitting out something you hoped would be lovely or having wailing children with mouths on fire.
Melanie HaynesMelanie Haynes is originally from the UK and has lived in Copenhagen for eight years. She writes about life in Copenhagen on her blog Dejlige Days and after experiencing relocation to Copenhagen and Berlin, she runs a settling-in service aimed at expats called Dejlige Days Welcome and works with Copenhagen Housing to offer an integrated settling-in and home search service. Her ebook, 'Dejlige Days: A Guide to Relocation', is available now.