Adjusting to Scandinavian, and in particular Danish, life has not only been humbling but challenging. I took a big risk by moving abroad, leaving my comfort zone, and embracing a new culture.
I feel fortunate to have first arrived in Europe ten years ago, on a foreign correspondent programme 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, 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 had 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 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.
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.
People living in African cities like Nairobi can fall into the trap of idealising life in developed countries. Photo: Iris/Scanpix
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.
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, or even black slavery for that matter. However, vile and ignorant people will objectify 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 inform them that my integration will never erode my Kenyan identity.
I will admit that this element of ethnocentrism really scares me. I don't want to ever 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.
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 to.
This element of anonymity remains one the biggest cultural shocks from 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.
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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.
My transition to life in Denmark may not have disillusioned me, but it has made me objective and pragmatic.
Judy Wanjiku Jørgensen is a Kenyan-born journalist, blogger, photographer and Mama to two Afro-Viking sons. Judy runs Memoirs of a Kenyan Mom Abroad, a blog which chronicles life and career abroad, motherhood, interracial relationships and race issues.
This opinion piece was originally published on Judy's blog and has been republished with the author's permission.