OPINION: My humbling journey into a surprising Scandinavian life

Integration is a two-way street, even if cultural appropriation isn’t, argues The Local’s guest columnist Judy Wanjiku Jørgensen, who moved to Denmark from Kenya in 2013.

OPINION: My humbling journey into a surprising Scandinavian life
Photo: Judy Wanjiku Jørgensen

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.

Photo: Iris

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.

READ ALSO: Danes once again discuss who is a Dane

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.

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OPINION: If you can’t go home for Christmas, Denmark is a good place to be

After missing out on seeing his family for Christmas 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic, The Local Denmark editor Michael Barrett got to try out Danish Christmas for the first time.

A Danish dining table on Christmas Eve.
A Danish dining table on Christmas Eve. File photo: Vibeke Toft/Ritzau Scanpix

We’d always planned to spend last Christmas in the UK. My daughter was born in March 2020, coinciding with the outset of the global coronavirus pandemic but, as worrying and uncertain as everything was at the time, we were sure it would have all settled down in nine months’ time. We started planning for her to spend her first Christmas with her grandparents, cousin and the rest of our extended family in England.

As we all know, this was far from how things turned out. The autumn and winter of last year saw spiralling Covid-19 cases across Europe and countries responding by introducing more and more restrictions, including on travel.

I’m not sure exactly when we conceded we’d have to cancel our plans to go to the UK for Christmas in 2020, but I do remember the look of resignation on my parents’ faces when I let them know. The writing had already been on the wall for a while by then.

Visiting my partner’s mother in December, I looked out of the window at the greying skies over Jutland, the dim lights of a distant Føtex store and the limp red and white pendants on flag poles as bare as the trees, and nothing felt familiar.

This was because, despite having lived in Denmark for almost a decade and a half, I’d never spent Christmas in the country. Every year I’d head home by the 22nd or 23rd, usually returning just before New Year to enjoy the rowdy firework displays in Aarhus or Copenhagen after a week of putting my feet up and savouring the familiarity and comfort of Christmas at home.

Denmark famously has its own Christmas traditions, comparable but certainly different to the British ones. I knew about them – I’ve exchanged information about national Christmas customs with many Danes over the years – but never witnessed them first-hand.

The big day came around quickly, not least because it all happens on the 24th, not the 25th.

Festivities did take a while to get going, though. Not until 4pm in fact, when ancient Disney Christmas special From All of Us to All of You, known in Danish as Disneys juleshow began on main TV broadcaster DR. Usually I’d have been watching an early-1980s David Bowie introducing The Snowman around now. A cup of warm gløgg (spiced red wine with raisins and almonds) was thrust into my hand, and I missed Bowie a little bit less.

After a couple more glasses of gløgg and wine, we sat down for Christmas dinner: roast duck, brown potatoes, boiled potatoes, gravy and red cabbage. It was of course already dark and a prolific number of candles were lit on the table and around the room, adding to the festive feeling of the star-topped tree, paper hearts and other decorations.

For dessert, we had risalamande, the popular cold rice sweet mixed with whipped cream, vanilla and chopped almonds and served with cherry sauce. By tradition, one whole almond is left in the dessert and whoever finds it wins a present, which is customarily a julegris, a chocolate pig with marzipan filling. This game is often fixed so that a child (or children) wins the prize, but the only child present was a nine-month-old and I ended up finding the almond in my bowl.

Then it was time to dance around the tree and exchange presents. Most of us had too much dessert, so it was a more sedate affair than I expected. After the little one was fast asleep we sat back on the sofas and had a couple more glasses of wine or maybe a few snacks.

It was all over before Santa traditionally lands his sleigh on rooftops and hops down British chimneys in the small hours of Christmas morning.

Danish families with young children often assign someone to dress up as Father Christmas and come round to deliver the presents to excited youngsters before dinner on Christmas Eve.

Maybe I’ll get the chance to audition for the role next year because our Danish-British family will be in Denmark every other Christmas for the foreseeable future – by choice, not restriction. I’m looking forward to it, because my first Danish Christmas gave me a better understanding of why this time of year is loved by so many Danes.

READ ALSO: My five favourite Danish childhood Christmas memories