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What is an immigrant?

18 February 2011

We started out in Bergen in an apartment with a four-months lease that would give us some time to look around for a permanent place and get to know the various areas of town that we might want to live in. One of my husband’s colleagues at the university overheard us discussing a place in Solheim – just across the fjord from his office and easily accessible within five minutes by bus. A look of concern clouded her face. “I don’t think you want to live there,” she said cautiously, and then, lowering her voice to an almost whisper added, “That’s where the immigrants live.”

I thought about this for a long time – and still do. Had she slipped? Or had she not considered us immigrants? I am pretty sure I have come to understand the answer. Just a few weeks ago a British colleague of mine leaned over the table where we were having lunch, looked me directly in the eyes, and said, “You know we’re not immigrants, don’t you? When Norwegians say innvandringer they don’t mean us.” I told her that, yes, I did sense that.

Norway feels a bit edgy about immigrants these days, which is why the term – and the status given by it – matters. They so desperately want to do it right – to extend the arms of Norwegian hospitality, of the world’s second-richest nation and nation with the highest standard of living, to all. Yet at the same time, immigrants notoriously stand out in Norway, unable to really blend in despite official government attempts to help them do so. The number of immigrants in Norway is currently 11.4% of the population, and to a country of just over 4.5 million people, those extra 552,000 people make a colorful and not unsubstantial mark on the landscape. I get the feeling that Norway doesn’t always like colorful marks. (But I should add that immigration is still a fairly new event in Norway (post-1970s) and even countries who claim excitement over multiculturalism still have their share of racism and anti-other behaviour.)

So what is an immigrant? And, why am I not one? My first assumption was that this status was given according to race. People with skin any shade darker than Artic pale do tend to stand out in Norway. Somalian refugees, Iraqi asylum seekers, the Romani people referred to as “gypsies” – these were people who unquestionably fell into the category of immigrants. When I received a flyer in the mail informing me that “immigrant children” have five times more tooth decay than Norwegian children, I knew they did not mean American immigrants. And probably not Swedish ones either. (I will save comments on the reason behind sending out such an imflammatory flyer in the mail for another post!)

I soon learned, however, that it is not just skin color that makes someone an immigrant. There was some other, hidden designator that I could not quite put my finger on. Polish people, for example, have white skin, look more or less like me, yet they also, and unquestionably, fall into the category of “immigrant” in Norway. A newspaper article last year read: “Drunk Pole Causes Accident.” It seemed rather important to announce in the headline that this man was an immigrant.

Four years ago my rain jacket was stolen from the coat rack outside the university library. If you do not live in Norway your response will be: Who in their right mind would leave a $200 raincoat unsupervised in a public place? But if you live in Norway you know that people leave belongings unattended all the time, that people leave their doors unlocked, that mothers leave babies parked in strollers outside small coffee shops.

So I was naturally shocked! Who would do such a thing in this community-spirit-love-your-neighbor-share-and-share-alike country? Who? When I went to the front desk to report the jacket stolen the woman there snorted: “Humph. It’s those immigrants. No Norwegian would do such a thing.”

I didn’t know how to respond. I truly didn’t. Part of what she said was true: for the most part, no, Norwegians didn’t do such things (unless they happen to be on government- funded drugs and living in the government-protected park… but that’s another story for another day.) And yes, it is true that when my cell phone went missing someone – an immigrant, shall we say – made $150 of calls to Senegal . . .


But the question lingers: do we designate people as immigrants when they are the undesirables living amongst us? Or does the label mean something even more alienating? – that to be an immigrant means you have no possibility for assimilation. You will always be other, outside.

I am not an immigrant – for reasons I cannot always explain – but I am not Norwegian either. As soon as I open my mouth my American-ness blares sirens. Nevertheless, I seem to possess a certain quality that other foreigners don’t have: the ability to blend in and become one of them (with only a few more Norwegian lessons and a learned taste for canned liverworst).

What, then, keeps some cultures or ethnicities from not blending?

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Aven permalink
    18 February 2011 15:43

    Does it have to do with (perceived) reasons for members of certain groups to immigrate? Those coming from similarly “advantaged” countries like Britain, the US, Sweden, are seem as coming with something to contribute; those from economically troubled areas/groups are seen as coming to take advantage, with nothing to give. (again, perception, even if unconscious, not reality). So essentially class-based suspicion/discomfort, but expressed as regards to ethnicity. Maybe? I’m not there, so of course I can’t tell how true that is.

  2. jenaconti permalink
    19 February 2011 21:14

    I think you are absolutely right, Aven. And I think “suspicion” is a keyword in what you said – no one is suspicious of me leeching off the social system, and yet I am! I am currently unemployed and getting a really amazing amount of “dagpenger” – day money – from the state which I can get for up to 2 years! They should send me back to my own country to try to find work where I belong!

  3. Return to Norway permalink
    19 April 2011 20:55

    Interesting post- haven’t really thought much about it but now that you have pointed it out….. The word is usually associated with those who come to Norway from not so wealthy countries (putting it gently).

  4. 9 June 2013 11:23

    Reblogged this on chronicles of the littlest hobo and commented:
    It’s true I’ve felt rather paralyzed with posting my thoughts and experiences here for some time. I want to try to make sure the things I post are positive, but also feel I have so much to say about my experiences here in Norway that I cannot find a positive “spin” for. Therefore I’m going to repost this, perhaps soon I will find the inspiration to write myself. With truth, as a mixed race female from the UK living in Norway. Grateful for this honest perspective in this post. Welcoming thoughts.

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  1. Assimilation Nation « up-rooted

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