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The Mess on our Faces: On Being an Outsider

23 February 2011

It goes without saying that we are outsiders in Norway.

I vividly recall a sunny Saturday morning in our neighborhood last January when my family and I were walking up to the parking lot. We passed a group of three of our male neighbors who were chatting and laughing leisurely with their thermos coffees.

“Hei!” we smiled, and were met with a chorus of “Hei’s” in return. Norwegians – at least Bergensers – are notoriously more social in sunny weather. In the rain a “Hei” is met with a quick nod of the head, but on a sunny day it is not uncommon for a neighbor to actually speak to us. By this I mean nothing like a whole conversation, but we enjoy being given a question or two.

More often than not, however, we are thrown a question that we cannot understand. It might be the dialect, or the speed, or perhaps there was a casual slurring of words that made it sound like music instead of language.

One of the men had asked us something and a moment of discomfort like an bug landing us was felt by both Aidan and I.  We looked to one another, hoping the other could respond.

We smiled and said, “Ja” and tried to move on. This is the learned behavior of any foreigner: to smile and saying “yes” is always the best bet. Unless, of course, you have been asked if you heard the news that someone’s car has been broken into, or asked something that did not require a yes or no answer. Nothing like a dead giveaway that you hadn’t understood and were pretending you had. “Where are you going?” “Yes.”

But it was a sunny day and we weren’t allowed to escape. We were prodded – this time in English: “Norway? U.S.? Who should win the skiing?”

The Olympics! The Olympics. We had forgotten about the Winter Olympics – clearly one of the most important events in the formation of national identity and pride in Norway.

“You don’t watch the Olympics?”

“Well …”. It didn’t seem possible to explain that yes, we do watch the Olympics, but  … well … that we didn’t care if Norway won the skiing, or the U.S., or even Sweden.

Our neighbors took our hesitation as a “no” and quickly turned back to their coffees – a sign that we should move on, and we did.

This scenario has repeated itself in hundreds of contexts over the past six years. It becomes a rhythm, an expectation. “Conversations Gone Bad” would be the reality series title. Sometimes I have sat in my car a bit longer than usual simply to avoid having to speak to someone who had just entered the parking lot. Sometimes I have pretended to drop my bags so that momentary eye contact with a neighbor did not lead to yet one more failed attempts at a conversation.

Amidst all of my desperate trying to fit in – no, let’s be more realistic here – amidst all of my desperate attempts to find someone who would talk to me, even for five minutes, I was simultaneously playing avoidance games with the Thai woman who lived in the row of houses above ours.

She is probably my age and our daughters are the same age. She married a Norwegian and her entire family lives in Thailand. She has few, if any, friends, and she shows up at our door quite randomly (and sometimes inconveniently) to say hello. She is very friendly and sweet. We have several things in common and, most importantly, we are both looking for friendship. We were both outsiders.

So what is the problem? Her accent and rhythmic way of speaking in Norwegian is so strong that I understand only half, at best, of what she says. Sometimes she speaks in English, but this has never helped. No matter what she says it sounds like Thai.

To state what I am certain is already obvious, I know her Norwegian sounds to me as I must sound to Norwegians.

For years I have persisted in asking Norwegians,“Are you in the cow?” or “Is this the cow?’ I wanted to say, “Are you in the queue? Is this the queue?” In Norwegian this is the difference between “ku” and “kø.” I can hear the distinction, but my mouth refuses to make it.

I tell people all the time it is nice to have a mess on our faces. I mean, of course, “sun.” “Sol” and not “søl.” When met with quizzical looks I point emphatically to the bright sun overhead shouting, “Mess! Mess!” and am still not understood. I wave my hand as if to say “never mind” and walk away, letting the misunderstanding sit there between us where it will stay permanently.

A few years ago we needed someone to look after our fish for a week while we were on vacation. Last summer we had asked our neighbor’s son who was in the same class as our son, but this time another friend wanted to have a turn. As we were carrying the bowl up to the car we passed our neighbor who said cheerily, “Oh! Are you bringing the fish? I didn’t know we were keeping it.”

“Relax. We didn’t ask you,” was my reply. Was this what I wanted to say? No. But this was the Norwegian that came out, the Norwegian I had on-hand at that moment.

Not surprisingly, he looked stung. And I know it is silly, but I was too embarrassed to say, “What I meant was . . .”. Instead I smiled, looked down, and moved on.

I have tried to come to terms with my outsider-ness as xenophobia on the part of Norwegians (Norway is a relatively homogeneous nation and culture, they are still unaccustomed to immigrants, etc.) But the fear is also mine. How absolutely terrifying would it be to invite a Norwegian couple – one I didn’t know well – over for coffee? I feel nervous even typing it! I play with the idea of being brave and taking the plunge – maybe have a summer BBQ? But the vision is quickly erased by my fear of each of us looking into our cups with nothing to say, of awkward pauses, of misunderstandings, of saying the wrong thing all together, of offending, of admitting: I have no idea what you are talking about. I didn’t understand a word. Can we try again?

I have a good Norwegian friend who told me recently that she was terrified to get to know me. “You were terrified of me?” I asked in disbelief. “But why?” The answer was honest and simple: “Because you are American.”

I know that American was not the keyword here – it could have been “Thai,” or “Spanish” or “Tanzanian.” What she was willing to admit was that she was afraid to get to know people who are, on the surface, not like her.

Self-consciousness, fear, embarrassment, discomfort. They are catch-22s in this problem. Your unease with me becomes my unease with you. In the end it is more comfortable to stop trying, to accept the situation as it is. And we begin to assume that differences prevent it from being any other way.

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10 Comments leave one →
  1. 23 February 2011 17:19

    I wish there was a way for you to disarm these exchanges. Maybe be have a sign that hovers or your head that says “Yes, I want to talk to you, but I want to you to know that some of my words are going come out all wrong. Play with me—it’s kind of a game.” I know this is a long sign so maybe a lapel pin that reads “Fun Foreigner! Says Things Wrong!”

  2. jenaconti permalink
    24 February 2011 09:23

    Ha! Maybe you can design one for me!

  3. Annegreet permalink
    3 March 2011 14:58

    Unfortunately, when I was in my ‘all shame and fear put aside, I am going to speak to Norwegians now and they WILL be my friends’-phase, I was often met with first friendly curiousity followed by downright ‘go away you creepy pervert’-looks.
    Well, you know what they say about Bergensers, you have to know them at least 15 years to get a ‘hallo’ when passing on the street. So perhaps it is not even too bad if you have managed to have some semi-friendly conversations with neighbours within, say, 5 years of living in the neighbourhood?
    Hey perhaps you can also write sometime about your wonderful no-stress easy friendships you have acquired in Norway? You know, with foreigners (yes, hint)?

  4. Cecilie permalink
    31 May 2011 20:03

    På skolen i tysktimene ble vi drillet i følgende settning “ich bin aulender und sprachen nicht gut deutch”. Med andre ord: jeg er utledning og snakker ikke så godt norsk. Eller i ditt tilfelle: Jeg er amerikaner, og snakker ikke så godt norsk. Så får det bare være med de som gir opp, det gir i hvertfall en forklaring. For det er veldig vanskelig å fortsette samtalen etter “hei hvor skal du?” -“ja”.

    Og du: er det lov å le? om det er hjertelig, og ikke vondt ment?

    • Cecilie permalink
      31 May 2011 20:10

      “auslender” mente jeg å skrive.

  5. jenaconti permalink
    31 May 2011 20:44

    Jo, det er lov å le! Og ikke vondt ment. Jeg er av og til bare frustrert for jeg VIL snakker norsk og kan altid ikke klarer det. Og jeg vet at mange ganger det er min feil at jeg er for flau til å si: unnskyld, kan du si det en gang til? Jeg vil at nordmann tror at jeg er flink på norsk. Jeg er redd for at de skal ikke har lyst til å snakker med meg fordi jeg er ikke så flink på norsk. Men det må jeg jobbe på. I alle fall skal jeg tar Norsk trinn 2 til høsten! 🙂

  6. 15 September 2013 10:52

    Reblogged this on Yoga with Dionne.

  7. Emma permalink
    15 September 2013 12:26

    Loved reading your experiences of Bergen. Would be nice to read more. I moved here 5 weeks ago with my son to join my Husband who has been here since January. I too struggle to have any conversation, it’s not because I don’t speak Norwegian (which is an obvious reason) it’s more about my mouth refusing to open when in social situations. I have so far asked for a sausage instead of a plastic bag…. Said hello to everyone I pass until a friend of my Husbands said that Norwegians see this as either you are drunk, insane, American (sorry) or all three….. So I stopped doing that and I am now going through the faze of hiding from anyone who looks as if they want to talk. I’m hoping this faze will pass and I will start to come out of my comfort zone and again start looking like the strange foreigner who struggles in basic social situations.

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