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The Accidental Immigrant

1 December 2011

A bridge too far. That’s how I described our move to Norway in 2004 to everyone back home who asked about it. I had lived in England, Canada, and even spent four months in Costa Rica, but Norway? Norway was the daring plan that didn’t go the way I thought it would. But what future did I have in mind as I entered my son’s baby music class in north Toronto on a sunny day in June and shouted to all the other mothers: “We’re moving to Norway!”

From our downtown apartment in Toronto, Norway appeared on my computer screen as cherry blossoms draped over a fjord surrounded by snow-covered mountains. I already knew, like most Americans, that Norway meant tall blonds and Olympic skiing, that it was somewhere above Europe, that the capital is Oslo. I suppose I considered myself informed when I learned that Norwegians invented both the modern cheese slicer and the paperclip. (What an industrious nation!) And what other knowledge did I possess before our plane touched down on the only flat strip of land for miles? Everything else I imagined about Norway turned out to be Denmark.

Not once did I consider that we were going to be immigrants. My husband, Aidan, had accepted a three-year research position at the University of Bergen: We were on an adventure; we weren’t going to live in Norway. (I can still hear my mother say reproachfully, “You’ll end up staying there.”)

The job carried the double bonus of suiting Aidan perfectly and relieving us both from debasing, graduate scrap jobs like “English for Engineers.” The plan, if there was one, would be that Aidan would build up a solid list of publications and international connections and move on to accept a permanent position elsewhere (naturally defined as England, Canada, or the U.S.). In the meantime, I could enjoy the fjords, learn some Norwegian, finish writing my dissertation, and take care of our son. In three years we would both be on the job market, boosting our chances of landing that dreamed-of job. Norway was the bridge to take us further.

Is the secret belief of anyone who has moved away from home, “We’ll stay here for a while until . . . (the next opportunity magically appears),” or do some people really plan to uproot themselves and live in a foreign place permanently? Do some people take a job in Baltimore or Delhi or Dubai, knowing full well they will never leave, and begin to dream, even before arriving, of that place as home?

Norway was the next magical opportunity that appeared to us. Norway, Norway, and only Norway, because while Norway was raking in oil profits and boasting a surplus of jobs, the economic crisis forced universities in the U.S. to institute hiring freezes. Those that still advertised jobs were sorry to turn us down, but they had received over 600 applications for their Assistant Professor of English position.

In between hanging our shoulders and considering possible new careers – library science? law school? – and much wifely wailing and panicking on my part, Aidan’s three-year contract in Bergen was extended for a fourth year, and then a fifth year, and then became permanent. Permanent as in never-ending.

But were we not lucky? One of us had a permanent job! I knew that, of course, but this permanent job was not exactly where I’d hoped it would be. Not exactly anywhere I’d ever dreamed of living. It was not in an English-speaking country, not in a country known for its outstanding cuisine, not in a country with a tropical climate, not in a country with particularly friendly natives. So much for choosing your destiny. There was no plan. We just ended up here. A spin of the roulette wheel. Come on, lucky England! Come on, lucky U.S.! . . . and the wheel . . .  is stopping . . . on! . . . Norway!


My complaints about the lack of variety at the grocery stores in Bergen or the 89 inches of average rainfall each year were met with the ammunition fired at all immigrants at one time or another: “Well, why don’t you just move back?”

Immigrants hate this question. Especially accidental immigrants, because it unhinges us momentarily. Maybe they’re right. What are we doing here? It is also a slap in the face, a refusal to recognize that when you moved away you only left one foot back home – not enough to stand on. And that foot is being slowly dragged along with you to this new place, even as you try to keep it where you thought home was. The expanse between here and there has become too wide, too impossible to straddle. A bridge too far.

“Back” is a sticky, tricky word. Going back is moving in the wrong direction. It is back-wards. It is returning to whatever it was that you moved from. Back is an impossibility. The unthinkable. Your doctor is here and the babysitter you love is here, and you know which grocery store has the cheapest chicken breasts, and you just signed up for the Zumba Fitness class, and you and the other school moms volunteered to sell tacos at Disco Kids, and you’re planning that summer vacation to sunny, tropical Denmark, and despite whatever you want to tell yourself, you live here. And not there.

There is no going back, but there is also no going forward. We are trapped in a never-ending present, no longer allowing ourselves to dream of impossible futures. Where is the perfect place to live? We would find it if everyone we know and love could move here, or we could somehow pack this life up in a suitcase and take it there, or if we could just stop caring so much about this silly little notion of “home.”

24 Comments leave one →
  1. 1 December 2011 14:28

    This sounds so much like me right now… A couple a weeks ago I went out to lunch with a very dear friend of mine who was life- counseling me (he’s quite a few years older than me, but still one of my best friends.) He told me to remember this for the rest of my life:

    Walk into a candy store….a HUGE candy store and find the best piece of candy. Impossible! There is no best piece candy.

    When he told me that I got all mad and starting squirming in my chair. Impossible? You’re telling me it’s impossible???

    That’s what I have spent my whole life trying to do… trying to find the best piece of candy!

    I’m trying, these days, to spend much more time enjoying the candy I’ve already picked out, savoring every moment and realizing one thing:

    In order to get to this point in my life, I had to give up other really good things.

    But, if I hadn’t given up one good thing I never would have gotten to experience the one good thing.

    That’s a loss that is always worth it.

    Great post. Great quotes. Gives me something to think on for a while.

    • 2 December 2011 09:50

      Hi Tina, This is a very good way to view life! Thank you for sharing it! Savoring every moment is something I aspire to. And I say “aspire to” because I’m not very good at it!

      You write that in order to get to this point in your life you’ve had to give you other really good things. Sometimes I wonder if I’ve made the right choices, or if I’ve given up things that I shouldn’t have (i.e. living far from family). At other times I try to put things into perspective and remember that this is just my life _now_, not my life forever. Who knows where we’ll be in 10 years! Maybe Norway, but maybe on another adventure.

      Thanks for giving me something to think about!

  2. Bente permalink
    1 December 2011 16:08

    Du skriver så fint. Og som en nordkvinne så skulle jeg ønske livet her var litt enklere for deg, og andre innvandrere med deg. Uff. Håper du får mer av det livet du ønsker for deg og din familie. Alt, kan ingen av oss få:)

    God adventstid!

    • 2 December 2011 10:04

      TUSEN TAKK, Bente. Dine kommentarer betyr mye for meg! Som du kan vel se av bloggen min, jeg går frem og tilbake mellom å elske Norge og å savne hjem. Jeg liker at du sier: “som en nordkvinne” fordi det er hva jeg elsker om Norge! Sammenføyning av mennesker. Jeg har funnet nordmenn – og kvinner! – så sympatisk og snill, og dere virkelig ønsker å hjelpe oss utlendinger, men ikke alltid sikker på hvordan. Men det holder å si at det betyr mye å høre dette fra deg! 🙂

  3. 1 December 2011 17:54

    I moved here fully aware that it would be my “home”. That’s probably why I had so much higher expectation to it (and went disappointed very badly in the end). I suppose when you move because of love, there’s more permanent view to it than when you move because of work.

    • 2 December 2011 10:08

      Really? So you never thought you might return to Indonesia, or even somewhere closer like Singapore or Australia? I think it must be very hard to move with a partner who is from that country precisely because, as you say, the expectations will be different. And true, too, that if I had married a Norwegian then I would have to consider this as “home” — or at least 1/2 of home.

      But here’s the question that’s been plaguing me lately: people ask if we plan to live in Norway forever and I say I don’t know and then they ask if we can imagine ourselves as pensioners in Norway and I think: NO! I don’t plan to grow old in Norway! (Help!) But do you plan to be a pensioner someday in Denmark? … Or does that not freak you out in the way it freaks me out? 🙂

      • 12 December 2011 12:47

        I wasn’t thinking much when I packed my suitcase LOL that I must admit, but I was naïve enough to think that we would live together and wherever we live, that would be our home. At least I thought you’d not have to go through hoops of complicated rules when you’re officially married to a citizen in a country.

        I was also tired of Indonesia, tired of my job as a journalist (loved it, but still tired of it) and wanted to have a more peaceful life. Little did I know about this place back then LOL

        But yeah, back on the general discussion, I suppose people would think that way if they’re married / have relationship with someone from the country, like you said you’d probably think differently had you married a Norwegian, you would regard Norway as “home” no matter what.

        To answer your other question, nope, I don’t think I want to retire in DK, We’re thinking of going back to Indonesia. Our money last longer down there and it’s nice to be on the warm side of the world when you’re old (and have aching joints and so on LOL)

      • 13 December 2011 10:37

        The best of both worlds, then!

        As for packing suitcases … I distinctly remembering packing mine as I left my parents’ house for Toronto where my boyfriend (now husband) was. I had no job, no Visa, no apartment, no plans AT ALL but I knew I had to go. Which I would chalk up to life in the 20s, except for that I did the same thing when I came to Norway in my 30s! (although we did have a visa that time – hah!)

    • 17 January 2013 03:56

      Firstly I would like to thank both you and Jenaconti for both your wonderful blogs and honest writing.

      I knew personally that if I were to move to Norway for love (when asked “You will move to Norway, will you?”, I naturally said “Yes, of course”), it would HAVE to be my “home” and honestly, the more I contemplate what “uprooting” means, the more I realise how difficult uprooting really will be.

      Leaving a stable job, leaving friends and family… knowing that I will probably have to take menial lowly paid work, the language and cultural barrier, the fact that I don’t even have a Degree even as highly qualified immigrants struggle… I must be willing to essentially destroy my old life, and THEN try to rebuild from almost nothing.

      It is so easy for the boyfriend to say “Well, of course there will be difficulties — you might have to work as a cleaner for some years. Some people will think you’re a prostitute due to your race. Some people won’t hire you because of your non-ethnic name. But in general discrimination doesn’t exist at all. ! University is free! Unlike your country, where you had to go out to work because of lack of money. All you have to do is have patience, learn the language and persevere.”

      I believed that until I started reading of all the requirements and stories immigrants have written on their blogs. I realise more and more that I must be willing to essentially destroy my old life, and THEN try to rebuild from almost nothing.

      It has also caused me to re-examine my own prejudices.

      As an Singaporean-Chinese, I have always been “the majority race” and have not realised how much “privilege” I have simply on the basis of being the majority race in Singapore.It was so easy for me to say “They should be doing more to integrate.” I take it for granted that in any workplace I go to, the majority will be of my race and speak good English. That almost everyone will share Singaporean/Malaysian culture

      This unconscious “privilege” also means that it is hard to empathize with immigrants — one thinks “Well they should learn the language and adapt! Or go back home!” “They should do things the way we do it” “They should absorb our culture of course”

      A glimpse of my own unconscious feelings of entitlement.

  4. mary permalink
    1 December 2011 18:17

    My sentiments exactly. I`ve been here 15 years! Actually 17, but we had a 2 year break where we moved back to the states, but ended up here again. The one thing I never considered is that my kids would grow up here and think of themselves as norwegians. I thought we would always be americans waiting for the time we could move back. But do I really want to move back if all my kids are here? Probably not. If you want to get out of here you just have to do it. Kids adjust, its us grownups that have a harder time of it. I love your blog, btw.

    • 2 December 2011 10:16

      Hi Mary! Thanks for your comments and I’m glad you like the blog. 15/17 years? Oh goodness! The thought frightens me ….. but 5 years ago the thought of 7 years would have frightened me. That’s why I wrote that you find yourself signing up for fitness classes and going to doctor’s appointments and arranging playdates for your kids and suddenly you realize: I live here. It’s a strange transition between feeling the adventure of a foreign place and settling into the routines of life.

      But it’s so interesting to hear that you, too, were always waiting for a time to move back, and not considering your kids would grow up Norwegian. Just this morning I was trying to explain to my daughter (almost 5) that although she was born here she has an American passport. “But I’m still Norwegian,” she said very stubbornly. I suppose I didn’t think about the huge role culture plays in identity. That they would be living in and participating in Norwegian culture much more than American culture.

      And I can totally imagine staying in Norway someday because my grandchildren are here … even though I just commented above (to “This Indonesian”) that I have no intention of staying in Norway as a pensioner! But I think this is how we end up staying, without really ever having made a decision to. Life keeps keeping us here.

  5. 1 December 2011 19:52

    I so understand what you’re saying. I love the comment, “Everything I imagined about Norway turned out to be Denmark”!

    As I struggle through this first difficult year (16 months), I have of course had those thoughts of “we can always back. . . . why aren’t we going back yet. . . ” but, as you said, back to where? Just as we’ve moved on with our lives, life “back home” has moved on, too. Jobs are no longer there, friends have shifted, moved, changed, childhood home is sold, parents moved away. . .

    And I worry, as Mary wrote, about my daughter believing she is Norwegian (not that there’s anything wrong with that!), only because we’re AMERICAN!

    • 2 December 2011 10:28

      So funny the ideas of Norway that we Americans have/had. I wonder how that happens. Maybe Denmark promotes itself more? I will certainly say I thought Norway would be much more European that it is (by which I mean cosmopolitan maybe?)

      I have watched in wonder as my children have become Norwegian. My husband and I sit back and laugh and say, “They’re soooo Norwegian!” We can already see that their picture of life is different than the one’s we grew up with. But that’s ok. I never tried to do a lot of “American” things with them (i.e. we don’t celebrate the 4th of July, and not really Halloween, although we do carve pumpkins.) I always thought it was important for them to learn Norwegian culture, because American culture was already everywhere. What I didn’t realize was that simply by living here and going to school here and having Norwegian friends, they are learning more about Norwegian culture than I could ever teach them by lighting advent candles or making St. Lucia costumes.

      I think we are all muddled, to tell you the truth. I wonder what parts of me are still American. That I speak English? That I like Thanksgiving? Or simply that I was born there? It’s a hard question because my daughter INSISTS that she is Norwegian because she was born HERE. That’s tough to argue against! 🙂 We had an interesting conversation about her passport being American. “Why? Just because we’re going there?” No, I said, because Mommy and Daddy were born there. “But I was born HERE!” she said. She has never spent more than 2 weeks in the U.S. Her brother was born in Canada, but only lived for 2 years there, so what they know is Norway. Crazy what moving across cultures does to people! 🙂

      Anyway … must get some work done today, but I enjoy hearing from you, Emily!

      • 2 December 2011 18:23

        I wanted to thank you for sharing your “how we got here” story. I’ve been curious the whys and hows of your story–of ANYONE’s story who makes this big jump, actually. I’ve always thought the graduate students who “married within their discipline” had the biggest challenge in finding jobs–a couple both trying to find work in more or less the same department. Not an enviable situation, I think!

    • jenaconti permalink*
      2 December 2011 22:03

      Yah, it seemed do-able in the roaring ’90s . . . he does Old English/Medieval Studies and I did a masters in 20th c British lit and a PhD in Comparative Lit., so I guess the thought was that one of us would be hired and the other could either get a spousal appointment or at least work as an adjunct. But as I said, that was pre-2000, when we thought the good times would never end. 🙂

      I’m always curious about other immigrants’ stories as well. The USA to Norway is a pretty big jump.

  6. Brelle permalink
    2 December 2011 15:13

    Thank you for yet another good post. You wrote about a topic that I’ve been thinking about a great deal over the last couple of years. Tried to fit it into a reply for the post, but I think it got too long.. among other things.. I’ll just write this instead.

    Sad to hear about you and others like you that are not entirely happy about living in Norway. A part of me wishes that it would be easier for immigrants to integrate into the norwegian society. A bigger part of me know that realisticly, you’re gonna end up missing things when moving to a place that is so culturally different from your own. It’s just how it is.

    Me being norwegian, I must admit that I often catch myself thinking “well, why are you still here” whenever I hear someone complain about moving to Norway. This is both good and bad in a sense. I think we all make choices to make new opportunities or create a better/happier life. Life is a series of choices and it’s in human nature to try and change their place in this world, either directly or indirectly, by making more choices. If you’re not happy with the choice you make, then by all that is logic, you should try and make a different one that will make your life happier.

    I recently found myself considering moving to the US after being granted a fiancé visa, but I found the change too great for me. I think if I had moved, I’d do exactly what I’ve seen so many of you write about here. I’d find alot of things that I wasn’t used to, I’d miss a great number of things and it would bring me down at times atleast. No doubt, I’d be complaining over stuff and people would ask me why I were still there if it was so bad. Only speculation of course

    In the light of alot of negative posts about the topic of differences recently, maybe it was for the best that this little piggy stayed home.

    • jenaconti permalink*
      2 December 2011 22:13

      Hi Brelle! What topic have you been thinking about for the past few years? It sounded as though you meant to write something else, and now I’m curious! 🙂 But thanks for your comments, as always. It’s interesting that you considered a move to the U.S. but decided to stay. I think you are absolutely right to say: “A bigger part of me know that realistically, you’re gonna end up missing things when moving to a place that is so culturally different from your own. It’s just how it is.”

      I know this is how it is and I feel like I should say here that there are so many things I love about Norway! But that this wasn’t my dream (even though I am old enough to know that dreams are not reality). In the Crying in the Copenhagen Airport post I was having a laugh at myself because I hated so many things about Toronto and said: “I will NEVER miss this place when we leave!” … and there I was in CPH, balling my eyes out because I miss my Toronto life.

      I wanted to be honest with myself in this post, but at the same time I KNOW that we chose to live in Norway. And we actively choose to do so now. So part of this negativity comes from a particular moment on a particular day … heading into the darkest days of the year! 🙂

  7. 2 December 2011 18:16

    Brelle: I think, perhaps, there are negative posts because this is a safe forum for us to share these negative thoughts and when one is in such a minority it’s nice to know we’re not alone. I think we probably all could list many things we DO in fact like, appreciate,–and even LOVE–about Norway.

    • 2 December 2011 22:17

      I thought I posted quite a lot about why I love Norway … do I not? Maybe that was in the spring when I was still hopeful we would have a summer! 🙂 Maybe my next post should be: why I love Norway! Starting with Christmas beer and chili nuts! 🙂

      • 2 December 2011 22:29

        Yes, you do! I think it’s we “commenters” who post the negative stuff!

  8. 2 December 2011 19:32

    So, you have figured out that life is what happens while you are making other plans. Things change and there are always trade-offs to anything you do, but remember, as a human being you have the ability to adapt. As long as you are reasonably happy doing what you do and being where you are everything will be okay. I have often lived in a “the grass is greener” state of mind, but it is, after all, just a state of mind. Keep your terrific sense of humor and everything will work out. How’s that?

    • 2 December 2011 22:21

      Life is what happens when I’m making other plans — One of my favorite quotes! In fact I posted it on someone else’s blog last week. 🙂

      One good thing about Norway (for my upcoming list!): I am happy doing what I am doing (which is writing and occasionally teaching), and I am ever happier that I live in a country where I can do this!

      … part of my “goal’ in this blog is to write the good and the bad, the grueling challenges and the days of bliss. I am so pleased you think I have a terrific sense of humor! 🙂

  9. 15 December 2011 15:47

    The day Erling asked me to marry him, he questioned, `You will move to Norway right?´
    Much younger, somewhat foolish, had never travelled outside the states, and very much in love, this FLORIDA GIRL responded, `Of course.´

    I always knew someday we would relocate, but naively thought tomorrow would never come.

    Well here I am in the land of comfortable shoes and tiny parking spaces. I whine about shopping, service, and selection. But I LOVE the charm! If we were to move back I would miss it terribly, I think I have become ROOTLESS. I have even started Ice Bathing with a group of whack-a-do ladies. Life in Norway is improving thanks to friends and alcohol.

    But if I start knitting, somebody shoot me!

    Great post!!!!


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