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Assimilation Nation

29 October 2012

During the summer, when this blog and everyone else was on holiday, Aftenposten, Norway’s largest daily national newspaper, published a cover story with the headline: “Født i Norge, føler seg som utlendinger” – “Born in Norway, Feel Like Foreigners”. The subtitle read: “Less than half of Oslo teens with foreign parents feel Norwegian. Even though they are born and raised in this country.”

I saved the newspaper, and a follow-up editorial, hoping to write my own response when I had time. The question nagging me was this: Why is it so important that we all feel Norwegian? And for whom is so it important?

Aftenposten asked the following three questions to the children of immigrants in Oslo:

  1. When do you feel Norwegian?
  2. When do you feel like a foreigner?
  3. What do you think is typically Norwegian?

None of those interviewed were of European or North American descent (see my post on not being an immigrant), but the questions bothered me more than the answers. Clearly one should either feel Norwegian or foreign. One or the other. But the children of parents born elsewhere aren’t either/or. They are both and neither.

The response of Ramyar Izadi (20), whose parents were born in Iran, speaks to this dilemma. To the first question he responded: “That’s a strange question. I feel Norwegian. I am Norwegian-Iranian. I live in Norway, most of my friends are Norwegian…”

While he might feel Norwegian, he refused to make an either/or distinction when it came to describing his identity: “I am Norwegian-Iranian.”

My ten-year-old son was only two when we moved to Norway and I asked him the three questions listed in Aftenposten. He replied that he feels Norwegian at school and foreign at home.

“But when your friends come to our house – what then?”

“I feel Norwegian. Unless you are trying to speak Norwegian to them. Then I feel foreign.”

Typical, I thought. But why?

“Because it’s so embarrassing!

Of course. Of course it is. Difference embarrasses us. But why? Who set the bar at perfect assimilation? At wearing a disguise so well that no one ever need know the truth until they see an unpronunciable last name?

The following day Aftenposten published a lengthy response from Inger Anne Olsen: “Velkommen til utenforskapet” – Welcome to Outside the Cupboard. (The word “utenforskapet” is used for those not included in the grand Norwegian “we” and has become politically charged in discussions of the disabled and unemployed).

Olsen writes:

Do you feel Norwegian? The question is fuzzy. (…) What does the one who asks this question really want to know? That I am loyal or disloyal? An enemy or a friend? Is it a well-meaning question with the purpose of finding out whether I feel integrated and included? Or is it a suspicious question, to have confirmation that I am different and foreign? (…) And why was I asked? Is it because I look different, dress differently, have a different skin color? Or do I have to answer for my parents’ ancestry?

At the heart of her response lies an even tougher question: “Is it important to feel Norwegian? MUST one choose between identities, and if so, why? Most of us carry many identities within ourselves. By requiring an answer to this type of question, we are forcing people to negate some of their selves.”

The phrase to negate some of their selves rang in my ears. Craving assimilation while being unwilling or unable to shed enough of myself to be Norwegian. It’s an unsolvable dilemma, not only for the immigrant, but for the so-called ethnic Norwegian who fails to understand what words like assimilation and integration really require of both sides.

Headlines distinguishing between “Ethnic Norwegians” and people like Javad Mushtaq, of Pakistani heritage, yet born and raised in Norway, underline the either/or binary in red ink. (I return to the subtitle of the Aftenposten article: “Less than half of Oslo teens with foreign parents feel Norwegian. Even though they are born and raised in this country” and ask, is it any wonder?)

Olsen’s response reveals that the problem is not how well we assimilate or speak the language. It lies elsewhere, in an old late-18th century belief that nations are made of like people with like histories and like languages and like skin colors.

“What type of response would researchers have gotten if they had instead asked: ‘Are you happy in Norway?’” she wondered.

In an article on the citizenship in the 21st century in the “post-national” era, Isabel Estrada Carvalhais points to the fact that “social citizenship” is what actually matters in people’s lives. In other words, the extent to which non-nationals are free to participate in the community matters more than the color of their skin or the words on the cover of their passport.

Olsen’s question might then be phrased differently: Has Norway allowed you to be happy?

The spotlight turns from the immigrants interviewed by Aftenposten to reveal Norway, unaware that it might be called upon, hands over its face to block the sudden brightness of the light.


* The English translations of both Aftenposten articles are my own.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Cristina permalink
    29 October 2012 14:12

    I just returned from the first performance of Fargespille (at Grieghallen packed with an audience of school children), and can’t help but read your thoughtful post in relation to it. The production impressed me so much for the degree to which it celebrated cultural identity in a both/and rather than either/or way: Africans singing Thai songs, Macedonian folk tune blended with African polyrythms, Peer Gynt suite woven together with a Bollywood dance production. I still don’t really understand the place of Fargespille in the Norwegian imagination, or the politics behind its funding, etc.; but I have to say I was weepy over the degree to which it seemed to get things right.

  2. 29 October 2012 16:22

    You do realize that you will continue to embarrass your son until he is in his twenties, whether you completely assimilate or not. This is the nature of many mother/son relationships.

    As the people of the world become more mobile and cultures and races mix more and more, the questions that Norway asks will be asked many times. It will be difficult for any group to stay completely segregated depending on how hard they try to stay that way, but inevitably the world will become more integrated (my opinion). There will be growing pains for a long time to come, especially for a mono culture like Norway. America was supposed to be a melting pot and it worked in some ways. In others it never got warm enough to melt. At least Norway is asking questions and getting some self-assessment.

  3. 2 November 2012 10:22

    What a well written and interesting post! Particularly interesting for me with a mixed background. I have walked on both sides of the fence all my life, born in South Africa, raised in Norway with a South African mother and a Norwegian father. Granted, I have been spared much because of my white skin but still been told to “F&%$ off back to Africa” when I did not agree with somebody. I used to feel Norwegian but was told that I was not (by Norwegians). Living in South Africa as an adult made me realize that I didn’t feel South African either since I didn’t have much in common with anybody around me – I just didn’t feel that I belonged. As a mature adult I realize that I am both Norwegian and South African and that my sense of fulfillment lay in accepting my whole identity – all that I am. I am the product of globalization (and unfortunately whaling). It is sad how many Norwegians feel the need to ‘box’ what a Norwegian is without accepting that in today’s global world the definition of ‘Norwegianess’ has changed. My friend is born and bred in Stavanger and so are her children but yet because of their darker skin tone they have to work so much harder at being accepted. Sadly sometimes the acceptance never comes. It’s hurtful for her although she has learned to live with it. I feel that there is a certain level of arrogance amongst some ethnic Norwegians about how fantastic and pure they are as a nation. Too much labeling going on for my liking. It’s great that some people are addressing the issue – constructive dialogue is important. We must give credit where credit is due.

  4. 29 November 2012 14:01

    I think this is a very interesting topic. But the thing that is strange to ME is that in this day and age – that these are the kinds of questions that are being asked…. at least for those purposes. I think its more important to know if people feel they belong here – to the community and the people around them. Being “Norwegian” or anything else is just a part of what might make up a persons story. We are all individuals. We should be more concerned about if people who live in Norway feel like they ‘belong’ or feel like they are ‘at home’…. if this is their home. Just my two cents 🙂 And what the heck does it mean to “Feel Norwegian”? I feel that I am me 🙂

  5. 26 March 2013 22:48

    I think this is an example of one of MANY MANY scenarios in which either/or is the wrong way of looking at the world. For myself, I’ve found Both/And to be much more beneficial. The answer is so rarely found in one place OR another, and so often found a little bit in each.

    But I don’t think this is an issue that’s limited to Norway either. The idea of the melting pot has always had an appeal in these kinds of conversations. Everyone wants to believe throwing a bunch of disparate people together makes one big soup of homogeneousness, but the only time even SOUP becomes homogeneous, is after you’ve thrown it in a blender and TORN the individual elements into shreds. To expect the same of people is downright silly, not to mention the fact that the melting pot theory has been disproved time and time again. This is why in major US cities, you find “little Italy” and “Chinatown” because culture is resilient, and why shouldn’t it be? Why isn’t there room for everyone at the table?

    I feel like that last question has been on repeat for decades now.

  6. 18 May 2014 00:24

    i miss you and your blog.

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