#FinalsSzn induced Existentialism: A Discussion on Identity, Diversity, and Nationalism

We have entered––and are surviving––finals hell. While I am proud enough to say that I have not (!!) pulled any all-nighters to finish up assignments and study for exams, I am still spending lots of time on assignments over the last week.

Why you may ask?

I am studying abroad in Denmark this semester! My program DIS has a…slightly strange…calendar system in which #finalsszn starts after over a month of two weeks of classes, then a ~travel week~, then two weeks of classes, then a ~travel week~, then two weeks of classes, then ~Thanksgiving break~, then two weeks of classes, and off I come back to ‘Merica. Needless to say, I have been running around like a chicken with its head cut off, gathering my papers, group projects, and coffee to make it all happen.

A budgeting note: Cafe Paludan (the place with the books and the coffee) offers a large coffee for 10 DKK ($1.52) from 9:00-10:30 in the morning. I am currently here in a little nook I have claimed for myself (gotta be a colonist somehow) writing this blog post as I procrastinate my Danish essay. You can say I’m being productively unproductive.

I’ve been gathering my thoughts about a few things: DIS, Denmark, my physical body being abroad, my mind being abroad, homesickness, and existential crises re: identity. It’s been a truly exhausting few months, and although I was preparing myself for some of this busyness, I did not anticipate that I would have to carve out time on my commute to and from central Copenhagen to stare out the train window, Türk Sanat muzi?i blasting through my earphones, pondering my existence, train officer nudging me to check my train card.

To be completely honest, I feel a bit guilty zoning out into this existential place. I want to enjoy Copenhagen to its fullest. I want to enjoy my travels. I want to enjoy my friends. And although I have been able to manage a balance between being wrapped in my own head and being present in the moment, no one can really prepare you for the exhaustion.

I was going through my phone the other day, and found the following note written in at 5:33 AM:

relocating when undocumented is going back where you came from

I’ve been thinking a lot about immigration and migration over the past few weeks. I had a very difficult conversation, turned argument of sorts, with one of my DIS professors regarding diversity. His argument was that diversity does not contribute to nation-building; rather, it tears the nation apart. He argued that the only way to be in a nation is to homogenize, to assimilate. Throw away your previous culture. Become one with your new ethnicity.

It’s difficult to argue and defend your entire existence to a person whose response to the psychological torment associated with assimilation is that the people choose to come to a given nation (and in this case, Denmark) and because they made this choice, they must adapt to cultural standards. How do I explain that immigration, migration, and relocating aren’t always a choice? Leaving home with the hope of finding a new home isn’t necessarily a research-based process where a family looks through x number of countries and decides, We will go here for these reasons! While that may be the case for some, others fall into their new location by accident or chance. Sometimes, it’s a matter of luck. It’s a one-way ticket. It’s a promise of opportunity. Other times, it’s the American Dream. Choosing to live in a nation isn’t black-and-white, and refusing the acknowledge the nuance leads to generalizations about migrant populations.

Regardless of the why, the fact remains that (Danish) people of color are not treated like their White Danish counterparts. Through my exploration of Danish culture, I’ve met many Danes who are ethnic minorities. They have lived in Denmark since birth, speak Danish, and are active members of their Danish community, however, they all say the same thing: no matter what they do, they will never be seen as truly Danish. For some, it’s a direct line: skin color. For others, it’s being bilingual in a tongue that isn’t European. For having ancestors who immigrated from the “East,” regardless of how many generations back that may be.

And although we may want to paint Denmark as being different from America, we can trace similar threads of cultural assimilation through both nations. Being in Denmark has brought me back into memories of my childhood in America: how my peers made fun of my lunches, made fun of my eyebrows, and forced assimilation on my tongue. It was how I had learned to resent my culture, to question my mom because “she’s raising me like it’s 1960s Turkey,” and spending years to unlearn that assimilation. Back in the present, I see young brown children on Danish streets, and I pray that they can summon the willpower to fight systemic assimilation like I’ve had to do.

The argument that fully assimilating to a country––by eliminating all traces of your home culture––helps build nations is frightening. It asserts a racial line––that certain cultures are seen as subordinate and not important. It’s especially frightening that this narrative appears in Denmark when it comes to “the East”: They’re backward. They don’t know how to respect women. They need to modernize and be like the West. It’s as if, in White Danes’ minds, there is nothing wrong with Danish culture; Danish culture is perfect––the ideal––whereas Eastern cultures are completely flawed and must be thrown away. Other Western cultures are not viewed in this light, and other (Western) European immigrants are welcomed into Danish society. This only creates barriers and othering. The same people who “other” immigrants never ask why immigrants feel like they can’t integrate into society. The same people who “other” immigrants actively work against accepting (Muslim) people of color into their society.

It isn’t the immigrants who are the problem. Just a thought.

Having refugees leave their war-torn homes and carrying the baggage of psychological torment only to come to a new nation, only to face more psychological torment and cultural oppression is beyond comprehension. The expectation that relocated peoples ought to immediately drop everything and assimilate to Denmark (by people who have never had to assimilate, no less) is frighteningly hilarious. Here you are, a Dane living in Denmark your entire life, spending years learning your cultural practices, expecting people who have grown up in a different context to assimilate within months. You spend years figuring out social norms, figuring out your place in this specific context, but expect others to spend a fraction of that time doing the same. I cannot, nor will I ever, understand this narrative.

It doesn’t end with cultural differences, though. The narrative continues when institutional measures are enacted to other these communities. By calling certain areas “ghettos,” regardless of intent, those communities (of color) are further stigmatized as crime-ridden and uneducated. They are stigmatized as areas (thus people) to be avoided. When I received an email from both DIS and the American Embassy, notifying me of gang violence in Nørrebro and Ishøj, two communities of color, it may have been intended just to warn us to be careful. However, I overheard students saying, “Yeah, I almost got mugged”; “Don’t get shot there!”; and conversations of the like painting these areas as unsafe. My professor defended the “ghetto” categorization, saying that it “forces Danes to integrate with minorities.” The logic is that breaking apart minority communities would naturally allow for integration. This integration is two-fold: white people are exposed to the non-white, and non-whites are conveniently separated from their home cultures to assimilate to the Danes. Because of this “exposure,” racism should magically disappear.

Imagine having the confidence and privilege to suggest that we can simply fix racism by putting white bodies and brown and black bodies in a room, so they can “know each other.” That Danes can meet people of color, and in turn, people of color can begin to assimilate to Danish culture. That this responsibility should start in Kindergarten when minority kids are expected to drop their mother tongue and learn Danish. Seems like a great deal, right?  

One day, I decided to visit the so-called “ghetto.” I was in need of some specific Turkish groceries, and I had pulled up a Turkish bodega on my phone. When I walked down the stairs out of the Nørrebro station into one of these “ghettos,” I was immediately met with signs advertising kebabs. Halal meat. Turkish and Arabic written on the storefronts. Men outside their bakeries, small teacups in hand, speaking in languages I recognized. Bodegas filled with cookies that my mom picked up from our local halal store back home. Bakeries selling pastries that my godmother made for breakfast.

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Checking out with my groceries, I told the cashier “Selam,” a greeting that I haven’t said unironically for three months, and I felt at home. What was called an unsafe ghetto, a place I should avoid, felt like home. I felt comfortable in my identity for the first time in months.

I’m exhausted.

I’m exhausted from being in a new country, trying to figure my way through.

I’m exhausted from budgeting my time, my money, and my sanity. It’s a conscious, everyday process.

I’m exhausted from the whiteness in my program.

I’m exhausted from having people look at me strangely for speaking on the phone in Turkish on the train home.

I’m exhausted by the phrase, “you don’t look Muslim.”

I am exhausted from discussing why I actively fight against assimilation.

I am exhausted from constantly having to defend my culture and people.

I am exhausted from defending my own immigration history.

I am exhausted from defending my existence in Denmark and in the US.

 

The funny thing is, Nørrebro is not the only place where I can find Turkish food. DIS is located in the center of Copenhagen, and I can easily find at least five shawarma places within a five-minute walking distance. There’s a café called the Living Room, and the bottom floor looks like something that came out of my grandmother’s living room: carpets on the walls, “oriental” (fuck, I hate that word) carpets, colorful, beaded pillows. It isn’t just in the Living Room––Denmark capitalizes on my culture while excluding the people. This exclusion comes in many forms: for one, I had to actually read an article asking if immigration is a threat to the welfare state. It comes when there’s a carpet store straight out of the Middle East down the street, but they don’t want to have any more refugees enter the country. The exclusion comes when second-generation hyphenated-Danes will never be accepted into Danish society because they don’t quite fit in.

This exclusion is woven within the fabric of this nation. As nearly 87% of people in Denmark claim Danish ancestry, it’s easy to pinpoint the need for assimilation because of the overwhelming existing homogeneity. The flaw, of course, is that migration, immigration, and refugee relocation isn’t going to end soon. This small country cannot, and will not, remain homogenous forever, regardless of the xenophobic legislation that is pushed, or rhetoric that proposes decreasing social welfare because the Muslim migrants are “milking the system,” a sentence that eerily resembles Trumpian rhetoric 4,000 miles away.

Instead of advocating for racist policies that disenfranchise people of color (both in Denmark and America), here’s a crazy idea: deconstruct your nationalist identity and accept your identity as a colonial nation built by slave labor, and own up to both individual, but institutional racism. Pretending that none of these things exist (the former two not being acknowledged in history classes) only continues this vicious cycle of content.

Not a single day goes where I don’t think about my identity as a woman of color, as a low-income student, and I utterly and truly miss Wesleyan and its flawed inclusivity and the extraness of campus. I miss being at a flawed institution where people at least recognize institutional racism, and sometimes even strive to fix it. I don’t regret going abroad; these crises have spurred such growth, and to be completely honest, this break from Wesleyan has taught me how much I love Wesleyan. I am grateful for the opportunity to be here, to travel, to see countries my mom has never been the opportunity to see. But I am looking forward to being back home, to Wesleyan’s stressful finals season, to spiceless Usdan, to my friends and my professors. Most of all, I am looking forward to being back where I am more comfortable being me: Turkish, Muslim, existential.


If you want to read more about my time studying abroad, you can check out my abroad blog (aka abrog) at melisatakescopenhagen.wordpress.com! And if you’re studying abroad and want to share your thoughts/abrog, drop us a line at staff[at]wesleying[dot]org!