Why you need to examine the basic values of a country or community before you move there
This blog post is an adapted transcript from a presentation delivered at TEDx Odense on April 14, 2018 in Odense, Denmark. Kay Xander Mellish is a speaker on Danish business culture and immigration and integration issues.
Did you ever dream of leaving the place where you are now, and moving to an entirely different place? Some place where you can make a brand-new start? A different city, a different community, even a different country.
Some of you in the audience have already done it. You’ve come from another place to Denmark.
I’ve done it — I grew up in the United States, but I live here in Denmark now.
What nobody ever tells you, is that when you move to a new place…you become a foreigner. You become that comedy staple all over the world, the newcomer who talks with a silly accent and does all the wrong things.
I’ve become that foreigner. I’ve become that buffoon making comic mistakes.
Getting “Go’ Morgen” wrong
For example, it takes special skill to get the words “good morning” wrong.
Good morning! Right — sounds easy. It’s a greeting heard all over the world.
Here in Denmark, the words for Good Morning are Go’ Morgen.
But unlike “good morning” in English, which you can stretch out until 11:50, Go’ Morgen in Denmark ends at around 10am.
If you say Go’ Morgen after that, it sounds a little sarcastic. Say it to your workmate at 1030 and it has undertones of, “Well, it took you awhile to get here! Wakey, wakey. Thanks for showing up.”
I did this wrong for ten years before anyone told me I was making a mistake.
Business class immigrants
When you’re an immigrant, you never get it entirely right. You just don’t.
I’m an immigrant, even though I may not look like your stereotype of an immigrant.
Most of the media attention when it comes to world migration is focused on desperate people fleeing war and poverty, coming to rich countries for a better chance at life.
But in this interconnected world, there is another side to migration.
There are also immigrants like me, privileged immigrants. People who might arrive in business class.
A luxurious choice
Because I run a podcast and website for foreigners in Denmark, How to Live in Denmark, I speak to privileged immigrants every day.
Some of them are experienced professionals recruited here for their skills; others are university and post-doc students. A few come here as spouses of Danes, and some are just people looking for a new adventure.
They come from China, India, Brazil, the Middle East, and Africa. A large proportion come from Southern Europe and Eastern Europe. And, since the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump, I’ve received a lot more correspondence from people in the US and UK who are thinking about moving to Denmark.
Why do privileged people immigrate?
Why does anyone choose to leave the country or community where they’ve grown up?
Professional reasons, maybe, or they’ve fallen in love with someone who lives there. Some people move because they’re looking for a nicer climate — although not to Denmark. Nobody comes here for the weather.
Sometimes it’s a case of looking for freedom — the freedom to be openly gay, for example, or for women the freedom to pursue a career ahead of marriage and family.
And some people just feel in tune with a specific culture. It just feels right for them to live there.
Whatever their reason, the ability to choose to go to new place is a luxury.
The privileged immigrant’s responsibilities
When we discuss migration, we usually focus on the host country’s responsibility to open up, to take in people who are different.
But what are the immigrant’s responsibilities, in particular the priviledged immigrant, the immigrant with options?
I believe that when you have options, you need to investigate the basic values of the community and see if you are willing to fit with those basic values.
Fitting in can be small things — like learning how to greet people in the morning — or being willing to accept the very basic values of the society.
Putting competitiveness aside
For example, when I came to Denmark, I had to learn to put competitiveness aside.
Now, I had been living in downtown Manhattan, so that was a big thing.
In New York City, as you know, there are 8 million people. So even if you’re one in a million, there are 8 more just like you.
In New York, everybody wants your job, everybody wants your apartment, everybody wants your boyfriend, everybody wants your seat at the restaurant. Everybody wants everything you have.
In New York aggressiveness is important. Sharp elbows are important. Status is important.
But when I came to Denmark, I had to suddenly put on the brakes. Because in Denmark equality is more important than status. Teamwork is more important than status. No one is supposed to be better than anyone else.
No best kid in the class
This starts in childhood. In competitive cultures, children are encouraged to be “the best in the class.” Study hard so you can be the best! Not in Denmark. The best child in the class is a show-off, which is not encouraged.
A child who is gifted or learns quickly is told to stop and help her slower classmates catch up.
If your ambition is to compete and win, if you’re ambitious to be the very best, Denmark will be a tough fit for you.
Job titles aren’t important in Denmark
That goes for the business world, too. Job titles are not a big thing.
In a US context, you might shake hands with a new business contact and say, Hi, I’m Kay Xander Mellish, I’m a speaker on Danish culture and the author of three books on Denmark, and I’ll be making a presentation today. You put yourself in context.
Not in Denmark. When you introduce yourself in a business context, you usually don’t give your job title or even your last name. Hi, I’m Kay.
Not having this context can create embarrassing situations.
He brought me the water himself
Recently I went to a company to give a speech, and beforehand I shook hands with several employees. Mette, Søren, Nikolaj.
I was a bit thirsty before the speech, so I asked Nikolaj “Would you please bring me a glass of water?
And he did. He went and brought me a very nice glass of cold water.
It was only later I found out that Nikolaj was senior vice president for Europe, with 600 people working for him and a salary that must have been at least a million dollars a year.
But he never told me that when I was treating him like a waiter.
In most cultures, Nikolaj would have asked his assistant to go get me water.
But in Denmark, pulling rank is not OK. Thinking you’re better than someone else, or actually being better than someone else, is not a Danish basic value.
Basic values vs trivial values
If you love the taste of power, Denmark is probably not your best choice of a place to live — when you have options.
Equality is a basic value of this society.
When you are a privileged immigrant and you have options, you need to look at the basic values of the community and see if you are willing to accept those basic values.
Of course, you also have to be able to distinguish basic values from trivial values.
Dressing for Danish nature
For example, people from different places dress differently. We all know how it is when you’re standing in line at the airport, killing time looking at the people around you. Oh, that guy’s gotta be Italian. She must be from California.
Here in Denmark, people tend to choose their clothes in the color of Danish nature: Grey. Blue. Black. For the adventurous — beige.
But if you choose to live here, as a immigrant you don’t have to pare down your wardrobe to black and grey. You can wear beige. You can even wear pink.
Doing your research
These sound like small points, but they’re part of a bigger picture.
As an immigrant you have to decide how much you will sand yourself down to fit into your new culture. And that’s why you have to separate those trivial aspects of the culture from its basic values.
So if you’re thinking about moving to a new place — how do you find out what those basic values are?
Local podcasts and local blogs are a great source — my own podcast about Denmark is free on Spotify, and there are options for almost every community. But it’s also good to go offline.
Fiction by local authors can be very helpful — not just literary fiction, but mysteries, children’s books. Local movies and TV dramas are good too.
Your goal is to find out “What do people in this place care about? What are they worried about? What makes them happy? What makes them angry?”
Don’t idealize the new country
Social media groups for immigrants in your target community are also a great source, because you can ask questions like, “Are people like me welcome here? How can I make friends?” Whether or not you can make friends will define how happy you will be in the new place.
Another reason to do your research is that it can keep you from idealizing the new location. If you’re having a rough time where you live now, it’s easy to think: Oh, if I lived there, all my problems would be solved!
That can lead to disappointment when you actually get there.
Here in Scandinavia, we’re often told we have the happiest countries in the world. People expect to be happy when they step off the plane. Oh, I’m here, am I happy yet?
Then they find themselves here on a cold, dark winter day…or a cold, dark spring day….or, let’s face it, a cold, dark summer day….and they say — where is my happiness?
Don’t be a complainer
You want to avoid disappointment so you don’t become a complainer. Social media groups are full of these people: newcomers who have moved to a community — and they don’t like the people. And they don’t like the food. And they don’t like the taste of the water.
These people are poisonous. When you have options and you’ve chosen a place, I believe it’s your job to commit to that community and be as happy as you can in that community. Because at least at the beginning, you are a guest. You are a guest.
If you’re a bad guest, if you’re a bitter guest, if you’re a complaining guest, you’re going to make it difficult not just for yourself, but for all the other newcomers arriving after you. And they may need the hospitality more than you do.
Choose a place where you can contribute
So…to sum up….if you are a privileged immigrant….someone who chooses to go to a specific place, you have special responsibilities.
While maintaining the basic values that make you you, you need to become part of the community. So choose a place where you can become part of the community. Where the values match your own, and where you can accept the local basic values.
And where you are well placed not just to take from the community, but to give back.
US president John F Kennedy, the great-grandson of immigrants, once said Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.
If you, as someone with options, is thinking about moving to a new country, a new locality, a new community, think about you can offer that new place, as well as what that place can offer you.
Because your daily reality as an immigrant might be someone else’s dream.
Kay Xander Mellish is the author of “How to Work in Denmark” (2018) and “How to Live in Denmark” (2017).
Both books on Denmark are available on Amazon, iTunes, and Google Play.
Originally from the US, Kay has lived in Denmark for more than a decade and recently became a Danish citizen.