Norsk

One year ago I became Norwegian. Or more precisely, I became a Norwegian citizen.

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A moving citizenship ceremony in a really fancy stone building. I felt humble and honored to be there.

People around me have reacted in different ways.

Some people were sad. Like I’ve given up something. Lost something. Others verge on insulted, like I’ve rejected my country of birth, and thus by extension them.

(Note: I haven’t given up my US citizenship. In general Norway requires new citizens to renounce their old citizenship but there are exceptions, one of which I qualified for, so I have both for now.)

It’s been a long time since I identified with the word “American”.  I remember feeling some generalized USA pride back when Mary Lou Retten was winning the Olympics, and I was 9. I drew American flags on graph paper and clipped them out in heart shapes and colored them in with my prettiest pastel crayons, and dreamed of wearing one of those US flag leotards myself one day.

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Amazing artwork by me, ca 1984. The world would be a better place if the US flag looked like this.

And I grew up with the romantic immigrant narrative of my Italian great-grandparents coming to America and building a better life for their descendants as a backdrop to my childhood. And there was also the immigrant narrative on the other side, Scottish, but they weren’t as romantic about it. (Get it? They weren’t Romantic, haha.) But I became disillusioned and lost the feeling of “American pride” in my teens, as I learned more about the world around me, the way the US was built, the way the US treats certain groups of people within its borders, and the part the US played (plays) in politics around the globe. (And I became a teen about 30 years ago so I’m not just talking about the state of affairs over there right now.) I moved out of the US in my early 20’s and became even more disillusioned as I gained new information and perspective on the US’s role in the world. I went through a thousand emotions, and went from not wanting to admit I came from the US to realizing I had to admit I came from there and was a product of the society there (and that I should do what I can to fix it), and eventually coming around to accepting that even while feeling disillusioned with the country itself I could still feel humble pride and love for specific people and stories in my life. But as for pride in a country or nationality, that hasn’t been a part of my self-identity as an adult.

I didn’t apply for Norwegian citizenship out of romantic pride for this country either. Some people have told me that’s wrong, that applying for citizenship should come from patriotism and love for the new country. Well, I like it here (most of the time). I think they have some good solutions and systems in place (except for all the problems). I think it’s a good place to raise my kids (no caveat there, I do think it’s a good place for that, compared to my other options). And most of all, I live here, have lived here for 17 years, and will live continue to live here for the forseeable future, and it’s practical to be a citizen of the country you live in. Patriotism though, in one direction or the other, is something I just don’t feel.

To me “norsk” (Norwegian) is a nationality. A label on my new passport and paperwork. A label that makes me a more integral part of the system where I live. Doing paperwork, filling in the basics. Nationality: Norsk. Checking that box lets you move on to the next step directly. Not being able to check that box means proving why you’re here, making sure you meet criteria and renewing that proof regularly. More bureaucracy and paperwork. Now I can just check the norsk box and move on. It’s practical.

But on the other hand, many people hear “Norwegian” and immediately think ethnicity. And I’ll never be that.

Sometimes I work as a substitute in the daycare centers nearby. So there’s this moment of introduction. “Kids, this is Lauren, she’ll be helping us out here today.” (In Norwegian, but you know.)  And then I say hi and maybe something else. And then the adult introducing me inevitably continues… “We can hear you’re not Norwegian (norsk), where are you from?” or just “You’re not Norwegian, where are you from? (men du er ikke norsk, hvor kommer du fra?)”

But see, I AM NORWEGIAN. Jeg er norsk.

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Mine. They don’t give you one of these unless you’re norsk.

This passport says so right on it.

And if I say that, if I say “actually, I’m Norwegian. I got my citizenship last year.” Then they’re like, “oh yeah, ok, you’re a Norwegian citizen (norsk statsborger), but where are you FROM?” And I think, “What are you trying to teach these kids watching this exchange? That you can say someone is “not norsk” because they speak with an accent? That someone who has gotten Norwegian citizenship is still not actually NORSK since it’s still most important to define them by what they look like and where they come from?”

So I get to be a “norsk statsborger” (Norwegian citizen), but not quite just “norsk” (Norwegian). Ok.

I don’t aspire to be ethnically norsk, of course. My family background is not Norwegian and no paperwork will change that. My roots aren’t here. I don’t feel like I’m exploring my past at Viking festivals. I’ve been to a few of those here, and they’re fun! But I don’t feel like I’m getting in touch with my ancestors when I’m there. (And sometimes I get an icky feeling there, where I’m pretty sure my ancestors wouldn’t have really been welcome at the Viking camp, and I feel like a Stranger, and then I wonder if I’m feeling that because the dynamics aren’t actually so different today. But hey, we’re there to have fun!)

There’s this show, Alt for Norge, where people from the US with Norwegian ancestry come to Norway to compete for a chance to meet their Norwegian relatives. It’s kind of fun to watch, but it’s also annoying.

altfornorge18
Alt for Norge, a show where US people with Norwegian background compete for the chance to meet their distant relatives who still live in Norway. Promo photo from TV Norge and D Play.

What’s annoying about it is that many people here in Norway would find it easier to give these people the label “norsk” than to give it to me. These show contestants live in the US but their great-great-grandparents came from Norway so they’re Norwegian then. Even if they might not want to admit it, many people here would more automatically use the word “norsk” for these contestants than they would for me, even though I have that shiny red passport and live here permanently RIGHT NOW.

So, what does it take, do I get to be just “norsk” one day? Probably not. I’ll always be “from” somewhere, instead of fully belonging here. I can deal with it, but this juxtaposition of Norwegian ethnicity vs nationality and the way this one word “norsk” is used for both, yet some people feel they have more claim to the word than others, is outdated and damaging. Sometimes I think Norway should change its name, to a word that isn’t also considered an ethnicity. (Long Skinny Country is my suggestion.) Then I could use a different term for myself than “norsk” when needing to tell my nationality I could label my nationality without people feeling they have to mark their greater claim to all the meanings of the word. Like this same discussion must happen each time, “Norsk? You’re not actually norsk, though, right?” Since they are both norsk and NORSK, whereas we immigrant citizens are just norsk but not NORSK. And we have to be reminded of that as often as possible. It seems. I know a new word won’t happen, and it wouldn’t actually solve the underlying problems with nationalism and us vs them mentality anyway, but it might make it just a little bit harder for the “etnisk norsk” to claim they have more right to participate in this society than others. We’d all be Long Skinny Country Folk, and they could be as ethnically norsk as they wanted in the background.

There have been many discussions of this topic in the media here in Norway during the past decade (probably before too, but I only lived here and learned to read Norwegian during the past decade), and I’ve watched and will continue to watch these discussions with great interest. I think many wish they could return to a time when norsk just meant people who looked like them, and that being norsk meant you acted and thought just like everyone else around you. Of course the world was never actually like this, even in Norway.  Even if the culture here was more homogeneous before, there have always been different cultures contacting, interacting, and clashing with each other here in this place that now has map-lines which define it as Norway.

I am grateful to be here, don’t get me wrong. There are many levels to this. I realize both of the citizenships I now possess are highly sought after and even if I can wish in an ideal sense that the lines on the maps weren’t so important, I know that in real life they are. I know people risk their lives and families every day trying to move across these lines and be granted the right to stay. So I recognize my privilege in having these papers and passports and I am grateful, even while feeling some sadness at living in a place where I’ll never fully belong.

I hope Norway will become a more inclusive place for all its “new countrymen”.  I hope norsk will become a term that includes everyone who is a citizen here, and that simply using the term norsk to describe myself will one day not lead to raised eyebrows and “You are? But where are you really from?”. I hope these things, but I don’t really expect them to happen. I can however vote now (yay, citizenship!) and in other ways do what I can to nudge this society a little further over towards openness and inclusiveness. No matter what my background is or how others may identify me, I’m now part of the modern, confusing, changing definition of “norsk”.

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“Welcome as a New Citizen”. Thank you, Long Skinny Country.

 

One thought on “Norsk

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  1. I live in Iceland (I’m from the UK) and can totally relate to this! Its so frustrating sometimes when I’m speaking Icelandic but they’ll hear that my accent is different and will suddenly say ‘Oh you’re not Icelandic? Where are you from?’
    I think all of the Nordic countries are the same way.

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