Sunday, April 09, 2006

Of strangers and strangenes

One Thursday I had lunch with my American Studies teacher and a classmate from the same course. Apparently in Denmark it's quite normal to join one's teacher at one end of the long table amid the clatter of the canteen: in some other parts of the world it might be called sucking up. "Things are more informal here," Michael says, in the same wry unhurried manner he uses in the classroom. We call all our teachers by their first names.

I'm finding my place in the class, amid these tall, grave people -- most of them in their 20s and some shade or other of blond. I'm not the only foreigner -- there are a German and a Turkish exchange student, both girls, and a woman of about my age from Morocco, married to a Dane.

In the beginning they all seemed to be undifferentiated pink-cheeked Caucasians, but now I see how others are undergoing adjustment problems of their own, whether it's a matter of country or school or subject or language.

Michael asks me where I am from. I feel comfortable enough telling him I am a writer in my own country and have published two books, and a bit more about my personal circumstances, including why I am studying English in Denmark, and not Britain or the States. "What do you think of the xenophobia in Denmark?" he asks.

I've been dreaming about answering such a question for months. Usually Europeans will skirt the matter of my Asian-ness: crack lame jokes, fall into an uncomfortable silence, speak too loudly or too slowly, or -- and this is most typical -- assume the manner of the confident, worldly lecturer handing out pointers to an obedient child. It could have happened that way at RUC, but I took matters into my own hands. A classroom setting is, by its very nature, a smart and democratic setting, where opinions are solicited and respected. I have control over how others perceived me, and so, to abort the image of the desperate sexualized Oriental drudge, I speak out avidly in class, especially American Studies class, where according to the RUC philosophy we form into small discussion groups in the course of the morning and regroup in a plenary session afterward.

Now, asked that question, and on the level playing field of academe, no less, I hedge.

I suppose I might tell my teacher about the Christmas Eve party one year to which I had been expressly barred. I was living in the house of a Danish friend, and the party was at his son's. Someone, the son, or the son's wife perhaps, decided I was not a member of the family and did not belong at their table.

Or I suppose I might tell him about the children's birthday party to which I was invited, during which no one but the host husband spoke to me. We were all there around the dining table, surrounded by festive little Danish flags and pork cutlets, and then strawberry layer cake and popcorn and beer. Five couples and the children, close enough to make eye contact if we wanted to, and nothing but Danish spoken, no openings given, and apparently no notion throughout the company that this could have been in any way different.

But are these examples of xenophobia? At any rate, they are but two slight incidents out of the barrel of doubts and triumphs that constitute my experience of Denmark so far. I hem and haw, as other memories flit through my brain, a year in Britain, a year in the States, my own life in the Philippines, and at last come up with a lukewarm answer: "Well, I don't think Denmark is any worse than any other country."

I can see Michael had been expecting at least a measure of outrage. Why couldn't I muster it? What is xenophobia, anyway...?

1 comment:

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