And, with my bicycle in the hands of a fellow international intern, and my guitar safely stored with a lovely Swedish family, and all of my belongings sitting next to me in three bags, it’s become real- I’m going home tomorrow. It’s like someone just put a popsicle inside my sternum. By the time I’ve meandered through the English-speaking crowds at JFK airport, the last sweet moments of life in Copenhagen will have dissolved and I’ll be left with the Popsicle stick asking my heart, “Whats the hardest thing about learning to leave a place behind?”
The answer is hitting the pavement, and I find myself considering which country, the USA or Denmark, is currently falling harder when it comes to national social values and quality of life. I’ve always thought of the USA as a dynamic nation whose successes are as dramatic as its failures. My home country has sparked hours of discussions with my fellow interns about politics, health care systems, and diversity. Of that fact alone I am proud, even though I’m usually throwing the US under the bus. But Denmark is a dreamland for Danes, and will probably continue to be so for a long time. For my collective eight months in Scandinavia, and especially for the last four months as the only American at my internship, I’ve struggled to decide whether I should praise my country or wake up and smell the Danishes.
Every Dane I know has or is pursuing a masters degree because it’s free and convenient. Everyone seems to be beautiful and fit, whether because 50% of all Danes cycle to work or because there is a gym on every corner. Or they’re superhuman. A sliced finger and an expired CPR card still somehow granted me free hospital admission and two stitches. Even though income taxes range from 30% – 60% and everything is overpriced (more taxes!), I will never see more fur coats on a morning bike ride than I have in Copenhagen. Laid-off Danes are eligible to receive up to 90% of their average earnings for up to four years. Parents are granted 52 weeks of maternity leave to split between them. There is a 3% unemployment rate (yes, I’m looking up statistics now). I’m not saying that Danes don’t struggle. People struggle everywhere for different reasons. What I mean is that most Danes function comfortably within the same social and economic class, and very few dip below the curve.
However, socially uniform societies can sometimes be self-detrimental. For one, immigrant populations run up against a society that is challenged by diversity. I’ve already felt unwelcome by paying large visa fees and being denied national health insurance, but I can only imagine what it’s like to be Muslim in Denmark. And even though Greenlanders are technically Danish citizens, they are still drastically marginalized. Still, order a Congo beer and be rewarded with the best chocolate milk in Denmark. In an amazing feat of ensuring a national understanding of sarcasm, all Danes are in on the joke. Just because their sarcasm breezes freely into racism doesn’t make Danes racist, unless you’re one of those people who can’t understand sarcasm. But when “Danish sarcasm” is a part of Danish culture and language, it means that becoming an increasingly multicultural society will challenge the Danish identity (eg. the infamous Jyllands-Posten Muhammed cartoons controversy of 2012).
Yet the USA has so many problems that a full comparison of American and Danish social functionality would be boring and probably turn out in the Danes’ favor. For example, the recent Ferguson shootings and ongoing trial investigations do not put the USA on a higher moral ground. Probably a lower one, because Americans have guns and some of us aren’t afraid to use them. And it took killings, violent protesters, and social media for us to remember that we still have a long way to go in regards to racial equality. But if the protests, videos, articles, and comments that show up on my Facebook news feed say anything, it’s that my peers don’t stop at a comfortable status quo when it comes to social rights. Most people I know strive to make things right and equal. Perhaps in a country with a continuous influx of people and cultures, a status quo means that we’ve forgotten someone.
I think that’s what it comes down to- the status quo. Danes have few social challenges. A Dane in a bar told my Serbian friend that he looked like a terrorist, which would have sparked Ferguson Part 2 if we had been in certain parts of the US. Instead, the “joke” brushes over, the status quo remains and Danes continue enjoying life in one of the happiest nations on earth (I thought?). Every Dane I know speaks fluent English, is friendly, smart and funny (how’d I get so lucky?). While Americans protest and step on the toes of other national superpowers, Danes actively avoid conflict and instead use this energy to advance universally good things: wind technology, architecturally green design, and quality of life on a global and humanitarian scale. I like Danes. I don’t like conflict. I like biking to work, good beer and open-faced sandwiches. The status quo is comfortable. What more is there to want in Denmark if the only downfall is that it’s difficult to integrate as a non-Dane?
But conflict is good. I avoid it if I can and it’s uncomfortable, but I think it’s also necessary. It lets me know that people recognize where there needs to be change and then care enough to do something about it. Of course there are right ways and wrong ways to make change, and I think the USA has tried just about every way. But at least the US is trying to actively do the right thing (even if outrageously immoral attempts often fly under the radar, at least there’s press coverage afterwards). For Denmark to change their language, school system, or loosen visa requirements for immigrants would threaten a societal and economic structure that has been the source of pride for most Danes, and has existed since the United States’ Civil War. There would be risk of conflict. I haven’t seen a national awareness or willingness to make changes in favor of welcoming foreigners or foreign values permanently into Denmark, though perhaps I was looking in the wrong places… like on the streets or written in English. For the five million Danish citizens with Danish ethnicity (89.9% of the total population, 2012) it doesn’t seem to be a priority, and I can understand why.
If it ever comes to self preservation, the Danes have it covered. They started as vikings and will continue as vikings, and probably figured out which battles to pick long ago to stay the relatively content country they are today. The USA is always in some sort of domestic or international tug-of-war, but nationalism and social justice runs strong and hopefully can soon be used to smoothly navigate domestic and international waters. I don’t think the United States is capable of a status quo until all races, genders and believers feel equal, which will take as much time as there are differences in races, genders, and believers. Americans have to be ok with that, and the trust that in order to do the right thing we must solve conflicts to make peace.
I would tell Danes not to leave Denmark until they’ve acquired their masters degrees, and I wish the best to the Americans moving to Denmark who would prefer the status quo (and to consider developing a healthy dose of sarcasm, and to learn Danish fluently). I will be very sad to leave the friends I’ve made, the beautiful city, and the generally content atmosphere. There are few places in the world like this and I feel lucky to have experienced it for eight months. I have to admit that living here long-term would be difficult for me, especially if I must maintain my own belief that the status quo doesn’t really exist in a social or economic context. I’m not saying it would be impossible to live in Denmark – I could do a few more years easily. It would be really nice to stay with my friends here and not think about homeless people, gun-toting crazies, Democrats vs Republicans, obesity, hospital bills or paying for graduate school. But I have an American passport, and this is part of American life. Even if quality of life here is far from perfect, at least the constant revolution of social values gives 316.1 million citizens a voice to address conflicts and potentially change the course of a nation.