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Goodbye Denmark: An American student's view on politics, religion and humor in Denmark.

Winnon Brunson Jr, a Fulbright student from St. Louis, Missouri, tells about the things he always found himself discussing while in Denmark: religion, politics, humor and Janteloven. Winnon has been taking Master's level courses in Public Health. We thank him for his funny and relevant insights

"Initially, I had plans to extend my stay in Denmark after the completion of my Fulbright year.  I was accepted into the University of Southern Denmark in Esbjerg and was pretty sure that everything would work out.  However, non-EU students have to pay approx. 10, 200 EURO (75, 000 DKK) per year and in Denmark there is definitely not a large degree of funding as in the U.S.

With the relatively late application deadline (disqualifying me from major scholarships and grants)  and non-allocation of funds to my subject for this year, it was quite challenging to raise the funding.  My back-up plan was to apply for U.S. federal funding as one would usually do for their studies, but unfortunately the University of Southern Denmark doesn’t have a federal code, blocking any attempts to find a way to receive U.S. federal funding to complete my Masters.

Therefore, my “chance” to extend my stay in Denmark did not quite work out.  However, I say this all with a smile because I would not take away any of the experiences or personal growth that has occurred this year.

Even though I studied abroad in Copenhagen in 2008 for a semester, coming back last year in 2010 was a totally different experience.  This time I had an idea of how the Danish society works but I realized that I only had a surface level understanding.

As a Copenhagen Youth Ambassador, I’ve learned that Denmark is difficult to market because it is a “lifestyle experience”, something you have to actively engage in or live the life to appreciate or make sense of why people like to study, work, and/or live here.  Before, it was always difficult to define what makes Denmark, Denmark!   After this year, I can understand why.

So, I’d like to briefly discuss some but not ALL of the big topics that I seem to have always found myself discussing while in Denmark.  This is not intended to go in much detail but just to provide some food for thought".

In Denmark the official religion is Lutheran-Protestant.  I’ve always been fascinated that in Denmark (church and state are not separate) yet it’s still a relatively secular society; whereas in the US. (church and stare are separate) and we are still very much a religious or spiritual society.  However, it seems that in Denmark, God (in the Christian sense) is perceived as an antiquated idea.   Thus, creating an overall feeling that some Danes might think that Danish society has transcended the very notion of God and (for the most part) has been replaced by humanism and/or scientific thought.

Politics in Denmark and the U.S. are also quite interesting.  First, a huge distinction must be made.  Socialism has such a negative connotation in the U.S.; it’s been quite amusing when people have to said to me, welcome back to capitalism now that I’m back in the U.S.  But what I’ve noticed is a huge misunderstanding in Americans about socialism in Denmark.  I think many Americans think that socialism and communism is the same thing.  But I must say that Denmark is a social democracy.  Danes elect and vote just as Americans but just have a different democratic structure to their system.  For example, they don’t have an Electoral College like the U.S., which could mean almost direct representation in their democracy compared to the U.S.   On a scale progressing from liberal to conservative, Danish politics would almost always be to the far left of the U.S. political scale because every one of the 9 major Danish political parties are in favor of the welfare state (socialism), they just disagree or vary on how it should be implemented.

Danish culture seems to be riddled with humor that has a very dark nature.  Danes can easily find a way to make a touchy topic into something funny, especially something like death.  One time at a BBQ picnic, a couple of friends and myself were all talking about the windy weather and all the debris that was flying around in the air, and a Danish friend replies, just imagine if the picnic shade just blew away and impaled me.  Everyone kind of just paused, trying to erase the gruesome image that we collectively thought about, but then we all couldn’t stop laughing.

However, a contradiction might exist.  If you make fun of Danish culture, you might be quickly reprimanded.  It’s almost like Danish humor works best on other topics but not so much when it’s applied to their own culture.  It’s almost like in criticizing Danish culture, you are brutally attacking them and they can feel the physical pain (I say this of course, with humor).  It could be the small country mentality that creates a strong sense of insularity and nationalistic pride, thus warranting the need to protect what is already so small and is seeking to maintain its survival.

If you want to learn about Danish culture then you should definitely be aware of Jantelov.  The Janteloven or “the law of Jante” was first coined in 1933 by the Danish writer Aksel Sandemose, which is about 10 “unwritten or secret codes” in Danish society that helps create egalitarianism or an unchanging, collective mentality.

1.  Don’t think that you are special.
2. Don’t think that you are of the same standing as us.
3. Don’t think that you are smarter than us.
4. Don’t fancy yourself as being better than us.
5. Don’t think that you know more than us.
6. Don’t think that you are more important than us.
7. Don’t think that you are good at anything.
8. Don’t laugh at us.
9. Don’t think that anyone of us cares about you.
10. Don’t think that you can teach us anything.

In essence it could mean that people are not supposed to consider themselves better than anyone else.  For example, students who win awards should not brag about it, grades such as a 7 on the Danish scale or a C on an American scale, for most academic disciplines, is considered really good because it means you are relatively in the middle.  Janteloven may act as a leveling mechanism to keep a flat hierarchy and to preserve egalitarianism in Denmark but I’ve noticed a contradiction.  Many Danes on the outside don’t want to be perceived as any better than their fellows but on the inside, most Danes actually seem to think they are very special.  Or as a Danish friend put it, we all (the Danes) think we’re special, instead of saying it ourselves, we just like for other people to say it.

Cultural Exchange
My whole year as a Fulbright Research Fellow was supposed to be about cultural exchange.  It’s a funny notion to me now, because I thought cultural exchange was about changing someone’s opinion about your own culture.  But you learn that it is more about learning to agree to disagree.  It’s realizing that everyone won’t approach cultural exchange the same way that you do because not all cultural exchange is visible.

Being open-minded doesn’t mean dispelling all of your beliefs so that you can keep yourself open to new beliefs or perspectives.  That’s actually almost impossible because no matter how open you are, you still have your own core values and because of our faculty to judge as human beings we will always be biased by nature.  Cultural exchange is then, choosing to respect while trying to understand.  Respecting and understanding does not mean you always have to agree. Disagreements as well as agreements are essentially a part of the cultural exchange learning process.

Overall, although, I’m continuing to look for work in Europe with hopes of getting a Work Visa, until I can figure out how to finish my Masters, I have really enjoyed my year in Denmark, the good and the bad, the positive and the negative.  So until then: Farvel Danmark!  Jeg håber snart til at komme tilbage.


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