Crossing Borders

The Backlash of European Ambition

“When they said ‘never again’ after the holocaust, was it meant for some people and not for others?” – Apollon Kabahizi The pursuit of science! In search of prosperity, progress, and competing with the newly emerging global market, European powers sent explorers to discover all corners of the earth; desperate to strive for new assets which would make them more attractive than their neighbors. Europe was fresh from an intellectual breakthrough. The Renaissance was the genesis of new ways of seeing the world, towards a more human-oriented existence. This was followed by the enlightenment, which allowed for the pursuit of science to be seen as noble and progressive, breaking away from the reign of religion. However, this pursuit of knowledge was malignant, leading to unfathomable implications that would have an impact on a global scale throughout modern time. The aftermath of such explorative ambitions led to imperialism and colonialism. Take, for instance, the case study of the Rwandan Genocide in 1994. It is no secret that in the 1990s, an organized plan to remove the Tutsi population from Rwanda was executed by an elite few in the Hutu majority government. The horrors of this traumatic experience are still felt in Rwandan society today. When walking around Kigali on a typical day, one can’t help but notice that the general population is overwhelmingly young. Once you realize why that is, one’s understanding of this thriving, jubilant, and welcoming society becomes more complex. What most people don’t realize is that the Hutu and Tutsi ‘ethnic groups’ were, in fact, the product of superficial categorical constructions that led to objectivation and ‘otherness’. The categories were initially socio-economic constructions enforced by colonizers (Germany first, followed by Belgium). The Catholic Church also influenced the education system; they taught these constructed categories in school, thus perpetuating an ideology of superiority by praising Hutu over Tutsi peoples. This, alongside propaganda from the state, led to the widespread dehumanisation over time. It can be said that these taught divisions are direct obstacles to peace for so long. It can also be said that because of European nations striving for greatness and yearning to claim new lands for their own, that in the pursuit of science, they have resulted in oppressing an entire group of people to the point where their very existence was deemed irreverent. By Maya Schwartz Image: Rwandan flag, creative commons.

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Integration, Erasure and Welcoming Spaces

Often when talking about migration people will raise the question of integration, and perhaps make claims that a group is ‘not fitting in’. This is often based on a model of ‘unilinear assimilation’, where at one end of the scale is the outsider and at the other end is the perfect citizen. When you set up a scale to measure how well a person fits into your ideal vision of society you are effectively arranging a threshold for who can be considered a valued human being. Across history this scale has had different markers attached to it, and different ideas about the extent to which a person can move across this scale. An essentialist approach might be to argue that someone’s birth determines the extent to which they can move around this scale. This is built on the idea that our qualities are unchangeable and determined by universal truths or typologies. This essentialist approach is easiest to understand in the context of racial segregation, where different regimes have determined that someone’s body must have certain features to be considered a legitimate citizen. One example of this is the ‘Brown Paper Bag Test’, a cruel but widespread way of determining someone’s position in society based on whether their skin was lighter than a paper bag. Failing the test would mean being excluded from schools, social clubs, and all sorts of opportunities. Today we see parallels in how certain politicians argue that “people with Muslim heritage can never fit in to our society” or that first generation immigrants will never be “true Danes”. Another approach to this scale suggests that people can be elevated through the scale by receiving education, cultural knowledge, and other forms of ‘enlightenment’. This approach has a worrying history in Western society because of its relationship with forms of colonialism and genocide. In the United States, Canada, and Australia there was a long history of taking children with indigenous, First Nations, Native, or Aboriginal heritage and attempting to ‘civilise’ them by kidnapping them from their families, isolating them from their cultural heritage, and imposing ‘enlightened’ Western values through education, punishment, and even attempting to ‘fix’ their bodies through skin-bleaching and dress codes. There has always been a strong link between regimes which promote assimilation and active attempts to control, stigmatise, or erase culture. Many modern-day citizenship tests still carry this philosophical heritage. It is very rare that when people discuss integration they talk making an environment more inclusive, instead they tend to attach all the blame to the person that needs to be ‘fixed’ or ‘corrected’ to a set of nonsense criteria. We can promote inclusivity through social initiatives that develop dialogue or providing spaces where we can celebrate differences. There should never be pressure put on an individual to abandon their identity and heritage if they are going to be accepted in a space. Instead of talking about integration (in the sense of assimilation), we should talk about being a welcoming space that acknowledges and supports differences and attempts to build bridges rather than homogenise. By Simon Fern Image: Hennessy/Creative Commons

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Excited Afterthoughts: a response to “Between Two Worlds”

I love that Maya wrote in her article: “to have more than one passport didn’t make you half this and half that, rather, it made you more American.” People often ask me where I am from. When I was little, I was constantly confronted with this question from peers and teachers: “where are you from?”. The Answer that most put them at ease was: I am from the Philippines”, as this confirmed their suspicions of my complexion and dark hair and they relaxed in their confirmation biases. As I grew up and my language skills greatly improved, more and more people have added the comment: “but you are more Danish. You speak fluent Danish. You think like a Dane. You are not as Asian as those Asians that you surround yourself with”. To that, I say that I am more. I am Filipino and Danish and from the Global South and European. I reject none. I embrace all. I am fully all of those because I strive towards excellence to understand and contain all of these sensibilities and positionalities. I don’t adhere to only one positionality; I have the linguistic and cultural fluency to switch to whatever suits the context. It sounds braggadocios, but just in case there is not an afterlife, why is it not okay to strive for excellence in this life? Our proficiency in language becomes one of the indicators of our national identity. In life, we should strive for the highest excellence in the three languages we speak. Fluency is not enough; understanding is more profound and rewarding. We shape how people interact with us through our command of the language. Words can have mental conditions on their use, not captured by a simple Google translation. An innate understanding of words shapes our ideas of emotions, principles, the perspective of time, subliminal confirmation biases and overt/covert power relations. For example, Tagalog requires you to engage in conversation with implicit language learning. Implicit language learning requires a higher acquisition of unconscious knowledge. This type of communication means that the speaker must simultaneously convey and understand the structural relations of a more complex subliminal syntax of the language, not what is being explicitly expressed. Grudges will be held for a long time if you do not understand the subtext of the conversation. Danish is more explicit. You say what you mean, and things are not generally taken personally. It should be understood within a flat organisational structure. Power relations are low and autonomy is high. If people say that you are an idiot, don’t take it seriously. Life moves on, even if you do not. My point is that these skills and sensibilities require adequate proficiency if you only pursue it halfheartedly. Nor is it okay to devalue one’s efforts to become and strive to be more, by calling them “half” or ignoring the many colour palettes that they paint their own identities with. To only pick one – that’s immensely boring to ignore the feast of your colours, and just take one slice of stale bread because it is the closest one. Richness in life is about gathering up all of the knowledge and experience that you have collected up to now to help you dive into the things that you did not know. To nibble, taste or devour the delicacies of what makes you and makes the human being in front of you. It is an ongoing and delightful challenge to become more, a more wholesome human being with a richer understanding of life and its many raw and tender nuances. The richest person in the graveyard is not the one with the biggest bank account, it is the person who became fully themselves. By Julliette E. Lloren You can read Maya’s original article here: [Part One] [Part Two] Image: Julliette

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Between Two Worlds: crossing borders in language and identity (part two)

I view speaking Danish as a massive border that I have crossed. Although I carry a Danish passport, have a mom whose mother tongue is Danish, and have a deep personal affection towards Denmark itself, I never felt like I truly belonged here until I could communicate with fluency and ease in Danish. Perhaps for some this may seem unjustified. The easy answer to my quandary is to simply ignore other people’s perceptions and focus on oneself. This is easier said than done, and when you’ve got a chip on your shoulder and something to prove, that can seem like a Sisyphean task. The notions of ease and comfort are quintessential to everyday life. The boringly monotonous routine that one follows when living in their ‘home’ country is taken for granted when language is not an issue. For a perfectionist like myself, it was not enough to be able to order a coffee or ask where the restroom was in Danish. As long as I could still feel the gears churning when attempting a conversation, I simply did not feel Danish. In essence, language and identity are thoroughly intertwined. To me, this means that language can be the key to truly having a Danish identity. However, it is significant to acknowledge that identity is a deeply personal issue. Identity is a construct, it is fluid, and my perceptions of my identity and what constitutes my own Danish-ness are not meant to be used as a universal template for others undergoing similar experiences in Denmark. Once I was actually able to understand a whole night’s worth of conversation at a dinner party, or able to go on a date and only speak Danish, it was like something just clicked, and I’d crossed a milestone in the vast wall that was the Danish language. I’d opened up a whole new world of opportunities for myself. I could read the posters at my university, I could understand passers-by, I could listen to the Queen’s speech at New Years (albeit the Danish sense of humour still slips under my radar occasionally). In my own way, I’d truly crossed a border. By Maya Schwartz You can read part one [here] Image: Yeowatzup/Flickr

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Between Two Worlds: crossing borders in language and identity

Part One I’ve repeated the following anecdote countless times, as people are often confused when I tell them I have a Danish passport, yet they can hear an accent in my Danish: I grew up with a Danish mom and an American dad in South Florida. I was bilingual and perfectly fluent in both Danish and English. But when I was around 5 years old and started school, I was confused as to why no one besides my mom could speak this seemingly strange, guttural language. Over time I started to respond only in English when she would speak Danish to me. Eventually, she gave up, and we began to speak English on a daily basis, to the point where I forgot Danish and all its strange vowel sounds. This meant that when I moved to Denmark three years ago, I needed to relearn everything, from pronunciation to syntax and grammar. As a happy-go-lucky, pig-tailed little girl growing up in American suburbia, I never once doubted my identity as an American. It was incredibly common to have a parent that spoke another language. America is a melting pot. That’s what those who embrace diversity proudly proclaim about the US. To have more than one passport didn’t make you half this and half that, rather, it made you more American. I never explored my connection to Denmark on more than a superficial level by referring to my Danish summer trips every now and then. When I was in 9th grade my human geography teacher asked me to count to 10 in Danish so the other students could hear the similarities between the two Germanic languages. I remember feeling quite normal because I wasn’t the only one with roots in another country. I’ve never felt like I needed to explore my Danish-ness as another part of my identity because I was simply American. Then came the big move. Moving to the country that I’d only ever visited while on vacation proved to be utterly eye-opening. It challenged my perspective on big things like social welfare and how to run a government system, as well as the small things like sorting trash and what kind of groceries I buy. I felt instantly at home with my ‘progressive’ (by US-standards) values and through seeing my Danish family regularly. I loved every aspect of my new Danish life. For the first time, I truly wanted to feel Danish. I identify largely with Danish politics and the way Danes live their lives. I wanted people to look at me and be associated with Denmark as well as the US. I was ready to embrace being Danish as a part of my new, expanding identity. After the excitement of moving to a new place wore off, however, I began to adjust to the normalities of everyday life. The mediocrity of ordinary routines began to set in, and I started to notice not just how I felt about my surroundings, but how my surrounding were perceiving me. The absolute biggest obstacle I faced, by far, towards feeling welcomed by Danish society as a whole, was the Danish language. By Maya Schwartz Image: Cytis/pixabay

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Talking about borders: three key terms

Borders are maintained and reinforced by the penalties which they entail, and the consequent fear they inspire in our personal and collective imaginations. Sometimes these penalties and fears are appropriate and help to maintain barriers which protect us from harm. At other times, these penalties and fears are disproportionate and are ideologically motivated. When talking about borders, it’s important to be aware of some key terms and ideas. In this article we introduce and define the ideas of security theatre, securatization, and privatisation which are big topics in ongoing discussions about borders and migration. Security theatre is the process through which organisations promote things that give the appearance of protection without producing measurable outcomes. This might involve disproportionately arming border officials by giving them automatic weapons when it is unlikely that they will have any violent interactions. Some people argue that a lot of the safety checks in airports are a form a security theatre, confiscating your nail scissors is silly when you could buy other dangerous items like glass bottles in the duty-free area just beyond the security stop. Security theatre is potentially, and ironically, a danger because it means that instead of spending money on things that keep us safe we have instead paid for processes which have no measurable benefit. Securitisation refers to how the state frames issues as threats to our safety. An example of this might be xenophobic politicians suggesting that women who wear veils are a threat to security. These politicians are using the language of safety to hide their prejudice. Another example is governments discussing terrorism as a massive threat to the public, when something like heart-disease, lung cancer, or domestic violence is far more likely to result in someone’s death – governments can then justify disproportionate spending on military budgets, or passing laws which restrict our civil liberties. Privatisation is the process of transferring a public service to a privately run industry. Maintaining borders, and security in general, is a profitable industry. Large companies exist to profit from managing and reinforcing borders. It is important to understand that these groups have an interest in promoting an agenda which increases government spending on security. You may notice employees of these private security firms acting as though they are equivalent to police officer or government official when they are most like not. When you are going through a border, look at who is profiting from running that border. This article is part of a series which will try to introduce and explain important ideas about how to talk about and understand borders of all kinds. Being able to name and illustrate these issues is a vital step towards deconstructing and challenging them. By Simon Fern Image: Nerthus/pixbay

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Reflections on the Concept of Happiness: the Case of the Nordic Countries and Korea

Recently, I was invited by some of my former Korean students to give several lectures in Seoul. The topic of my lectures was happiness. The audience was made up mainly of educators, students and journalists at the “Ohmynews” global citizen media outlet, ‘Naked Denmark’ business forum and Odysse High School in Seoul. All three institutions have a special interest in the Nordic education system, which according to them holds the secret behind the high level of happiness in the Nordic region. The Koreans seem to be obsessed with and craving for increased happiness. The reason for this is that according to the world happiness surveys, the Koreans are rated right at the bottom of the happiness league of nations compared with the Nordic countries who are at the top of the pack. To find out why the Koreans feel supposedly less happy than the Nordic people, let’s reflect on the concept of happiness: why are the Nordic people reportedly happier than other fellow humans in other parts of the world while the Koreans claim the opposite position? Let’s start with: the concept of happiness; the paradox therein; and possible reasons for the Nordic people always winning the happiness contest as opposed to the Koreans having no chance of bringing the award home. Happiness From my own perspective happiness is an ideal end station toward which humans strive to reach along their life journey. In other words, happiness is the feeling of mental and emotional wellbeing, experienced differently by different individuals. This feeling is influenced by many factors, including the attitudes of the individuals, the material, psycho-social wellbeing in given cultural settings and in different environments. Thus, for humans to feel happy, they need much more than simply fulfilling their biological needs. The other needs are as vital, because they are what makes humans humane. As happiness is an individual matter, I would like to ask you –the one reading this piece right now-: are you happy? What makes you happy? What are you doing to spread happiness around you? The Korean Paradox In spite of its amazing nature, temperate weather, friendly people, rich culture, hospitality, delicious and spicy food, high level of development, impressive advances in science, technology and innovation, Koreans are still in search of happiness. During my talks with journalists, teachers and students at Ohmynews, Naked Denmark and Odysse High School in Seoul, I was told that many Koreans suffer from work-related stress, family breakdowns, competition, socio-psychological, emotional violence and so on. These problems manifest themselves in high rates of suicide, loneliness and the constant search for happiness. Some are going to extremes to reduce their stress by checking into a prison called ‘Prison Inside Me’. As BBC reports, after working nearly 100 hours a week every week for six months, lawyer Kwon Yong-suk started wondering if solitary confinement in prison might be a better alternative to his situation. So, he creates the jail where people like him could find peace. You can read more about this special prison here. However, I do not think the above is enough explanation for the feeling of unhappiness in Korea. Other factors could be at play, like comparing themselves with the Nordic people, whose realities are different from the Korean peoples’. So, let’s look into those possible other factors. The Nordic self-perception appears to be different and more positive. The folks in the far north, see themselves and are seen by others as extremely homogeneous with a common understanding of and respect for the values of income and gender equality, mutual trust, and straightforwardness. These folks have built the world’s most generous welfare system which provides free education, high-quality universal health care, and unemployment benefits. These people live in a democracy in which the distance between the rulers and citizens is short. The region is far away from the global hotspots, giving the impression that the troubles are far away down south. The Nordic people are said to be the most secular and individually free from God, holy people, places, the family etc. Finally, the region considers itself to be free from colonial legacy and war-mongering. Thus, we see ourselves as innocent and good guys, soft power holders, peace-makers, development aid-givers, human rights promoters. All these traits: white, homogenous, democratic and social equality represent the ideals of the dominant western values of the modern world order. Therefore, we in the far cold north must be the happiest people on earth. However, an increasing number of people suffer from many existential challenges, including the feeling of being less useful to others, loneliness, depression, mental and emotional confusion, work-related pressures, spiritual emptiness and rising xenophobia. The long, dark and cold winters also could contribute to the increasing cases of depression in the region. THUS, in the final analysis, we need more than material well-being to be happy. As social animals, we individuals are not enough in ourselves. We need others for our own well-being because lonely people can hardly be happy people. Nor can we buy, legislate or socially engineer happiness. As already mentioned above, happiness is a mental and emotional state of well-being and individual feeling. This makes happiness hard to measure and apply to a whole region or society. We should keep in mind that chasing happiness is like chasing our own shadows, which we can never catch. Instead, we should try to develop a positive outlook towards ourselves and the world around us and be generous towards others. At the societal level, we should strive toward educating ourselves that our well-being is mutually inter-connected with the well-being of our fellow humans. We might not reach the final goal of happiness, but the process toward meeting it could hold the key to happiness. What are you waiting for, to start the long walk toward happiness with and for all? Garba Diallo  

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