Tag Archives: migrant experience

Introducing: A Dual Danish-Australian citizen

Dual citizenship will let me celebrate my whole identity, both Danish and Australian. Photo by Mick 2014.

Dual citizenship will let me celebrate my whole identity, both Danish and Australian. Photo by Mick 2014.

And again there is reason to celebrate: On the eve of my return to Australia, I have regained my birthright and am again a Danish citizen.

Those of you who have followed my blog will know that I have longed for being recognised again as Danish, after losing my Danish citizenship when I became an Australian.

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On blogging

Since I started blogging in April 2014 I have published 34 posts, which have been viewed 1800 times in 42 countries. My posts got 100 likes in 2014. Thank you to everyone of my readers – I hope you enjoy the blog as much as I do.

Today is the beginning of 2015 and the beginning of my reverse migrant experience to get a foot on the ground in Copenhagen. My resolution for 2015 is to write – and read – much more.

Happy new year to you all.


Click here to see the complete stats report on my first year of blogging.

Home and the migrant’s curse

An opportunistic floater, pelicans migrate to Lake Eyre in inland Australia, only when it has flooded and food is plentiful. These pelicans at Kiama, New South Wales also follow opportunity. Photo: Mick 2014

An opportunistic floater, pelicans migrate to Lake Eyre in inland Australia,  only when it has flooded and food is plentiful. These pelicans at Kiama, New South Wales also follow opportunity. Photo: Mick 2014

If all the people who do not live in their nation state of origin were a country, it would be the fifth biggest country in the world. Writer Pico Iyer* claims this country – this great floating tribe – would have 220 million citizens. Both my husband and I would be citizens. My sons would not. Not yet, anyway. Iyer’s point is that this floating tribe has a different way of conceptualising home: identity can no longer be defined by where you were born or where you live because it is not so much where you come from, but where you are going.

Over a quarter of people living in Australia belong to that floating tribe – they were born overseas. Most of the rest of Australians are descendants from floaters. Only two and a half per cent of Australians have not been floaters since time immemorial: the first nations people, in Brisbane the Turrball and Jagara peoples.

Yet, we – Australians – claim a particular ‘us-ness’ that is exclusive of other-ness. Our current government defends our borders fiercely from the masses of less fortunate people who are all under suspicion of plotting to float into Australia. Some we want: the economic migrants with skills and money. Others we are told to fear for their otherness: boat people, illegal immigrants, refugees. The dominant discourse criminalises and marginalises asylum seekers for daring to come to our door step on a boat.

At the same time, Australians are some of the most welcoming and accepting people I have come across. Multiculturalism was a policy in the 1980s and though scrapped as an explicit policy, its tenets still run strong in the Australian community. Embracing our floating diversity gives Australia an edge.

Long distance migrants, from the Antarctic up the Australian east coast to Indonesia, sooty shearwater or mutton birds pay the ultimate price for their migration. Photo: Mick 2013

Long distance migrants, from the Antarctic up the Australian east coast to Indonesia, sooty shearwater or mutton birds pay the ultimate price for their migration. Photo: Mick 2013

But being part of the floating tribe is not without its challenges. Many migrants to Australia migrate three times: once to come out to the new land, once to go back home to everything they miss and then once again because the old home was nowhere near as good as the memory of it. I personally know three families who did just that: my husband’s family, a Danish family and a blended Danish-Australian family. Is it just that the grass is always greener on the other side? I think it runs much deeper than that.

In his speech, Pico Iyer says that for the floating tribe, home is a project in progress. Home is less about a piece of soil than a piece of soul.

For me, home is certainly an ongoing project. At some point after my sons were born I proclaimed that I now belong here in Australia where my boys came into the world. However, despite my affinity to the place where my sons belong, something kept tugging at me – a sense of emptiness and being out of place. Too many of the people I care about most are not on the soil I thread, and my soul longs for elsewhere. This is why I must go back to Denmark to be where my extended family is, where my nieces and nephews are growing up fast, where my history is, where my roots are still firmly dug into the sandy soils of the reclaimed heath of mid Jutland. Yet it can only be for a time because my boys are so Australian and belong here. That is the migrant’s curse.

I will keep floating in search for moments when the piece of soul collides with the piece of soil that feels like home.

*I found Pico Iyer’s TEDglobal talk via fellow blogger Kirsten Fogg. Kirsten writes insightfully about belonging.

Team Australia – and everybody else?

There is no I in team. Draft. Ink on paper. Mick 2013.

There is no I in team. Draft. Ink on paper. Mick 2013.

It is part of the Australian identity that we love sport. We love a good stouch. We support those who have a go – we even applaud those who cheekily bend the rules to win the game.

So it is probably no wonder that Australia’s leader has called for Australians to join Team Australia. That was in the context of abandoning proposed changes to the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 which would have watered down the racial vilification provisions in the name of free speech. “You are entitled to be a bigot” was the policy rationale. While claiming to be a staunch supporter of free speech, our leader abandoned the proposal because of the risk it might cause national disunity.

‘‘I want the communities of the country to be our friend not our critic,” he said.

That is a promising position – after all, ‘the communities of the country’ are the communities who make up Australia. However, who is the in-group – the ‘our’ – that Australia’s Prime Minister was referring to? Clearly it is a group HE belongs to, but one is left wondering what communities in Australia are outside that group. He clarified by continuing:

“I want to work with the communities of our country as Team Australia.” Still not clear? Luckily for the slow Australians, he clarified even more:

“[Y]ou don’t migrate to this country unless you want to join our team,” he said.

Ah, thank you, Mr Abbot, it is about migrants! Oh… but isn’t he a migrant himself, born in the UK, staunch supporter of Queen Elizabeth, to the degree that he has reintroduced the archaic British system of honours to the colony, eh… country? No matter, our Prime Minister is clearly on Team Australia – it is his ‘we-group’ he is talking about here. It turns out Team Australia is about the Australian stance against terrorism. And, sadly, it is about muslims, too, because terrorism too often confused and conflated with Islam. The corollary to this, which our leader might understand, is to conflate paedophilia with christians, in particular catholic christians, is it not?

Team Australia makes us wonder who we are competing against. Rounders on the beach, Bornholm, Denmark. Photo: Lone. 2009

Team Australia makes us wonder who we are competing against. Rounders on the beach, Bornholm, Denmark. Photo: Lone. 2009

The notion of Team Australia is engendering divisive patriotism and nationalism. The Prime Minister’s call for ‘moderate muslims’ to speak out against radicalism is superfluous: they already are – the problem is that ‘moderate muslims’ simply cannot be heard in mainstream media. The response of the twittersphere to Team Australia is #TeamHumanity. That is promising, if embarrassing that Australia is pitted against humanity.

I wonder why none of his advisers told our leader about Team America: World Police, the puppet movie from 2004, which parodied American foreign policy and the war on terror. The best bit is where the officers in combat scream in horror: We have no intelligence!

But maybe the Prime Minister realises the fact that, apart from sport and competition, Australians love the arts and hence deliberately put Australia on the international comedy stage?

Diversity and a place in the sun

Go back to where you came from? Embracing diversity gives us a competitive edge. Queensland Multicultural Festival. Photo: Mick 2005

Go back to where you came from? Embracing diversity gives us a competitive edge. Queensland Multicultural Festival. Photo: Mick 2005

This week, one lunch time, I took a moment to sit in Queen Victoria Park. Just sit still and watch people milling about, eating their lunch, enjoying the not-yet-too-hot Brisbane sun. What struck me was the diversity around me. A cacophony of accents from people with features originating from all the continents in the world. Of course, the vast majority of people here are still of British or continental European origin, but our local strength in this globalised world is surely our diversity.

When I was a child in monocultural and provincial Denmark, I thought the Korean girl in my grade was beautiful and exotic. Her beautiful black hair, dark brown eyes and golden skin was different. She was one of the first children adopted into Denmark through the international adoption program. This ‘difference’ was unusual where I grew up in the early 1970s. Yet, she was just like any of the girls in my grade – we rode our bikes to school, sang in the choir together and went on camp with the local scout group together.

When in the late 1970s Danish Photographer Jacob Holdt visited our small town with his Amerikanske Billeder – a collection of photographs documenting life of African Americans in the early 1970s – my parents took me along to his talk. It had a huge impact on me to see how people – families with children – lived in contemporary America: the squalor and poverty, right there in the wealthiest country on earth. The African Americans too were different, yet they were not embraced by the privileged mainstream society.

At about the same time, the television series of Alex Hayley’s Roots came on Danish television. The family saga begins with a young African man brutally captured, trafficked on a sailing ship to America and sold as a slave. As if he was not human. It offended my sense of identity when I learnt that Danish sailors and ships were engaged in this human trade.

Safe and healthy in middle class provincial Denmark, my parents taught me that my comfortable life of opportunity was not a given for everyone. It was my luck that I was born to free parents in a place with democracy, social mobility and a strong sense of social justice and equality. Looking back, I can also see that it was easy to be tolerant of difference when you rarely meet it in monocultural Denmark.

Migrant children on a 'New Australians' parade float at the Enoggera Immigration Holding Centre, Brisbane, Queensland, ca. 1955. Photo: State Library of Queensland.

Once upon a time, everyone arrived by boat: Migrant children on a ‘New Australians’ parade float at the Enoggera Immigration Holding Centre, Brisbane, Queensland, ca. 1955. Photo: State Library of Queensland.

It is at the edges of cultures that innovation and new thinking happens. When we are all the same and all think the same, it can be hard to generate new ideas and to imagine things could be any other way. At the edge of our ‘we group’, we are challenged by difference and, if we let it happen, new perspectives come together to see our issues and problems in a new light. This diversity of points of view helps join the dots in new and different ways. Monocultural societies – and ‘we groups’ – tend to protect their way of seeing, thinking and doing. And tend to fear difference.

A quarter of all Australians are born overseas. Another 20% have at least one parent born overseas. With more than half of Australians either born overseas or being children of people born overseas, we are still very much a country of migrants. Perhaps it is only Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population, the people of Australia’s first nations – who make up only 3% of our population – who are not migrants to this country.

In Denmark, 10% are ‘Danes of other ethnic background’ though this number may include third and even fourth generation of ‘other ethnic background’. In my own extended family, I can count:

– one Swede and two children
– one native American and one child
– one Kurd, two children and two grandchildren
– one Pole and one child
– one German, three children and one grandchild
– one New Zealander, two children and two grandchildren living in England
– my own family of four living in Australia, including my husband born in England.

Mine is a rather multicultural family – though I would venture to say this is not the Danish norm. When does one’s identity change from Dane with other ethnic background to just Danish? Four hundred years and ten generations back on my father’s side is a German soldier and Rittmeister from Rodinger – does that make me a Dane with other ethnic background? If not, at what point did that change? Seven generations back, six, four? Or does it take 40,000 years to truly belong to a country?

Sitting in multicultural Brisbane that lunch hour, I saw people of many different backgrounds, who call Australia home. Some may have been here for generations and some, like me, be first generation migrants. You cannot really tell just by looking at people. However, at the end of the day, no matter how our government statistics classify us, we are all humans with fundamental human needs – including the need to belong and find our place in the sun. We are going to have to figure out how we live with diversity for it will not go away. Thankfully. It makes our lives all the more interesting.

Libertarianism and body fright

Aversion to the naked body was not a problem for the Danish sculptor Thorvaldsen in the early 1800s - Mars and Amor, 1810. Photo: Lone, 2013

Aversion to the naked body was not a problem for the Danish sculptor Thorvaldsen in the early 1800s – Mars and Amor, 1810. Photo: Lone, 2013

The free spirit has been a trademark of the Danes for some time. Danes treasure their ‘frisind’ or their liberalism – even libertarianism – that lets each chose for themselves what suits them, without regard for convention or dusty norms from a bygone era. But this is probably a paradox of self deception, just as the Australian identity as pioneers in the bush, in a country where the vast majority of people live on the seaboard. The Danes are at once anti-authoritarian (protesting vigorously against the nanny state and laws that rule their lives) and authoritarian (have you ever waited, slightly wondering, at the red pedestrian light with Danes when there are no cars in sight?). They abhor big government, yet live in one of the most celebrated welfare states in the world.

At its most extreme the Danish ‘frisind’ (free spirit)  is credited with the legalisation of porn and abortion by choice because sex was freed from its bourgeois chains – gender and sexuality were separated in the name of equality (note I consider porn a particular nasty from of oppression of women, so very potently expressed by Oscar Wilde: Everything in the world is about sex, except sex. Sex is about power). In the everyday, this ‘frisind’ manifests in ways that are much less outrageous and much more mundane than that. Little children play naked on the beach and under the sprinkler in the garden. Sunseeking Danes fill Copenhagen’s parks as soon as the sun’s rays warm up the place. You know they are Danes for the girls lie topless to avoid bikini lines (though note the code: you don’t see topless women walk around in the city. Topless is for lying down, sunbaking, not for interaction; and they are not to be looked at, so hide your eyes or risk social outcasting as a pervert).

In 1990, when I first arrived in Australia, I took up swimming at the University pool. In the change room, young women struggled holding their towels around them to undress and put on their bathing suits in complete modesty (looking a tad like Mr Bean at the beach), while I freely stripped naked in front of them. It took me a little while to notice this different attitude to the body – that my culture was different. I first thought it might have something to do with British prudishness á la Mr Bean, but it seemed much more widespread across the Australian cultures. From my Danish childhood visits to the public pool, I was used to communal change rooms and showers with a guard in a white smock and clogs, making sure everyone – young and old – showered naked, cleaned armpits, groin and feet with soapy sponges and rinsed thoroughly before putting back on the swimsuits and going out into the pools, through the hyperchlorinated footbath. While this was for hygiene reasons, it also meant there was no room for modesty or being shy about one’s body – we were all the same when we went swimming in the public pools and it was normal to be naked in front of other people of the same sex.

Similarly, following our regular sport and gymnastics lessons at school, the teacher would make sure we stripped off our sports gear and showered before redressing in our normal clothes. I think this practice must have reduced the smell that accompanies so many school children here in Queensland where showering after school sport is entirely unheard of.

A few days ago I recieved a lovely video message with my young Danish nephew doing a dance to Pink Panther music – stark naked. It was cute and I smiled. It saddens me that I had avoided taking photos or videos of my own – now adult – children in their birthday suit. In Australia, we have been scared off documenting our children in their most natural state so as to avoid being accused of child pornography or pedoephilia. Breast feeding my children in public was accompanied by awkwardness. People thought I was crazy – and rather revolting – exposing myself like that. The most natural thing a woman can do to sustain her offspring is to breast feed. There is nothing better for baby; it requires no equipment, no sterilisation, no chemicals or de- and rehydration processes – everything baby needs is there just as nature intended. But the same body fright I experienced in the change room somehow makes this natural act become perverse. Showing any nakedness is somehow shameful.

Beautiful AND Indecent? 'Amor og Psyche' by Thorvaldsen,. Photo: Lone.

Beautiful AND Indecent? ‘Amor og Psyche’ by Thorvaldsen,. Photo: Lone.

I recall my puzzlement when our New Zealand friend from London who visited us every xmas in my childhood would ask if I was ‘decent’ before entering. I associated decency with good – and therefore lack of it with bad. Whether I was naked or not was somehow a question of bad or good in his culture.

I read that the Danish liberal attitude to the body may be changing – with children actively avoiding showering together and young people covering up more. An annual debate rages about whether it is ok to sunbake topless in one of the graveyards in the centre of Copenhagen, which is also one of the popular green spaces of the city. I don’t really have a view on that one, but I do think our Australian cultures would do well to take a more relaxed attitude to the outfit we were born in – and embrace nakedness as natural, not something to be avoided at all cost.  Perhaps then we could have people familiar with, not ashamed of, their body? Perhaps we could avoid the rape excuse that ‘the way she dressed, she asked for it’? Perhaps we could get a more realistic attitude to body shape – how do we know what a normal body is when we never see one?

Under my skin

The church in Gjellerup, Herning Kommune, Denmark. Photo Ch1ptune at da.wikipedia, 2007.

The church in Gjellerup, Herning Kommune, Denmark. Photo Ch1ptune at da.wikipedia, 2007.

‘One can never leave home’ wrote Maya Angelou in Letter to my Daugther in 2008, because ‘one carries the shadows, the dreams, the fears and dragons of home under one’s skin, at the extreme corners of one’s eyes and possibly in the gristle of the earlobe.’

I have been thinking a lot about home lately. As a child I had a stable home. We moved around a little at first, never straying far from that centre of my father’s universe that was Lundfod where he grew up. Once I started school we stayed in the same place until after I left home. My childhood was spent in the little village community of Gjellerup, smack in the centre of Jutland peninsula, as far away from the water as it is possible to get in the little island country of Denmark, where people are of the land and have both feet firmly planted on the ground. Once settled here, my parents got on with their business and we kids got on with being kids and growing up.

It was safe and it was summer, and I played with friends on the street until we were called in to go to bed, even if it still seemed like broad day light. Or it was winter with snow piled high outside and candle light on the well-decorated, freshly felled pine tree, cosy inside, and we played board games and card games with our parents. It was safe and we were never in doubt we were loved. It was a good place from which to go and conquer the world. And so I did, but that is another story.

My childhood home from 1972 to 1982

My childhood home from 1972 to 1982

This was home and I belonged to the place. My community was a very ancient village, the one with the oldest church in Denmark, from 1140. This community was tight knit and deeply religious, but growing fast in the secularised, liberated 1970s. Though we were newcomers, we were all able to find our community, our belonging, here in this rapidly expanding village as it merged to become a suburb of the larger town, Herning. I started at the new school as soon as it opened in january 1973, sang in the choir, joined the scouts, roamed the streets playing cowboys and indians, princesses and dragonslayers and racing our bikes down the gently sloping hills. Friends, whom I still hold dear and count among my very best friends, are friends from my childhood home (you know who you are).

No matter how much I go back and walk the streets I used to play in, look at the homes I used to live in or visit the school I went to, in that little village, I know that there is no going home. It is never the same as the memory of home I carry under my skin. Because I am not the person I was and I will never be that person again, never belong in that place as I did. Similarly, the people I associate with my belonging to that place are no longer there and are no longer the people they were. Experimental philosopher Joshua Knobe questions the notion of an essential self – the person you are can never be the person you were or the person you will be: Even physically, 98% of atoms in your body changes every year.

Nevertheless, when I go to Denmark and look at the landscape, the architecture and the people, hear the language and the songs and feel the place, I know that I belong. I am recognised, I fit in. I belong to this country, this people, this language, this history.

And I don’t. Having lived for 23 years in Australia, away from Denmark, my mother tongue is 23 years old and the society I knew then has moved on, through several crises and cultural shifts. Some of these shifts are significant and others more subtle. For any migrant, this is a significant experience and sometimes cause of sorrow. It reminds us perpetually of the flux of all things: ever-newer water flows and one cannot step in the same river twice (Heraculitus).

It may be true you never leave home, as Angelou asserts, but I have found the home under my skin has morphed and changed, as I run through its manifestations inside my head and adjust the shadows, dreams, fears and dragons to fit into the narrative of my life. One may never leave home, but home is never what it was.

And this is exactly why I need to go home to Denmark: so I can adjust the home under my skin, at the corner of my eye and in the gristle of my earlobe. Thanks Angelou, and rest in peace.