I am an immigrant. I’ve been an immigrant to several countries and for the last 30 years (as of today, actually) I’ve been an immigrant to Norway. I came to Norway to work for a few months because I was broke after having lived in California for some time, and my own country–Denmark–could offer me nothing. Most of my friends were unemployed and I did not want to go down that road.
So I came to Norway with two empty hands and a desire to work. I did what immigrants often do, I took the jobs the locals didn’t want. I worked in housekeeping and as a dishwasher at a hotel, I worked as a waiter and I had a job making open-faced sandwiches in a cafeteria. Later on I grabbed the offer of free education from the Norwegian state and the rest is history. I’ve been working and paying taxes for 25 years now. I’m fairly sure I’ve been a good investment for the state of Norway, even if she did pay for six years of university education. Less so for my birth country, Denmark, who paid for 12 years of school and only received pennies (well, øre) back in taxes from me.
Me – a parasite
Before I came to Norway, I lived in California. I was probably not a good investment for California. Yes, I did spend money there but I also had a job without paying any taxes. Yes, I was a selfish kid who applied for, and got a job at a cafe, without having a work permit. I would have gladly paid my taxes if it had been possible, but it wasn’t. I wasn’t an illegal immigrant as such–I had a visa to live there–but I definitely worked there illegally. Sorry, California.
The same goes for Greece and Italy, because I’ve lived and worked in both countries for short periods of time. It was perfectly legal for me to live there, but I did not have permission to work (I have to remind you that this was before Schengen and you had to have a work permit even inside the EU). Sorry, Greece and Italy.
Traveled to many countries
I’ve always loved traveling. My parents were fairly poor and every cent (well, øre) they had went into the piggy bank that said “vacation”. When I was 12 I started traveling alone. When I was 14 I took the train alone all across Europe and when I was 16 I started hitchhiking.
I just counted the number of countries I’ve visited and I’m close to 50. Some of the countries don’t exist anymore, like the Soviet Union, DDR and Yugoslavia. Some countries I’ve visited many times, some only once.
Why am I telling this story?
Why am I telling the story of me as an immigrant and me as a tourist? Because those of us who have been born in the right country–like a Scandinavian country–tend to forget the gigantic privilege our passport gives us. We can travel almost everywhere and we can even decide to move to a different country and be met with open arms.
A Danish passport gives you access to 172 different countries in the world, only beaten by Finland and Sweden (arrgh) who can travel to 173 different countries with their passports, according to this article. If you’re from Afghanistan you’re only welcome in 28 countries.
Why is my passport better?
I did not do anything special to receive a Danish passport. My Danish passport was not a prize for being an extraordinary person who deserved to be able to travel the world. I was born to Danish parents and that was it. Why do I qualify to travel to 173 different countries just because the right set of parents had me?
These days there is a harsh tone towards immigrants and refugees. I hear people talking about closing borders and building high walls and all I can think of the lack of walls I’ve always met. Why have I been accepted to country after country, no questions asked? After all I’ve “stolen” jobs from the locals, not paid my taxes, stayed way longer than planned–I’ve even taken a man (or is it only “our women” that can be taken?).
Why am I welcome?
In a perfect world all borders would be open to anyone. We do, unfortunately, not live in a perfect world.
But as a person who–in spite of the huge privileges my passport gave me–has cheated and worked without a work permit, I can’t fault people for trying to cheat their way into a country they want to live in. It’s a part of human nature to try and improve your living conditions and if that’s impossible where you live, people will move. People have done so for thousands of years and I’m not sure why it’s a surprise that people still move to have a better life.
And those of us born in my part of the world tend to forget the enormous privilege we have when we carry a passport that gives us access to most of the world. We tend to forget what a privilege it is to be able to move to a different country if you think you’ll be able to live a better life there. We tend to forget how wrong it is when we can go to countries and visit people–and they can never come to our country and visit us.
The worst part? Some people seem to think they are better people just because they have a passport that allows them to visit 172 countries.
28 thoughts on “My life as a privileged immigrant”
Sounds like our paths are similar. Only I was born in California and now I’m married and living in Finland. I actually visited and lived near Walnut Creek many times 🙂 nice area. I am going through trying to find a job now. I’m glad I have some savings to live on for now but looking for a job is a full time job all in itself. I understand my first position won’t be the job of my dreams but all be thankful when something does come around.
No, your first job in a new country is rarely your dream job but I must say that I’ve had fun in most jobs I’ve had. I loved working at the cinema, for instance. Or at a Greek hotel. But they didn’t pay very well so I chose to move on. Which is a privilege I have- and I privilege I unfortunately don’t share with everyone.
I wish you luck on your job hunt! And living in a different country than your own. I like it but it does have its ups and downs 🙂
Well stated! I’ve always lived in the US, but thankfully I’ve had the opportunity to travel many places across the world. Fortunately, been welcome warmly everywhere I’ve been, including the Middle East and Asia – and as a six foot tall, plus sized redhead, I tend to stand out. Maybe people can see that I really like exploring new places, meeting new people and appreciate cultures beyond my own. An open mind opens a lot of doors.
The politics of the US are depressing, and while I don’t want to assume your post is referring to some of our presidential candidates specifically (I know other western countries have their own issues too) it certainly applies. An open mind would help them as well.
I’ve been very warmly welcomed everywhere as well, which is why I find it sad that we don’t offer other people the same courtecy.
It seems that the politics in most European countries is depressing as well, at least when it comes to the topic of refugees. I was a Red Cross volunteer back when we had a lot of Bosnian refugees and I’ve followed them since. They have been doing very well and now they have a higher employment rate than “ethnic Norwegians.” I think some of the reason for this is because they were quickly absorbed into society instead of spending ages in some kind of shelter. Unfortunately, we don’t seem to do the same now. Now it’s all about closing the borders.
I’m happy to know now my people had someone as nice as you to help them when they managed to escape from this hell Bosnia was during the war. Nobody understands that these refugees have nowhere to return. Hope you’ll tour ex-Yugoslavia again 😉
Thank you for your kind words. One thing I remember very well was a Bosnian family I visited every week in their first year in Norway. The horrors they had been through, it still makes my skin curl.
A young colleague of mine is married to a Bosnian. He was only five when he came here, his family also having been through hell. It’s such a testament to the human will to survive and be happy to see how his whole family prosper today. They all have good jobs and are happy with their lives. There is always hope and we owe it to help our fellow human find that hope.
We actually talked about visiting Bosnia and Montenegro this Summer. I would so much like to go!
There’s so much to see here that I think you would enjoy that trip very much 🙂 We’ve all been through so much bad stuff here and my town was one of the most destroyed cities in ex-Yugoslavia and the destruction is still visible more than 20 years after the war ended. Last summer I met a guy from France and he said he’ll be back this year because he hasn’t seen more than half of the things he planned to see and he was amazed by the hospitality of our people. And we’ve been voted to have the best hotels in Europe by Trivago so I think you’d have a nice time visiting this area 🙂
A friend of mine visited Bosnia in december and he just showed me the pictures. Very beautiful but also very sad to see the scars from the war. He visited Sarajevo and Mostar.
Which city and which hotels? I’m still planning my vacation 🙂
Well I’m in Mostar. Here you have hotel Mepas (5 stars), Eden, Bevanda, hote Mostar, all top hotels here. Then there is a hotel in my street, a bit smaller but very nice, hotel Pellegrino. A few Etno villages around Mostar, built like old stone houses. In Sarajevo there’s a lot of hotels, like Europe, Hollywood, Radon Plaza with it’s rotating restaurant. I’ll send you a few links on FB, but most of these hotels are available to book on Booking.com 🙂
That sounds so lovely! Thank you 🙂
My former neighbor is in Norway, somewhere around Oslo I think
Thanks for sharing your unique perspective. Most Americans are not knowledgeable about how the rest of the world travels. Wish I could travel around my own country ! Then the rest of the world !
You’re welcome 🙂
Traveling has always been important to me and one of the reasons I chose the job I have now is because they offered an extra vacation week to sweeten the deal (I have six weeks now plus Christmas and Easter).
Fantastic! Thanks for sharing and being so honest regarding your privilege! This is something of which many of us need to be reminded. I was a guest in Sweden for a year as an exchange student, then studied in Oslo for one year during my last year of college and then worked…I was hired, but did not have permission, so I worked illegally with a great amount of support and help from locals. I was finally approved for arbeidestillatelse–it may have been because of connections people had that I knew, that I held an American passport, that I was white, and that I have a Norwegian last name–I must remember my privilege.
One would like to think that skin color, last names and passport country doesn’t make any difference when they give out work permit but I’m fairly sure it makes a huge difference.
I hope you enjoyed your time here!
All of Scandinavia is wonderful, but Norway has my heart! I was able to live in Oslo for a year, and then in ytre Sogn og Fjordane.
Aaaw, that warms my heart! I love Norway too.
You really went for the extremes with Oslo and Sogn og Fjordane 🙂
Thanks for this insight. I showed it to a friend who hasn’t been very open minded on the immigration issue, and I hoped it opened his eyes a bit. Immigrants often get painted with a broad brush, as you know, and I think posts like this can help open up a conversation.
It does get painted with a broad brush and it’s completely unfair to a complicated issue like immigration. There is a huge gray area but people talk as if it’s all black and white.
I try to hold on to a sense of humanity and try to let it be my guidance but it’s hard because every action has a hundred effects–some of them unwanted and some of them making the situation worse.
What I do know is that we’ve failed if we watch people die and feel nothing. If the suffering of other people leaves us cold. Unfortunately, this seems to have happened to way too many people.
On a quick side note. I see LeeLoo and my brain brings up Brice Willis and Total Recall… Pretty sure I’m wrong on the Total are Recall… Recall… Lol
Ok, so passports. Yeah, I remember something along these lines but I’d forgotten. Wow, that’s a lot of travelling 🙂 Very nice!
You made me laugh at your groan of frustration at Sweeden having more access than your beloved homeland. Then I had to laugh at myself when I made the same noise! Australia has 167, New Zealand has 168. Grr. But then again, Austria also has 168, so I’m going go assume it was a typo. You wouldn’t belive how often we get mixed up. And just in case people are wondering… No, I don’t Yodel. 😉
Haha, you made me laugh now! Every country has another country they compete with (and I want to know which country is allowing Swedes, and not Danes, to enter. It’s driving me nuts!).
Maybe buy a pair of Lederhosen just to be on the safe side? 😉
Yes, great article, and well put – but you did not try to sexually assault the opposite sex in your adopted country, nor did you look down on your host country for not sharing your culture and your religion. As a woman I deeply resent having my freedom curtailed by immigrant males. It is a thorny issue.
Yes, this is a complicated topic and, as I said, we do not live in a perfect world. This is not clear cut in any way because:
* There are women and children–not to mention men who would never hurt a fly–who need protection too. Some of them need it from the exact same people we are afraid of because they are afraid of them too.
* One could easily argue that our freedom has been curtailed for generation/centuries because we were certainly attacked and raped before the recent wave of immigration/refugees
In Norway they have “culture classes” for refugees coming here. In those classes they learn about the parts of our culture that they might find odd–gay men kissing in the streets, women in power and people acting and dressing differently from what they’re used to. I think this is the way to proceed because it certainly isn’t easy to understand all the unwritten (or even the written) rules when you come to a new country.
I’m fairly sure I insulted a few Californians when I lived there because I just didn’t get the social rules. I know for sure that I insulted all my dates because I thought it was completely ridiculous that they were supposed to open the doors for me and pay the restaurant bills (I actually took the door thing as an insult, so there you go).
It is a thorny issue. As a woman I’m not willing to give up the rights my formothers have fought for–especially not my freedom–but I also don’t want to judge a whole group of people by what some of them have done.
Thank you so much for sharing your life and your perspective on this issue. I appreciate hearing examples like yours- maybe I can use them next time I’m sitting across the dinner table with some cantankerous relatives of mine. I’m so frustrated with talk in my country about building walls and closing borders, and aaggghhh. You said you lived in Walnut Creek- born there and live in Pleasant Hill now. Love that photo- though it must have been taken before 4 years of drought!
It just goes to show what a small world we live in. When you meet new people, you so often find these small connections. I love that!
I’m so sorry to heat about the drought. I remember Walnut Creek as very green even though there were water restrictions even back then. I live in Norway now where we have plenty of water and you really don’t want any of us visiting you. We will let the water run for five minutes just to get the exaaaact right kind of freshness. We will let the water run while shampooing and brushing our teeth. And we will use a hose to clean the pavement because we’re too lazy to use a broom.
As a Kenyan who was bitten by the travel bug as a child visas have been the bane of my existence for over 20 years. My passport allows me to travel to 43 countries however some of those countries are usually so far and wide that I need a transit visa for 2-3 countries just to get to my destination. I am now living in Oslo with my Norwegian husband but our immigration story is only beginning as we are still waiting for UDI to process my application.
I work in the film industry and when I was still living in Kenya I would get angry at film companies that would fly in Directors, Cinematographers and other professionals from all over Europe and America (sometimes even Australia!) to come to Kenya and do jobs that my peers and I are fully qualified to do. (grrrrr!)
I would like to thank you for noticing what you have, because not many people do. For that I am grateful.
I couldn’t agree with you more. Those of us who can travel wherever we want, take it for granted while we build high walls to our countries. It’s a shame!
And we also take for granted that we should be able to work everywhere–sometimes we even think we’re better qualified on the basis of our nationality only–but we will never grant anyone the right to work in our country.