This surprise question left this particular course instructor at a momentary loss for words, and she’s still not satisfied with the eventual answer she gave in response to it.
It happened during an (English) evening course called ‘Living and Working in Norway’ that I was running last month in Trondheim, a major city making up the northern tip of the Oslo-Bergen-Trondheim tourist triangle. There was a mixed group of men and women coming from all corners of the world – Europe, Asia, Africa, North America, the Middle East. Different backgrounds yet the shared fact of having lived in this country for a relatively short period of time (short enough to know only a few words of Norwegian). I had just finished the first part of my course, the ‘living’ section, having given tips and advice as to how they could thrive in their new homeland, and opened up for questions. Usually at this point someone asks something quite neutral that is related to, say, where they can find more information about joining their local soccer club or where they can go on the net for more information about activities to do in the city. Certainly nothing like this question posed quite seriously by a young Romanian woman, who had been living in the area for just over a year.
A Loaded Question
Her question put me at a total loss for words as I realized while listening to her speak that it was actually a heavily loaded question containing her own experiences and subsequent thoughts and impressions about life up here in the frozen north. How was I to know what those were? The cliché phrase ‘thoughts raced through my mind’ proved to be true in this instance, and I was aware of pausing during this chaotic race. Among other things I wondered why she had come here: On her own in search of a job? A better life? Or because a relationship? I also wondered how the ‘natives’ had treated her so far: Well? Badly? Had she been met with kindness? Had anyone asked her in a sincere way how she was doing here? Had she been insulted or yet worse, ignored? Had she found work? Satisfying work? Or had she been trying to land a job only to never quite make it to getting hired anywhere? Did she actually feel ‘liked’ by people here? But why would she ask this if she did? What should I say? A moment or two passed while all this was going through my head. And then I said…
Changing Norwegian Society
‘Of course they do!’ And went on to talk about how the country in general had changed a great deal in positive ways ever since I moved over in the early 90s, becoming more multiethnic, multicultural, multi this and that in recent years. I pointed to Norway’s famous oil-generated wealth giving it the opportunity to welcome people such as us in the room to the country, and how we were seen to enrich it in various ways just by being who we are, people that started out life in various places around the globe but ended up being all together here. Going for a kind of ‘celebrate the differences’ approach that was meant to encourage and inspire. I went on by saying that people here just wanted us newcomers to work, contribute to society, learn about their culture and follow their laws. Again, I was trying to encourage and inspire my listeners, yet felt as well that all I was really doing was being shallow and trying to give them a recipe to follow so that they’d be… liked. As if I were telling them how to win some kind of national popularity contest. I sensed that I wanted to convince them of my points and by so doing give an insightful, wise answer to the original question.
Newcomers Need to Tell Their Stories
Did I succeed? Am not sure that I did, and remain dissatisfied with my well-meant yet somewhat rambling reply even these many weeks after I gave it. The looks I received from the others in the room who had first nodded in recognition when hearing this young woman’s heartfelt question and then listened to my rather by-the-book answer didn’t convince me that I had exactly won over their hearts and minds with my reply. Actually, I was left more with the feeling that they each wanted to tell the rest of us their own experiences about feeling liked (or not) in Norway. Unfortunately, since our time was up, there was none left for hearing these stories; but as I listened to their closing, scattered applause and watched them leave the classroom, I hoped these newcomers to Norway at least felt good about getting a question asked out loud that they had been wondering about themselves yet not been in the right setting to ask. And that it would help them to share their own stories soon with someone who wanted to listen to them. And if I ever got asked this question again in the future, I would try to give the person/people asking it a much better answer.