Being a Norwegian in New York City is like being the pickle in a BigMac – not everyone knows you’re here, but we add a quiet flavor to the city, and you can either love it or loathe it. Norwegians might say that we add a flavor to the New York ‘Melting Pot’ known as ‘lutefisk’ – a traditional dried fishmeal, that is both powerful and subtle at the same time.
I am one of eighty Norwegians studying at Gateway College in Tribeca in New York City. We’re pretty easy to spot; look out for knitted sweaters or designer bags and you’ll have your NYC Norwegian. Norwegians are generally a homogenized people in our look and dressing style. Our Norwegian style is generally based on looking similar, and if something becomes popular (like Hunter boots) everyone has them. And so, you can spot us from far away, travelling in a collective large group, with our sweaters, boots and purses, and occasional big smiles.
We aren’t usually risk takers, but perhaps the unique New York style has gotten to us. We like it here because we can do what we want without judgement, and celebrate our individuality. Being extraordinary might be one of the many things we’ll bring back home. I used to believe the American Dream doesn’t always apply to Norwegians – due to our active government that provides free healthcare and education. We are a small country with five million people, and a lot of support from the state, so being successful in Norway can mean that we feel personal fulfillment, and are happy with life. In the U.S, the American Dream means that ‘you’ll make it yourself’. That “making it” is not about the community, but the individual. I’ve learned that in New York if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere. We are taking notes from the many dreamers and success stories here, and finding ways to apply it to our Norwegian outlook.
After two months, we continue learning, and may have finally mastered how to be “New Yorkers” First of all, we were told we shouldn’t call it the Big Apple, but the City. Pretending to be a New Yorker and not an awkward Norwegian tourist is not that easy, but I’ve learnt to adapt to the busy life, to give annoyed looks to my ‘fellow’ Manhattanites about the aggravating tourists who stop to gaze up at the tall buildings, and now we actually go in the right direction when leaving the subway car. I’ve also learned to take initiative and explore the world outside New York, like when I organized a trip to Boston for myself and my Amnesty group.
During my stay I’ve gotten to meet a couple of Americans –since there’s no ‘one type of American’ I see it as an international spice kitchen, with flavors and spices from across the world gathered in one place. Hence, few actually call themselves real Americans. They all swear they are Italian or 1/12 Norwegian, even though their grand-grand-grand parents came to Ellis Island decades ago from somewhere far away. I guess there is no one American identity, except that everyone can be an American if they want.
I’ve learned that Americans are entertaining in so many ways. The typical question from an American to a Norwegian is: “do you ride polar bears to school?” (This is probably because every time we go out, we joke that all Norwegians have their own polar bear, so that’s probably our mistake, but the reality is I don’t own a pet polar bear–though there are still some traditional indigenous Norwegians who herd Reindeer)
Disregarding the geographical skills of Americans, the openness I feel here is baffling to a humble Norwegian. In Norway I would never have told the shopkeeper what I’m studying or what I had for lunch – just for the sake of conversation. Norwegians tend to stick to themselves due to shyness, which could at first glance seem like a cold and introverted people. But we just don’t start conversations randomly in Norway, a big contrast to what I see in New York. But though we Norwegians can be shy, we are still warm people, and once you get to know us you have a friend for life.
It’s been quite absurd going from fancy Upper East Side, where I live, and straight into human rights class where we learn about everything from torture to human trafficking from our professor. It’s easy to forget in a city with so much money, how income inequality and issues of hunger, poverty and crime still exist here, which is very different from Norway. Even seeing the contrast from Park Street to Harlem is startling for a Norwegian. But in other ways this gap in income levels means that you meet every type of personality and it teaches us a lot. You can in two blocks run into stockbrokers making millions to homeless people looking for bottles. I’ve noticed money is highly appreciated here – more than anywhere I’ve been before.
Leaving New York means leaving opportunities, amazing and inspirational people. I will miss the ongoing noise, the Chinese restaurant on the corner, and even the millions of rats who are all part of the New York experience. Going back I’ll try to bring back the openness I’ve experienced here; I’ll experiment with asking ‘how people are feeling’. My style might have become more individual; with flavors from Brooklyn flea market and $10 stores. All of us Norwegian students will bring back our own piece of New York, and maybe even a slice of the American dream. My “dream” is to go on to study international relations, and try to realize my dream of starting a human rights organization. We’ll see what happens, but one thing is certain; this city has inspired us all.
Farewell NY, see you in a New York minute! 🙂