Norway through the foreign eye

Mapchallenge: While our internationals try to find Norway on the map. Photo: Luiza-Bianca Alexe

Stereotypes like all Norwegians being blond with blue eyes, that everybody knows how to ski and the Northern coldness, is nowadays getting a different angle for the international students. Some tend to label the country as «super expensive», others just found out where it is located on the map, and the rest hope that maybe one day they will have the chance to see the locals going to the shop accompanied by polar bears.

by Luiza-Bianca Alexe

From China to Romania and Portugal to Malawi with Santa Claus’ final destination, Norway is in a new circle, and it is not the polar one. The foreigners from our university have created a circle of myths which break down the old ones.

If in Albania they try to think that The Way to the North is the real Eden, because as Flavja says; «Norway is fantastic, with a beautiful nature, a high standard of living, with a ‘priceless’ marine wealth, a government without corruption and a wonderful royal family». In other places of the country it is not known at all.

– Before I came here I thought that Norway is Nigeria, just because of the similarity in our language prounciation, admits Samaa from Palestine.

After a while, she realized that it is actually not what she thought and today everything is experienced in a nicely, safe and cultural way for the Palestinian student of Norwegian language.

Going in right direction is the 24 year old student Thoko.
– In Malawi, we tend to think that Norway and Sweden are the same, she says with a smile on her face.

Having a relative living in a neighbouring country, Thoko pictures Norway as «a country of very handsome guys.»
– Yeah, that is what my aunt told me and this made me excited to get to see the Norwegian beauty, she says.

She has found the myth of a beautiful nation to be true, but in a different way.
– Today, I think more that everyone has a natural beauty, just that the girls here, in Volda, make it too natural. I like seeing girls arranged and using makeup, but here boys and girls are just normal, Thoko says.

Describing Norway as »just an European country», she considers that it is important to show the beauty as you define it, and she respects the way that Norwegian girls prefer to keep it.

– Norwegian boys are extremely good looking
On the same line as the Malawi student we find Yige, a Chinese student.
– Oh my God, Norwegian boys are not handsome, but extremely good looking. When I go swimming, it is a blessed pleasure to admire the worked-out bodies walking around with visible and shining muscles, she says.

In her home country the definition of beautiful has to do with the skin color.
– The whiter a person is, the easier it is for the others to fit him or her in the beauty box, explains Yige.
Thus, the whiteness myth came up to be true.

– Strong, handsome Vikings
– In Spain, everybody who is asked about Norway, first answer is that the Northen people are strong, handsome Vikings, which is partially true, says Maria.
But do you know what girls? You got your point because, due to the Internet rating in 2011 Norway was in the top ten countries in the world with the most handsome boys.

But in the Hispanic country good looking Scandinavian men are not the only thing that completes the circle of myths. The famous laks, or salmon as we know it, is on the top dishes in Madrid, Barcelona or Czech Republic.
– If you go to a Czech restaurant, it is very common to find in the menu the Norwegian salmon as one of the finest meals. That is why we say that everything which has to do with the country, is fish and sporty people, Peter admits.

Jessie shares the same opinion such as Kenyans give the sporty, competitive side of the country.
– Before coming here, I remember constantly browsing the web trying to find out more about the country and the people. What was recurring in most of the articles was that many Norwegians are very sportive, and with my arrival I do notice that it is true, says the NUS student.

Post card of a ghost country
How many of us have actually wondered how do one and almost a half billion people imagine Norway? They sing it! Small is perhaps too small to gather all the feelings which the Chinese students had when they got the first contact with the Norwegian places and culture.
– In China we fell in love with the image of the Norwegian forests that we hear in songs and read about in our fairy tales, they say.

But the moment that even the fairy tale got lost in the forest happened when there was told that the whole country is populated by not even five milion people.
– We were shocked, we could not figure out how tiny this amount of five million is. The main streets of our capital are daily populated by millions of people and here is like a ghost country, Yige says.

Everyday she wakes up captured in a picture framed by mountains, fjords and protected by ghosts.
– The first days here brought a new life style to us. Seeing no people walking on the streets, having so much space for ourselves, we felt like Norwegians are somewhere hidden together with their ghosts, Zhao remembers.

The ghost myth comes from the fact that the students have to face the cemetery to reach one of the down-town stores. In this Asian country, a cementery is situated far far away from the city, usually in the places where there is no life, no houses, typical the mountain areas.

At the same time, if I quote Yige’s words it looks like »I do take the way as everybody else today, I even stop by and look at the tombs and have no fear, because Volda is the perfect place to live in, where the sun is getting lazy and where we can wear white shoes with no need to wash them every day». Thing which is impossible to do in China.

A technologically retarded country
Unfortunately, not everything that the non-Norwegians heard, learned or read about the country has a funny, sympathetic, fondly meaning for the citizens.
– So impressive how some who have no idea about our country, dare to ask if Norway is a city in Germany and wonder which language we speak, tells Eirik.

According to him »if you do not know something about the other cultures, it is much better not to say anything and rather ask. That it is how all these myths are born and spread all over the world».

He is not the only Norwegian student that has been in the situation to answer to some weird statements.
– I am curious to find out where these ideas come from. Like I was once asked if I wear guns so I can protect myself from the walking polar bears on our streets, says Axel.

But maybe the weirdest statement ever heard by him occurred years ago when an Egyptian student got surprised to find out that people in Norway do actually use the Internet.
– I felt like we were some kind of retarded people who still live in the Stone Age, which was pretty powerful to hear, Axel sadly continues.

Strengthening the previous idea, at the geography class, my Romanian teacher told us that there are no women in Norway, that people still live as Vikings used to do, and that starting with children over seven years old and to the grown-ups, spoil them, before the dinner, with a glass of Captain Morgan. Where did she get this from? I have no answer, but I stopped believing it when I came here.

As one student from Lithuania said »we learned that here is nothing else than fish as food». Another amuses himself saying that »as we buy cars from Germany, Norwegians buy women from Thailand».

The Croatians were expecting to meet people recognized after the type of music they listen to.
– Before, we really thought that we were going to see people dressed in black and in this metal style, because of the rock music, explains Ivan.

Funny for us, huh? For the Norwegians, it is gloomy, but sometimes it is not our fault that we had to believe these preconceptions. Therefore, it is great to travel here so we can experience the »real» myths.

Friendship of a lifetime
A rumour that is flying all around the world concerns the Scandinavian coldness. And I do not refer only to the weather, which, surprisingly, many students do not find so cold.
– I read on the Internet that here is extremely cold and I was preparing myself with many warm clothes. After, I saw that it is warmer than I thought, it is almost like in China, says Zhao.

Concerning the the coldness shown by the locals, Joao from Portugal thinks that
– Norwegians are not the most sympathetic people in the world, but once you get there, you can make great links of a long life friendship.
– This is because they are very loyal to their friends, he adds.

Lara agrees with the Portuguese student confirming that;
– The ones who say Norwegians are cold and not friendly, it means that they do not have a clue how to socialize.

Yige is on her way to believe this, but she is still not there yet.
– I think that when they are sober, they are shy and they get embarrassed to speak English or to approach. But when they start drinking and become tipsy, nothing is shamful or embarrassing. And then, it is good for me, I can finally talk to them!, smiles the Chinese.

– I have always thought of Norwegians as a privileged nation that sits at the North Pole and ride reindeer all day long. Before travelling here I was expecting some grumpy people, modern days barbarians who have some kind of treasures hidden under their houses. Even if this might sound a bit far from the truth for some, to me it became reality, asserts Oana.

The Romanian explains that;
– They are privileged, not because they get to ride reindeer, but because they are one of the richest countries in the world and the treasure that’s under their houses is the black gold. As for the grumpy part… I am still evaluating it.

Let’s give it a try!
Living in Volda for the past few years, I realized that everything which we foreigners bring with us here, takes another turn just by being in contact with the culture and people. I do think that in each local there is a Viking backlog insinuated today by a smile on the face, the loyal friendship and a frank trust.

Let’s put aside all these myths and just ask ourselves if we do in fact draw a border between us and Norwegians before even getting to know them for real. There is still much to discover, we just have to give a shot!

And like Orson Welles says it: »I drag my myth around me,» and that is maybe why »myths are just a waste of time which prevent progression». True or not, let’s give it a try!

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