In Denmark, we have a concept called "Janteloven" or more often translated as "The Law of Jante". If you say "Janteloven" to any Dane, they will immediately know what you are referring to. And most of us have felt the influence of this "law" during our life in Denmark.
What is this "Law of Jante" you ask? And why on earth am I bringing it up in one of my blog posts as part of my story?
"The Law of Jante" was first introduced in 1935 by author Aksel Sandemose in his novel "A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks" (footnote: I also saw a translation that said "A Fugitive Covers His Tracks" which not as accurate as the former.) In it, he describes the lead character Espen Arnakke's experiences living in the small provincial town of Jante. In this town, the inhabitants have kept each other down, generation after generation, with envy and narrow-mindedness. It is these unwritten rules that Sandemose has translated into the ten commandments in the "Jantelaw". They are:
Sandemose spells out exactly how the city operates and how the inhabitants think. The city's self-suppressing lower class and the petty-bourgeois who want to be so better-than-thou, teach their children inferiority and distrust of the outside world from a young age, all to make themselves feel better.
It does come across rather two-sided. On one hand, this community is suppressing their peers with these 10 commandments, yet at the same time, them saying "don't think you're better than us" is expressing exactly that they indeed think they are. I enjoyed this conundrum immensely.
The thing I do love about the story, which is not an easy read or even all that enjoyable, is that the lead character finally does muster up his courage to break out and sail the seas, something that in my experience doesn't come easy when met with this kind of deprecating forced inferiority.
I do think Sandemose was making a rather flamboyant sarcastic attempt at showing the small towns in Denmark just how silly this whole concept is, but I think his point fell to the wayside and the concept was adopted. He finally put into words what was already there.
So why does this book belong in my story? Well, growing up in Denmark, this book has made its impact. I don't think the Law of Jante came from a book, I think the Danish community saw itself in these commandments and thought: "yes, that's exactly who we are and what we do". I think of Aksel Sandemose as someone who put into words something we all were seeing and feeling around us, and this whole concept was then made famous as "The Law of Jante". It belongs in my story because this written, yet unwritten law has been an interwoven part of my culture for as long as I can remember and has been there, well-enforced for generations.
I'm sure you can imagine what happens to a little girl, with a big voice and wilder than wildest dreams when she is presented with 10 commandments like this and told, this is a part of your culture. Not only that, but I felt the spirit of these writings intertwine in my daily life, I saw it when I was told not to shine too bright. When I was proud of an achievement, I saw it. If I ever felt like I was going to do something special, I felt it.
I don't think this concept is reserved for the Scandinavians, I believe it is a small town syndrome. I have seen many examples of trying to explain this type of "community culture". One is "Crab mentality" or "Crabs in a bucket syndrome". The urban dictionary describes it as:
"When a single crab is put into a lidless bucket, they surely can and will escape. However, when more than one shares a bucket, none can get out. If one crab elevates themself above all, the others will grab this crab and drag'em back down to share the mutual fate of the rest of the group. Crab bucket syndrome is often used to describe social situations where one person is trying to better themself and others in the community attempt to pull them back down."
This is exactly what the Law of Jante is for me. I am sure many communities have their version of this behavior, we are pack animals and this fear of falling out of the norm did once upon a time mean literal life or death. I'm sure the crabs are just trying to keep each other safe! But when we use this kind of fear against each other to hold each other down, there's a problem. Then it is no longer beneficial. Especially in a time where there is no need for this kind of conditioning.
I do think there is one key difference to the Scandinavian version of "Crabmentality". In Denmark, we owned it. Almost to the point of being proud of it, as something that was innately Danish, that made us who we are. It was never presented as a bad thing, just something we had or even worse something we were. Like a little guideline for how to act in society once we were all grown up.
To some, it may not make a difference one way or the other. But to me, it was devastating. Every time I wanted to sing or step on a stage, every time I excelled at anything, every time, I would be discouraged and feel like I was making everyone else look bad, embarrassed or mad. Here's another kicker: as a person who moved to the US there will still be people who think I am badmouthing Denmark or being disloyal to my roots. I mean in no way to be disrespectful.
Here's the way I see it: if the Law of Jante never made you feel the way it made me feel, then you're good! Denmark is the place for you. Have fun and live out your wonderful life. Just don't let other people tell you how bright to shine or how far to reach. I did what was right for me. Only YOU know what is right for you.
Here is the book on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Fugitive-Covers-His-Tracks-ebook/dp/B07F8Z62RV
Side note: I planned to re-read the book in Danish when all this crazy quarantine stuff set in. Since it will be a while before the book can get here from Denmark I had to settle for the translated English version.
This blog post is also available on my new podcast "Packing a Punch" - listen on your favorite podcast player!
My story is not ordinary. I feel pretty ordinary, on the inside. But when I tell people where I come from and how I got here, it usually stirs up a gasp or two. My official story simply states that I grew up in Denmark and now live in the Pacific Northwest, but there is much more to it than that. So I decided to tell it.
My childhood was spent divided on three different continents. Strangest of all, I was born in South America. Valdivia, Chile to be exact. My parents were missionaries, but soon after my arrival, they decided to move back to the US. I was 6 months old. Needless to say, I don't remember anything from Chile at all. I ended up with dual citizenship - but not a Chilean one, as you might think, but a Danish/American citizenship.
My parents met in New York. My mom, from a small town of Sejlflod in Jylland, Denmark. My Dad from the Pacific Northwest. So when they decided, with 6 months old me in their arms to move back to the US, they settled on Tacoma, WA. Kind of fortuitous that my journey should lead me back here - only about 10 blocks away from my first American home. But that's for a later chapter.
My parents divorced when I was three and my mother decided to move us, three girls, to Denmark. First Skanderborg, then what I now consider my hometown, Haslev. This is where I went to school, where I had friends, where I learned about life, and love and longing. This is where I grew up. If you can call yourself a "grown-up" at 17; that's when I moved away from home.
I then became what I would call a "Copenhagen nomade" moving almost 25 times in the 13 or so years I lived there, interrupted only by a 2-year stint in Barcelona - also a story for another chapter.
I finally up-rooted, if I ever had roots, and moved to the Pacific Northwest in 2010 when I was 31.
And that's the short, cliff notes version story. But that's not really how I want to tell it. I want to tell my story by delving into how that story made me, me. What it was like, being a part of two worlds, and what sometimes felt like not being a part of anything at all. Feeling like an outsider for all the wrong reasons, trying so hard to belong, but not feeling like I belonged at all.
As a child, I would spend the entire year going to school and living my life in Haslev and every other summer I would visit my Dad in Seattle. The alternating summers, he would visit us. I spoke (and still do speak) both languages fluently... mostly without an accent in either language. My dad would call every week long-distance to keep in touch with us girls. And in the '80s that was not cheap! My mom, even though she is 100% Dane, would make traditional Danish cooking right alongside fried chicken and cornbread. I felt the duality every day.
Consequently, it somehow made me feel divided. Instead of belonging everywhere, I felt like I didn't belong anywhere.
I suppose, with a different outlook on life, this duality could have made me feel abundant, like a citizen of the world, who had many homes. But my upbringing in so many ways nourished lack and dependence. And it made me feel stretched too thin. I was too American to be Danish and too Danish to be American. So I was, effectively, neither.
Every time I came back to Denmark I would miss the US terribly. But it was never actually true the other way around. This only occurred to me when I finally moved here, that the homesickness I would feel for the US when gone, never set in for Denmark. Yes, I missed my family, but not the culture, not the place itself.
In reality, moving to the US clarified a lot of things for me. I have always been more American than Danish, I know that now. I've been loud, brazen, and always had big dreams and big gestures. Not in any way the proper little girl my mother tried to raise me to be. I had a terrible temper, that felt uncontrollable at times and a big voice that was repeatedly told to not shine too brightly, not to make the other kids feel bad.
This may seem harsh, but anyone from Denmark would notice this as "Janteloven" or "The Law of Jante" - a culturally-induced oppression that the Danes all know too well. Again, this is a phenomenon I will explain in depth in another chapter. Suffice it to say, it's a classic "crabs in a bucket" syndrome. When one tries to climb out the others will pull it back down.
So I suppose I was not entirely caught in the middle. I sometimes describe myself as "half-and-half", with a chuckle. But that doesn't really describe me. In reality, I am more like 75/25. In the last ten years, I have learned to embrace my Danish roots, while also fully encompassing how American I really am. Immigrant heritage and all.
In truth, it probably doesn't matter what continent we are on. Denmark for me was a time in my life when I tried to hide who I truly was, in order to try and fit in. It was a time of listening to others over my own intuition, my inner voice. It was a time of not being and owning who I truly am and what my life's purpose is. The US for me has been the journey of fully growing into my true self. A journey of growth and self-exploration. Of owning all sides of me, even the ones I don't necessarily like. And most importantly listening to my own truth rather than what others say. It's not about Denmark and it's not about the US. It's about what each country represents to me and who I became during each timeframe I spent there.
I can now look at being "half-and-half" and feel grateful that I was blessed with so much diversity. And I can own my big voice and my larger than life attitude and put myself on a stage and feel right at home. But I can also remember where I came from, and what is truly important in life. Love of family, love of friends and most importantly, self-love.