Opinion | Integration or connection?

“So is it true that one can never become integrated unless they speak Danish fluently and adopt Danish values?”

I have been living in Aarhus for about a year and a half now and at this stage I am more acquainted with the city and some of its social issues than when I first arrived. One of the issues I have come across a little more often than any other issue is that of ‘integration’.


At this stage in my stay in the lovely city of Aarhus, I can certainly tell you that I have become friends with many people from all walks of life. I have friends from all corners of Denmark as well as foreigners who are living here. Having friends from all corners of Denmark and the world allows me to interact and chat with different minds and have different perspectives, in particular with the integration issue.


Now I will begin by quoting a good friend of mine, who told me quite early in my stay in Aarhus: “You can never be integrated in Denmark unless you speak Danish fluently and adopt their values.”


This was quite a bold and honest remark from someone who is not even Danish. However, I have been told this similar remark by several other friends as well, including Danes and foreigners alike.


Now let me tell you about Africa. You may be wondering why Africa? You see dear friend (I hope you don’t mind me calling you a friend), many years ago white colonialists settled all over Africa and many of their descendents live in Africa peacefully to this day. They have never really learned to speak the local indigenous languages nor have they adopted the indigenous values, yet they are pretty much ‘integrated’ and live quite happily and comfortably in Africa.


On the contrary, it was the African indigenous inhabitants who were forced to ‘integrate’ and adopt European culture, religion and certain ‘values’. This happened in all African countries.


In many countries like Mozambique, there were many tribes who lost their cultural identities completely and to this day they can’t even speak the languages of their forefathers as they now all speak and consider themselves Portuguese. France did the very same thing with many North African countries, where present day generations of indigenous Africans have no clue about their traditional language, culture or values.


Yet the irony is that no matter how well they speak French, they are still not good enough to be called French. This is the same with all other African countries.


Now, according to Wikipedia, integration in social science means “the movements of minority groups, such as ethnic minorities, refugees and the underprivileged into the mainstream of societies. Members of the minority groups thus gain full access to opportunities, rights and services available to members of the mainstream”.


Of course, when I look at this definition in the context of colonialism, I am forced to turn this definition upside down into what I can call ‘disintegration’, or ‘divide and rule’.


Why am I saying this? Well that’s the underlying issue in my social research. Is integration perhaps ‘disintegration’ or does it really give the minority “full access to opportunities, rights and services available to members of the mainstream”?


I dislike the term ‘integration’. Like cultural and moral imperialism, it means a loss of minority culture to a more dominant group and I think it should be considered culturally criminal to induce one to abandon his own values and adopt those of a more dominant majority. I think that people should be ‘connected’ instead. When people are connected they will work together effectively despite their racial, social, cultural or religious differences.


Now I am not an expert on Danish ‘integration issues’ nor do I intend to becoming such, but I have seen several ‘immigrants’ (another term I find difficult to understand) here in Denmark, who have lived here in Aarhus for decades and they speak fluent Danish and yet they still complain about Danes being distant and not having full access to opportunities here.


I have met a fellow African brother who told me he sent over 40 job applications about half a year ago and he is still waiting to hear anything. This brother has refused to be named and so for the sake of his privacy I shall call him James. Now James is quite an intelligent guy from central Africa and he speaks good Danish as I understand it.


But, you see, James doesn’t drink beer. He has lived here for some time now and he has a handful of Danish friends. He always tries his best to make new friends and so he puts up with smoke-filled bar rooms and drunken patrons while he gently sips Coca-Cola at the bar, waiting to crank up a conversation with anyone. This is his primary strategy of networking as he has understood that generally when Danes are a bit tipsy, they tend to be less shy and more open. But is this a good strategy for integration?


Now I may be fortunate to have been officially welcomed and introduced to Aarhus by the city fathers because I have quite a network of Danish friends whom I have wined and dined with, on several occasions and who often refer me to their buddies and so on for networking purposes.


However, I don’t think that my unique advantage of having been officially welcomed to Aarhus puts me at a better advantage than most foreigners because I also had to learn my way around the Danes and I am still learning.


I therefore consider my openness and social intelligence as an asset to getting connected to Danes, even though my Danish is quite poor at this stage (I am trying hard to learn the language and soon I will resume lessons).


Nevertheless, despite my lack of proficiency in Danish I would like to consider myself well connected because I think there are other things quite more important than learning to speak Danish that play a crucial factor to an effective stay here in Denmark.


As I understand it, there are other crucial factors which in my opinion are more or equally important than the notion that simply learning to speak Danish fluently and accepting Danish values gets you connected (or integrated as some would like to put it).


1. Learning the Danish mentality. This is important because every society has a certain mentality and its ‘values’ are mere reflections of this mentality. From my observations Danes like everyone to appear equal and this I understand is because of a theory called Janteloven. Understanding this is of paramount importance. Danes are also very trusting of one another, so if you earn a bad reputation with a few, chances are, you are screwed in many other circles because news and gossip spreads like wildfire. I have also observed that Danes like to put things in boxes, quite literally and figuratively. Try to understand in which ‘box’ your Danish colleagues put you in. Are you just a bar friend, a close friend, a poor African etc? Danes from my perspective like to define things, and therefore if they can’t define you, they will often distance themselves. So one has to help them in this process. This is why they always ask ‘foreigners’: “So what are you doing in Denmark?” A question I am sure most foreigners have come across.


2. Working around the Danish mentality is the key, because then if you are a foreigner you won’t be frustrated if Danes behave in a certain manner. I often am frustrated as well, but am learning to simply say to myself: “That’s just how it is here; you gotta work with it somehow.” Frustration because of failure to understand Danes leads to many isolating themselves. Never isolate yourself.


3. In Denmark it pays to drink beer. Trust me on this. Beer is the palm oil with which social interaction is oiled.


4. Participating in voluntary activities of associations and charitable or cultural events is of paramount importance. Danes don’t meet people and greet them in the street like in many countries in the Southern hemisphere. So in order to meet the Danes, one has to participate in many events where networking takes place over beer and food.


5. The biggest secret as I have come to understand for accessing opportunities in Denmark is a good network. Your network is your net worth. Without a good network you are primarily screwed. Without a good network you are primarily screwed. I have often felt pity for some eastern European students who come to Denmark, only to invest their time in forming a network with other eastern Europeans. Technically when they finish university their network is worth next to nothing because in Denmark if you want a job chances are you will have to know the right people who can link you up. Danes as I understand would rather not go through piles of CVs when they can simply ask their colleagues if they know someone who can fill the vacancy. This is because Danes trust each other, so if a Dane refers you, chances are you will be hired.


That is just how it works here as I come to understand it, and simply learning to speak the language and values and hoping for a miracle is not good enough (although it’s an added advantage to learn the language as well.)


Now I have come to the end of my article and I would like to conclude by saying that induced integration is social, cultural and moral imperialism. I think this world will be better off getting connected through openness and friendliness.


Tendai Tagarira is a Zimbabwean author currently living in Aarhus and was the first persecuted author to be housed here under the ICORN cities of refuge programme.