Growing up half-Danish: A tale of two cultures

Children of mixed marriages find themselves navigating two cultures, sometimes unwillingly

Take a stroll by your local playground, and you probably won’t be able to pick out the half-Danish kid from a group of ordinary full-bloods. Among the Danes, they speak and dress just like all of their other playmates. 

But, on the homefront, things are slightly different. There, beyond the ordinary confusions of growing up, young half-Danes have a few extra wrinkles that influence the way they relate to their parents. For example, which language do you speak during a family argument, and why do you have to wait to open some presents until Christmas Day?

Such questions could be asked by children of mixed marriages in any country, but for many half-Danes who grew up here, one common thread of their childhood is that their dual heritage was often seen less as an asset than a peculiarity.

Stephanie Surrugue, for example, the French-Danish editor of the TV2 News programme ‘Kulturen’, said she grew up fully aware of Denmark’s attitudes towards the unfamiliar.

Read the full interivew with Stephanie Surrugue

Stephanie Surrugue conquered being both French and Danish

“The first thing a Dane would say to a foreigner speaking their language is: ‘What a weird accent you have’,” Surrugue, who was named ‘Danish TV talent of 2012’, said. “Whereas in France, my Danish mother would be praised for the French she spoke. Regardless of any accent she might have.”

It’s a sensitivity that rubbed off on the Danish-Moroccan Soulaima Gourani, who works as a special adviser to some of Scandinavia’s biggest companies. She, like Surrugue, said that at different points of her life she felt embarrassment about having a parent with an accent.

“I didn’t want to be seen with my father,” Gourani said. “I was not proud of my background.”

Read the full interview with Soulaima Gourani

Secrets and codes

Her experience is one that Marie Bille sees frequently in her research into mixed families. Currently studying mixed families at Roskilde University, Bille became interested in the topic after marrying an Italian man, with whom she now has two children. 

She explained that foreign parents are keenly aware of their foreign background, and they are anxious not to cause their children embarrassment because of it. She also said that the more foreign a parent is to Scandinavian culture, the harder they strive to fit into Danish society. 

The experience is one that Jacob Mchangama, the director of legal affairs at think-tank Cepos, can relate to. 

“The secret to fitting into the Danish society is to adopt the invisible codes of Danish conduct,” Mchangama, whose father is from the east African Comoro Islands, said.

“Danish culture is very central to my identity. And while a lot of that comes from my mother, my father also made a huge effort to broaden his surroundings. He started a business here in Denmark, for example, and made sure to socialise with Danes as much as he could. I have very little African influence from his side for the family.”

Read the full interview with Jacob Mchangama

That seems to be easier said than done for others. For while Mchangama says he never felt he was discriminated against during his childhood, other half-Danes, such as Gourani, saw it frequently.

“Even my Danish mother was bullied,” Gourani said. “I recall we would be rammed in supermarkets by other people because I was the dark child sitting in the trolley chair.”

A place in the hierarchy 

For Souliama Gourani, growing up in Denmark wasn't always a laugh

Bille also pointed out that there is still a “hierarchy of accepted foreign nationalities” in Denmark, in which Middle Eastern backgrounds come at the bottom of the pile. That is a view that seems to be mirrored in Sweden, according to recently published research, which found that Middle Eastern immigrants were deemed ‘least attractive’ to white Swedes.

“Colour still has an effect here in Denmark,” Bille explained. “My white, half-Italian children will have it easier here than a child with a darker complexion would. Even if mine were brought up in a very Italian manner, that wouldn’t make a difference.”

However, for Mchangama, fitting in was less a matter of appearance than it was the way one acted. 

“It’s very difficult to tune into this country’s high level of social expectation without guidance,” he said. “I for example grew dreadlocks, wore baggy trousers and listened to Public Enemy. But just because I listened to music that said ‘Fuck the Police’, it didn’t mean I would actually say it out loud.”

He praised his mother’s influence for ensuring he didn’t stray from Denmark’s invisible codes of conduct, and he was able to integrate, as was Surrugue. However, Surrugue does feel that many Danes she encountered growing up had a narrow view of the world outside of their own country.

“I was once asked by a local kid whether my Catholic background meant that I prayed to Allah while kneeling on a carpet,” Surrugue revealed. 

Regardless of what the other nationality is, it is, perhaps not surprisingly, the Danish side that tends to be the stronger one for those living here. The pressures the parents of Mchangama, Surrugue and Gourani experienced while bringing up their children are ones felt by many others in the same situation, according to Bille.

She points out that one of the overriding concerns of parents is that their children learn Danish, so that they are not subjected to any form of social exclusion.

The next generation

For Jacob Mchangama, fitting in with the Danes is a matter of learning the code

While it might not be clear even to half-Danes themselves which nationality they are most affiliated to, the true indicator will be how they raise their own children.

“My children will be Danish,” Mchangama said. “It would be strange to impose an African culture on them, when I myself didn’t have one imposed on me. But I will make sure they develop an international perspective.”

Surrugue and Gourani emphasised that they would seek to strike an equal balance between Danish and their other culture.

“Any kids I have would need to speak both French and English,” Surrugue said. “They’d hate me for it I’m sure. But it’s my French background that has allowed me to pursue the career I have now.”

For Gourani, seeking equality means, ironically, relegating Danish to second place. 

“My kids will definitely go to an international school,” she said. “I feel like they have to be in an international environment. Danish will be their second language. Not their first.”

Find out more about what it was like for Stephanie Surrugue, Soulaima Gourani and Jacob Mchangama to grow up half-Danish, click on their pictures to read the full interviews.

This is part one of a series. The second instalment looks at what it’s like to be a parent in an international relationship raising half-Danish children, while the third explores the phenomenon of ‘third-culture kids’, children who are brought up in Denmark without a connection to their parents’ home countries.

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