Longreads / Point Of View

Surviving Norway – immigrant stories

This is the post that started my blog. It’s been hanging over me, pushing out of me slowly, awkwardly and painfully. It goes back to a very dark time, a time difficult to revisit, a time that has tortured me long after I left that space. The short stay in Norway that felt like a lifetime that has caused pain to be remembered for a lifetime.

Strangely, I have at times even felt angry having to write and wondered why I have to write it. but at the same time I am desperate to finish it because writing is how I make sense of my world, it’s also an attempt to symbolically close a chapter even if squeezing it into a couple hundred words cannot ever cover it because no single one event broke me down, it was the bits that chipped away at me.

So I can only tell my story through these anecdotes.

I remember once I went to the post office and the woman at the counter literally chased me away screaming as she would not deal with me speaking English. When I spoke of this experience many told me I was irrational and should understand that she must have been shy to speak English. It was not that she would not speak English that bothered me, it was the way she chased me away from the counter.

My husband worked 80 hours a week and travelled a great deal, so as he was my translator, when away I fended for myself, knowing so little Norwegian at first even buying shampoo was a stressful event. There was a lot of the correspondence regarding my visa all in Norwegian, so even if I applied in English, essentially, legal information was communicated in a language I did not understand.

My move to Norway also handed me my first experience of being unemployed. I’d been working since I was about 16. Years ago, I travelled to Luanda, Angola for work. I remember seeing so many people just sitting in the streets in the middle of the day. Unemployment rates were high. I remember seeing the look of defeat in their eyes. I don’t think I could have remotely understood that feeling until it happened to me.

Though I was never in danger of losing having a roof over my head or having enough to eat, it was a tough time and on an individual level, there was a fire in me that died. In the beginning I took the approach that it was short-term, after all I managed to get work in Norway before albeit a short contract. I was educated and had worked for a decade in my field. I was up in the morning ready to look for work. I spent the first few hours scouring the net and spent the next few applying for jobs. I almost never heard back, not even those ridiculous there-were-so-many-good-applicants lines. In the near one year I applied for jobs, I got two job interviews and one was for an internship.

And when I did get feedback it was to say they were worried because I’d not studied in Norway. Uhm yeah, that’s kinda what it means to be an immigrant. Or even when the job said that English would be the language used (of course I could not apply for a Norwegian-language job) they worried that I was not fluent in the language (in the few months I was in the country). I did not even hear back about a job working for a domestic service.

I realised in this time that we invest a great deal of our self-worth, our value as people in the work we do. I certainly did. It’s not a bad thing to be proud of your work but I found that I didn’t know who I was without it.

If you asked me six years ago, I had the confidence, perhaps the kind of naivety that comes with being in your 20s, as a great former colleague once said when I was leaving the organisation after a few years there that the world was my oyster. I applied for everything I was interested in and always kept in mind that even though I didn’t quite fit every last item on their must-have list, the combination of my skills could be the wild card they were willing to employ and I was sometimes right about that. In Norway I soon found myself very far away from that confidence.

Soon I was attending dinners where in so-called polite company, someone once asked me if I’d come and clean his house and wash his underwear, after all I was looking for work he said. I was sitting next to a Norwegian woman who was also looking for work, though it was by choice as she was not sure where to take her career but she was not asked the same question.

One night, my husband and I came from a movie when some Norwegian guy came up to us and asked, ‘do you plan to fuck?’ The climate at the time was that all black women were seen as sex workers, mainly from Nigeria. It was then that I understood why on my one job interview in the roughly 18 months I lived there, no one would stop when I said excuse me asking for directions. I don’t know why but I felt so very ashamed and embarrassed when people ignored me.
After several attempts to stop people, I took out the map and approached a guy, waving my map like a white flag before saying excuse me. He did stop and helped me.

On my first day at the only job I ever had whilst in Norway as we completed paperwork, I was told that my salary was less. Before my arrival in the country, I was sent signed documents confirming my salary. Where I come from that means something. Of course I protested saying that the signed documents showed different. To answer me, my supervisor tore off a piece of paper, wrote down her salary and said mine should be half of hers and what was offered to me was just a little more.

At this point, I cashed out my savings, sold everything and most of what wasn’t in boxes at my sister Sam’s house in South Africa, was shipped to Norway. So there was nothing more to be said. I needed that job besides there was no one to turn to for help on the matter. When I told people about this, there was only silence. I could not believe this was happening in a country marketed as egalitarian utopia and in an international organisation no less. But I quickly learned as an immigrant without a vote, you had nowhere to turn. Looking back, that day marked the first time I lost my voice and did not stand up for myself.

The job did not get better; I often had to fight to get my salary come pay-day. And I felt like a social outcast as one of my colleagues complained that my lunch that I’d brought from home smelled as I was warming it in the microwave, she said it made her nauseous. When my contract ended my supervisor was sure to tell me that I need not worry about the project’s continuation as there’d been so many consultants before me and really the project was not her main work so it didn’t matter. Always nice to know one’s efforts mean something.

It is why my greatest betrayal would be when someone I had been talking to about these matters would be the one to reveal my pain to strangers. What I realised too late was there were some people I should never have trusted with my pain to begin with. I should have known from answers like ‘are you sure you didn’t misunderstand’ ‘maybe they meant…’ or ‘you must understand…’

One night when I, against my better judgment, went along with this person to the home of a woman I’d never met and her opening line to me was ‘oh hello, are things better now?’ I look puzzled because I was meeting her for the first time. She continued to tell me that she’d heard all about my work troubles. This woman was not just someone I’d never met before; she was also an acquaintance of my boss at the time. I still wonder if my contract was not renewed (as I’d been given hopes of) because of the possibility of messages down that grapevine.

I was silent again.

The person who had shared my pain without my consent also said to me in the course of the night, you know so and so dated an immigrant, it didn’t work out. All this before asking if she could touch my hair ‘wow, it’s really soft,’ she said.

See I learned about trust from my immediate family where I grew up experiencing what is said in a safe space remains there. It is never used against you or spoken about to people outside of this safe space. One’s painful reality would never be shared in a context that could bring more pain.

I didn’t have the language for what made my family unique until then. In my family the value that is placed on each member of the family had very little to do with the work you did. Sure we were all very proud of those achievements but they were proud of me just for being me. Our worlds would not make sense without each other in them.

And my god! I thought I’d heard it all until at another dinner a woman said she could most definitely edit a newspaper! In the decade I’d worked in the media, as a sub-editor, writer or media liaison with the educational background to have followed that path even I knew I could most certainly not undertake this craft without quite a bit a work experience. But an experienced high school teacher was able to. I suppose it was more a comment on what people often think about writing and journalism but I was gob smacked!

More silence from me. My usually outspoken self had nothing to say. I was shell-shocked.

But this silence was really a quiet rage growing into a full-blown meltdown and I was the only person I could take it out on, so I turned to a tried and tested mechanism – the other white powder, sugar. Except this time it was combined with not having anywhere to go on any given day. So the pounds piled on quickly, at first 10kg then 20kg. You know when you watch those shows wondering how does someone put on that much weight without noticing. I never understood until it happened. It’s not that I didn’t notice either but because I never went anywhere I never had to dress up, I rotated tracksuits and sweaters, and after all it was winter most of the time. And you stop looking in the mirror. That’s how it happens.

I was being crushed by the weight of all those unanswered job applications, being asked ‘had I really tried everything?’ alternated with ‘you just need to try to learn the language better’ and of course my personal favourite, a story about so and so who learned Norwegian so well they even teach it or speak better than we do because they know all the rules.

Being sun-deprived exacerbated my depressed state and I only realised by the second winter vitamin D could help me the way it did. There was no pretending anymore. Before I tried to keep things up, apply for jobs, clean the house and have dinner ready for
honey-I’m-home o’clock. At that point I barely got out of bed, or opened the curtains to let light in. I was in a daze and spent my days crying. Though we were broke and going out for coffee (read middle class definition of broke) was not an option anymore, I still made every excuse in the book to not see the few friends I did make in a setting that did not involve spending money. I know they could have provided much-needed company and understanding as many of them were immigrants too and lived to tell the tale but I didn’t want to be a Debbie downer. I didn’t want to be the person at the party saying I hate this and that and everything is wrong when they’d managed to transition to a place where they made a happy space for themselves.

And there was language school where we were treated as children again, our teacher clicked her fingers and raised her voice when she felt we were not getting it. I never responded to it as a child and it certainly didn’t gel at this stage. I was already furious that visa requirements meant that I had to arrive in Norway in April but classes only begun at the end of August. Something they don’t bother to tell you ahead. I could’ve kept working in South Africa earning an income for five months.

After a week of my first class, there were those who excitedly begun to practice Norwegian with me. A very normal thing to do and would under most circumstances have been just fine. But after everything that was being piled on, I took a great dislike to this tendency. Much like these other questions – had I tried skiing? Did I eat such and such dish? had I taken part in their independence day? Would I wear their traditional dress? Because where we immigrants come from is void of resources and culture, what could possibly be interesting about your life before coming to our egalitarian utopia? It was a baptism by fire, a forced conversion to erase everything I was before the move. A reality where in the tier system of ‘acceptable’ immigrants, Africans were at the bottom – nothing new there I suppose.

I was missing little things I am accustomed to like making eye contact with people on the street to greet each other as you walk past. I was missing fruit sellers making jokes as you stood by choosing what to buy. Or the conductor in the mini bus taxi mentioning that you looked ill but put a smile on your dial.
The smell of spices. The feeling that you belonged not because you looked the same or spoke the same language but because the rhythm of your heart was in tune with the wind. I missed the political climate of South Africa where we do make fun even of those who lead. I’ve silenced many dinners with jokes about the royal family because in that world it is not done.
I missed the place where even in your tears there was a joke because so many had also experienced loss like you; loss of land, loss of family through migration and loss of culture.

In Norway I wondered, how do I fit into a society that last understood looking for opportunity during the Viking era? That now they were a people with land and the gold of our time – oil. That this made people want to protect it from anything/anyone new. That they had forgotten the journey their own ancestors made across the seas to make a home in a foreign land.

That everything that was wrong was blamed on immigrants because we did not have the same value system as they did. That it was ok for us to stand in the cold waiting for an appointment way before opening hours because at the immigration office then there was no system in place that afforded us dignity. But we had no voting rights and were used as an election strategy as we should all be sent ‘back’ like a parcel.

That an immigrant was ‘desirable’ when educated, spoke fluent Norwegian, physically healthy and as long as we stayed in ‘our’ neighbourhoods and stayed in the professions they were accustomed to seeing us in – driving taxis, running takeaways and fruit shops, hairdressers, builders – it was all fine. We are called unskilled and yet your home stands up when a builder puts it together.

I was once told by an immigration officer when I asked how long an application would take that she had no idea because ‘there are so many foreigners applying’.

And so every year I return to Norway because it is my husband’s home but it means every year I am also filled with dread. I will encounter a place where some people I met showed me their dark side, where I felt worthless, a mere shadow of myself and I was invisible. Like being at a party where not one person speaks to you until 2am when they’re nice and drunk and you’re getting ready to leave.

Like everyone else, I just want to matter even in a paradigm where I still hustle for freelance work or do not make money. Because I am no less valuable in the coupling between my husband and I than he is because he is the breadwinner.

In the weeks, sometimes months preceding the visit there, anxiety grows for my performance. What will I answer this time to the question of not having full-time work? Do you not want to work? Have you given up? It must be hard to ask your husband for money? Poor guy he works so hard. People like perfect answers sometimes. But why do I have to give them?

You know what sucks the most about being bullied is that nagging feeling inside that even if you know you are valuable and that you acted the way you did in that space based on what was happening to you at the time, somewhere deep down inside, you blame yourself because you think you should have done something more. The hardest person to forgive is yourself because you are charged with your own care so when you feel like you’ve thrown yourself away, it really hurts.

I also have not forgiven myself for what this dark time did to the man I love. Truly a kind soul, sometimes I think it is I who has shown him the true dark side of human nature. His beloved country was also showing him its dark side. I have lived through the depression of people very dear to me there is nothing you can do except be there and try to understand but you can only get a glimpse of understanding that darkness if you’ve been through your own. So I know the toll it took on him to watch a woman once an energetic nutter lose that fire for life. I will always be sorry for breaking his heart even if I was sick then.

Our story together has been one of surviving the rollercoaster of Norwegian immigration, months of being oceans apart, empty bank accounts to see each other and resolve visa troubles. But I hold on to that sweet part; of the day we met, the first date that I did not realise was a first date at a place called Crush, talking for hours after, the first kiss at the cinema to watch King Kong, proposing to him but him not getting it and then his proposal at the airport on bended knee and me giving him his ring on the airport train ride home. And the first walk up the stairs to our apartment where my name was on the door with his, where there were empty cupboards and shelves to fill. We both lived there now.

I once bumped into a Liberian immigrant at the train station; he’d fled the war there decades ago. He was working as a nurse in Norway; he encouraged me to look into becoming one because there were many opportunities for immigrants there. He also said to me that I should have no excuse learning the language because my husband was a native Norwegian.

It wasn’t that I had a problem; it was because I was broken. It’s why his parting words to me will always remain he said ‘Norway is a hard place, it depends on your spirit.’ And my spirit was broken in that world that was just not meant for me. I could not thrive there.

I wish this story would end with me telling you how my broken spirit turned my life around and I did this and that. I am always amazed when I see that about people on TV but the packages only show us the edit. On a bad day I still say fuck you to my aggressors but I am actually a closet optimist so sometimes I think well this is just the part they never show on TV and I am getting there. But for now I will take the victory of the days I wake up in the morning and am able to look at myself in the mirror with a smile. As Dave Matthews sings our lives are filled with beautifully broken things. And I’m working on putting an end to chasing ghosts of the past. I don’t think the sadness will always be there, yes it has redefined me, I came out of there battered but one day soon, it will be just a place I once lived at one point in my life where bad things happened.

Akerselva, Oslo

How I felt when I was way down in the hole. Photo taken along Akerselva, a river in Oslo, Norway.


5 thoughts on “Surviving Norway – immigrant stories

  1. Pingback: Photo Friday – the summer that was | lifeofbree

  2. I wish you could have had a warm and wonderful family adopt you in Norway – just the way the Richmond family adopted Rob and I when we landed in Cape Town! Your home in Sybrand Park was our home away from home. Thank you for welcoming us the way you did.


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