The Gen x Place: The Other

Volume 2

Welcome to the second week of The Gen x Place collaboration! Today we asked Place founding editor Nina Unlay to revisit a piece that she wrote last year called “Happy Places.” In the piece she writes about moving from the Philippines to Denmark for graduate school and grappling with the alienating experiences that led to “feeling sad in the happiest place in the world” and the relationships that helped make her feel, at the time, like it was some kind of home. However, upon looking back on her time in Denmark she now realizes what was left unsaid and turns to you, the reader, to reflect on how being the Other can deeply impact a global life.

This is the second in a series of three dispatches the Place will be releasing alongside The Gen in addition to our regular Friday newsletter, so keep your eyes peeled to your inbox over the next couple Sundays. And don’t forget to check out The Gen’s newsletter and their Instagram for more stories like this.

The Gen is a global community which aims to bring people of cross-cultural backgrounds together to connect over shared experiences stemming from intercultural upbringings. The Gen hosts community workshops and roundtables, provides resources to learn for intergenerational cross-cultural experiences, and runs a crowd-source blog in the form of a newsletter.

Happy Places (Revisited)

This story about being unhappy in Denmark (one of the “happiest countries in the world”) was published last year, but I originally wrote it in early 2018 when I had just moved to London and was still fresh off living in Aarhus, Denmark. And I have to be honest—I have a very hard time rereading this piece.

You’ll see that I don’t use the word racism, not even once. At the time that I wrote it, I did not feel like it was merited, because Denmark was, as I point out, depicted in the media as such a happy place, a humble Scandinavian welfare state where everyone gets their fair share of hygge.

Before I arrived in Denmark, I imagined any difficulty transitioning would be my own fault; call it homesickness or growth pains. What I did not anticipate was how the place at which I had arrived would also make it difficult for me.

It was after I left that I started to read about Denmark in the news, with undertones of that word that I dared not use. I think the first one I read was this one, by the New York Times, a report on “ghetto children” and how they needed to assimilate into Danish culture. A little later, a report in TIME by a fellow student (and Place co-editor Karis Hustad) on Denmark’s burqa ban. And the reports have continued such as this one, in The Guardian, about how the “ghetto list” continues to affect migrant communities.

People of color have to reckon being the Other, even in terms of things that we think are easy such as "happiness," when in fact these concepts are built on privilege. This is not to say that my lived experience was anywhere near that of the racism these migrant communities faced. But even during that short one-year stint as an outsider living in Aarhus, I saw and felt enough not to be surprised when these news articles started coming out in waves; and yet, as a writer, when I put pen to paper what came out was how I found shelter in the company of Others like me.

All this to say that sometimes it is easy—even for those of us living through it—to romanticize being the Other. As a travel editor, I’ve seen many writers travel to places both beautiful and complicated, and come away with a piece explaining only the former. While many of them have been white writers, I don’t think it’s exclusive to them. I think it is natural to try and evade writing about the complicated stuff, the things that could really hurt. In fact, this essay about Denmark was originally a love story—because at the time, it was the easiest one to write. So I hope, whoever is reading this, that you always try to read between the lines—of articles like this one, and of the words we use.

-Nina Unlay is currently the Editor-in-Chief of GRID, a travel magazine about the Philippines. In her spare time, which is hardly any, she writes tweets @ninabiscuit.

Happy Places

When I moved to Denmark, the first lesson I was told by my local flatmates was simple: "Do not walk to the grocery by the ghetto."

But I didn’t see the ghetto. My first impression of the city Aarhus was pleasant. The roads were wide, clean, and light on cars. Greenery was painted in broad strokes. The air was fresh and cold. In the space of a ghetto, I found red brick streets and a bicycle lane, a public library and a prayer room with children playing nearby; I came home with a bag full of groceries after a walk in the park.

Later, I learned the word “ghetto” was a designation by the Danish government, a classification measured by education, employment, and income used to segregate vulnerable—often immigrant—communities. The implication is that those who do not belong will be categorized as Other, routed outside the perfect system.

The second lesson I learned was that Denmark was one of the happiest places on earth. The World Happiness Report, which ranks countries according to “happy their citizens perceive themselves to be,” gives Denmark the silver medal, second only to Finland. The Philippines, where I spent the width of my life, takes a slow trot to 69th.

In trying to assimilate, I looked for clues to pave the way. Danes pay some of the highest income tax rates in the world, which is used to subsidize education and childcare. They work only 33 hours a week, leaving the office early to participate in one of their 80,000 hobby clubs. Upon moving to Aarhus, I was handed a little yellow card that entitled me to free doctor appointments for the length of my residency, something Danes enjoy from birth.

But I remained skeptical of this kind of happiness, and it remained skeptical of me. The Office of Immigration even shrugged me off when my residence card was lost in the mail. “We may or may not be able to help you,” they said.

"What should I do?" I asked.

"We may or may not be able to tell you that,” they replied. I was a hair out of line, a tangled thread in an otherwise smooth operation. They did not know what to do with the likes of me, the unhappy Filipino. An alien invader rallying for an instruction manual; the minority, in all definitions of the word.

Read the rest of Nina’s piece on Place.