being a teacher

Fully Me

I had just turned 18 when I agreed to move to the US. Unaware of what the world would bring, unaware of what else the world could hold. I may have been a mature 18-year-old per regular Danish standards, but I wasn’t quite ready to leave my mother’s side even as my siblings had found homes around the world. The proud teen in me not quite ready to set off on my own rebellion as it was so much easier to fight against the system comfortably nestled within my own zones of safety. For all of my bravado, I was still a child looking to fit in and where else could I best fit in than right with my family, or what was left of it?

I flew across the Atlantic with a suitcase or two, my papers in hand, and muddled dreams that perhaps included going to school at some point but no plan for longevity, no vision for my life beyond this move that would uproot me in the most significant of ways. I was moving, period, but I wasn’t going to stay, surely, my roots where in Denmark after all. In Copenhagen where the university, and an apartment were sure to be in my future.

Perhaps it is the way of the foolish young mind that allows us to jump into situations without seeing the path before us. Of a new home. Of a new identity thrust upon me that I had never embraced before. Of what it would mean to get on that flight, choice already made for the next many years but not realized.

I have now lived in this identity as an inconspicuous immigrant for 21 years.

My Danish language slips through my fingers much like sand, still accumulating but the piles rapidly decrease. I haven’t thought in Danish in many years, nor dreamt in my native tongue. The morning I recognized this, I felt a deep devastation, feeling as if my world tilted as my language was replaced unconsciously. As my brain let go of what has been my voice for so many years.

Sure, I speak English fluently, write it well, and yet within my own home language was everything I held dear to me. I lose words that were once within my grasp. I stick to rudimentary language with my own children as my mother corrects my grammatical inaccuracies. I used to be fluent. I used to speak and write it beautifully. I used to be able to fully say what I wanted to say without the crutches of English to guide me through when the words that used to flow are outside of my grasp. I used to be fully Danish and not an imposter grasping to the things she remembers.

I hold dear to my traditions. To what I believe are my Danish values, but honestly after so many years as an assumed American I don’t know if I get to call myself Danish anymore. If I have been reduced to the shell that so many others use when they trace their proud lineage but are not really seen as from there. From somewhere else. When I am told I look like an American. When I am told I sound like an American. When I am told that I think like an American. When I am told which parts of my identity holds the most weight to others and I wrestle as the biggest part of me, that of Dane, is one that is pushed aside because surely by now I feel more American than anything else.

And nothing could be farther from the truth, but who listens to that?

Because I left my country behind.

Because I left myself at Vestergade 12, 8850 Bjerringbro. In that little red brick house. In the company of my friends. And nothing will ever replace what I once used to be, no matter how many new identities I add to myself.

And I think of how the world views us all as it boils us down to such few elements. At how we treat the kids we teach who are learning English as less than. How we only ask about their traditons but not their mundane. About the daily life that they left behind. About the essence of what made them truly feel like they were the person they were meant to be.

And we boil it down to traditions.

And we boil it down to small phrases.

We boil it down to dishes passed around the table, songs sung on special days.

And we break it down to trips once in a while across the Atlantic so that I can hear my name pronounced correctly and for a few short weeks I can breathe fully again, among the people that I used to call my own.

And we think that is enough. But it will never fully allow us to feel complete as we straddle new cultures, home in neither, but adapting to both.

And so my heart longs to go home. To bring my family with me. To go back to what once was while realizing that it will never be again. But something new could be.

To be fully me again without having to reconcile what I used to be with what I am now.

But until then that dream becomes a possibility, I will continue to to try to define myself as I want the world to see me and give every opportunity for those I teach to do the same. To let them tell me how they want to be seen. To let them tell me what they need. To be fully human as we go on this journey together.

To just be the person we were meant to be and seen for what we would want to be seen as.

3 thoughts on “Fully Me”

  1. A haunting post, Pernille. My parents immigrated as children from Holland and I often wondered when they started thinking in English. I was always hungry for stories of their experience and I remember Mom telling me that they were bullied for their accent, for starting over and were called names. She was never one to be proud of her heritage or want any public display or notice that she was not born here and I think that may have come from her experience in those first few years of immigration. So she may have been glad that she no longer thought in Dutch, for her it was a Chrysalis to shed. That breaks my heart. That she could not be comfortable in being both Dutch and Canadian. Thank you for your post – it has me thinking about so many things.
    On another note, I spent several weeks in Denmark when I was seventeen as an exchange student with a family from Ringe. They were kind and generous people that I am still in contact with. We travelled all over the country and it is a beautiful place. I have many wonderful memories of Tivoli, Egeskov Slot, Legoland, Fredricksbourg Castle and travelling along the ocean coast, among others.

  2. I know how you feel. I left my home in Australia just over 50 years ago planning to spend 3 years in Canada and to be away for 4-5 years. I became a Canadian citizen 41 years ago and, while I miss many things about Australia, I’m very happy with my life in Canada. The way I look at it is that my passport says Canadian but my heritage is Australian and that can’t be taken fro me.

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