Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Selectively Global

In many ways, Copenhagen is a welcoming city to the English-speaking migrant, because English is virtually the second official language. In four months living here I have yet to come across a Dane who does not speak perfect or near-perfect English (although this may be different outside the Capital). Danish schoolchildren begin studying English in the third grade, and with a new education reform, they will now start English in first grade. Although the city offers free Danish classes to any registered foreign resident who wants to learn, it also markets itself as a place of English-speaking business and attracts foreign workers from across the English-speaking world. At my daughter’s English-language international school, many of her classmates’ parents from all over the world work in English workplaces in Copenhagen. One mother from India who works at Carlsberg Brewing Company, one of the world’s largest breweries based in Denmark, told me that employees on her floor are instructed to speak English only. When I asked if this rule also applied to the Danish employees, she said, “Yes, because we are a global company!” Her husband, also from India, works at Danske Bank in another English-speaking workplace. Another friend, an immigrant from Spain, speaks English at her work in a science research unit at the University of Copenhagen. Copenhagen is also home to Maersk Oil, one of the largest oil and shipping companies in the world, whose operations are conducted almost entirely in English.

The city appears to be effortlessly bilingual. And yet, as a registered foreign national, I receive all my official correspondence in Danish. This includes letters from the immigration department and the Copenhagen Municipality about my residence status, about my daughter’s childcare, and letters about my taxes and tax benefits.  The first time my daughter was offered a spot in the publicly-run after-school program near her school, we missed the deadline to enroll her because we did not understand the instructions in Danish that came in the letter and did not reply quickly enough. When a letter came from the tax authority, too long and too technical to translate with Google, I brought it to the accountant at my employer, who kindly translated and gave me the happy news that the Danish government had decided to award me a child subsidy. I marveled at how easy it would have been for me to miss that important piece of news. Then came a more cryptic letter, addressed to me in regards to my daughter, from the Copenhagen Municipality. It had only one line, which Google translated as: "Please call within 14 days because you failed to appear on time." Huh? Aside from being completely baffled about the mysterious appointment, I couldn’t help but feel guilty for failing to do something I was supposed to do. Calls to the phone number on the letter didn’t help; they were answered by a recording in Danish. I was, as Aihwa Ong has written drawing on Foucault, the immigrant subject being “disciplined” by the state. In that moment, not knowing Danish was the same as not knowing. And that’s when I started thinking about the limits of Copenhagen’s global image. Most government services websites are likewise only in Danish. It seems clear that English is the language of business, but not social services. I know better than to expect that a state would communicate with foreign residents in any language other than its own. Except that I also know how easily this one could. All of the civil servants who write those letters in Danish could just as easily write them in English. English would be understandable not only to foreign residents from the West, but to the vast numbers of workers arriving from South Asia and English-speaking Africa. In choosing not to conduct business in English, the Danish state sends a strong message to these workers that their English is valued in the workplace, but will not grant them access to Danish society. ‘You can work here, but you cannot belong.’

Of course, Denmark sends this message in much stronger ways to my Arabic, Turkish, and Urdu-speaking Muslim counterparts. While Danes often express the opinion that Denmark is “more refined” in its treatment of Muslims than the United States, recent events prove otherwise. In the past few months, the Dansk Folkeparti, Denmark’s third largest party, voted against a biannual citizenship law that would grant Danish citizenship to 1,600 individuals because there were too many Muslim names on the list. A few weeks later, senior members of the Dansk Folkeparti expressed the opinion that “there are too many Muslims in Denmark and border controls should be established to stop more from entering the country.” The headline in the Copenhagen Post read: “No more Muslims, say DF Leaders.” (January 27, 2014). In such ways, Denmark and the city of Copenhagen practice selective globalization. Carlsberg Brewing Company boasts 150 markets around the world and employs more than 40,000 people to conduct business in English, the global language, but its employees in Denmark still get their tax letters in Danish, and most work on year-to-year contracts. Danish national identity refuses to budge.  This shouldn’t surprise us. Denmark, like any other state, seeks to position itself competitively in the global economy and use English strategically to maximize productivity, while minimizing the cultural impact of foreign workers on the country. But unlike many other states, Denmark still grants benefits to the families of foreign workers (for which I am grateful) and prides itself on being a beacon of liberal tolerance. The gap between self-image and reality is yawning. And until there is a social movement of immigrants here to challenge Danish national identity, that seems unlikely to change.

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