Some Musings of a National Half-Breed

By Kristian Bjørkan.

Perhaps everyone is a hybrid of some sort. My own hybridity is nationality and language. My mother is an American, who came to Norway from New York as an exchange student sometime in the 60s, met my father here at the University of Oslo, and stuck around. Forty to fifty years later, here I am, living in the same student housing complex as they once did. Perhaps it makes as much sense as anything to say that my nationality is the UiO itself.

My father comes from rather all-Norwegian stock, many generations of farmers and fishermen up and down the Northern Norwegian coast, with occasional offshoots into fame: one of my cousins studied our genealogy quite extensively and found that we are related to a number of famous Norwegian writers, thinkers, and fighters. But then, Norway being the sparsely populated country that it is, the only difference between my close relatives and every other Norwegian in that regard is that we dug up the documents to prove it.

My mother is an American of Scottish descent, or possibly Irish. My grandfather said he was Scottish, but he grew up back when there was a serious stigma attached to being Irish in the US, and I am not sure he was telling the truth. For that matter, his ancestors may have been from a part of Scotland where there was a lot of trading and breeding between the Scottish and Irish, making the distinction rather arbitrary. From there, who knows. If we go back another thousand years, maybe his Scottish or Irish ancestors were descended from Norwegian Viking raiders, who in turn came up from what is now Germany during the last ice age. Or perhaps they were among the Norman invaders from France. Invaders who, by the way, were descended from Norse settlers, hence ‘Normans’ and ‘Normandy’. Those Vikings really got around. Or maybe they were Roman soldiers, who could have come from anywhere in the Roman Empire. And whatever places you go as you trace back even a single line, at every step they mingled and mixed with their neighbours, whose ancestry was different. My grandmother has her own history, and it too almost never stops. Everyone’s genetic history just keeps going backwards until we reach Y-Chromosomal Adam and Mitochondrial Eve, the most recent male and female individuals that all humans today are directly descended from, who lived somewhere between sixty thousand and two hundred thousand years ago (and not at the same time, in spite of the names), and from there backwards until we get to the single cell that was the beginning of life on Earth.

With all that history, all those people and all those places, it seems so unnecessary and uninformative to put one definitive national or racial label on people. The King of Norway is Danish. Queen Victoria was German. The King of Norway is also directly descended from Queen Victoria. Everyone, in fact, is everything.

And yet – and herein lies the problem – people are, in fact, different. The world is a very large place, and if people are really good at one thing, it is building differences between themselves and their neighbours (think E Pluribus Unum in reverse). We wear different clothing, we design different houses, we eat different food. Some of it is blind chance, much of it is simply responding to the environment, and maybe even some of it it is carefully designed. Differences are a dime a dozen, but I think the biggest difference of all, the greatest obstacle to our shared life-source, is the language barrier.

Allow me to bring in my personal experiences. As a Norwegian who has lived in Norway my entire life, you would not think there would be a language barrier between myself and other Norwegians. But a lifetime of speaking English at home with my American mother, and studying English literature, reading English books and speaking English in classes at the university for the past five years, and mainly communing with the outside world through the predominantly English-language Internet, has left my Norwegian rusty, stiff, and formal, ill-suited to connecting to those around me. Thoughts and ideas come to me in English, and are followed by a significant delay as I internally translate them before I speak. Either that, or I speak immediately in English, a sudden shift which comes naturally to me, but which can and does unnerve those around me. And when I speak English, the people I’m conversing with often instinctively try to respond in kind, whereupon they encounter their own mental translation delay, and are deterred from speaking further.

It is interesting for me to observe this: as I am essentially a native English speaker, when I speak English I speak with comfort, confidence, wit. When I speak Norwegian I become more cautious, withdrawn, self-conscious. To an outside observer, depending on what language I speak I appear to become a completely different person.

So, even as a white European descended of white Europeans and Americans who are descended of white Europeans, even though I am unlikely to be spotted as a non-Norwegian or part-Norwegian as I walk down the street, there is something that sets me apart from my more-Norwegian compatriots. And even for a dire humanist like myself who believes that under the surface people are all equal in value and potential, the surface has an annoying tendency to block the view.

Norway is quite unique in questions of the universal affairs of humanity: our situation is so different from everywhere else. Everyone else is poor, Norway is rich. Everywhere else is overpopulated, Norway is sparsely populated. Almost every other country in Europe has a right-of-center government, Norway has a left-of-center government. Every other country seems to be suffering from a variety of problems that, as far as I can tell, Norway is not, or at least significantly less. This makes Norway a unique vantage point, a place outside the fray where you can observe undisturbed. On the other hand, it also makes Norway a very poor place from which to participate in the struggles on whichever side you support. It is hard to join a protest against a crime, no matter how outrageous, when neither protest nor crime are occurring in your home country. So I observe, from within Norway, looking outwards at the world and, honestly, mostly ignoring what happens within Norway’s borders. I care deeply for all of humanity, and all of life generally; I consider myself a friend of all peoples and nations, and yet I seem a member of none myself.

Each of us, as unique individuals cut from the same indivisible source, has to find our own place, and wrestle with our ideas and problems in our own ways. These are some of my ideas, my problems, and my approaches. No doubt yours are all different; it’s funny how different twins can be.

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