2016.09.06 "I am the other"

"We may differ on gender and race, but our names both start with the same letter."

You may laugh. I did. This remark made it quite obvious that some of the criteria by which we define groups are rather arbitrary.

We can define sameness or difference as we want. Being from another country often counts as "different". But if you have children of the same age, live in the same street, have the same educational background, have a dog, want to learn Spanish, like reading - or dancing salsa or doing yoga or go kayaking or ... - why focus on what is different when you have so many other excuses for focusing on what unites?

Agreed, starting with the same letter is a pretty silly criterion for choosing friends - but is nationality better? Can't we at least give other people a try? I know many Danes with whom I don't want to be friends. No offense intended, but shared culture is no guarantee.

I have friends differing from me on just about any aspect of diversity I can imagine. I hope they consider me a friend as well.

It was not of my own making. It happened because we moved to another country.

True; in my new country, I have many friends whom I met because of their Danish heritage. Shared gene pool and shared culture seems to overcome many differences. We are better at living up to some unnamed expectations of behavior.

But when we moved abroad, we would have gone bonkers if not for the kindness and curiosity of people who were more "different".

Today, I have Americans asking me how we as immigrants overcame the hurdles to making friends. It is a challenge all immigrants face. Evidently, it is also a challenge ethnic natives face. Some don't have close family. Some don't have family close by. It doesn't matter if your sister lives in Europe or on the other side of the American continent: If she can't bring chicken soup when you have the flu, you need somebody else.

Relationships with strangers are important for both immigrants and natives. If we/they only associate with "family", it is impossible to integrate - as immigrants or as a society.

It is important on a personal level too. If we see all strangers as "dangerous", our well being suffers. Instead we can share brief, beautiful moments by acknowledging the people around us - as described in this TED talk.

Americans are fortunately generally positive and curious - in spite what the Trump-phenomenon and the press coverage indicates. Perhaps deep down most Americans remember that their ancestors were immigrants once?

In Europe there is a similar dualism. On one side we have Brexit, "Burkinigate", and people who shout "go home" after fellow countrymen.

The other side shows a will to create spaces where "differences" can have a lower priority than "shared interests" - as indicated in this Danish article describing some of the over 100 "alternative" initiatives for helping refugees and immigrants learn the language and get to know ethnic Danes. Although these groups are also mentioned, this New York Times article isn't as encouraging.

Our species is one of social animals - we must make people and relationships our first priority. All people. I say with Ozlem Cekic in NYT: "I am the other." I became "other" when I moved abroad. So forgive me when I cringe if you talk about "the problems with immigrants".

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