Copenhagen, Copenhagen, Culture, Denmark, Expat life, Personal, Sunday Musings, Uncategorized

Is Denmark the happiest place in the world?

Ever since I started my blog, curious readers have been reaching out to me about Denmark and asking whether Denmark’s reputation for being the ‘happiest’ country on earth is true.

The honest answer to that from a ‘foreigner’s perspective? It really depends on your circumstances, and especially your residency/citizenship status. So brace yourself for a (hopefully) level headed, ‘foreigner’ assessment of this reputation as someone living and working in Denmark.

I’ll give you my personal answer first – yes, I am personally speaking the happiest in Denmark than anywhere else I have been in my adult life. A big part of that is because I have a roof over my head, I secured my dream job during a pandemic, almost tripled my salary in the past year, live in the beautiful Danish capital, find it easy to communicate with people in English, did not have any issues whatsoever with settling in (getting CPR number, bank account, etc), and last but not least basically met the man of my dreams as soon as I arrived in the country. I mean, seriously?? You can’t really go wrong with that!

So how much of the above is specific to Denmark? Well certainly my job is specific to Denmark, and I know that my partner is like a…someone you meet once in a lifetime and got to hold onto type of guy. But of course one should consider that it’s easy to idealise a place with a reputation of being a social utopia. I consider myself extremely fortunate with my current personal circumstances, but the reality is that as an immigrant you will never experience the ‘full’ benefits of being in any country. Even though I get the same healthcare and other social services as citizens, there are some structural obstacles that I would face. It’s common knowledge that for example foreigners have to pay twice or more as much of a down fee if they want to purchase a property in the country, it will be more difficult to arrange loans with banks no matter how stable your income, etc. You could argue some of this is more than fair enough, but that’s just the kind of reality you should consider when moving somewhere – you will still be new to that country, and that comes with its own set of challenges. Furthermore, immigration is actually quite tough in Denmark. Just like the UK, even marriage will not grant you an automatic right to stay in the country. There are many hoops to jump through. Of course, this comes as no surprise to me – immigration policies are an easy way to build in structural discrimination anywhere. Furthermore, I am not eligible like citizens are, to any kind of state welfare funds/benefits (I’m surprised how few people know that foreigners don’t get these kinds of benefits). So being unemployed is not an option for me – I’ll never have a safety net to fall back on. And unfortunately, as with any other country in the world, racism exists in Denmark, among other social issues that I believe ought to be actively tackled – I do not consider Denmark exempt from that rule merely because it is ahead on some issues relative to other places.

With those qualifications in mind, let me outline what I believe Denmark does well:

Hygge. Denmark is undeniably a beautiful country, there’s almost a simplistic and quiet beauty to it – flat, serene, lots of countryside, lots of green landscape, surrounded by sea with several islands. And Copenhagen is really, in my opinion, the epitome of a beautiful life – mix of modern and new architecture, well-kept, organised, bike-friendly, very few cars, clean public swimming all year round, pristine parks, easy to get around, lots of places to eat or cosy up under a blanket at an outdoor cafe. I mean if you’ve been following my blog for a while I think the photos of the city should speak for themselves. I must say this is a huge part of the appeal of living in Copenhagen for me – just what a beautiful life it can be here. For an aesthete like myself Copenhagen is a dream. And yes, ‘hygge’ is a favourite word/concept for many who live in Denmark, especially in wintertime where having a beautiful, cosy time really matters when it gets very dark, bitingly cold, and gloomy. Fleeces, blankets, candles, fairy lights, a warm drink, a seasonal movie, quiet nights in, anything to do with Christmas – that is the vibe! I mean as soon as Halloween was over, Christmas decor got put up around the city and every shop started really pushing for this winter hygge. You’ll hear the word ‘cosy’ a lot in this country because that’s the closest English translation of the hygge concept.

Work/Life balance. This is not a myth – Danes really know how to achieve work/life balance! Of course this also depends on your field/workplace, with some being better or worse than others, so I’ll tell you from my personal experience as someone who works in academia: academia in the UK was no easy feat, and I can almost guarantee that any junior academic working anywhere is doing overtime with little pay, and are super stressed. Well, turns out this is not so much the case in Denmark (or at least my department).

Here, people actually leave the office by 5pm, including myself – shocker. In fact people will wander in at 10am if they so please, instead of keeping a strict schedule (of course this doesn’t apply to certain jobs). People with children leave at 3/4pm even, to pick up their kids from school or daycare. Overtime is just not a thing, and seems frowned upon. There is also a lot of flexibility with work and well-being – it’s understood that if you have a doctor’s appointment or some personal thing you need to attend to, you just go ahead and prioritise that without a need to ‘justify’ why you aren’t at work. Your health and happiness is a priority. And at my workplace at least I feel that people really care about each other and watch out for one another – a kind of ‘community spirit’ where people really lift each other up.

Let’s not forget the fact that people use any excuse to bring ‘cake’ into the office! On that note I just want to point out ‘kage’ means cake in Danish, but it’s used a bit like the word ‘pudding’ in the UK – it just means dessert.

On the flip side, I’ve heard many people say “nothing gets done” or “decided” at work because of the working environment (and on account of everyone being considered equals) or that they struggle to climb the professional ladder in such lax settings. I don’t know how true that is, but from a personal point of view I will say it is very relaxed if you come from a place with a demanding working culture (I come from South Korea for heaven’s sake..). Everyone keeps telling me that I am some kind of workaholic whereas I really feel the opposite – I almost feel too relaxed at work! But maybe that’s part of me unlearning the unhealthy competitive spirit that’s been instilled into me ever since I started university in the UK.

Childcare. I can’t personally speak for this as I don’t have children, but my understanding is that family matters are very much prioritised in Denmark and that daycare/childcare subsidies make it very affordable to have a balanced family/work life.

No student debt. Hello free education! Every Danish student, I believe, can study for free under certain conditions for a fixed amount of time before their education fees actually come out of pocket. There are also student subsidies you receive on top of that. It’s almost so good that I’ve been told people will look for reasons to be a student for longer so they can maximise this. Also, I would do a PhD in Denmark if I could go back – you get an actual salary, not a stipend, and it’s certainly not peanuts! So I would definitely consider/recommend doing tertiary education in Denmark – I’ve also heard that university life is a lot more chilled out compared to the UK 🙂

Overall, Denmark is a place that provides adequate social services to its residents, with a good level of trust between the state and its citizens, and is also a relatively peaceful and small country with nowhere near the kind of tensions you hear about in the news in other places – I’d say that does a lot of the work in terms of why people are happy and content here! Honestly getting used to the ‘Danish’ standard of complaint is an actual thing – like when Danes from the countryside complain of the “traffic” in Copenhagen (meanwhile I’m thinking I live in the countryside compared to places like London) 😉

If you live/have you’ve ever lived in Denmark I’d be curious to hear about what your impressions were or if you agree with my assessment. Hope you have a great day!

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Personal, Sunday Musings

Anger is a rational response to injustice

When we think of an angry person we probably think of someone who holds onto negative energy. We associate anger with aggression or violence. Someone who sputters; someone without any patience; someone who just can’t deal with things. Normally, we would not treat this as a productive thing to feel because it seems to worsen our general experience of life and seems to be bad both for ourselves and the people around us. It’s not a pleasant thing – it is something we feel burdened by, something we would rather not embody.

But that’s not all that anger has to be about. We can both ask ourselves why we are angry in the first place, and assess whether our expression of that anger is proportionate to our reasons for feeling angry. Much of the time they won’t match up – but in other cases, our anger might be entirely appropriate.

Anger can be coherent. Anger can be productive. And I think people do have a sense of how it can be so, once we get past the most “negative” aspects of anger.

I’m not saying anger in itself is very useful. However, in many manifestations it can be an expression of giving a damn in a world that gives us a lot to be angry about. The advocacy that motivates anger may be an empathic demand for change. In a world where racism – for example – is rampant, anger is a rational response. It is a righteous response. And we should be angry about the things it is justified for us to be angry about. That’s not to say we don’t often get it wrong about what we get angry about – the point is that we can be angry about the right things. We should most definitely take caution in what we get angry about, but it’s not always a bad thing to allow what is otherwise a negative feeling to be part of our moral compass. That we feel bad is sometimes an indication that something has gone very wrong – not merely within us but around us.

And there are plenty of things that should make us angry. The racialization of rights, moral treatment, medical access, social status, etc. And it’s not just racialization of course – that’s just the topic which has most recently been dominating the news. The fact that we each of us live in a world where huge disparities and inequalities exist between how people are treated, often to do with reasons that are beyond anyone’s control in the first place (like the colour of skin you were born with) – that is a situation we should recognise as a problem with urgency.

And when these issues of utmost urgency continue to be perpetuated in the most ugly ways, when there is no progress, it’s important not to be too cool-headed about them. Would you be cool-headed if you found out the world was going to become an inhospitable habitat within yours or your children’s lifetime? One should think not; that’s why people are “angry” about things like inaction over climate change.

Wouldn’t we all love to be peaceful, “zen” people who can actually sleep at night without a bother in the world? I sure would. But the world right now actually isn’t the kind of place to which one can easily close one’s eyes and turn over to slumber until the fire has died down.

Because the fire is now. The fire is going. It’s a wildfire.

Do you have to be some grumpy, negative person to feel justified anger at the injustices of the world? No. I should think feeling this way about particular things (of the right kind!) makes you someone with a sense of empathy and compassion. You can be angry because you want the world to be a better place. You can be angry because you know it can. You can be angry because it isn’t. And though many people use the “anger argument” as a way to knock down legitimate positions in heated debates – invalidating “angry feminists” merely by emphasising the emotion or tone in their voice, for example – if you think about it, it would be really weird if we had “cool” debates about things like racism, sexism, climate change, and what have you. I mean, how on earth can you be cool about the world’s most serious problems? And what do you think should actually motivate things like protest if not something akin to anger?

I’m not going to engage someone with harmful views in a tolerant manner merely in the interest of keeping up some social etiquette. To me, that is equivalent to capitulating to an injustice. Words, attitudes, behaviours, and structures alike can be bad; bad not just for me but for groups of people, and consequently for the welfare of the world. We all inhabit this globe together and so there’s no being picky about who gets to have a decent life. It just wouldn’t be fair. So “being zen” need not apply to those instances. If someone tells me something racist, I’m not going to be like “Good for you – I understand where you’re coming from” or “Fine, I respect your opinion”. I’m not going to be “cool” just to be seen as the person who is “not the type to get overly offended or sensitive”. Life is too short for that. I’m going to be honest, because it’s always easier to be honest than to pretend otherwise; and that honesty may involve anger.

It might suck to lose friends over problems that are pretty much beyond anyone’s individual control, but at the same time I’m starting to get tired of smiling my way through people’s horrendous attitudes and pretending it’s fine for people to be bigots. I’m tired of having to fulfil someone else’s privileged idea of what it means to be nice; my idea of being a decent human being involves being angry at the right things – problems that need addressing – while of course maintaining the humility necessary to realise anger that is actually proportionate to the battle. There’s a scene in the Korean movie ‘Parasite’ (you should watch it if you haven’t already) where the family talks about how easy it would be to be nice if they were well-to-do and with no problems in life to speak of. And I think that’s right. Being “nice” in the way incompatible with anger is a privilege afforded to those who either have no “reason” to be angry because they are not a target of injustice, or because they can buy their way out of having to confront the world’s most pressing problems. Ignorance as bliss is a luxury good indeed.

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Personal, Sunday Musings, Uncategorized

What are we worth?

I have to confess I struggled a bit – maybe a lot – with my body image when gyms closed and lockdown was implemented a few months ago. I don’t want to dwell on things too negatively in this blog space. Let’s just say disruption to routine, which for me would have included a fitness regimen, was upsetting, to say the least.

I’m all about the idea of being kind to myself. But I also felt pretty bad – at one point, I didn’t even want to go out for my daily quarantine walk, because I felt uncomfortable in my own skin and the idea of going out in public (even a deserted public environment) seemed like the worst thing I could do.

Now I’m not going to sit here and tell you that it’s fine because “everyone is beautiful”. Hear me out. Beauty is a standard, an ideal; so it’s impossible for everybody to be beautiful. If nobody deviated from the ideal beauty, beauty wouldn’t be of interest to anyone. It would certainly not be the subject of desire or envy. It is the fact that each of us have an awareness of the elusiveness, rarity, and transience of beauty, and its high aesthetic value, that we can talk about – and care about – beauty at all.

And I’m not going to tell you that “everyone is beautiful on the inside“, either, because that is also plainly false. It’s certainly possible for somebody to not meet the outward conventions of beauty and also be a bad person! It’s not like deviating from standards of visible beauty would suddenly make you a saint. So saying people are beautiful “on the inside” should not be used as some kind of replacement for “everyone is beautiful” either. It seems to me talking about beauty on the “inside” is a type of consolation, rather than a concept which captures and fully recognises the complexity and diversity of people’s inner qualities.

I think what we are really getting at when we try to reconcile the concept of beauty with universal possibility is something rather more serious. What these longings of beauty capture is, I think, some kind of inherent desire we have as human beings to value positively and be valued positively. It seems bad or cruel to not positively value someone for something, which is why we all seem to be in the habit of trying to find redeeming qualities in people that we can pick out as the thing which determines their positive value. And we could be valued positively for all kinds of things – the quality of our work, how kind we are to others, how well we play an instrument, and so on and so forth. For some reason, it seems being beautiful is one way of being valued that seems to matter quite a lot in our world (especially for women).

Now being valued positively may seem like a good thing in general, but there are negative aspects to it that are unavoidable. If I specially designate “productivity” as the ability I value positively in a person, then it already imposes on that person an expectation that they be productive in order to be valued positively by me. Doesn’t seem so bad if they are productive without exception, but if they are human like everybody else, chances are they will not always be productive. When they are not being productive, they obviously cannot be valued positively in terms of their productivity. If you know your boss values you positively for being productive, it’s probably hard to localise the feeling of failure you might get if you had an unproductive day. Suddenly you are in a bad mood and you feel like a failure, full stop. You think it’s a character flaw that you need to change about yourself to be worth something to the world again. To be able to “show your face” again. It becomes a big deal.

I think this is how adherence to beauty works too. There’s beauty, the thing that is valued positively, which seems fine to the extent that it’s just one of many ways to be valued at all. But, like the other things, it can suddenly become a big deal because we want to maintain that positive valuation, yet, like many other qualities we possess, it’s not the type of quality everybody can have all of the time without exception. And so beauty becomes this thing you want to fix in yourself all of the time because you want to keep the way you are valued positively stable, even though your embodied existence is by nature unstable.

And beauty is a loaded concept. Innocuous comments like “That person is in good shape” or “They look like they take care of themselves” are all compliments of someone’s beauty, but it has implications to do with not only how they look in terms of their physical fitness, but also their fitness in terms of their character and spirit. When we appraise someone’s beauty, we are often combining the image we appreciate visually about them with some assumption about an excellence of their character – that they work hard, they aren’t lazy, they groom themselves well, they have the ability to follow conventions of society, they care about making a good impression, etc. This is probably also part of why it can feel devastating to fall short – not only do I not look the part of society’s standards, the fact that I don’t is like a mistake I made – or so it seems.

Now being valued in any direction, positive or negative, is inevitable and unavoidable. And it’s clear that while being valued positively seems desirable, falling short means that we can fall into heavy doubt about our value. But if the claim that “everybody” is beautiful is false, how do we make it feel ok to not be perfect? How do we accept the human fact that we are all prone to fall short of some impossible ideal like Beauty?

There are a couple of things I can think of, and feel free to let me know if you have any other ideas.

The first thing is to remember is that there aren’t many things which we can or should actually aspire to attain all of the time without exception. You feel bad about having a “bad hair day” – but why? Maybe you had to attend to more important things. It’s not like everyone else is having a perfect hair day! You feel bad about not exercising for an entire week, but it really isn’t the end of the world, either. You feel bad for eating “junk food”; but again, eating itself is supposed to be good for you, it’s just that you feel guilty that you didn’t have the most nutritionally complete meal. The good news is that none of us are “special” in not being perfect. It is a perfectly common fact that human beings are fallible – none of us are alone in that.

To give you a more personal example: I have been having issues with dermatitis for a while, which has largely just been a cosmetic bother for me. When I’m around others, particularly those I perceive to have “better” skin than me, I notice that I’ll literally apologise to people for “having terrible skin”. How bad is that? We seem to each care about lots and lots of “flaws” like these. It’s understandable to an extent – as I’ve mentioned, we are after all striving for a ‘positive value’ (and often we enforce and police our own standards!). We want to try and improve and become better in whatever way.

Striving to improve is not necessarily problematic. It’s the attitude we take on when we fall short of improvement which is often the detrimental thing to us. The big deal about falling short of some ideal is not about falling short, but rather the accompanying perception that we are each irrevocably and uniquely flawed. It’s the getting down on ourselves in a way that is disproportionate to the “flaw” we’ve committed – me apologising to other people for an involuntary skin condition being a case in point.

We may not be in control of whatever we think our flaws to be, but we can certainly have better attitudes towards ourselves about those flaws.

The next thing to remember, I think, is to treat our value and worth as not being contingent on any one standard or quality – including things like beauty. Instead of claiming everyone is beautiful, which already perpetuates an overemphasis on the importance of beauty, we need to remember that the qualities the world appears to value us for, such as beauty, is simply not all that we are worth. So it’s not that we should pretend everyone is beautiful – it’s that we need to recognise that everyone has a value besides the value that is conferred on them based on their success in fulfilling some socially inherited ideal.

Our general value and worth is also independent of any one valuer. This means my worth is not fully determined by either you, nor me, nor anything or anyone else. We all have a worth and a value just by being the kinds of creatures that we are. Sure, there are differences between people – like how some people are bigots, and others are not. This is fine – all this means is that we have practical norms and conventions of value against which we may, for whatever purpose, subject people to different judgments and evaluations. So I’m not saying everyone should be judged in the same way, or that we don’t have legitimate reasons to differentially judge people sometimes. And we should certainly be permitted to hold one another accountable for a great many things. But this is a slightly different point. All I am trying to say is this: the fact that we just are the kinds of beings that have worth and value means that our worth on the whole cannot just get outright subtracted or erased in accordance with how much we screw up or fall short of some ideal.

So what exactly is that worth and value? Well, I don’t think it’s the kind of thing anyone can even begin to describe in simple terms.

But I suspect that worth and value is the thing that makes us talk about universal human rights (like access to clean water, shelter, and so on) like it should apply to everyone. It’s the thing that makes it difficult for people to defend the idea criminals deserve to be sentenced to imprisonment (or even death…) without a due process and fair trial. It’s the thing that makes our heart ache when we see other people – including strangers – suffering. It’s the thing that makes deaths a tragedy. It’s the thing that gives us an interest in the welfare of people with whom we have no contact or relation whatsoever. It’s the thing that makes our caring emotions and empathetic faculties make any sense.

This means we can have bad days or make mistakes and still be worth something; everything.

This means others can bully us or put us down and we’d still be worth something; everything.

This means others can treat us as invisible and we’d still be worth something; everything.

And this means, most of all, that no matter how much I decide to hate myself, I’d still be worth something; everything.

Our value and worth is not something anyone – not even yourself – can change. You can’t help but be the kind of being that has this value. So perhaps part of changing our attitude about our flaws is to positively acknowledge that we all have value in a way that isn’t up to us, and in a way that is independent of any one of our individual qualities or characteristics.

Being dissatisfied with how we fulfil particular domains of social expectation and abstract ideals is one way to respond to our personal anxieties about our value. But let the value you have, which persists regardless (though thick and thin, for better or worse), become a source of awe, strength, and humility.

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Expat life, Personal, Sunday Musings

What is Home?

What is home? On the surface, this seems like a simple enough question with a simple enough answer. Aphorisms like “Home is where the heart is” indicate to us this much: home is warmth, home is love, home is belonging. Home is the place you go back to after a long day. Home is always there.

Once issues about nationality, citizenship, race, and migration are added to the mix, however, home becomes a contentious concept. If you’ve ever been a “foreigner” or a “minority” it doesn’t take much imagination to interpret comments like “Go home” as a “We don’t want you here“. The meaning of “home” in this context can be fraught with hostility and resentment. The assumption underlying such comments are that because you look and sound like you’re from somewhere else, somewhere else is where you must go back. It’s where you belong. You aren’t invited into the club of people who are meant to be here.

It’s impossible to avoid comments like these sometimes, even from the most well-meaning people. When I was desperately looking for a job to continue my stay in the UK (before I took this Denmark gig), many were puzzled. “Why don’t you just find a job back home? In Korea?”

The answer is complicated.

For a lot of people, “home” is just the place of their permanent residence. Of course, permanent residence is often the place in which they also happen to have full citizenship. In other cases, “home” confers a personal identity: many friends I’ve talked to will reference “home” as the place that makes them identify as “Spanish” or “Vietnamese” (despite, for instance, having citizenship elsewhere). Whatever the case, there is “home”, and for many people these links between place, identity, and legality are never in conflict. Home is not questioned.

I’m not sure how I would tie down the concept of “home” in my case, as it’s not quite as easy for me to match “home” with any of the aforementioned. In the UK, I didn’t technically have “strong ties”: no ancestors or family members living there, no spouse, no big investments, etc. Yet I lived there continuously and law-abidingly for almost 10 years, speak the language at native level proficiency (sorry, I refuse to accept that I am merely “good for a foreigner”), been educated extensively at the tertiary level there, became a Doctor (PhD) there, worked my first jobs there, and have most of my friends based there. All this, and I didn’t yet qualify for permanent residency in the UK. I most certainly didn’t qualify for citizenship. So what is “home”? The place I was born (South Korea), but don’t really remember growing up in? The place I did grow up in as a child (Austria) and would have qualified for citizenship if my parents had applied for it on my behalf? Yes, that’s right – in an alternate universe, I may well be a European citizen by now. Or does home have to do with the places I’ve resided the longest (in that case, “Europe” is the clear winner – I’ve been in Europe close to 20 years)? Is home the place in which I am currently making my livelihood (Denmark)? Is it where the people I truly love and care about are (in that case, the entire world may as well be home – many of my close friends are just as nomadic and ‘International’ as me if not more so)? If home is about what I “feel” I am, or what I identify as, I can’t say I feel particularly British, or Austrian, or Korean. And needless to say, having only just arrived in Denmark, it’s not even a question that I don’t “identify” with the Danish way of being – and I wouldn’t even know what that is (yet).

So none of it seems satisfactory, if only because my situation does not meet the substantive concept of “home” (which I’ve assumed is residence, citizenship, and identity – at least in this context of migration). Of course, if “home” was a more thin concept, like places I’ve lived or something, then all of the places I mentioned above could become plausible candidates for “home”. But this is clearly not what people mean when they talk about “home” in the substantive sense or ask me what I consider my home to be – the point of home is that it’s somehow constant, special, and unique. It’s not merely about the house you live in or the people you know.

Sure, I could have just “gone back home” to find a job. It’s clear that people think I should go back to the place I look like I’m from, as if opportunities for me will be more abundant just by virtue of that connection. It’s just that I’m not sure I did want to “go back home”, or to frame my next steps in life by reference to “home”, which as you’ve just seen is a pretty complicated concept for me. I was more interested, I suppose, in moving to the next workable adventure that made most sense to me. I would have been willing to go anywhere that would give me what I want out of life. I have, after all, been trained in my field abroad, I’ve had an upbringing in a culture away from my place of birth and citizenship, and I’ve only ever attended international schools. Perhaps not so shockingly, I identify more with cosmopolitan attitudes than country-specific ones.

Much of what it took for me to be me, then, is crucially bound up with an absence of a strong concept of “home”. As such, “home” is a demand I struggle to meet. I like where I’ve ended up. I cherish the experiences I’ve had in all the places I’ve lived. I wouldn’t be the person I am today without all that I’ve experienced. And isn’t that enough? Do I really have to designate a home?

One might still protest that there is a practical consideration I am underplaying here: the reason to “go home” is not so much an existential question as it is a legal one. But here, too, I resist the idea that there is a default place I’m supposed to be simply because I was conferred a legal citizenship at birth. It might seem like the obvious thing to do, but I don’t think it’s that obvious. People move “abroad” for all sorts of reasons, all the time. No matter how valid my reasons for wanting to stay in Europe, I suspect my status as an outsider (and a racialized one at that) would always have worked against me in terms of people’s attitudes towards my wanting to settle here. This is despite me being more advantaged than many other nationals due to being South Korean, thanks to the relationship South Korea has with countries like the UK for example. So I believe there is a strong intuition (prejudice?) that is masked by a language of legality – the intuition some people have that it makes most sense for “foreigners” to “go back to where they came from”, if no obvious reason for their being “away from home” emerges.

I am of course very much aware that I’m lucky to move abroad for “nice” reasons, like studying abroad and working abroad (many people have told me I’m ‘spoiled’ because of this) – not reasons that have to do with civil instability and persecution and so on. The advantages I had in that respect are very similar to advantages that UK citizens have to move to other parts of the world. But you know what, no matter what reasons people have to migrate, resettle, vie for dual citizenship, etc., the very obvious thing that is being overlooked is that “home” can become ambiguous to an individual just by virtue of going through the experience of moving around. My official immigration status is besides the point. Something as common sense as “home”, then, can be a huge question mark for people like me who are still trying to figure out how to connect the dots between the where, the why, and the who I am.

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Personal, Sunday Musings

Getting rejected is harsh. But it’s also not all bad.

I’ve been rejected in all manner of ways. Here are some recent ways:

-Jobs I’d applied to rejecting me after months and months of radio silence. (I was rejected by a good 15-20 jobs before even getting shortlisted for interviews this year)
-Papers I’d been working on for months on end getting rejected by the only journals I wanted to publish in. (May not seem like a big deal to most people, but publishing is essential in my chosen career)
-Visa issues that felt a lot like being rejected or shunned by the state for being an outsider.

I won’t even get into the more personal stuff. I’m sure you’ll have plenty examples of your own. It stings, right?

But why is rejection so upsetting, humiliating, demoralising? Is it because we didn’t get what we wanted? Is it because we focused all our time and energy into something only to get ‘nothing’ in return? Is it because rejection tells us something about our flaws? That we just aren’t up to standard?

Perhaps. But there’s a couple of things I’ve taken from the experience of rejection which I suppose have allowed me to not see it as the most terrible possible thing to happen to me.

First thing to get out of the way – it’s important to remember that whether you did or did not do something to warrant rejection, rejection is in a way not up to us in the first place. Call it a case of bad luck or undesired luck if you will. The negative aspect of this is that no matter how hard you work, difficult circumstances beyond your control can render the fruits of your labour moot (hello, Covid-19). Even the most competent person is not immune to bad luck, which may seem to us like something of an injustice. The nasty side of this is that it can make us bitter – if our hard work doesn’t pay off because of some seemingly arbitrary thing, why bother? And this resignation self-perpetuates – it seems to us we are stuck in a cycle of bad luck, so we are stuck in it.

But the possible bright side to this, and the thing we tend to forget, is that nobody is immune to good luck either. We probably tend to underplay this latter fact for a couple of reasons: firstly, because we like to think we are always responsible, rather than merely lucky, for the good things that happen to us; secondly, because success that is mostly a result of good luck doesn’t seem praiseworthy or anything to boast about – it may seem distasteful, for example, to be proud of something you achieved not because of a special talent but rather due to a fortuitous series of events. But look – I think a good thing just is a good thing first of all, and we have a sense of what that means to us, and whether the good thing is good in a morally praiseworthy fashion is something further we can think about.

The thing is, we make our choices, but we are partially just vehicles of Fortune. This means that if we are at risk of getting the bad end of a deal, we are often not to blame at all for it. And it means that even when we get the good end of a deal, it might not seem praiseworthy that we get it. I must say I am personally guilty of reading my good and bad luck in extreme ways – if something bad happens I tend to blame myself entirely for it, and when something good happens I tend to dismiss it as a fluke or a freak accident (I often narrativise my successes as “miracles”, for instance).

But we needn’t dwell on these implications too much. We are partially responsible for some things, and partially not responsible for others. What we should take away from this is that we are at the very least not fully to blame for the bad (or good!) things that come our way, so our tendencies to obsess over our own competence or lack thereof is just that – a kind of obsession. Luck will laugh in everyone’s face – both at the person who lacks the confidence to trust that rejection is not entirely their fault, and at the person who is so arrogant they believe they deserved not to get rejected. Luck can align with us when we least expect it, and be nowhere to be found when we need it the most. So I think it’s sensible to take up the spirit of luck, so to speak, when reflecting on things like rejection, which can seem so visceral and personal to us.

Having said all this, I want to go through how I would manage rejection. The first thing is that, well, rejection is just a rejection. It’s not The Rejection. The latter is just what it feels like sometimes. But we ought to resist the idea that it’s the final word. The world we live in is finite, but not static – nothing is forever, and neither is whatever “bad thing” you think gets compounded, sealed, and locked into fate by rejection. This is because either you, or the world, can and will change. And that change can happen in surprising and unexpected ways. Moreover, we just can’t anticipate all the ways that we, or the world, might change – that mystery is the beauty and hope of it!

For every time we see a lost opportunity as a “failure”, we could also narrativise it as a different kind of opportunity – an opportunity to learn, adjust, practice, become open to alternatives, and also redirect what we value and how we value things. It really sucks not to get the thing you thought your heart was set on. But your value as a person, and your future outcomes, don’t necessarily hinge on that one opportunity on which you psychologically staked your entire life’s worth – they rarely do.

The glamour associated with not being rejected is actually overstated as well. There’s a lot we can gain from rejection if we can get past the pain. We can, for example, find out where we are going ‘wrong’, by taking feedback seriously. This can be a good thing – there’s something humble and unselfish about the act of taking other people’s opinion’s into account and really caring about it (regardless of whether they are right or wrong). So if a rejection can help cultivate opportunities for us to exercise that kind of humility, all the better for our sensitivity and attentiveness to our effect on others, and others’ perception of us. I mean, we are probably more impervious to other people’s opinions and too stubborn about our own than we’d like to admit. I know it seems sexy to embody a persona that is immune to other people’s opinions and to be able to say that you got where you are today despite all the naysayers. And I understand that the world is full of bullshit and that it’s hard to filter out the fluff. But maybe if five, ten different people are giving you similar feedback, which form the basis of some kind of ‘rejection’, perhaps we should really start thinking about what we might do differently the next time, and that it’s a good thing somebody pointed it out to us. I actually have a personal example of a teacher who was honest enough to tell me why my work wasn’t up to par, but at the time I just didn’t want to hear it and only took away the feeling of resentment towards them. Looking back, I can see that they were totally right, and that if I could only get past the injury to my ego, their criticisms would actually have helped better prepare me for future projects important to me.

We can also learn about the gap between our skills and abilities and what the world wants from them. Often a rejection tells us something about that gap, rather than anything about our qualities. For example, if I can’t find a job as an English teacher in an English-speaking country, what that tells me is that the particular environment in which I am looking to exercise my skills is not particularly accommodating for what I have to offer, not that there is something actually wrong with my skills. There is just a gap between what I can do vs. what the world wants from what I can do. Perhaps that gap between what I have to offer and what the world is like will change if I move to a locality that isn’t saturated with English-speakers. How our abilities get valued is variable and relative to particularised contexts – we don’t live in a vacuum where our abilities have exactly X value. Covid-19 makes that point salient: because the world right now is focused on getting a newly spreading virus under control, how different industries and people’s skills get valued has shifted radically in the meantime. And it will continue to change as the states of affairs in the world evolves further.

As a person with an “arts and humanities” background, I get that it’s scary. I was already living in a world where what I do is maybe not considered universally valuable, and I’d been prepared for the worst. When I finished my PhD, I knew that I had a mountain of obstacles ahead of me and that I’d have to accept the countless ‘No’s coming my way. The point is, while we should be diligent and reasonable in our own expectations about closing this gap, there’s no particular reason to think that our skills couldn’t have great use elsewhere, at a later time, or that they could not be transferrable/repurposed. And if that doesn’t seem possible, it still doesn’t take away from the fact that you’ve committed yourself to something, which seems to me pretty important in itself as an experience to have in life. And so it’s not the worst thing if rejection can give us real-time, real-world insight into how receptive the world is to the things we can offer it. With that insight, we can plan better, we can plan differently, we can try again.

Rejection is also a way to discern and discriminate between things we should and shouldn’t be invested in for our mental and emotional well-being. If a person keeps rejecting you, for example, it’s a pretty good indicator that you’ll get more out of other people, and that it’s not a relationship that will develop further right this moment. Sounds pretty obvious, but being filtered out even when it’s against our own wishes is actually better than being strung along under false pretences, no? Again, I realise this is not a very sexy idea – perhaps some of us entertain the fantasy that we’ll get the thing we covet if only we tried hard enough! But sometimes, it’s just not worth it. It’s ok to get tired of trying and trying to get the thing that you really want, not get it, still want it, but give it up nonetheless – if only just to keep your sanity intact. Rejection can act as a boundary in this sense – it can indicate to us that we have done all that we can, but also that we have done just about enough, and that enough is where our pursuit should come to an end. Rejection can make us take stock of our health; a ‘No’ does not have to be a condemnation of who you are, but rather a ‘This is neither a healthy nor productive target of your time’.

I’m really not one to ‘see the positive’ in everything – I am actively against the idea that relentless or uncritical positivity is actually helpful to anybody. But I do hope that in these trying and exceptional times we can forgive ourselves and understand that we are tangled in a complex web of forces – some within, and some beyond our control – when the world says ‘No’ to us.

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