Friday, March 29, 2013

Off the Beaten Track: They Leave Their Babies Outside

Our guest today is Amulya Malladi, the author of five novels published by the Random House Publishing Group. Born and raised in India, she has a bachelor’s degree in engineering and a master’s degree in journalism. When she is not writing books, she works as a marketer at a medical device company. She has lived in four countries, 10 cities, and about 14 different houses since she left India 17 years ago and met her husband. Currently, she lives in Copenhagen (technically, just 10 minutes from Copenhagen, but it’s not quite suburbia—just suburbia-ish). The weather is complete crap in Denmark—and she does wonder why she ever left California. On the other hand, she loves Europe, appreciates its charm, and believes that nothing beats Copenhagen on a warm, sunny day. The only problem is warm and sunny days are pretty rare in Copenhagen. You can reach her at www.amulyamalladi.com.
A friend of mine was visiting me in Copenhagen from New York. We went for a walk down to a café and, on our return, she saw my neighbor’s pram outside in the garden. She thought nothing of it until the pram started to move and she heard the wail of a baby. She froze and stared at me. “Are you telling me there’s a baby in there?” When I confirmed her suspicion, she stared at the pram in horror. “They leave their babies outside?”
It was just one of the things that had baffled me about Denmark when I first moved here more than a decade ago.
When I had left India 17 years ago to come to America, everyone told me to be prepared for culture shock. I was so prepared that I didn’t have any. I took everything in my stride. However, when we moved to Denmark, I had not been prepared. I was already an immigrant, and Europe is just about the same as the U.S., I’d thought back then. Not quite, because when I moved to Denmark, I was slammed with culture shock. Denmark was and is very different from the United States and, initially, it was hard to take things in stride—in part, because I was no longer 21 and, partly, because some of the stuff was really out there.
My first brush with Danish weirdness happened before I lived in Denmark. My husband who is Danish and I were living in London and had flown to Denmark for a 115th birthday celebration. Yes, I was confused too. One of the oldest people in the world? No, my husband told me—they do this in Denmark. His aunt and uncle were celebrating their respective 45th birthdays; their daughter, her 15th; and their son, his 10th—hence it was 115 years of birthday celebration.
The party took place in the ass-end of nowhere, in a sort of community house in rural Denmark. The whole family attended and, for the first time, I was very conscious about being the only brown person in a room full of about over a hundred white people. Living in California and even London for the past few months, I was never the only brown person anywhere. But here, it was lily white—all blonde hair and blue eyes and me. Added to that, I didn’t know a lick of Danish then. All my husband had taught me was to say, “Tak for mad,” which means “Thank you for the food.” It’s a Danish thing you say after a meal to the host. According to my husband, even now after a decade of living in Denmark, as far as he’s concerned, as long as I can say “Tak for mad,” that’s all I need to know.

So here I was at a 115th birthday party with people speaking in Danish all around me, looking at me, and talking to me through Søren at times, and sometimes uncomfortably in English themselves—and I was very aware that I was this exotic doll to my husband’s family. They were all very welcoming and fascinated. But this was an unusual place for me to be.
Still, even this scenario was not the most surprising thing about that party. The most surprising thing happened when, in the middle of the meal, pieces of paper with what looked like Danish poetry was handed out to everyone.
Apparently, it was tradition. When it’s someone’s birthday, someone close to that someone writes a song about them, set to one of the traditional tunes (one that everyone knows), and then, when the person who wrote the song indicates, everyone stands up, holds hands, and sings the song as they sway.
No, really, they do.
My husband grinned at me and said something along the lines of, “Go with the flow, babe,” and I certainly did. I couldn’t read the lyrics and didn’t know the melody, but I held hands and swayed while wondering what the hell kind of a whack job family I had married into. But I also realized something else—that inherently Danish families were no different from Indian families. We had our Bollywood song and dance, and they made up their own song and dance.
By the way, most non-Danes who marry into Danish families will describe this song-singing activity as one of the weirdest things they experience in their new culture.
And then there is that whole leaving babies outside business. I can’t tell you the number of times I have walked down the street to find a wailing baby carriage outside a café or a store. Then I stand by the carriage, shaking it to calm the baby down, while I ask my husband (if he’s with me) to go inside and find the errant mommy. I have knocked on people’s doors, because they can’t hear their baby cry outside. I’m not saying Danes are heartless—they have baby monitors etcetera, and they do love their babies, but they also believe that wrapping babies up in Arctic-grade clothing and leaving them outside is the best way for them to sleep. This also means that Danish babies can only sleep in their prams and, since Danish weather is mostly unpleasant, I have seen many a parent walking around the street during a storm, pushing a pram, trying to put their baby to sleep.
I don’t abide by this. If fresh air is so important to babies, open a window in the house. However, this leaving babies outside to sleep business also shows how comfortable Danish society is with the custom and how safe it is. No one thinks twice about it. You go to a café, and you leave your baby outside in the pram. And no one takes your baby away. I think this is what shocks us non-Danes about the Danes.
There are many, many other things that made me go whoa! when I first moved to Denmark. I was shocked at how culturally different Denmark was from the U.S. I expected Denmark to be different from India, but it was surprising how far apart Europe and the U.S. are.
I’m still baffled at the xenophobia and that the concept of the melting pot is alien to Danes. They sincerely believe that you come to Denmark and become Danish; you leave your old self, culture, and traditions behind.
And after a decade in Denmark, I’m baffled that in the U.S., they’re still talking about gay marriage and abortion, whereas this discussion is just not happening in Scandinavia. It’s been a done deal for some time. Gay people can marry, and women can do what they like with their private parts.
I have now lived in South Asia, the United States, and Europe—and it’s been quite an education. Mostly, what I’ve learnt is that people are different. You can’t box them into a generalization. You can’t say, “All Americans…,” or “All Europeans…,” or even “All Danes…”—because it’s just not true.
New Yorkers are so very different from Californians, who are different from the people down south in Memphis, where I went to school.
The French are so different from the Italians, who are so different from the Brits.
And the Swedes and Norwegians and Danes are very different culturally from each other—though food generally sucks in both Norway and Denmark.
I think I have now moved past culture shock to the point that nothing really surprises me. I have traveled enough, met enough people from around the world, and become a citizen of the world myself that I don’t just tolerate the peccadilloes of various cultures but accept and appreciate them—and when possible, enjoy them.
Amulya and her husband in Milan.

9 comments:

  1. This was such a humorous look at culture shock. I loved it! :) That tendency to break into song on social occasions seems to be uniquely European. It always surprised me when I lived in England how people started singing their favorites at parties, and everyone knew every word. That just doesn't happen in the US. Loved your comparisons between the three continents.

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  2. There was a case about 15 or more years ago in the US, don't remember what city, when a Danish mom left her baby in pram outside a cafe while she and friends had coffee. Someone called the police, and she was arrested for child endangerment. Culture shock, indeed.

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  3. Having lived in Europe, I agree that there are many differences between American and European cultures. But what intrigues me is that you found America to be less of a culture shock than Denmark. Why do you think that is? Were you already more exposed to American culture before you left India (through movies, TV, etc.)? Or were you in an area where you still had a lot of contact with Indian culture?

    Much as the idea of leaving babies outside cafes makes me cringe, I can't help feeling pleased that there is still a place in this world safe enough to do that. Do you see it changing at all in the years you've lived in Denmark? Lots of questions, I know. Your post raises so many interesting issues. Thanks for sharing it with us!

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  4. Lots of questions for me too. I thought Oprah said Denmark is the happiest place on earth? Explains the safety of children for sure. Also, I've read other of your insights on acclimating to Denmark but what about hubby to your Indian culture? Has he been to India, and what did he think? How did your family and society at large view and treat him? You should write a post on that for us. Or maybe he should. :)

    Heidi, I agree with Amulya about Indian immigrants to the U.S. having little to no culture shock. American culture is so well known and embraced in India, I find my extended family knows more about popular American culture than I do.

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    1. Supriya, an Indian writer I follow on Twitter said that Indians mentally align themselves with the West. It was really a good piece, will try to track it down. I agree, Amulya, that we must never leave our sense of humor "home.'

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  5. Thanks for sharing with us Amulya! I love the 115th birthday tradition, and the sway-singing too. What fun--and how bewildering for a newcomer.

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  6. Absolutely loved reading this piece, Amulya! And I have to say that I really related to the issue of the babies being left outside. On a much earlier trip to Norway, I was absolutely shocked when the friend who came to visit me insisted on leaving her baby outside in a pram when we were sitting inside on the second floor. Needless to say, he is now a robust teenager, and does not appear to have been remotely scarred by the experience. I can't say the same for myself! :-)

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  7. This was so much fun to read. Lol. Loved your take on culture shock. I am most definitely going to through myself a 224th birthday party with my friends, when I reach age 45. It sounds like insane fun.

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  8. Loved reading this. And this made me laugh out loud: 'And after a decade in Denmark, I’m baffled that in the U.S., they’re still talking about gay marriage and abortion, whereas... and women can do what they like with their private parts.'

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