This past semester of teaching “American Itineraries: American Novels that Mooove!” (italics mine) has been a sensitive one. Just about every class has ended with an expression on my students’ faces that most definitely read: wow, are those evil paleface Americans ever so racist. Lucky us, that we live in Norway, land of… paler faces. Er, what you mean we, kemosabe?
It all came to a crux for me this week after Lene, UiB professor of Amlit, recommended Lilyhammer, a TV show about a Mafioso (Silvio Dante from The Sopranos) who hides out in Lillehammer for his witness protection program. In the second episode, there’s a moment when Silvio’s crush, his Norwegian culture teacher, tries to introduce herself to a man in the class and extends a hand to shake. Of course the guy is a Muslim immigrant who mutters something about not touching women and whose sister translates apologetically. Later, our hero beats him up a bit until the Muslim guy apologizes and insists that the teacher shake his hand. I’d love it if I could say this was an effort to think critically about some of the issues in Norway today, or even to make fun of American Mafioso violence. But it was so clear that Silvio is the good guy, watching out for his gal, that the feelings of a person who is forced to humiliatingly transgress what he believes in got completely lost. Granted, the Muslim did not refuse gracefully. There are polite, kind ways of explaining that your religion restricts you that show it is not a reflection of the other person. But he ought not to be forced to violate his values. Not shaking someone’s hand does not impinge on their rights in any way. Forcing someone to make contact does. Norwegian distrust of difference is upsetting even as it is expected. Protesting that people must learn to integrate into society without bothering to negotiate their values as well just smacks of selfishness.
Along the same lines, after a long class today discoursing on American racism and the limited understanding of American nationality as discussed in the novel Tripmaster Monkey (read the line “Call me Ishmael.” You pictured someone white, didn’t you?), Lene tried to explain the word “liminality.” This was her example: “in Norwegian culture, people are confirmed, then baptized. That stage in between is liminal.” I grinned with glee at the textbook example of what students had accused Americans of all class long (yes, Kerouac was a trifle racist, and So. Are. You). So, Norwegians are Christian, eh? Christianity is an integral part of Norwegian culture? Part of what it means to be Nor-wee-geee-ahn? Well, I bet the thousands of Muslim, Sami, and secular Norwegians would beg to differ. Gotcha!
Not that this is a race over who is more racist—it just struck me as entertaining matter for a blog post.
On a side note: in a recent skype conversation, my sisters revealed that they’ve taken up environmentalism and are now conserving on toothpaste. Don’t ask why. Just, for one tiny second I’m glad we’re all living on different continents this year.
Bergen in spring