Growing up in South Korea, Norway was always that country tucked far away in the corner of the world map, mysterious and unknown. That’s exactly why I came to Norway in 2011 as an exchange student. It didn’t take me so long to realise that the feeling was mutual. Many Norwegians also find most parts of Asia exotic and mysterious. Naturally, there is a lot of misinformation and misconceptions about Asians in Norway, just there are about Europeans in Asia. I was (un)lucky enough to experience many of these Asian stereotypes for myself. Here I’ve summed up most common stereotypes I’ve experienced in Norway so far.
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1. Don’t assume my nationality and speak to me in whatever Asian language you know some phrases of. I don’t expect any Norwegians to be able to tell where I come from by simply looking at me, just like how I don’t expect any Koreans to be able to tell Swedes apart from Norwegians. For that reason, I think it’s perfectly fine for people, even complete strangers, to ask where I’m from out of pure curiosity. What is not fine is when people assume my nationality, jump to the conclusion, and start talking to me in the language that they think I understand. For the record, no one ever got it right that way. One time when I was at work as a waitress, a Norwegian lady said «Sheh, sheh» to me. As confused as I was, I thought I misheard «skje», a spoon in Norwegian. I replied «Vil du ha en skje?» and she said «Nei, sheh sheh.» I asked «To skjeer?» and I couldn’t believe what she said after: «I thought ‘sheh sheh’ was thank you in Chinese.»
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2. No, old men, I’m not interested! This is not a comfortable topic for me to talk about, since for a lot of people, age is just a number, which I’m fine with. In fact, for the longest time I thought the reason I was getting hit on by guys my parents’ age or older in Norway was because Norwegians are more liberal than Koreans. As it turns out, they don’t hit on non-Asians girls of my age as much. From what I can tell, it seems like some of them might have indulged themselves too much during summer holidays somewhere in Asia and have forgotten all about common decency. One thing is to feel attracted to women of much younger age. Another thing is to assume that women in a certain racial group would be more willing to date someone of their parents’ age and, to make it worse, act on such racial prejudice!
3. All Asians bow with their palms pressed together? Funnily enough, Norway was the first country ever where I was greeted or appreciated with such a gesture. Korea, Japan, and Singapore are the three Asian countries I have been to, and none of them practice «wai», the traditional Thai greeting of bowing with the palms in a prayer-like manner. Sure, similar expressions of greeting are found in other countries in Asia, such as Sri Lanka, India, Indonesia, and Malaysia. Nonetheless, «wai» comes off as oddly exotic to East Asians and some Southeast Asians (i.e. Vietnamese) whose culture has nothing of the sort. Believe it or not, I thought it was Norwegian culture to bow like that for the first couple of months of my time in Norway.
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4. I don’t eat dogs! And neither do any of the Koreans I know. Yet many Norwegians have stereotypes of Asians as dog eaters, often conjoined with ethnocentric judgement of dog eaters as barbaric. How common is the consumption of dog meat really? According to Wikipedia, around 20 million dogs are slaughtered for consumption in China, making it the world’s largest consumer of dog meat. The number may sound scary, but really in a country of 1.4 billion population, 20 million only boils down to 1.4 percent of the entire population, assuming one dog per person and that no one eats more than once a year. In South Korea, another country notorious for its dog meat industry, the statistics are not that different. In fact, Moran Market, the biggest dog meat market responsible for 30 percent of the national sales, ceased selling dog meat in 2017 due to increasing social stigma and decreasing demand among younger generations. Besides, how is eating dog any different than eating any other animals? As long as they are ethically farmed and slaughtered, I fail to see any moral difference in consuming them versus any other meat. Then again, who cares about chickens?
As annoying as some of these experiences can be sometimes, I don’t want to point fingers at anyone. What I have realised is that, for a lot of people, it’s their way of showing interest. The «sheh sheh» lady turned out to have spent one of her best vacations in China, as was the case for many who bowed to me Thai-style. I assume they wanted an Asian to know that they are «well acquainted» with Asian culture. As much as I appreciate the sentiment, it was definitely not the right way to go at it. My advice for the Norwegians interested in Asia is to open a friendly conversation about your experience in Asia after starting with a simple handshake. After all, some things are universal.