A Letter to Past-Mark
Dear August 2019 Mark,
You are about to embark on a journey that you cannot prepare for. Inherently, you cannot know what to expect, but I can promise you that your host family will be more amazing than you could ever imagine. The hardest part will be the leap of faith where you step onto the plane and embrace the unknown. I know you’re leaving behind your home, your family, your girlfriend, your dog, your cats, and authentic Korean food, but I promise you it will all be worth it. The hardest part will be the first step, because everything else will follow.
Before I left, I set some goals. I hadn’t looked at them in awhile, and wanted to reflect on whether I achieved them:
- Embrace positivity! The only thing I have control over is my attitude. Good days with good moments are GOOD days. BAD days with GOOD moments are still GOOD days. I decide how to view my days!
- Develop a quality blog. Take photos! I tend towards not taking enough photos, so take more photos than I normally do.
- Join a local soccer team, or find a local activity to work out.
- Volunteer! Join an organization to give back to Copenhagen.
- Visit buildings of interest! (See list below)
I think my expectations were realistic. The biggest thing I wanted to focus on was my attitude as I faced the unknown, the new, the confusing, the different each day. No matter what, I sought to find something positive in each day, and allow that to define my day rather than how out of sorts or homesick or worried I was feeling. I think I totally accomplished that. I look back on the semester and recognize the culture shock and homesickness, but I choose to focus on my friends and my host family’s generosity and the beauty around me.
And I think I accomplished my goals! I’m proud of the blog and the content I created. I joined Vanl∅se Football Club and had an amazing time playing with the locals. And I had an amazing volunteer/internship experience with Copenhagen Volunteers. Furthermore, thanks to my commitment to positivity, I also feel that my worldview/behavior has shifted. Although I am still a major planner and love control over my day, I have released some of that in favor of the flexibility that comes with embracing the unexpected. Who knows if the day or an experience will go exactly the way I imagined it, but I now know that everything will be fine, and I can jump headfirst into the unexpected. I’m still working on fully embracing this, but I am making progress!
Host Country Knowledge
One of the most important thinks that I learned about Danes was through my interaction with the overarching stereotype/claim that Danes are the happiest people on the planet. That’s too good to be true…right? Well, yes and no. The studies that yield this information analyze the health care, education, average income compared to living costs, employment rate, and other factors to rate the status of average citizens across the world. So, it’s true. In this case, Denmark is wildly triumphant. The government provides free health care, free education including college, a sizable pension/retirement plan, and a very safe and developed country. But at what cost? The answer is at least 50% of their income. Danes, just like any other country, still gripe about this number, but they recognize that it’s necessary to sustain such incredible public programs.
On the other hand, Danes also aren’t robots that don’t get unhappy, just because they are the “happiest people”. I firsthand witnessed anger, fear, sadness, and explosive joy whenever the Danish national team scored a goal. They, like every other human being, experience the full range of emotions, which may seem like a silly observation. However, before leaving for Denmark, I remember the almost mythical way that we Americans spoke of their title as the “happiest”. So it’s been a powerful realization that this stereotype/expectation (like most stereotypes/expectations) has some amount to truth to it, but also has another side to the coin that can be experienced by meeting and interacting with local. It’s a lesson that I want to take with me back to the States.
Some other important things I learned about Danes is the stark difference between their public and private personas, and I have been blessed to be invited into the private lives of many Danes who were so quick and willing to open their lives to me. I also gained a heightened value for family and the power of hosting to create community around a dinner table. My host family hosted my parents and my girlfriend and my aunt and uncle. They also hosted multiple events with their friends, and demonstrated how important these people were as they labored over food and decorations. I never understood how powerful the act of inviting someone into your home was until I traveled halfway around the world, particularly because I experienced it myself, firsthand. And I came to appreciate how easy going the culture was. “Take it easy” was a phrase thrown around endlessly, and as a pretty high strung dude myself, I loved this mantra.
Some of the things that I still want to learn more about include the language, the cultural nuances, and I’m excited to continue follow Danish politics, as I’ve been brought into the loop by my host parents. I’ve learned about 50-100 words in Danish, but would love to continue that learning process as I plan to return. The learning curve was particularly steep, as the pronunciation is so foreign and different from English, but about three months in, I finally got over the hump and have found myself understanding a decent amount of my host family’s conversations. There are also certain cultural nuances that I still want to work to understand as I get a better grasp of Danish culture. But most of all, I’m excited to watch how the future plays out as the Danish socialist approach to caring for citizens is being considered in other countries.
My classes have inspired me to delve further into questioning my own culture as a white man, as a Korean man, and as an American. Many of my professors asked questions of their own Danish culture and I appreciated the way that they honestly assessed their own preconceptions and cultural values that they accept at face value. It’s something that I hope to continue to do in my academics at Tulane, particularly as I take a government course in the spring. Our cultural values as both a democracy and a capitalist country often come into odds, and I want to assess our culture in the same way my Danish professors did.
One of my favorite intellectual connections was with Henrik, a partner at MTRE Arkitektur. He and his wife have run the firm for 15 years, and they agreed to partner with me in my service learning project of connecting them with Copenhagen Volunteers to create a specific volunteer partnership/project for the future. Henrik is originally from Norway, but came to Denmark in pursuit of an entrepreneurship opportunity. He and his wife desired to start their own company, a spirit that was quite familiar to me, courtesy of my capitalistic American roots that encourage entrepreneurs to turn there visions into realities. Thanks to our series of conversations over the semester, I am interested in nontraditional architecture paths, including consulting similar to the way that Henrik does. I will miss collaborating with him!
Yesterday, it hit me. I’m leaving. And although I’m insisting that I will return (similarly to excerpts from Maximizing Study Abroad), I am concretely aware of the fact that I will never be back to the country the way that I have been the last four months. That fact smacked me in the face after I left my last class, and I rode the metro home in a sort of melancholy zone. I will miss my friends, and my host family, and this beautiful city. However, I’m glad that the feeling hit me now and I have the ability to sober up in order to say the goodbyes that these people in my life deserve. I would hate to remain in denial until I boarded the plane only to realize it mid flight and desperately regret the poor goodbyes that I gave.
I’m feeling a slew of emotions. I’m incredibly excited to return home. In a week, I will be standing as the best man in my best friend’s wedding, and I could not be more excited for that. My family has a series of holiday traditions that I’m also deeply looking forward to. It’s clear that it will be an incredible winter break.
However, it’s also undeniable that I will also have to grieve the end of this chapter. It was such an amazing four months, and as a result, I already have a sense that leaving will weigh heavily on my heart. I don’t want to push that down. I want to hold it and process it and recognize that it shows how influential this semester was to me. I’m excited for what’s to come, but I know that this was special to me.
I think the most difficult thing about re-entry will be how busy the first three weeks back are already shaping up to be, and how no one around me will have shared experience with me. As a result, I want to make sure that I’m carving time out of my holiday schedule to process and feel and acknowledge the reverse culture shock. Although my transition from the States to Denmark was relatively smooth, I recognize the possibility that the transition back may be less so. Still, I want to approach it with the same attitude of flexibility and embrace the experience the same way I did four months ago. Also, I’m not entirely alone in the experience of returning from studying abroad, as my girlfriend returned from Scotland last year frustrated at the fact that she had to leave amazing friends that she had made in a life-changing semester abroad. I’m going to lean into her in the first couple of weeks because she can relate to the feelings.
I think the biggest things that I’ll have to get used to is the outgoing nature of the public persona and the overwhelming attitude of consumption in the States. Public spaces are simply quieter in Denmark, as Danes are more cognizant of the way that they present themselves. I think I may be overwhelmed at first when I go the public places in my neighborhood at home and how loud they are. Similarly, Danes are also more cognizant in their consumption. From the size of their cars to the food they eat to the way shop, Americans simply consume more than them, and I’m sure I’ll find myself perturbed at the appetites (literally and figuratively) that I simply used to accept as the norm.
It is crucial that I stay in touch with my host parents. I’m less attached to Danish culture, and more attached to my host family specifically. We have already agreed to FaceTime at least once a month, and I have insisted that I will be back in at least three years. They are already inviting me back, and I plan to keep this relationship for the rest of my adult life. They are such amazing human beings! Also, if I’m ever craving more Danish pastries in Los Angeles, there is a small town north of Santa Barbara called Solvang that is notorious for its population of Danes and Danish culture.
I think any changes in me will be celebrated. My friends and family have encouraged and deeply supported any and all growth that I have gone through in college, and I don’t expect this to be any different.
Service Learning Project
As I mentioned in my earlier blog posts, I interned with Copenhagen Volunteers, a local collective of 1,800 volunteers that participate in 80 events across the entire year. After participating in a number of events, I realized that I wanted to create my own in conjunction with this small local architecture consultant MTRE Arkitektur that I had connected with through a friend of my host family. What a small world! Anyway, after a number of hours brainstorming, the three parties agreed upon hosting a think tank about the way that users engage architecture in Copenhagen, similar to the very first event I participated in: the Festival for the Global Goals, hosted by Sustainability Now. My event will take place in September 2020, and will hopefully become one of the repeating events that CPH Volunteers help put on! (fingers crossed) There will be a wide range of activites, but the success will come from the fact that MTRE will be able to compile the data into a report and hopefully create tangible design feedback from ordinary citizens in Copenhagen!
The event will be centered around non-architect citizens, who perceive space and buildings solely through their everyday engagement in it. The hope is to begin a discussion about the way that architecture affects our emotional, physical, psychological and mental health, and see if there are any ways to improve that across the board. My favorite activity will be a feedback wall that will be cataloged, and hopefully used to spot trends in the needs of the local citizens.
As a result of participating in events with CPH Volunteers before creating my project, I was able to understand the process by which events are planned and the infrastructure necessary to create a plan that can be executed next year. I was able to specifically design the event in a way that future event organizers can sit down with the plan and execute. This was because I got a sense of the way the local system worked, and then designed the event/project planning in a way that would fit their system, instead of creating a plan and then becoming frustrated when it didn’t fit their system. The long term effect will be (hopefully) a successful event in September 2020, and a connection between CPH Volunteers and MTRE that could lead to future projects.
Planning this event helped me realize that this is something that is entirely repeatable in the States, even when I’m working a traditional job, but also want to engage a community on the side. The project fit my skills, and I’m absolutely interested in pursuing more partnerships in the future. I also got a taste of how important it is to see connections between organizations with similar goals, and doing the leg work to get them to meet and collaborate on a project. I couldn’t have done it if it wasn’t for partnership from both CPH Volunteers and MTRE. My future personal, professional, and academic goals have widened to include opportunities involving non-profits or volunteer collectives because of how influential this service learning was for me.
If I was going to give advice to my then-self, starting this project just over a month and a half ago, I would say “take it easy!” I was overly concerned with whether it would work out, when in reality being present in the design process and the people I was collaborating with was arguably more important. And everything turned out perfectly, so all the worry was for nothing! In the future, I want to remind myself of the human aspect of whatever I’m working in, and not to lose sight of that even while striving for a goal. That is incredibly important.
As I mentioned above, in July or August, one of CPH Volunteers’ project organizers will pick up my project plan and execute it! Hopefully, all goes smoothly, and I’ve left my contact information with the company if they hit any issues. But the plan is flexible enough for them to edit as they see necessary too. And MTRE is more than capable of calling audibles as they see fit. I’m just sad that I won’t see it come to fruition, but the organization has promised to keep me in the loop!
A last piece of advice to August 2019 Mark (and anyone else considering study abroad)
So Mark, as you stand, poised to board the plane at LAX, I want to encourage you in the fog of the unknown. The truth is that you have no idea what the future holds, but that is life, and I know that you would regret it so much more if you stayed put. So, take a deep breath and embrace the unknown, taking it day by day. The truth is that you can’t know what the future holds, and that’s ok! I’ll see you in Copenhagen!
-December 2019 Mark