Norway through an American lens
Photojournalist from Norway meets a new generation of Norwegian Americans
Lori Ann Reinhall
The Norwegian American
The debate on immigration is hot, both in the United States and in Norway. There is talk of an immigration crisis at the U.S. border, with families separated and ongoing talk of a wall, and in Europe there are continual discussions of quotas and how immigrants can be better assimilated into society.
For Norwegian Americans, immigration has a long history. Since the mid-19th century, thousands of Norwegians emigrated to North America, and today it is estimated that the Norwegian diaspora in the U.S. numbers over 4.5 million. On both sides of the Atlantic, there is ongoing interest in how Norwegian immigrants have fared in the New World.
For photojournalist Ingerid Jordal, 35, from Voss, Norway, curiosity about Norwegian America was sparked when she saw images from the Midwest in a photo reportage a few years back. Her interest deepened when she read about the language of older Norwegian immigrants in a study published at the University of Oslo. She wanted to experience Norwegian culture in America for herself. As fortune would have it, an Oslo Ph.D. linguistics student invited her to tag along on a new project in the Midwest. It would be her first trip to the United States, and while she was afraid of flying, it was an opportunity too good to pass up.
In Minnesota and Wisconsin, Jordal was impressed by the hospitality of the older generations who received her. Some of them still spoke in the dialects their ancestors brought from Norway; they preserved the food customs of lefse and lutefisk; they engaged in traditional woodcarving and rosemaling; they wore Norwegian sweaters and decorated their homes with Norwegian knickknacks; they attended Sons of Norway lodges; and above all, they had a very positive attitude about Norway. But while some had traveled there to visit family farms and relatives, they knew relatively little about Norway today. Their vision was one that looked back in time.
Jordal wanted to meet younger Norwegian Americans, and she decided to continue her trip on to Seattle, an area with a large and more recent set of Norwegian immigrants. With help from the Seattle-Bergen Sister City Association, she set up a series of interviews with a dozen or so contacts from various walks of life.
The selected subjects included an elementary school teacher, an aspiring journalist, a Norwegian-inspired fashion designer and Viking re-enactor, a Web developer, an engineering student, a professional musician who plays the Hardanger fiddle, an assistant professor of Norwegian at the University of Washington, and a financial adviser who had been part of Norway’s Alt for Norge television series. (Ingerid also interviewed the editor of The Norwegian American).
In Seattle, Jordal learned that younger Norwegian Americans also have a very positive view of Norway, something learned from older generations and from firsthand experience. It made an impression on her how well educated everyone was and how much they knew about contemporary Norwegian society. Many had vacationed or studied in Norway, all knew at least a few words of Norwegian, and some were completely fluent in the language. They spoke with praise about the safety net of the welfare state: health care, child support, universal education, better prison conditions, safety and gun control, guaranteed vacation time, and more life-work balance. Some of them even had plans to move to Norway, and she was surprised that many seemed to view her country as a utopia.
There were, however, some criticisms of Norway, with complaints about the current government, immigration politics, the “Nordic chill,” and a culture that is not always so friendly to outsiders. These criticisms hit home with Jordal, who throughout her American journey felt she had learned the value of openness and hospitality. She was amazed that no one had said no to her as the interviews had been set up, and she had found Americans to be “very friendly and easy-going.” She realized that people back home could perhaps loosen up a bit, that “just because a stranger talks to you on the street or in a shop, it doesn’t mean that they are going to stalk you.” Her overall experience with Norwegian Americans, young and old, had been a positive one.
After her big trip to America, Jordal is still afraid of flying, but nonetheless hopes to come back and explore our country more. For a young Norwegian, it was interesting to see how her culture had been transported and handed down to evolve into something of its own. As a journalist and photographer, she was able to see her own culture through a new American lens.
Lori Ann Reinhall is a multilingual journalist and community activist based in Seattle. She is the president of the Seattle-Bergen Sister City Association and state representative for Sister Cities International, and she serves on the boards of several Nordic organizations.
This article originally appeared in the August 24, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.