Photo Illustration: Save As / Medium; Source: Getty Images

The Lingering Sting of ‘Konichiwa!’

How a racial taunt is like an echo, calling back the moments of racial trauma that you’ve tried to forget

I’m walking out of Kronborg Castle, my mind overrun with what I just saw and heard for the last two hours: six hundred years of Danish history topped by a heart-pounding climb up the tower, 145 steps leading to a magnificent view of Helsingør to the west and the hazy Swedish coastline to the east. Shakespeare set Hamlet here, calling the town by its Anglicized equivalent, Elsinore.

I cross the moat and follow the pebbly path to the wide cobblestone walkway when a gaggle of schoolchildren approach me in their colorful windbreakers and backpack straps. A boy with golden curls and a face from one of the old Master paintings steps out of the flock to address me directly.

He smiles, puts his hands together prayer-style, looks into my eyes.

Konichiwa!

He bows, then scampers away, laughing.

At first, I shrug it off with a joke: China may be the newsworthy Asian country of the moment, but when it comes to delivering racial taunts, Japan apparently still reigns supreme. Yet as I make my way back to the red-bricked Stationspladsen Helsingør, reality sinks in: A grammar-school boy just made fun of me.

Is it possible the child was just being overly friendly to a foreigner and I mistook his enthusiasm for mockery? No, not a chance. Even though it’s been years since I’ve been singled out for my race like this, its burn remains instantly identifiable.

I arrive at the train station with time to spare. A convenience store with its endless rows of candy bars draws me in. This is a very white country, and yet every corner store I’ve entered has been manned by brown people. This one is no exception; the bearded guy in a green soccer jersey behind the counter could be from India or Pakistan. I purchase an overpriced chocolate-covered granola bar.

“Thank you and have a fantastic day,” the clerk says. Everyone I’ve met in Denmark so far speaks fluent English.

It’s a few degrees above fifty, a lovely spring day. I have read that even in the full throes of summer, it rarely breaks seventy degrees in Denmark. It is a pleasant place with pleasant climes, yet I feel far from pleasant.

I don’t consider myself thin-skinned. In my role as a lead application developer for a Fortune 500 company, I freely speak my mind to my co-workers and even my bosses. As a published author of three novels, I’ve endured parades of rejections, so people saying negative things about me is not some debilitating tragedy.

And yet when I board the train and sit in my seat and place my backpack on my lap, in my mind I see the boy walking up to me with his devilish smile, putting his palms together.

What the hell is wrong with me?

If I’m this hung up, there has to be something primal at work here, something deeper than deep. It finally occurs to me that it is indeed primal when you are made an outsider, by the way you look, by who you are, designated by a little blond Danish boy’s single word, a word that’s not even his, and not even mine. The word means hello in Japanese, but for me it means something else entirely here in Denmark at this moment:

This is my country, and you don’t belong here.

When I return to our rental house and tell my wife about my encounter, she’s of course aghast, but then mentions something I haven’t considered: Kids learn their behaviors from somewhere. It doesn’t take long for me to come across a new word: hyggeracisme.

Hygge has been in the zeitgeist for a while now, even here in America — according to Wikipedia, it is “a Danish and Norwegian word for a mood of coziness and comfortable conviviality with feelings of wellness and contentment.” It is pronounced “hoo-gah,” and it is an essential part of being a Dane. So how could something that sounds so pleasant be partnered with the ugliness of racism?

According to an article in the Scandinavia Standard, “It’s within this context that hyggeracisme happens; where one hears the N-word or sees a Nazis gesture in the name of “fun.” Since the state of hygge dictates a stress-free mood, anyone who speaks out is perceived as ruining the hygge. This is the person that is ultimately condemned by the group and vilified for breaking social norms.” In other words, if you are the one who points out the problem, it is you who becomes the problem.

So the boy who ran up to me was following what is dictated by his culture, or perhaps even encouraged. I feel sorry for the boy, but I’d be lying if I said I don’t feel sorry for myself, too.

That’s the real power of racist acts, how they unearth buried wounds. Feelings of alienation I haven’t felt in decades seep back into my consciousness: kids making “Chinese” eyes at me, people asking where I’m really from, an English professor assuming math was my subject of passion. No matter how much I try to push the boy’s slight aside, it’s just not easy, as it’s more than a singular event. A racial taunt is like an echo, calling back all the other points of trauma in the history of one’s life.

A couple of days later, I walk around the city and encounter a curious statue by the harbor, of a Black woman sitting in what looks like a wicker chair. The curious part is what’s in her right hand, a cane knife that’s held together with what is obviously Duct Tape. Later I’ll discover this is Queen Mary, an artistic rendering of Mary Thomas, a freedom fighter who led a revolt against her slave owners in St. Croix, when the Virgin Islands were owned by Denmark. The statue is made of Styrofoam, and it was meant to be a placeholder for the proper bronze sculpture to come, but four years have passed and little progress has been made — until this past December, when tragedy struck. A bad windstorm knocked off the head and the chair. Even with that catastrophe, only a portion of the money necessary to bring this symbol to permanence has been secured.

I can’t imagine a more apt metaphor for the state of Danish racism than what happened to Queen Mary’s statue. May she persevere and fight the good fight, which seems very likely to continue in the country of Denmark.

Novelist (Skin Deep, Love Love, Everything Asian), essayist (New York Times, Vox), occasional traveler. www.sungjwoo.com

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