The little human effigy goes green and I look left and right twice just in case. I start to remember how the tangled, roaring streets of Saigon or Kathmandu didn’t cause me this tension. I felt some initial stress but that quickly subsided as I grew to understand the system-less system. This is different for me. The cars are quiet, the symbols are uniform and the humans interacting with the systems behave in a routine way. This somehow disturbs me.
I feel as if I’m standing in a railway yard with a hundred tracks. No train will stop, each train will move in a predetermined routine that is not interrupted by anything smaller than a large scale collision. If I step onto the wrong track out of time with the system in place I will be run-down. It takes planning and knowledge of how the system is set up. Its set up so that you can learn a set of rules and if you follow the rules you can avoid harm. However if you don’t know the rules it is easy to end up in the wrong place at the wrong time.
This is how Denmark feels to me after 7 months in Asia. Its an extreme example but sometimes its simpler to understand through extremes. The Asian countries I was in mostly ran on a kind of individual interaction system. Each person knows its their job to take care of themselves and all other people know that too. When driving a motorbike the driver does not look left or right or behind them, they only focus on what is in front of them. Each driver avoids running into something, they don’t concern themselves with who might be running into them from behind or the side. They simply know that those drivers don’t want to run into them. In Denmark it seems like there is a system put into place everywhere and these systems are planned, it means the people in the system can avoid certain uncomfortable aspects of a system that only relies on natural tendencies. It means there can be roads just for bikes so the bike riders really don’t have to worry about running into a walking person. In Asia people would probably walk on these roads just because it’s easier, in Copenhagen no one walks on these bike roads because it would ruin the system.
If you can imagine it, its like those lines at airports or movie theaters where there are little dividers so you have to walk back and forth in order to reach the end of the line. I have walked the whole way many times even when there is no one else in line, I see there is no reason to walk in that longer path but I do because it is the system. I suspect that this behavior would be rare in the more rugged areas of the world. Each person seems to feel the constant self-responsibility, they are used to making the easiest choice for themselves and because there are not as many of the abstract systems they will act to their own self-interest. It looks like everyone expects this. I have only seen a few drivers in Asia get upset, even in the most annoying traffic most of the drivers seem quite calm. I don’t know about all of Asia but in most of the places I’ve been it seems this way.
I got so used to only being concerned with my own well-being while in Southeast Asia. I would walk out into the street without looking or with a short glance one direction. I only had to know if I was stepping straight out into someones way, I knew if they had a couple seconds to avoid me they would. I didn’t feel like I would be yelled at or shamed in some other way for breaking rules. Each person just does what they have to do. Now I’m seeing that my stress level is higher in a place with systems, even though these systems are the best I’ve ever been in. So far one of the biggest differences between the US and Denmark is that the systems here are better followed and way more comprehensive then in the US.
Taxes are high and things are expensive but its also easy to see what Danes are trading such a high proportion of their incomes for.
It has been the most strange culture shock for me to go from Nepal to Denmark. From one of the poorest and least organized to one of most organized and richest places in the world. Its more shocking then beginning my trip in Malaysia and its more shocking then going from Thailand to Myanmar. Somehow I expected that it would feel more like Seattle or the US but Copenhagen does not feel like that. I still feel foreign, I still don’t speak the native language, I’m still paying with currency other than US dollars and I still don’t look like I fit in here. I’m a little short, a little dark haired, dressed a little differently, talk differently and even after all that there is some ethereal non-Danish-ness to me.
Denmark is a magical land.
If magic is made out of butter, bread, unspeakable vowels, gorgeous people and common sense. Personally I’m feeling pretty good about my breakfast fresh from the bakery down the street. Some culture shocks are more pleasant than others.