It was the spring of 2003 when I experienced Iceland for the first time. The country completely captivated me and I wanted to fit in as much as I could in the little time I had. So at the tail end of my trip, I decided to dip into the pools at Laugar to see what all the hot tub fuss was about. While sitting back and relaxing in the euphoric steam, I noticed a very determined Icelandic toddler, cloaked in hot pink floaties, swimming up to me.
This child, who could not have been more than one year old, was so bent on reaching me that I was a little worried that the girl thought I was her mother. (Clearly a long shot, but stranger things have happened.) Soon after, the child stopped directly in front of me, reached out her hand and touched my face. Next, she stroked my hair. For the next two minutes I allowed the sheer honesty of a child to invade my comfort zone. It was by far the most innocent expression of curiosity I had ever encountered. Yet, I thought to myself, has this child ever seen a black person before? Do people of colour inhabit any of this land? Little did I know that in a few years I would be the one answering those very same questions.
My biggest fear in moving to Iceland was not the temperamental weather, the colossal import tax or the hideous trolls that live in the mountains. What kept me up at night was the lack of diversity that plagued this unexploited island. Over the seven or eight times that I ventured back here before my official move, the lack of colour in the faces I ran across led me to believe that my experience was going to be dismal. At this point I had to stop and ask myself, how am I going to cope with living in a colourless society?
After researching and discussing the issue with several people, I have discovered that there are a few benefits to existing in a homogeneous society. First, tradition is highly valued and maintained by the people. Whether it is because they are passed down by individual families or held up by the government, Icelanders hold onto to their customs quite firmly. Icelandic calendars are excellent tools for total strangers to learn about holidays and celebrations that keep traditions alive from generation to generation. Second, the idea of “normal” is understood by all in homogeneous societies. The concept of knowing and seeing what is normal on a daily basis serves to be quite comforting for any culture. In this way, expectations are clear, making life much easier for its citizens. It’s kind of like a McDonald’s cheeseburger. No matter where you go in the world, a McDonald’s cheeseburger always tastes the same. I will leave it at that.
On the other hand, cohabitating in a diverse society is not such a bad gig either. Living in New York for the past five years has redefined the concept of the “melting pot” for me. When I taught in Brooklyn, New York, I never felt like I was actually in Brooklyn because by 8:30 a.m. the world was at my door. In one of my middle school English classes alone my students came from Haiti, Pakistan, El Salvador, Russia, India, Guyana, Bangladesh, Mexico, Trinidad, Nigeria, Puerto Rico and Albania. The beauty of diversity is that I learned as much from my students as they learned from me. I was spoiled and naïve to think that any other city could create the multi-cultured atmosphere that was encompassed by Brooklyn. The thing about diversity is that it allows different to be the norm and change to be more than acceptable. And, as we all know, the only certainty in this crazy world is change.
Unlike France, where fed-up immigrants stormed the streets last year demanding equality and an end to an institutionalised racist system, Iceland has not given off vibes of a racist society in my opinion. Although people may have experienced racist incidents, I think the blame comes down to an ignorant few who have not been educated on the waves of change occurring in the world around us. Xenophobia, a fear of that which is foreign or different, will exist in every society because people will always be people. However, how a country deals with a cultural shift is critical and needs to be thought about with precision and an open mind.
Based on my time in Iceland thus far, I have been pleasantly surprised by the integration of thousands of immigrants onto this isolated island nation. I have met more minorities than I expected and can honestly write that I no longer find Iceland to be as colourless as I perceived two years ago. Although it will take time for non-Icelanders to emerge from the pockets and find themselves in the mainstream, it makes me smile to report that the last time I visited Laugar, I was not the only individual with an invisible “Touch Me” sign on their forehead.