Updated: Jul 2, 2020
Growing up a world away, Jen took a chance on a new life in Denmark. This strong,
intelligent woman shared with The International the good, the bad and the lovely about life here, and embracing her new normal whilst keeping her culture close.
Photographs: Céline Martin-Pedersen
Text: Lyndsay Jensen
Where did you grow up, tell me about your background?
I am originally from Shageluk, Alaska, it's a small rural village on the Innoko River, a tributary of the lower Yukon River, and my culture is Deg Hti'an Athabascan, Native American. Our way of life is predominantly a subsistence way of living, everything we hunt and fish we put away from the long winter months ahead. Speaking of my home makes me long for the taste of fresh smoked salmon and moose meat, these were the traditional foods I was raised on, and it reminds me of my strong sense of heritage and culture. Coming from a rural village didn't offer more than working at the school, store or tribal offices, and growing up, my parents supplemented their income with a general store in front of our house. Working in the store was never a treasured childhood memory, as I was always stuck behind the counter, stocking shelves or cleaning or something related to the store. I would rather be off playing with my cousins, visiting my grandparents, fishing, playing softball, or boat riding up the Innoko River.
While most kids went away to college, I went away to high school because the local school in our community wasn't high in terms of academia. It was at Mt. Edgecumbe my mind was opened to the limitless possibilities the world had to offer. This school was the hallmark of education for rural kids from all over the State of Alaska, and it gave us a chance to get an advanced education as well as it forged a life long bond with other Native kids from rural Alaska forming lifelong memories.
After that, I took a year off to figure out what I wanted to do with my life and moved to Anchorage with my parents. I worked at a tourist shop downtown and decided to attend school out-of-state. I had no idea how I was going to afford this, so I saved and started looking for scholarships. I stumbled across the Indian Health Service Scholarship, and had to have 'reputable recommendations'. I really didn't know anyone in Anchorage, so I went down to the Native Hospital and sought the help of some doctors and walked away with three signed letters of recommendations from them. After sending all the documentation in I was accepted, and finally on my way to college! That fall I arrived in Northfield, Minnesota, everyone looked predominantly blonde and blue-eyed - I wasn't in Alaska anymore, and with my exotic look I definitely stood out. This was an eye-opening experience that I would later draw a comparison to when moving to Denmark. After transferring to a college in Washington and then later back to Alaska, I ended up graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in Organizational Management, a business degree from Alaska Pacific University (APU).
Life took a different journey, and I had a job, a toddler, and was a single mom. But I was determined to make a better life for myself and my daughter. It wasn't until I started working for a tribal corporation that I realised that I needed to return to school to not only serve people better but to make a difference. I went back to school at night and weekends for my Master's in Business Administration (MBA) all the while juggling motherhood, working full time as a business executive, and traveling a lot. It was the hardest two years of my life! But in 2014, I finally graduated from APU with my MBA. My life before Denmark was all about providing a living for my kids, enjoying my friends and being with family. Little did I know that my life was about to be turned upside down (yet again) by a hippie Danish music man.
Tell us about your family and the early days in Denmark?
I met, fell in love and had a long-distance relationship with my music man for a year. We would visit each other in Alaska and Denmark, and then I fell pregnant - that changed everything. At the time, I was juggling a stressful job, a toddler, pregnancy, and a relationship in another country, things were not simple. Kris also had kids from a previous marriage, and I was ready for a change, so we went for it. We got married in a whirlwind in Hawaii and moved to Denmark months later to start our blended family. It was a bold decision, but it felt like the right decision because we wanted to start our family on stable ground, and starting it together with our blended family in Denmark just made sense.
I'd only ever been to Denmark as a tourist, so before moving, I had this postcard, fairytale view of what my life would be like once I lived there. As is with life, nothing is quite as it seems. I'm so grateful that my music man has been such a massive support through all my trials and tribulations here. He's been my translator, my driver (when we had a car), and my champion. As cheesy as it sounds, he is my ying to my yang. We don't always have the answers, but he always finds a way to pay rent, feed and provide for his family. I love his guts, and we both have the same goal in mind for keeping our family together through all the ups and downs. Our family is a truly eclectic blend, and it wasn't easy at first, but it's grown to be how it should be. We have our teenager (14) (my stepson), with a passion for futbøl. Our stepdaughter (11) is a pre-teen that adores music and the baby of the family, Kaya. Koa (6), a total boy that has a sensitive heart, and our youngest Kaya (3), she is our last and most rotten toddler. She walks to the beat of her own little lion drum. All these kids love each other, play with one another, and get along most of the time. Our place is loud, chaotic, and I'm grateful for it.
When I first moved here I was 5 months pregnant, I had a toddler, 11 bags and two dogs in tow. The novelty quickly wore off when I realised that I had to learn how to ride a bike with my huge belly and my son behind me in the bike chair. I've had my moments where I've broken down - one day in a store I couldn't understand the labels on the products, and my app (google translate) was not giving me any feedback. I broke down, left the store and cried all the way home. I felt so alone with the crushing reality of my decision- that I was here and I was here to stay, this wasn't just a holiday.
Suddenly questions came up: Where are we going to settle? What am I going to do for a career after I had Kaya? Which hospital am I going to have my child in? What prenatal care am I entitled to as an international? All these questions as well as dealing with the red-tape of filling out forms for family reunification. Due to my age and past complications, I was considered 'high risk', and I just didn't know what to do. After calling around to various places like the kommune, the health ministry, and even a friend's wife who was a midwife, no one seemed to know as written guidelines weren't easily accessible (well none that I could find).
From health care to the language, everything took time to adjust to, after all, it's a different culture - I just never realised how different. I used to get really upset and defensive when asked why I don't speak Danish yet. I wondered why that was, I mean, after all, I should have a basic grasp of the language by now, and it suddenly dawned on me that it had something to do with me not learning my own native language. In Alaska, other people that knew their native language would ask me the same thing, 'why don't you know your own language?' The same feelings of anger and frustration would come flooding back to me when asked about Danish, and I reacted to that. There are only a handful of people who know the Deg Hit'an dialect, and it was literally beaten out of my grandparent's generation when missionaries came to our area in the mid-1900s and colonised. This is a form of 'generational trauma' that has conditioned me to have not only language issues but self-identity and self-worth issues. Sure it's hard, dare I even say it's harder than learning Japanese, and that was the second language I ever learned after English. I know learning the language will 'open up my world,' as my husband says, so I'm trying to learn slowly, taking my time to understand the nuances, and gradually feel more comfortable with the language.
How do you find the culture in Denmark compares to your own? Have you embraced some Danish cultural traditions in your family?
The culture in Denmark is entirely different than what I'm used to, and at first, I found the people to be cold. However, when you stay in a culture for a long time, you learn to adapt and make the best of what that culture has to offer. My husbands circle of musical friends are always warm and kind to me, and his family has welcomed me with open arms - this helps tremendously. I've also embraced the fact as a wife of a musician I get to meet the most exciting cultures. He frequently performs with Greenlandic Inuit musicians, and I feel a certain kinship with them because they look, speak and have similar norms as 'Alaska Natives'. I count myself extremely fortunate that I have the support of local Danish friends and family, as I've heard horror stories of other internationals that moved here and only have their spouse as a support, and can feel isolated and alone.
For the past year, we've lived in Ørestad area, which is right above the Amager nature preserve. This allows our family great bike rides, walks, and I LOVE running through the patches of forest and land that is not concrete - this has been my saving grace. Ørestad and Copenhagen, in general, is such an international area with a lot of people from many different cultures.
Once a grey, concrete area, there seemed to be a shortage of schools, daycares, and doctors in the past as we were waitlisted for a while. All that has changed and today it is a thriving area filled with people, families, shops, and cafes. My son's school, in particular, provides nurturing teachers, a super close location, and the support that a 6-year-old needs when transitioning from børnehus (daycare) to school. I've come to love this area for the convenience of the schools, grocery stores, metro and being on the edge of the city near the forest and nature - it's a great place to live.
"When you stay in a culture for a long time, you learn to adapt and make the best of what that culture has to offer."
Perhaps I'm getting too comfortable in my little bubble of home-schools/daycare-store-home, as I really miss the fact that people from my hometown are more easily approachable. In Alaska, you can strike up a conversation in the check-out line at the grocery store, pumping gas, or even if you are lost, people will help. I'm used to family and friends just dropping by for a coffee and a chat or for dinner. I even had neighbours that would send home veggies from their garden with our dog, who would visit them. They'd text me to say that 'Milo' (our trusty little poodle), was at their place and that they'd walk him home after he gets a snack with some tasty potatoes and zucchini. It was this friendliness that I was used to and miss so much. Forming friendships with other international has become crucial to me. I found a Facebook mom's group for US/Canadian expat moms (North American Moms in Copenhagen), and it was a saving grace. A whole community of other moms that I could relate to. If I needed to know where I could find peanut butter or second-hand clothes, these gals knew where it was. From there, I sought out other expat entrepreneurial groups because I have a small marketing business, and I was ready to network. I found creative women from all over the world that have the same struggles as myself. We all shared how we struggle to find employment here and how hard it is to survive and thrive here at times. I've realised how essential it is to have a strong group of women around, guiding, mentoring and uplifting me.
Tell me about finding work in Denmark and the difficulties you've experienced? How should businesses be attracting internationals?
It's just tiring and frustrating as I'm still on the hunt for a job. I have an MBA, I'm educated, I have ample work experience, and I'm willing and able to work. But after an extended period of applying for jobs, having about 15 versions of my CV/resume, over 300 cover letters, calling HR departments, networking with people from prospective hiring companies, tailoring my LinkedIn profile and just showing up all the time - I'm exhausted. Understandably, internationals have an incredibly bad taste in their mouths regarding working in Denmark. It's time-consuming, stressful, anxiety-ridden, and can be soul-destroying. This is not what I thought my journey to Denmark was going to be about. It's a strange and worrisome predicament, and I don't want to have to leave, as I feel it is a fantastic place to bring up a family in.
But as I do feel defeated at times, and like a lot of internationals have done before me, I have started my own small marketing business. As someone who comes from a background and mentality of, 'a single mom who will find a way,' I had to take notice of what I could do to make money here, and so began my long love/hate relationship with digital marketing. I took online classes, webinars and I started helping friends and family with their social media marketing and branding. It was exciting work, and did earn me a small income and kept me busy, as I continued my job search on the side.
Unfortunately, the pandemic has shut down a lot of people, including myself, no one has the same budget to pay for marketing services. The ripple effect of the epidemic resulted in our family scarcely being able to afford rent, it has literally shut all of our income down. My husband included, he's a musician and all gigs were cancelled over summer. Rent was always a concern for us as we are freelancers, and I am still continuing to apply for jobs, but the downside of living in the city is you pay high rent, so we have decided to move. It's a hard decision because we don't want to take the kids out of their stability of everything they know and put them into yet another unknown situation, as well as tearing our family apart by being further apart from the older kids who we'll see less on weekends and holidays.
I've had four interviews in my more than three years in Denmark, and I think I'm doing everything right. I don't know why internationals are having such a hard time finding a placement. I do believe the colour of my skin might be a factor and believe me when I say that I've never thought this way in the past because I've always found work, I have a strong backbone of grit and a tenacious nature where I don't give up - however, this life in Denmark where I'm surrounded by predominantly blonde, blue-eyed, Scandinavians, it's hard. Here, I stand out, I'm different. Perhaps it's changing, and I hope that's the case, but it's heartbreaking as the change is too slow. I realise change isn't easy and it doesn't happen overnight. So all I can do is stay present, grounded, strong and be there for my kids.
Tell me about your previous work experience in Alaska, and working within your cultural background?
I come from a culture where people rarely finish school, let alone go to college or even get an advanced degree. But I was brought up by strict parents with a great work ethic. They always worked, and therefore I always worked before I came to Denmark. Previously I was an executive, President, and CEO of a tribal organisation. First, I was nominated and elected to the Board of Directors without my knowledge, then elected to the President role. It was all fun and games until you get into small-town politics. From the very beginning, I know that this role would be an uphill battle. When people fight amongst themselves, with no real role models, things tend to go nowhere. So I dedicated my life to being a better person for my community and in the job itself. I went back to school, received my MBA, painstakingly grew the organisation to have more business development opportunities, organisational structure, and transparency. It was a group effort, and we were on the cusp of great things in terms of partnering with affiliated businesses and government contracting. I was giving more to the position than to my family.
When things were at their worst with my teenage daughter, my son was at a daycare for long hours, and I was working non-stop. I wasn't present even when I was home, I was always thinking about my job, how we can improve, the next trip to DC, the next networking event, and how to grow to be there for the next generation of shareholders. It was a lot, and I felt I was failing as a parent. Somewhere through all this, I got some great exposure for our tribal organisation because I was on the cover of the National magazine, Alaska Airlines. I was the first indigenous person to be on the cover and featured along with other natives indigenous to Alaska and the U.S. Pacific Northwest. It was a huge honour. It was also mildly terrifying to see my face all over the place when I travelled. People would recognise me and point. I guess you could say that I had my five minutes of fame.
Everything came to a head when I was laying in the ER at the hospital, four months pregnant with Kaya, my daughter, and on a fluid drip, dehydrated, tired, stressed and suffering from an anxiety attack (which I didn't even know what it was other than I couldn't calm down and I couldn't breathe normally), I knew something was wrong. I knew that something had to give. I knew that I deserved more and that my kids deserved a better parent and person. That was the moment I changed everything and began to look at my life and made changes for the better. It took a while, but I left Alaska, married, was happy but unsure, and ready for the next adventure.
This is not your first entrepreneur enterprise, tell us more about that?
I started my own construction business with a partner in Alaska. It was a fun and stressful experience all at the same time. I learned a lot, and I'm glad we did it. Here in Denmark, I started my own business out of necessity. After what seemed like months and months of not getting so much as a job interview, I realised that I needed a backup plan. So I took stock of what I could do for myself. I grabbed my trusty laptop and began researching. There are so many 'get rich quick' schemes out there that I quickly got overwhelmed. But I started to focus on taking digital marketing and photography courses. This captivated me immediately, and I found that photography tells a story, and I was good at capturing moments. My kids are perfect muses for this line of work, so my love of lifestyle and portrait photography continues. Digital Marketing and Social Media management was a fast dive into helping others with their social media platforms and getting more exposure online. I've helped small businesses with their branding, graphic design, social media management, website design, content marketing, digital strategies, paid advertising, social media account creation and optimisation, and email marketing. Most times, it's about just helping entrepreneurs figure out just who their target audience is and how to go about finding and nurturing that audience. I love working with people and telling their stories, their business story, and sharing their content. So I've shifted into more of visual and content strategy marketing.
With the recent Black Lives Matters protests around the world, how has it affected you?
I think it actually began when the current US president got elected. We took two giant steps forward and then 500 steps backwards. It's like pandora's box was opened for all to do as they please. This was good in some respect as it has given people the right to openly share how they actually feel about minorities and immigrants. It's also unfortunately given the 'okay' for the world to show their colours and frankly it's not that pretty. So when racism rears its ugly head, and innocent people continue dying, like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, it struck a nerve. People are tired of it. I could say that Denmark is not 'as bad as it is in the United States', but it doesn't change the fact that racism is here and that we need to face it. Recently I learned of the term, 'hygge-racism.' You put the cosy Danish word 'hygge' in front of the unjust issue and make it better. It's like putting a bandaid on the issue or laughing it off like it's not that serious. It's just another way to sweep it under the rug, per se.
Perhaps there needs to be some 'inclusion' and 'diversity' training to educate Danish companies on their lack of diversity in their workplace. They will probably say that there is nothing wrong with it. Therein lies the problem. Perhaps they can take a look at what various US companies are doing. They are hiring 'diversity consultants' to help them identify and improve their hiring practices to bring more equality to the workplace. It's a start, a good one.
What is your advice to other internationals living in Denmark, on how to best fit in or feel more at home – your top tips?
If I can give any advice based on my experiences here, it would be to have a tenacious heart. Don't give up. If you really want to stay here long-term, stay your path, and stick to your goals. It's definitely not easy this Danish life, but its the best place for my family in terms of safety, health and raising kids. Also, be open to change, to new things. I used to think I was so open to new ideas and changes, but its completely different when you move to an entirely different country. Everything you ever knew is not there anymore. Nothing is familiar anymore. But, take time to take it all in. I think I'm finally 'okay' here and it took three years to get here. Its a constant struggle but its more familiar now and perhaps I've been here too long and am getting too comfortable with everything, but find your community to give you that support, don't give up and take risks.
For more information about Jen you can visit her on social media: