My life isn’t exactly a shining example of what people imagine as being “normal”, but in recent times it has made the transition from being simply “interesting” to being rather “Kafkaesque”. I’ve become quite accustomed to giving long answers to simple questions (like “where are you from?”) and have largely come to terms with just being a bit of an outsider no matter where I am, but recently even questions as simple as “how long are you here for?”, aside from being slightly annoying for ending a sentence with a preposition, are also irritating because I often can’t give a good answer. I thought I should try to explain myself.
In the beginning…
By now, most of my friends know that I moved to Denmark way back in 2011 because of a girl. Human relationships are complicated and challenging (especially for socially-awkward introverts like myself), and things didn’t work out, but Denmark is a nice place to live, and I had a job, and a role in Danish speed skating as a coach, so I stayed (I even dated other girls in Denmark).
As a non-EU citizen, I needed a visa to stay, and the visa I came to Denmark with was The Greencard. Named after the American greencard, it is actually completely different in nature. It is designed to attract highly-skilled labour into Denmark by offering work visas to highly-qualified applicants under relatively relaxed terms. All you need to do to qualify is accumulate points by have an advanced degree and proficiency in one or more key languages (English, German, or any Scandinavian language). Bonus points can be had for being qualified in certain fields in which the Danish labour market is in need (many types of engineer, medical professionals, mathematicians, and computer people), as well as if you got your degree from a high-ranking university.
Without sounding too boastful about it, I very easily exceeded the minimum requirements for this visa, and got my three year free pass. With it, I did find employment, although it was much more difficult than I anticipated, and it was only part time. In my spare time, I helped out with the Danish national speed skating team by helping them with the transition from inline skating to ice, having myself done the same thing, as well as becoming involved in the Scandinavian Development Project, a partnership with Sweden, Finland, and now Norway. At the end of my three year visa, I applied for an extension to the visa, and this is where things get interesting.
The criteria for being granted the extension were fairly relaxed back when I applied, in July 2014. You only had to have averaged 10 hours a week over the year immediately prior to your application (the criteria now are considerably more difficult). I had been working, but for personal reasons I had to leave the country for an extended period of time, so I ended up being a fairly borderline case. Officially, the decision is supposed to be rendered within three months of the submission of the application, but it took them all the way until May 2015 which, if you’ve been paying attention, is a good 10 months after I submitted my application.
So what happens? I was given a date by which I had to leave the country, same as when a visa expires. Of course, I wasn’t pleased with the decision, so together with my immigration lawyer, constructed a case and submitted an appeal to the decision to decline my application for an extension of my greencard visa (try saying that ten times in a hurry). As of today, the 27th of August 2015, the appeal is still in process.
How long will this take? Given my recent experience, I’m not very optimistic about there being a swift resolution to this ongoing saga.
Getting kicked out
Here’s where it gets unusual. Although I got notification of the receipt of the appeal by the relevant authorities, instead of being allowed to stay in the country under the same conditions as my original visa during processing (which is considered the norm, and indeed what I was allowed to do while waiting for the extension application to be processed), I had to leave. I was given about three days to pack up my stuff and get out of the country, otherwise risk getting a re-entry ban, which would effectively end any chance I have for a life in Denmark. I had called Denmark home for over four years, and suddenly I was not legally allowed to be in the country.
Of course, without a valid residency permit in an EU country, I’m only allowed to be inside the Schengen Zone for 90 days in any given 180 day time period. That is, if I spend three continuous months inside the zone, I would have to spend three months outside the zone afterwards in order not to violate the rule, and risk getting a re-entry ban to the Schengen Zone, which would effectively end any chance I have for a life in any EU country. In other words, I now have to very carefully count every day that I spend in the Schengen Zone.
The other visa
They say that putting all your eggs in one basket is not advisable, so I’ve also begun the process of applying for a different (Danish) visa – one aimed at entrepreneurs. Everyone wants to have their own version of silicon valley these days, so many governments are trying to make it easy for foreigners to come and start companies (bringing money and jobs with them, or so the narrative goes), making conditions particularly favourable for tech startups. Of course, this is another visa process, and this is still the Danish government we’re talking about here, so how long this will take is anyone’s guess. In a political environment where xenophobia is particularly strong, especially in Denmark, I am not at all optimistic about either of my visas being processed in a timely manner.
So in the meantime, I’ve had to step out of the Schengen Zone and have been spending time in the UK, where as an Australian passport holder, I can stay for up to six months without a visa. Being out of the zone allows me the flexibility to enter the zone and continue to skate and coach and generally be involved in the communities in Europe with which I’ve built relationships. While I’m here, I’m also able to continue skating. Fortuitously, my main season goal this year is in short track skating, rather than long track or inline skating, and Britain is one of the few places in Europe where I can train on short track, with a high quality training group without interruptions like “summer”. (ice rinks throughout the rest of Europe are typically closed during the summer months)
As far as work is concerned, I have to be patient. The original plan was to start a tech startup, and get stuck into it. Now I simply have to wait. While I’m here in the UK, thanks to the internet, I am able to continue to make connections and have the kinds of discussions that need to happen prior to co-founding a startup. I will continue to assemble my team, make contacts, and make plans to save the world while living under this dark, and rather stressful cloud of being held by the balls at the whim of an indifferent government who, from a policy perspective, is not fond of foreigners.
I don’t get it. I’m not a welfare leech by any stretch of the imagination. I pay my income taxes (or at least paid them when I was working, and income tax rates are substantial in Denmark), and pay taxes every time I spend money to buy anything. I’ve contributed significantly to the world of speed skating not only in Denmark, where the effects of my work are most obvious, but also in Swedish and Finnish speed skating, through the Scandinavian Development Project. Perhaps this is an important lesson in how damaging much of the anti-foreigner political rhetoric is to us “normal” (haha!) foreigners who, in truth, make valuable contributions to their host societies, and shouldn’t have to deal with the kind of vilification and undignified treatment that many recent government policies have implemented.
Not only that, I’m sitting on a non-trivial amount of seed funding for a tech startup. I have a very diverse and ecclectic network to draw on in whatever I do, and I have on top of a fairly decent set of qualifications, a great deal of varied and unusual life experiences from which I can draw. I was already somewhat baffled at how difficult it was for me to even find a job in a labour market which was supposedly experiencing a shortage of skilled labour (the Danes are many things, but one thing that they are not is diverse), but I seem to have inadvertently checked every single box that the Danish government says that they want, and yet… I find myself in a situation where I am not allowed to set foot in the country.
A silver lining
However stressful and absurd this whole situation is, it’s not all bad. Being here in the UK has allowed me to connect and cultivate relationships with good friends, both old and new. It has allowed me to once again experience a very diverse food culture – one that simply does not exist in Denmark, and also to be immersed in a culture and language which I feel is “my own” which is not something I’ve experienced in quite some time.
I also get to train on short track ice four times a week with a really nice bunch of people, which is not something I’ve ever been able to do in any of the places I’ve lived, and it will be interesting to see how this affects the rest of my skating. A small number of skaters, both on ice and inline have also sought my help with various aspects of their skating, which not only makes me feel valued and wanted (not something that the Danish government has done much of lately) but also allows me to feel like I’m making a positive contribution, which I’ve found to be important to my psychological health.
Of course, the future is uncertain. That alone is quite a stressful thing. I have to consider the possibility that I won’t get any of the Danish visas that I’ve applied for. If that happens, I will eventually be allowed back in the country as a tourist, and this will allow me to collect all the things from my apartment (which I’m still paying rent on) to move elsewhere. But where would I go?
Fortunately, sitting on a lot of seed funding, and having a tech startup ready to go makes things somewhat easier than if I had to start from scratch. I could take my money, ideas, and network, and start up in Sweden, the Netherlands, or Germany; all countries which have similar startup-aimed visas. Even with this easy option, my mind has briefly flirted with the idea of starting a PhD somewhere, and there have been moments in the recent past where I’ve very strongly considered enrolling in a watchmaking school to finally do something about my longstanding enthusiastic interest in horology (one needs only look as far as the previous article on this website to experience my strange love of clockwork).
Of course, even if I end up being a mediocre watchmaker, I might combine that with being a mediocre photographer, and skating coach – three part-time jobs on and off might combine and I could scrape by and stumble through the rest of my life. Unfortunately, living as a foreigner and needing a visa to be able to stay anywhere makes this kind of living situation impossible (as a person who has travelled the world, lived in many different places, and done many different things, I find the whole concept of nation states and borders a little bit absurd).
Expect the unexpected
If past experience is anything to go by, something very unusual and unexpected might be just around the corner. Indeed, when I was travelling through Europe in October 2010, I did not expect to start a relationship which would cause me to change my life and move countries only a few months later. When I was interning at unicef in New York in 2008, I did not expect to pack everything up and move to the Netherlands to have a shot at speed skating at the Olympics. When I was backpacking through South America in 2007, I did not expect to be accepted to study at Columbia University. All of these experiences drastically changed the direction of my life, and none of them gave me much advance notice. (And even though the relationship failed, as did my attempt at skating at the Olympics, I regret nothing.)
Indeed, even in these recent months and years, I’ve met people, and things have happened which have significantly changed my life, sometimes painfully. I just have to accept that this is a transitionary period in my life, that I am surrounded and profoundly impacted by forces outside of my control, and that I have to be adaptable, and roll with the punches. (For those readers who are familiar with Shakespeare, I liken this period of my life to the storm from King Lear.) I thought I’d come out of it last year when I returned to Denmark after a brief but traumatic stint in Hong Kong, but it is clear to me now that the brief period of calm was just the eye of the storm passing through, and that it is not over yet.
On a personal note
Humans are fundamentally social beings, and I am no different. Throughout these difficult times, I’ve been surrounded by good friends who have been unreservedly generous with their good company and emotional support, and for that I am grateful. It is a common myth about Daniel Yeow that I can live out of a suitcase indefinitely at no emotional cost. Even though I do travel frequently, I really can get travel-weary, and not having a ‘home’ to return to is stressful to say the least. Living unsustainably like this (at least from a visa perspective) every now and then is a helpful, albeit slightly painful reminder of our own mortality and the finiteness of our own existence – important life lessons.
The training, as well as the prepatory work for my startup is keeping me busy, and somewhat distracted from the situation at large. I have my flute with me so I can continue to develop that new skill, and I may take up language lessons again. Regular interactions with a handful of close friends with whom I really ‘click’ is keeping me sane, and I can’t be more thankful of the fact that I live in an age where the internet allows me to organise and experience social interactions with people who are geographically very far away. Without this, I would literally go insane.
On the subject of maintaining social interactions while being a nomad, my own love life has stalled somewhat. It seems that, while it is possible (if difficult) to maintain deep interpersonal connections, it is even more difficult to build romantic ones, and the limitations that living in this way place on physical intimacy present additional challenges. Even so… attempts have been made, and I’ve endured a number of painful rejections, one quite recently; but I live in hope. To be fair, I’m not entirely certain whether starting a relationship now would make things easier or more difficult, especially considering that I still keep an insane travel schedule. I’m also constantly worried that being stressed like this is causing me to not present the very best version of myself, or even a good one. But I’d like to think that the right girl (if indeed such a thing exists) would see through all the muck, and know that, as I’ve demonstrated in the past, for the right girl, I’ll move mountains, or at least myself…
Conclusion (or TL;DR version)
So there you have it. I’m still trying to construct a life, except without many of the usual cornerstones – a regular job, a partner, or even a legal residence. Based in Birmingham, but frequently travelling to Europe to do work, and having to steer clear of Denmark – my home of the last four years, I’m dealing with it psychologically by utilising many common tricks and coping mechanisms, in amongst an ongoing existential crisis. It’s not an ideal situation, but it’s not all bad. I train regularly, eat well (although often not enough), and sleep on average four hours a night. And despite all these setbacks, I still have a burning desire to save the world. I guess old habits die hard.
If you think you’re close to me, please get in touch, I’d love to hear from you, and maybe we can hang out, virtually or in real life.