Some first impressions upon moving to the Lower 48’s northernmost metropolis.
This summer, I left Hong Kong to start a new position as an assistant professor in the Department of Geography at the University of Washington, in Seattle. I miss the white-sand beaches and steaming jungles, both concrete and arboreal, of Hong Kong. But I am overjoyed to be living in a landscape carved by glaciers, and where the ties to the north feel long and deep (despite the fact that I somehow managed to excavate some of Hong Kong’s Arctic connections while there and organize a two-day symposium around the topic, too).
Everywhere I look in Seattle, it seems, a northern linkage pops up. The cultural heritage and kinship of the many Indigenous Peoples who have called Puget Sound home for millennia wend their way up the Pacific Northwest Coast, all the way to Alaska. Whaling, sealing, fishing, and making boats out of cedar are just a few of the practices that these peoples have historically shared. (Some traditions are experiencing revival efforts, too, as with the Makah Nation’s fight to practice their treaty-protected right to whale, which is moving forward here in Washington State.) The thriving used bookstore near campus, Magus Books, offers an impressive Native American section carrying several books on Arctic Indigenous Peoples (some of them offering dated and admittedly problematic anthropologies).
In my neighborhood of Ballard, to which immigrants from Scandinavia flocked during the 20th century, nearly every new condo and apartment building has a Nordic name, whether its “Valdok” or “Hjärta” or “Søren.” There’s also an “Oslo Condos,” and a “Nordic Heights” apartment building. Not far from me is also a 60-year old Scandinavian deli serving Norwegian lefse, Swedish kladdkaka, and Finnish Lappi cheese, and Larsen’s, a half-century-old Danish bakery that sells julekake, kringle, and cardamom braids year-round. Then, there’s the newly renovated National Nordic Museum, a place I hope to volunteer one day.
On my daily commute by bike along the placid shores of Lake Union to the university, when it’s clear, I can see the glaciers crowning the Olympic Mountains – the most glaciated region in the United States outside of Alaska. Along the way are also boats with names like Alaska Rose, and a marine generator company called “Northern Lights.” Just today, I stopped for a lakeside lunch with a colleague at Ivar’s Salmon House, a restaurant originally established in 1938 by a Seattleite of Norwegian and Swedish descent. The building was constructed out of cedar to resemble a Native American longhouse. The combination of Scandinavian and Native American heritage made it feel like it could almost serve as a venue for a meeting of the Arctic Council—or at least, the Arctic Circle.
Seattle feels like a northern city because it is one. Just today, when I checked the weather forecast, which calls for rain and windstorms in the coming days, I had to laugh at the Seattle Times’ meteorological suggestion:
“The forecast promises a great weekend to either stay cozy inside with a blanket and the hygge mentality or, if you love the chilly outdoors, to embrace the Scandinavian concept known as friluftsliv (pronounced “free-loofts-leev”). The term translates most directly to ‘free-air life,’ and encompasses the concept of spending time outdoors in all seasons, a deep-seated element of life in the Nordic countries.”
I can happily say that I feel at home when my weather forecast comes with a helping of Scandinavian vocabulary. I suppose it’s to be expected when, as the son of former Washington state senator Scoop Jackson, who was born to Norwegian parents, offered to Seattle Mag: “We’re all Norwegians now.”
As I settle into Seattle’s northern rhythms—among which, happily, include leaving the office at 5:30 pm instead of 7:30 pm, as is typical in Hong Kong—I’m about to leave briefly for Vienna, Austria. Ironically, this was the last place I lived before moving to Hong Kong. For four months in 2017, I worked with a group of researchers led by Peter Schweitzer, an anthropologist focused on Arctic infrastructure, at the University of Vienna. Now, the European city is one of the first places I’ll visit after moving away from the Asian metropolis I called home for 3.5 years. I’ll be presenting some recent research on China and the Arctic at a workshop on the geopolitics and economics of Arctic transportation infrastructure hosted by the INFRANORTH project.
Due to the pandemic, this will be the first time I travel internationally for work in a year and a half. Funnily enough, despite Seattle’s boreal vibes, I’ll still have to fly north to reach Vienna. The Austrian capital sits at 48.2°N, while Seattle sits a hair closer to the equator at 47.6°N. If it’s any consolation, on my initial flight leg from Seattle to Frankfurt, I should still be able to admire the Greenland ice sheet out the window. And, when I return, every day I go to work, a plaque commemorating the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, a world’s fair held at the University of Washington in 1909, greets me on my way in, with snowcapped Mt. Rainier at my back.