Saturday, October 20, 2012

No Finnish line

When I first met my Finnish husband almost 17 years ago, I never planned to study his native language. In fact, he actively discouraged me from doing so, on the grounds that Finnish was such a minor and complicated language that it was hardly worth my while, and because English is widely spoken in Finland. 

And yet, after we finally moved here, I found that I couldn’t stand not knowing Finnish. I wanted so badly to understand and be understood, and being in the dark linguistically was frustrating and unsatisfying.

And so, here I am, nine months and three language courses into learning Finnish.

My Finnish studies thus far have caused me immense frustration and self-doubt. I still make several mistakes per sentence when I venture out of my comfort zone (read: when I try to have a *normal* conversation with any Finnish person). Sometimes when I try to read a newspaper or magazine article, I feel myself spiralling into panic and despair when word after word is unknown to me and must be painstakingly looked up. Yesterday, my daughter’s friend (aged 7) innocently asked me, “Why do you speak Finnish so badly?” Ouch.

Frequently, I have felt like a failure, and have caught myself wondering if this is a task that’s beyond my capacity.

But I'm not, and it isn't, and dammit, I will not give up! For years I’ve wanted so badly to know this language, and hard though it is, quitting now would only make me feel worse. And so, when I feel overwhelmed and oppressed and even slightly tearful about it all, I force myself to take a deep breath and reflect on some basic truths about mastering a new language:

1. It won’t happen overnight 
I started studying Finnish in January of this year. I don’t know why I expected to see dramatic results within weeks or months. I started studying Japanese in high school and 20+ years later I’m still not perfect at it. I started learning English at birth, and even now I still make grammatical mistakes and come across unfamiliar words. 

Languages are vast and complex. They have tens of thousands of essential words, and each one has to be committed to memory, along with the grammatical rules governing its use. No wonder language-learning takes time.

A lot of time, in fact, since: 

2. The task is never-ending 
Language-learning is a lifelong, cumulative pursuit. There is no finishing line – no “last” milestone that marks the perfect mastery of a language. You are forever either learning more, or reinforcing (and trying not to forget) what you have already learned. 

The news is not all bad, though. Every so often you will feel a sense of achievement – after constructing a grammatically-correct sentence for the first time, understanding the gist of a tv program, surviving a shopping trip, or managing to talk on the phone with someone. It is important to embrace and inwardly celebrate each of these moments, as they are validation that you are making progress. The sense of pride and accomplishment they bring are your reward for sticking with the task. While your journey has no end, each language-learning milestone opens up the path to bigger and greater milestones, and the further you go the easier and more rewarding your journey becomes.

You do need to accept, though, that:

3. Some days it will be two steps forward, one step back 
Sometimes it takes a while for new information to sink in. The older I get, the longer it seems to take! I find myself going over the same vocabulary and the same grammatical rules multiple times because they didn’t stick in my head on the first, second or even third try. There is no point in getting stressed or frustrated about this (or so I keep telling myself). You really can only try to keep calm and have another go. The main thing to remember is – the information will stick eventually, even if it takes three or ten or twenty repetitions. Some days, your brain will seem curiously resistant to new information. These are the days you should put down your textbook and go for a long walk. And then, on other days, inexplicably it all somehow gels. 

Some people (especially your children) will remember new information instantly and forever. Salute them and acknowledge their rare and enviable talent. Remember, though, that most adults simply do not have this talent, and have to work a bit harder to learn new things.

Which leads me to my next point:

4. Don’t compare yourself with others!
Language-learning is not a race – how could it be, when there isn’t even a definite finishing line! We all learn languages for different reasons, at different paces, and with different styles. Some of us are natural chatterboxes; others have beautiful pronunciation; others are naturals at reading and writing. You yourself know whether you’re trying hard or not. If you feel you could realistically try harder, do it! If you’re trying as hard as you can, congratulate yourself, and keep going - at your own pace and on your own terms. Force yourself not to think about that incredible Chinese girl you sit next to in class who has a prodigious memory for new vocab and progresses much faster than you. Try not to feel bad when a seven year old corrects your grammar. Being a beginner in another language, and being severely constrained in your ability to understand or communicate even the simplest ideas, can feel humiliating enough at the best of times. Don’t fuel that internal fire of self-doubt and low self-esteem. This is your own journey.

5. Practice Practice Practice
When I was about 15, my high school French teacher gave us a definitive how-to guide to learning a language:

1. Listen
2. Read
3. Write
4. Speak
5. Repeat steps 1-4 many, many times 

This is far and away the best advice I have ever received in connection with language learning. 

The only way you can progress and maintain your language skills is to USE that language, every single day, as much as possible (without doing your head in through over-immersion!) Talk to people. If you hate talking to people, try to write a diary. Read something – anything. Pay attention when people are speaking (in real life or on tv/radio) and try to decipher what they’re saying.

It’s always easier when you have a good teacher to help you learn to do steps 1-4. In the case of Finnish, unless you’re a child (or an adult with a brain that absorbs everything and magically figures out linguistic patterns all on its own), I think it’s virtually impossible to learn correct grammar without the help of an experienced teacher, or else a really good textbook and extremely high self-discipline.

6. Try to enjoy yourself!
Language learning unlocks linguistic and cultural doors, and bridges divides between people of different countries. It is also said that learning another language has powerful effects on the mind, creating new neural pathways and warding off Alzheimer’s disease. For all these reasons, language learning should be something positive – hopefully something that’s even fun and uplifting. Whenever you are feeling low or frustrated about your learning, go back to the stuff that truly interests you and fuels your passion for language, whether it’s talking with a friend, watching a particular tv show, or reading things that intrigue or entertain you. Lately, when I feel like throwing my Finnish textbook across the room in frustration, I’ve taken to swapping it for my daughter’s Risto Räppääjä books. The language is clear and the grammar straightforward, and to my great joy I can follow the stories, even though I can’t understand every word.

In the end, this is what we language learners need to hold on to in times of trial – those moments of great joy. Those moments when we know what it is to transcend the limits of our own nationality and our own native language. Those moments when the puzzle pieces come together in our head and we see, breathtakingly, glimpses of a whole new world that was hidden from us before.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Little Children, Great Expectations

Back in August, my daughter started school. It has been an eye-opening experience for me. A lot has changed in the 30+ years since I started the first grade.

I still remember my first day of school. It was January, 1981. At going-home time, our teacher helped us make a “newspaper”. In her handwritten lettering that not a single one of us could read, she wrote, “Today we played with play-dough and puzzles.” Later that week, we learned to read and write the letter ‘A’ and the number ‘1’. Our school owned one Betamax video cassette player and two television sets, which were shared among 500+ students from grades one to seven. When I was 12 we took turns on the school's new computer (just the one).

Times have changed. Big Sister was taught to read last year at preschool, and was tackling chapter books before she started school. Her first grade class already does simple multiplication and division. The class uses online resources. We communicate with her teacher via email. It is a different world.

Something else that has changed is the parents. In my childhood neighbourhood, Helicopter Parents were few and far between. Thirty years on, I find myself having conversations with anxious expat parents whose children learned to read at age 2 and were counting to 10,000 by age 3 (only half joking). These parents are concerned that their child is not being pushed to the outer range of his/her competence and at this rate is not going to get into Harvard. Parents question me (politely, but with challenge in their eyes) about Big Sister's extra-curricular activities. 

Before the age of 8 I was involved in a total of zero extra-curricular pursuits. When I started school, I couldn't read, write, swim, catch a ball, play a musical instrument, or speak a foreign language. I was allowed to learn piano from age 8, but it was A Big Deal. Outside school hours, I ran wild with the neighbourhood children, barefoot and carefree (both literally and figuratively). I don’t remember homework until at least the third grade. 

Despite this slow start in life, I still qualified as a lawyer, and got a Decent Job that paid well. 

If my children decide that a Decent Job is what they want, I want them to be able to achieve that. I worry about my children lacking the necessary edge to succeed against stiff competition. And yet, I can't believe that my children should have to sacrifice their childhood for the sake of their future.

Already during her preschool year, Big Sister had often seemed hopelessly tired by the end of the week. I eventually realized that preschool was not to blame. We - her own parents - were the problem. We fairly bombarded her with “interesting” and “stimulating” extra-curricular activities – Japanese school, ice skating, swimming, kung fu, singing. She was being pushed to her full potential six days a week. She was frequently exhausted and tearful.

A Tiger Mom would have given her a brisk talking-to and driven her to her next commitment. My choice was to pull the plug on every extra-curricular activity she wasn't enjoying. I even let her quit Japanese Saturday school, knowing full well that this was the only thing keeping her from forgetting Japanese completely (we haven’t lived there in over two years). 

These days, she loves school. She does her homework efficiently and without complaint, and after that she plays tag in the park with her friends, draws creative pictures, reads The Famous Five, designs and sews clothes for her Barbies, and writes in her secret lockable diary. Sometimes she even has fits of generosity towards her little sister and deigns to play Guess Who or dress-ups with her. Sometimes they perform lavish concerts for me (Big Sister favors singing Diandra’s “Outta My Head”; Little Sister favors her infamous “bottom dancing”).

These days, with “only” school and a weekly singing class, my big girl seems so happy. Her life seems full of pursuits that are interesting and challenging and fun. It doesn’t feel like I’m preventing her from reaching her potential or ruining her future prospects. 

I still have lingering doubts - am I doing the wrong thing in not pushing this capable child beyond her comfort zone? But my gut feeling is that pushing our children overly hard has significant side-effects. It can stifle their creativity, their resourcefulness, and their feeling of freedom. It can leave them with insufficient time alone with their own thoughts. Worst of all, it can also make them unhappy.

Other families’ choices notwithstanding, I've decided to stop pushing my kids against their will to achieve adult-defined goals. Short-term, I'm not going to force Big Sister to study Japanese. Long-term, I'm not going to actively promote so-called "top" jobs (with six-figure salaries, long workdays, and necessary sacrifice of free time, sleep and health) as the Holy Grail.  

Here’s to children being children, and to adults allowing that to happen.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The white noise of parenting

Usually I write in a quest for clarity and headspace. Lately, however, family life, with all its ups and downs, has been coming at me thick and fast, with no time to process things fully. Getting my thoughts corralled has seemed overwhelming.

The kids’ summer holidays, which ended earlier this month, were wonderful and exhausting; highly fulfilling and overly frustrating. Some days I felt as though being a parent and having whole days and nights with my children was the greatest gift in the world. Some days I felt more as though being a parent was like having a white noise machine pointed directly at my ear all day, every day: the noise wasn’t always unpleasant, and yet sometimes I just longed for silence.  
Small children have so many needs and questions, and so much within themselves that they’re struggling to sort out. Fulfilling their needs takes time, energy, patience, and often more skill than you thought you had, and when the going gets tough you can’t just throw in the towel and walk out. Once you are a parent, there is no going back. You wouldn’t even want to go back because you’ve never loved someone like this, and yet some days you just don’t want to keep going forwards either.

A particularly low moment came one Friday evening. We had just arrived home from a five-day family road trip. It had been a satisfying and memorable trip - lots of fun highlights, quality time with good friends, delicious Finnish summer food, and smiles and laughter. However, the drive back had been long and tiring, and after an hour of hefting stuff from the car, unpacking, and finding something to eat for dinner, all the while dealing with a steady stream of interruptions, questions and pleas for attention from the kids, My Finn and I were short on energy and patience.

Finally, I sat down for a few quiet moments at the computer. Almost immediately, my younger daughter appeared at my knee. “Mummy, look! There’s a man!”

I wrenched my attention from a Facebook message, sighing with slight annoyance at the interruption, and followed Little Sister's gaze through our fifth storey window. I dutifully acknowledged the man she’d spotted (sitting out on his balcony). I turned back to my laptop.

Moments later I was startled by deafening yelling from my husband. On the other side of the living room, Little Sister had pulled the coffee table over to the open window and had climbed up to get a better look at her man. Hubby had happened to walk into the room at that point, and the walls literally shook with the force of his shouting at her to get down immediately. Little Sister started crying frantically, surprised and devastated at this sudden explosion. A bitter exchange followed. I angrily accused hubby of excessive anger that was clearly targeted at me (on my laptop AGAIN, not paying enough attention to my children) and that he could have dealt with the situation very differently. He maintained that extreme measures were justified when a child was climbing up to reach a fifth storey window and it was a matter of “life and death”. But yes, he was angry at me too, because I had chosen the wrong time to occupy myself with Facebook. Little Sister had been doing something that was (admittedly) very dangerous within a few metres of me, and I hadn’t been aware of it because I was in my own little social media world.

[In my defence, the double-glass window in question does not open more than about 10cm and Little Sister absolutely could not have fitted through that space. But still.]

I felt overwhelmed at the truth in what he was saying, and overwhelmed at the reality that parenting requires vigilance and selflessness always, tiredness/bad moods/feelings of wanting a break right now notwithstanding, and I still felt shell-shocked at all the shouting, and in that moment I really wanted to give up and walk out of my own life. But instead I burst into tears and fled to the kitchen for a tissue.

A minute later Little Sister came rushing in.

LS: [tearfully] I hate you, Mummy!
Me: Why do you hate me?
LS: I don't want you to be my friend any more.
Me: [Exerting myself to stay calm] Why is that?
LS: Because you're too naughty.
Me: [Takes deep breaths] What could I do to be less naughty?
LS: [Thinks for a moment] I just want you to be happy.

I thought about that conversation for days and weeks afterwards. It is so vitally important for children to see happiness in their parents, and so important for parents to do the things that will help them both appear and genuinely BE happy – making time for themselves and their spouse, getting enough sleep, and generally making sure their own air mask is fitted before attempting to help others. I got caught out by my unnervingly perceptive three year old, and I want to do better in future. I’m working on it.

This summer wasn’t all white noise and fights and meltdowns, though. Honest to God, we had so many wonderful moments, too - playing in sunny parks and on the beach, swimming (when it was warm enough), visiting friends’ homes and summer cottages, chilling out with close family, seeking thrills at fun-parks (we even made it to Särkäniemi’s Angry Birds Land!) and hanging out with our lovely neighbours in our building’s shared courtyard.

Big Sister learned to ride a bicycle without trainer wheels and (mercifully unconnected with bicycling) lost her front tooth just in time to look like a *real* first grader.
She went from being a solid beginner reader to an avid consumer of books.
Lately, she has developed a passion for fashion designing, and with help, has even managed to make a few pieces for her Barbie.



This summer, Little Sister learned to catch a ball and shoot baskets into a pint-sized basketball hoop. At the science centre, she managed to haul a bowling ball into the air! 

 She passionately seeks speed and danger – on bikes, on things that whiz around and around, and on climbing frames or anything else that is high off the ground…

At a shopping centre last weekend we were playing in a kids’ activity corner next to an escalator. Suddenly Little Sister got it into her head to grab the moving handrail (from the outer side of the escalator) and next thing I knew she was being swept up into the air. Giggling loudly, she saw absolutely no danger in this situation, and didn’t for a moment consider letting go at a safe height. Thankfully I was quick enough to grab her while she was still within my reach - before the handrail continued on its two-storey climb upwards. My heart stopped momentarily at some point.
Kids do that to you. They fill your heart to overflowing, and wring it out, and stop it completely for terrible split-seconds, all in a single 24-hour day. 
This summer, I had fifty of those days, all in a row.
It has been quite a ride.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

In praise of imperfection

My high school class will have its 20 year reunion later this year. At the time of our 10 year reunion, we phoned each other to give invitations and replies; fast-forward ten years and virtually everything is being done through a Reunion Page on Facebook. I’ve been able to reconnect with people I haven’t seen in years and view photos of our young selves, all without the reunion having even taken place yet!

Taking myself back twenty years has filled me with nostalgia, and yet has been painful in the extreme. Perhaps there are people whose teenage selves were carefree and confident and socially adept. I am not one of those people. As a teenager I had acne and bad clothes, and my parents drove a bomb of a car, and I was a nerd. Perhaps my one salvation was that I had a small group of truly great friends. My social standing was also helped somewhat by the fact that I was reasonably good at sport. Even so, I have lots of very negative memories of my high school years.

In one photo posted on Facebook, a group of us are sitting in school assembly, and for some reason I’m holding a piece of paper up to the camera. I wrote a comment, “Why on earth am I holding up that piece of paper?” Someone replied, “Maybe it’s your straight-A report card! :-)”

I’m sure it was only meant as a joke, but reading that reply made me feel sick to the stomach, and the smiley at the end felt snide and poisonous (and for the record, I got a fricking ‘B’ for mathematics! So there.)

At school, it was assumed that academic success made me smug and arrogant, and people who barely knew me cut me down in anticipation. Perhaps that has weighed on me subconsciously over the years. Perhaps that’s why, since high school, I seem to have taken on lots of the kinds of open-ended challenges that can’t truly end in success – learning obscure languages like Japanese and Finnish, living in countries whose national language is not my own, being a parent, trying to make my mark in high-powered workplaces full of bilingual over-achievers…

I wish my former classmates could see me now. A one-time BigFirm lawyer who thought she could have it all but found herself burnt out and disillusioned (and nodding in agreement at certain long articles in the Atlantic about work-life balance that are somehow of only limited comfort). A mother yelling at her kids that bit too often. An immigrant, speaking Finnish less fluently than a child. An almost-middle-aged, unexceptional-looking woman with her hair hastily pulled into a ponytail. An average person living a quiet life in a faraway country.

On Friday, on the beach with my children, I was ambushed by a TV news reporter. Well, sort of. The reporter suddenly appeared from nowhere with her cameraman and asked, in Finnish, if they could film my children playing in the water. I agreed. A few moments later, suddenly she asked if she could do a short interview. I was feeling happy and relaxed in the sunshine. I was caught off guard by the request, and recklessly said yes. In the moment, I didn’t feel nervous speaking on camera, and I just tried to listen carefully to her questions and answer in simple sentences. Afterwards, though, I started to fret about my “performance”. Reflecting on my answers, several glaring grammatical errors jumped out at me. I started to feel a bit sick at the thought that friends might see the footage.

The footage did make it onto the evening news. I watched it with critical and judgmental eyes. While I was overjoyed to see my daughters’ summer fun captured beautifully by the camera, I wished so badly that they had cut out the part where I was speaking.

A few friends texted me immediately with excited and encouraging messages, while I struggled to calm down and get perspective. It wasn’t all that bad. I probably came across as a happy non-Finnish mum, enjoying the Helsinki summer with her children, and not being completely fluent in Finnish but having a go nevertheless. My Finnish was still comprehensible. I was smiling. I was pictured tentatively dipping my feet into the water, with my daughters on either side of me. Spontaneously, my younger daughter cheekily splashed me and the shock of the icy-cold water made me scream like a little girl. We looked energized and happy.

Maybe it was ok that my performance was less than perfect. Finns probably smiled to hear me try at their language. Fellow non-Finns probably smiled in sympathy at the difficulty of speaking correct Finnish, especially when put on the spot.

I might hate myself for imperfection, but it turns out that the world in general likes me better for it.

Here’s to being honest and light-hearted about our own shortcomings, even as we try to work on them. And here’s to being kinder and more generous towards people who experience moments of perfection in their otherwise human lives.

Friday, June 15, 2012

What is a payphone, and other unexpected questions

“Look, Mummy!”

My three year old was pointing insistently at something. I could see nothing untoward – trees, an apartment building, a guy mowing the lawn. Little Sister dragged me towards the man for a closer look – but why? He was an average-looking guy wearing a t-shirt and shorts.

It finally dawned on me that Little Sister had never before seen a lawnmower.

Different feelings washed over me in that moment. I was excited at Little Sister’s excitement (imagine discovering a fantastically noisy machine that before your eyes was turning a bunch of overgrown weeds into a smooth green carpet!) At the same time, I was completely taken aback and a bit sad.  I grew up watching my dad mow the lawn in our backyard with our rickety old Victa. The weekend chorus of lawnmower engines and the intoxicatingly fresh, green smell of newly-cut grass are enduring memories from my Brisbane childhood.

My children have grown up in apartment buildings. In Tokyo we lived on the 28th floor and our apartment building was surrounded by concrete. We didn’t escape the concrete when we moved to a neighbourhood in central Helsinki, and here the ground is also covered in snow for half of the year. Lawnmowers are not thick on the ground.

My kids aren’t deprived children, and yet, for a moment I couldn’t help feeling that they were missing out on something.

And then…

Earlier this week, we were listening to Maroon 5’s latest song, and Big Sister asked, “Mummy, what’s a payphone?”


Actually, it is completely possible that she has never seen a public phone being used. She was born in 2005. By that year, most people owned a cellphone – one that could also take photos and connect to the internet.

Big Sister and I talked about the concept of a static phone inside a glass box that a person could pay money to borrow. We talked about a time before cellphones - when the only phones we had were attached to the ground, and payphones were therefore a big part of life. She was blown away at the thought that, back in the day, you couldn’t just call someone anywhere and anytime you chose. First you had a find a phone, and then you had to call at a time when your call-ee was actually at home. It never seemed like a problem at the time, but now it would be a struggle to go back to those days.

I started thinking about other things that I remember fondly from my childhood, but are mysteries to my kids.

Cassette tapes

Far from the ease of playlists on iPods or PCs, back then making a mixed tape was a time-consuming labour of love. Fast-forwarding to the exact starting point of a favourite song was an art form. And remember how sometimes the tape recorder “ate” your tape? Painstakingly, you’d untangle the chewed-up, crinkly mess of tape and coax it back in to the cassette, hand-winding the cogs with your pinky finger. 

Film Cameras

My first camera was absolutely non-digital and non-automatic. After snapping a photo, I had to wind on the film with a little thumb-operated wheel, and when the roll was finished I used another little wheel to hand-wind the film back into its case. One time, a newly-loaded roll of film freed itself from the little teeth that anchored it to the winding wheel, and stopped winding on. Blissfully unaware of this, I took 36 photos all on top of each other.

Looking through my photo albums, it’s easy to see the point where I switched to digital. Suddenly, photos are consistently in focus, subjects have their eyes open, and there are no huge pinkish thumb-blobs in the corners. The instant gratification offered by digital cameras and their display screens – like being able to take endless Polaroids until you got the shot you wanted – was nothing short of miraculous.

All the same, I miss that moment of collecting a packet of developed photos, and flicking through them, elated at seeing photos I’d forgotten I’d taken and which had come out perfectly, and thoroughly dejected when a wonderful memory was blurred to buggery. Once, I found a forgotten roll of film in the back of a drawer, and the photos that we developed from it – of the first neighbourhood where we lived in Tokyo – were a poignant surprise.

Street Directories

Remember those days before Google Maps and GPS? We used big thick books of maps, and we had to figure out our own routes. It was always a bit tricky if you were trying to drive and navigate at the same time – did you balance the UBD precariously on the steering wheel and swerve in a hair-raising manner as you tried simultaneously to drive and map-read? or did you leave it open on the passenger seat, scrabbling for it at red lights and invariably having it slither onto the floor in a heavy flickering of pages…

The milkman

My childhood bedroom was right next to the front door, and early every morning I’d be aware of the milkman’s hurried jog-walk up our front path, the jingling of the glass milk bottles in his little wire carrier, and the scraping sound as he picked up a handful of coins from the doorstep.

In summer, you couldn’t sleep in too late unless you first rescued the milk, which could already be a write-off by as early as 8am – gloppy, sour, and smelling faintly of sick.

We always fought over who would get to keep the shiny foil milk bottle tops. If you were careful, you could prise them off intact, and flatten the edges to make play-money coins.

It makes me feel old to think of all these things that were once so much a part of life, but are now either endangered species, or well and truly extinct. Other memorable things, though, have somehow survived and have made it into my children’s lives – corner stores that sell lollies and popsicles, HB pencils with erasers on the ends, giant chalks for drawing on concrete, movie theatres, ferries, and hula hoops. Rocks found in the park are still glittering treasures. Blowing dandelions’ white fluff into the breeze is still thrilling. Cracking eggs into cake mixture is still immensely satisfying.

There are so many new things, too, that I’m delighted to see here in time for my kids’ childhoods – DVD players, high-quality digital cameras for capturing memories, and of course, the computer, which in our house plays the role of radio, CD player, source of printable colouring pages, and (thanks to email and Skype) the means of sharing our life with friends on the other side of the world. 

The world keeps on moving. Some things change, some stay the same, but the world remains full of wonder and satisfaction. 

Monday, June 4, 2012

The Bubble Theory of Life

Last weekend, I made a guilty confession to my husband.

“Lately I’ve been having a really hard time being in Finland.”

After two years here, the “honeymoon period” of life in a new place is completely behind me. I am well past the stage of traipsing happily through the Helsinki market square nibbling on fresh Karelian pies, and wowing myself with my ability to say “Kiitos”. Lately, I no longer feel ok about speaking English with shop assistants and with the teachers at my daughters’ schools.

I’m no longer comfortable being the Unassimilated Foreigner.

Lately, I’ve been knuckling down and trying harder to take on board the Finnish language and culture. As a result, I’ve started feeling the full weight of that challenge. I’m starting to understand how long it might take me to feel even reasonably proficient at living life in Finnish and among Finns. The language is difficult, but lately I’ve felt that mastering basic cultural norms is even harder. It is like playing a new board game that hasn’t come with any rules. My fellow players are experts who don’t always understand why I’m struggling. They are usually at a loss to identify or explain particular rules that have always been second nature to them - rules like “don’t get involved” and “don’t say ‘thank you’ too much”.

At the moment, I feel like much more of a foreigner here in Finland than I did in Japan. I might never have mastered Japanese to native level or lived a truly Japanese life, but thanks to years spent in the company of Japanese host families, friends and colleagues, in the vast majority of social situations I understood the rules, and even if I broke them sometimes, I usually did it knowingly.

Here in Finland, I still regularly make social faux pas and breach basic tenets of the social code, but without having a clue that I’m doing it - not until I see other people looking uncomfortable. By then it’s too late.

I am not a Finn and have no illusions that I will ever be truly a “local” here, but I do have a strong desire to integrate to the best of my ability, as a mark of respect for the country that has been kind enough to accept me as a resident.

And I’ve never enjoyed being on the outer. I crave acceptance now as much as I ever did as a nerdy teenager with bad skin.

I told my husband all this, in a big emotional rush, and finally I paused for breath. He took a moment to digest it all. I was keen to hear his thoughts. After all, he has spent longer outside his home country than I have outside mine. Before coming back here two years ago, he lived outside Finland for twelve consecutive years, and – something that always astounded me – he always seemed quite at peace living abroad, and never really homesick.

He finally said, “Well, I see things a bit differently.”

And so it was that I heard, for the first time, his Bubble Theory of Life.

“Wherever you go in the world, you should make your own bubble that contains your home and those who are closest to you.”

What? So people who move to another country don’t need to make any effort to assimilate?

“No, no! Whenever you move to another place, of course you have to build your bubble with what you find there. You have to obey local laws. You should try to follow basic social norms and learn the language. You shouldn’t do these things out of some sense of pressure or obligation, though. You should do them for yourself and the people in your bubble. The more knowledgeable you are about your surroundings and the more in harmony you are with them, the better quality of life you’ll have there.

If you’re looking to get encouragement and acceptance from the locals, you are going for the wrong goal. You might get positive feedback sometimes. Enjoy it when you get it, but don’t ever expect it. It was your choice to move to this new place, and people in your host country have no obligation to encourage you, to help you, or to make you feel at home. It’s up to you to do that for yourself. Remember that the only place where it’s important to work for acceptance is inside your own bubble.

If you don’t ever want to change yourself, then you shouldn’t ever move away from your own hometown. It’s totally unreasonable to expect that you could live exactly the same life in a different place.

On the other hand, when you build your bubble you still have to hold on to who you really are and what is important to you. It can be difficult to know what you should and shouldn’t change – what to hang onto and what to leave behind - but you will figure it out in time.

If you find that you can’t be at peace with your environment and also at peace with yourself, or if you find yourself constantly looking to places far away for elements that you feel are missing, then you are probably in the wrong place and should think twice about being there. 

Just remember, though, that there’s no need to be just like a local. You need to be polite and respectful and a nice person, but you can be all those things without being exactly the same as everyone else.”

But if you’re different from everyone else, wouldn’t you always feel like an outsider? Wouldn’t that make you feel sad?

“In my case? Perhaps sometimes, but never for long.

What matters to me is my own bubble and the people inside it. I absolutely need their love and acceptance.

As long as I have that, I’ll never be an outsider, no matter where I live.”

Here’s to spending less time fretting about correct Finnish grammar and social acceptance by people I barely know, and more time enjoying and investing in the people I love most in this world.

And here’s to my wise and loving husband and our well-travelled bubble. 

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Stress, sunshine and spelling. And cows.

I have been a bit quiet on the blog-front lately. I’ve been dealing with stuff that, for various reasons, is hard to write about. My dad and my (adult) sister have had a spectacular falling-out. I’ve had some unnecessarily ugly arguments with my husband. If I had the courage of Eden Riley it would all be documented here in brutally, eloquently honest detail, but I can’t quite bring myself to do it, to write with gritty honesty about this highly personal and compellingly sordid stuff.

Instead, let me divulge my newest time-wasting pursuit. I found this brilliant OED spelling quiz thanks to More Than A Mum, and nerd that I am, I'm addicted. All you word-nerds out there must try level “Fiendish”. I am ashamed to admit that not once have I managed to score a perfect 15/15, thanks to words like “shibboleth” and “pyrrhic” and “peccadillo” (and also words I thought I could actually spell, like “impugn”, “scurrilous”, “bulwark” and “querulous”. Sheesh.)

Try it. It’s highly addictive.

Meanwhile, though big disquieting waves have been rolling through parts of my life, making me anxious and fretful at times, on other fronts all has been quiet and peaceful and normal. My girls and I have spent lots of time outside in the warm sunshine, which we’ve soaked up greedily after months of cold, cloudy days. We savoured the first strawberries of the season, and ate our first stickily-dripping popsicles. Inspired by Mister Maker, we made fabulous shaggy birds out of paper plates. I learned the surprisingly-useful passive form in Finnish class. And out of the blue, Big Sister announced that when she grew up to be a famous singer and dancer and had her own tv show starring herself, she would perform “Rock Star” by Pink because “I sound just like her when I sing it!”

[Gotta love her overwhelming self-assurance, but in all honesty am not sure the Idols judges would use those exact words.]

The week ended on a philosophical note, with Little Sister’s thoughts on the afterlife.

Our home is not far from Helsinki’s Hietaniemi Cemetery. My girls and I have walked past it many times, and lately Little Sister (who is three) has been suddenly curious about its mysterious rows of headstones. Last week I tried to explain the basics about graves and their contents, in what I hoped were accurate yet understandable terms that wouldn't freak her out too much.

Little Sister digested this information, and mentally added a few extra details. The other night at the dinner table, she summarized her current thinking for us:

"We fall in the ground when we are dead. We fall into the big rocks. That's called a graveyard. And once we're dead, the cows will clap."

And so, in summary, my week has featured: stress, spelling, sunshine, strawberries, and soaring ambition. And bovine applause.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Finn who came in from the cold

I’ve now lived in Finland for over two years, and I have been with my Finnish man for more than fifteen. Finally, I feel as though I’m starting to understand the Finnish psyche.

I wish I could say that with understanding has come acceptance. I’ve learned a lot about when to adjust my behaviour appropriately and when to keep my mouth shut, but there are still times when a little voice inside me screams resistance even as I exude a calm and neutral outward demeanour.

Last Saturday we attended our new little God-daughter’s christening. She is two months old, and is a gorgeous, contented little poppet of a baby. Tears at christenings are not unusual, but Saturday’s event was a particularly emotional one, because this same little girl contracted pneumonia when she was a week old, and almost didn’t make it.

Her father, our long-time friend J, broke down within the first sentence of his speech ("There was a point when we weren't sure whether this would be a christening or a funeral"). He stood there, surrounded by his nearest and dearest, trying to compose himself and failing miserably. The tears ran down his face, and at one point he started sobbing uncontrollably. It was painful and moving to watch.

J’s wife was standing right beside him the whole time. She glanced in his direction, but did not make any move to embrace him, or even to hold his hand.

J’s mother was sitting a few metres away. She was clearly affected, but she sat perfectly still with her head bowed, and did not even make eye contact with J.

I knew better than to follow my instincts and rush up to J with a big, effusive hug. I knew that my urgent need to offer support and comfort must be quelled. I was supposed to stay right where I was, and leave him alone to be (and to be seen as) a Finnish man – a lone wolf – coping with his inner turmoil alone, in his own space.

After the ceremony, J came over to where my husband and I were standing, and to my surprise he held out his arms for a hug. I guess he realised that I was the only person in the room who would willingly show that kind of outward affection in front of elderly (and deeply Finnish) grannies and grandpas, and the one person who, courtesy of Foreigner’s Privilege, would get away with it.

Saturday’s events have been nagging at me. The whole situation felt so cold and wrong. Did no one else feel J’s pain? Surely they did, and yet no one reached out to him. They left him alone, and for all my understanding of why they did, I cannot comprehend how anyone felt better for it. In a room full of his family and closest relatives, J had to turn to a non-Finnish friend for the small gesture of warmth that he clearly needed.

Don't get me wrong - I really do like Finnish people. They have been nothing but welcoming, friendly, tolerant of my Aussie quirks, and generous with language-related praise and support. Ultimately, though, in some ways we’re fundamentally different.

Mostly, this is just fine. Sometimes, though, I feel like I’m the only person aboard a solitary little boat anchored in a big foreign ocean. At those times, I feel lonely and isolated, but stubbornly I still refuse to abandon ship. My odd little boat has something unique about it, something worth hanging onto.

Monday, May 14, 2012

A different kind of Mother's Day story

Last December, I got the news that a high-school classmate (I’ll call her Anna) had been out bike-riding with her four children, and had fallen and hit her head badly. As a result, she suffered a stroke. She ended up in the ICU, with full body paralysis.

She was diagnosed with “locked-in syndrome” – mentally, Anna was still “there” but had lost all ability to move or communicate with the outside world, except what could be achieved through blinking her eyes. Most of her brain was still ok, but the part that controls conscious physical movement was irretrievably damaged. Doctors told her that it might be possible for different parts of her brain to take over some of the functions of the damaged part, but that it would be a long, hard road, with no guarantees of a happy ending.

At high school, Anna and I were in the school athletics (track and field) team together. She was Athletics Captain and was easily the top athlete in our year. I raced against her countless times. Even when I managed to beat her out of the blocks, she would always catch me and breeze past. I never begrudged her this talent, though, because she was so unassuming and cheerful and kind. I really liked Anna. Everyone did.

When I heard her news back in December, I just couldn’t believe that this same person was now unable to sit or stand or even speak, let alone hug and kiss her children, cheer up her friends with a supportive word or a dirty joke, or good-naturedly thrash her peers in a hundred-metre sprint. It seemed so horribly tragic and wrong.

Anna and I hadn’t stayed in close touch over the years, but in the early months of this year I thought of her constantly. I thought of her, lying in bed, willing her arms and legs to move, her eyes filling with tears of frustration. I imagined her thinking, in desperation, of her four children.

I have to get home to my kids.
I have to get up out of this bed.

During the past five months, her determination has been inspirational beyond belief. She has spent literally every waking hour trying to recover. Even in the dark first days of her stay in the ICU, she learned to communicate by blinking at letters on a board (those around her would painstakingly piece the letters together into words and sentences). After endless seemingly futile attempts at physical movement, the day came when she finally managed to move one finger. Huge further efforts brought greater and greater achievements – moving a whole hand; wriggling her toes; turning her head. She regained the ability to speak.

She spent entire days in the rehab gym, petitioning nurses and family members and friends – any able-bodied person she could enlist – to lift and manipulate her limp body into the machines so that she could train. She pushed herself, physically and mentally, past all reasonable limits, and at a pace no one thought possible.

I was blown away the day she started posting on Facebook again.

And yesterday, less than six months after she was first hospitalised, we got the news that she had stood upright, unassisted, for two whole minutes.

Sometimes bad things happen to good people, but Anna chose to defy fate. Through sheer determination and an incredible refusal to give up, she brought about an honest-to-God miracle for herself and her family, right in time for Mother's Day.  

I don’t know if she fist-pumped the air in triumph, but I sure as hell did.