“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.