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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. 

30 comments:

  1. Katriina, that is just simply fabulous advice.

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    1. Olli, I'm glad you think so too!
      btw, how are your slippers? :)

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  2. Wow. I read this out to my Australian husband (living in the uk for 14 years). He said your OH sounds like a very sensible man. Easy for us when language is no barrier. He spends a lot of time in Scandinavia though as well as working with a lot of French. I work for a Spanish company. The cross culture difficulties are very apparent. I think he gets on better with the English culture than I do the Australian one though. I have intense difficulties there. Funny old world with all it's differences isn't it.

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    1. Kelloggs Ville, I have a theory that the northern vs southern hemisphere divide is a bigger one than people perhaps realise at first. Then again, as you noted, there is a huge range of cultural differences even within Europe and its immediate neighbours. I have come to know a few Swedish people since moving to Finland, and they seem very different from Finns, despite coming from the country next door (the same goes for Russians, but not at all in the same way). It's great that these readily-identifiable, unique national identities still exist even in our internationalised world. Fascinating and exciting, and yet surprisingly hard to negotiate at times!

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  3. Wow also. Your husband's view on this is extremely interesting and perfect advice. It also underlined for me the power of communication. You said you made a "guilty confession" so I am assuming that you may have been reluctant to share your thoughts with your husband, yet by doing so he has helped you lift a heavy weight off your shoulders. It is a reminder to me that "a problem shared is a problem halved". Good for you for being honest and facing up to your thoughts and lucky you for having such an understanding and wise husband.

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    1. I do feel very lucky, I must say :)
      And you are so right that these are the kinds of worries we shouldn't keep to ourselves. The power of communication and the power of loved ones to help each other through difficulties should never be underestimated.

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  4. Love your husbands take! I have to say though, that personality has a lot to do with emotions and 'settling in' I think. I was never homesick for Australia - but then I wasn't in a place where the language was different - had I been, I suspect I would have felt a LOT more homesick. I think a language barrier is even harder than social ones. When you figure out the language barrier, you can make friends, and friends are the ones that will help you with the social barriers. I feel for you, but sounds like you have a great hubby, which must help so much. Is there an expat group around there you can join? I suspect hanging with like-minded (and english speaking) people would help somewhat...

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    1. It's so interesting to hear that you never felt homesick (you were in America, weren't you?) I do think that language and culture are tightly entwined, and therefore it's probably easier to "learn" a new culture when you already speak the local language. I am really lucky here in Finland in that almost everyone speaks at least some English (and many people speak it very fluently), and I also have some lovely American and English and Asian friends. I've also managed to find a couple of very good friends who are Finns but who I can talk with very openly (in English), and you're right that these people have helped me no end in navigating the Finnish landscape. However, I guess lately I am not quite content with staying inside this comfort zone - learning more language will, I hope, allow me to talk fluently with a wider range of people and come to grips with more of those everyday cultural quirks that have so much meaning. It is a big task, but one that I find very satisfying when I don't let it get on top of me! Must remember to tackle this project in manageable chunks and retreat to my bubble in between :)

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  5. This is fabulous advice. I found another post of yours googling homesickness, but how lucky this is your current post! I have hit two years in Singapore without much homesickness and then bam - a homesickness brickwall! I think your husband's advice is spot on about needing to look at moving on if you're constantly looking elsewhere for that missing element. For me, it's an egalitarian society and decent standard of living. Definitely time for me to move on, and am currently in the process of getting my partner's visa. But in the meantime, will take your hubby's great advice about working on that 'bubble' - even if it can't be complete, it can be as good as I make it for now :-)

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    1. Amacamchumps, thanks so much for stopping by for a read, and I'm really glad you found this advice helpful. Although I feel pretty homesick sometimes and do tend to look back to other places I've lived, on balance I am happy here and I think I'll iron out my Issues With Finland in time. If push came to shove I wouldn't chose to move away. I do see other foreigners here, though, who are desperately unhappy and are counting the days before they can leave. Some places just don't suit some people, and it's best to be honest about it, since it's miserable to spend precious years of your life in a place that is a bad fit! I'm so glad to hear that you are moving soon, and fingers crossed that your partner's visa comes through sooner rather than later! All the very best!

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    2. Having said all that, though, I do feel pretty homesick sometimes. I don't know which of my homesickness posts you found - Childishly Homesick at Christmas, or Chilli Fries and Homesickness? - there are also others!! - but my point is that in matters of homesickness, you are not alone. Not by a long shot.

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    3. Thanks Katriina, I really appreciate your wellwishes.

      Actually, google referred me to this post: http://theheadspaceblog.blogspot.sg/2011/12/living-in-hel.html
      I think I was searching on advice about not glorifying your homeland - you know, so you don't turn into one of those expats who's always like "oh it's so much better in XXXX" - ugh. Trying consciously to remind myself that returning to Oz will not mean all my problems will disappear!

      Anyway, I think you said the magic phrase above at "if push came to shove I wouldn't choose to move away." And that's the key really isn't it? That difference between being homesick, and fundamentally not having your needs met by your surrounds.

      Upwards and onwards, wherever we currently are! :-)

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  6. I'm in agreement with all the other comments; your husband is a wise man.

    That said, I can absolutely sympathize with the struggles you face in terms of assimilation. The strange thing for me is that I feel a real affinity for Finnish culture, which quite reminds me of my own (immediate) culture, and yet I always, always feel like an outsider. I talk to my husband in hushed tones when we're out, because I don't want people to hear me speaking English or struggling to speak Finnish. People sometimes look at me because, I think, they sense that there's something different about me and they're not quite able to pinpoint what it is. People I've met are almost always very kind, and no one has ever purposely made me feel badly for speaking English or just being different, and yet sometimes I feel as if I've inconvenienced my surroundings by simply existing. It's my fault, though, not the fault of my surroundings.

    Your husband's advice is great because it's a healthy mix of assimilation and remaining true to the environment that helped make you who you are. You do what you can, and you try not to fret over that which is impossible. You change some of your habits and customs, but never your core self. I love it, Thanks so much for posting it. :)

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    1. You shouldn't think about it too much. If you're too timid, you push it too far and end up using hushed tones the wrong way. It can make you look like you're saying something socially unacceptable or very interesting or it may look like you're gossiping. That actually draws attention to you, which is bad if you're feeling at all timid.
      It has to be balanced: A degree of nonchalance is required. It should just be hushed tones without any hushed-tones behaviour.

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    2. I'd like to say that I don't act or seem like I'm gossiping etc. but, now that you mention it, it's possible my body language reflects the timidity that I sometimes feel. And you're right, too, that the likely cure for this is to not over-think or overanalyze.

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    3. Elena, actually when hubby and I are out, we use English, even in supermarkets (and also at home). But that's because I'm afraid of losing more of my English ability as it's not my mother tongue and because I still get my Finnish exercise at work. Otherwise I'd probably push myself more to speak Finnish everywhere with hubby.

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    4. Elena, this part of your comment captured my feelings perfectly: "I feel as if I've inconvenienced my surroundings by simply existing." YES. You put that feeling into words so beautifully. One thing my husband pointed out to me that didn't make it into this post was that, more often than not, Finns care a lot less than I think they do about the way I talk, behave, etc. As you say, "it's my fault, not the fault of my surroundings".
      Here's to us being kinder to ourselves!

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  7. love the advice. actually i think it is relevant to anyone living anywhere including in their own home country. xx

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    1. Lake House Writer, I couldn't agree more.

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  8. LOVE what your hubby said!!!! :-)))

    The other day when I gathered with my UK friends, we were talking about how I'd started using the words/phrases I heard the customers were saying and copying them as opposed to using "textbook grammar", 'coz otherwise I'd feel that I was using "too formal Finnish" (and I want to sound more like the locals anyway).

    My UK friend said that, "Oh yeah, I get that, but in my case I do want to sound like a foreigner because people don't easily recognize me as a foreigner and I find that when they know that I'm a foreigner, they'll be able to help me more when it looks like I don't understand something they say in Finnish."

    I don't have that problem 'coz when people see me, they know right away that I'm a foreigner and so in the beginning especially, they talked to me in really clear and simple Finnish. So, I think that in the beginning, this can be an advantage. :-)))

    When it comes to feeling like an outsider in a social setting, though, this is rather tricky, but from my perspective, I think they would give you a leeway 'coz they know you're a foreigner (even though they may not understand it). Even though some things you do or say may make them feel uncomfortable. So don't be too hard on yourself. One mantra I have ever since I moved to Finland has been: Be kind to yourself, be kind to yourself, be kind to yourself. :-))) And one more: Everybody learns differently at a different pace, so don't compare yourself to anyone else.

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    1. Amel, I LOVE your mantra! Brilliant advice.

      It's interesting that you mentioned physical appearance and its connection with language. I look like a total local (tall, blonde, Viking-esque!) and sometimes if I'm in a shop and say, "Do you mind if I use English?" the person will give me a look that says, "Um, ok, whatever... knock yourself out! - oh wait, you're not a Finn?" I love blending into the crowd, especially after years of living in Tokyo (where obviously I looked nothing like a local!) but looking unique in your surroundings definitely has its advantages.

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    2. I come from a background where I look different even in my home country, so I guess I'm used to it 'coz it's been like that my whole life. I've never been in a place where I really blend in with my surrounding he he he he...so I actually don't know how it feels to blend with my surrounding to be honest. Maybe that's why I never really feel the need to blend in, 'coz I never experienced it anyway?

      When it comes to being kind to myself, it's been such a hard thing to learn. I used to chide myself for doing or saying stupid things - in the past I could do it for weeks or end or even months...but it's really worth learning. :-D

      One other trick that sometimes I use is this: OK, let's say you're saying negative things about yourself for something you did/said or something you didn't do or say...freeze the scene, back up...and then pretend that you hear those things from a close friend's mouth. What would you say to that close friend of yours? I bet much different than what you say to yourself when you're berating yourself to no end he he...sometimes I forget this trick, but when I remember it, it's a good way to learn to be your own best friend/be kind to yourself. :-D

      THANKS for your compliment on my English. :-)))

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    3. Oops typo...I mean "weeks on end or even months"...I used to be such a sensitive child that kept grudges so easily.

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    4. it's so true, isn't it, that often we are much nicer to our friends than we are to ourself, and it doesn't make sense, since we have to live inside our own head 100% of the time! Be kind, be kind, be kind... and not just to other people :)

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    5. Oh, actually I forgot that there was a time when I hated my looks - but it deserves a long email 'coz I don't want to share it here...if you want to know the story, just send me an email to amelfinland at yahoo dot com.

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  9. I have always felt the bubble theory in my life. Well I have always had to. My whole family was always a bit odd, even in our home town with culture we all were born into. We just were a bit different, my parents had made some very ... different choices with their lives and professions etc. and we were always slight outcasts, never really being able to relate to a "normal life." Little things that others had and did that we really didn't and vice versa.

    I think moving to a new place like this has been so much easier for me because of that reason. I have been forced to learn ever since I was in school to manage the gap between my home and all the public life. It is a long journey though to know, like your husband said, which parts of you you need to be prepared to change, but still hold on (and hold on tight) to the things that make you you.

    I do think Finnish people in general are more of bubble livers though, which might also be why your husband has had it easier living elsewhere. We all have our private bubbles that are very hard to pierce, like you said, don't interfere in each others lifes.

    Now that being said, remember that you have so much to offer, as you, as an Austrailian with your 'strange' ways. Assimilating is sometimes so much easier than being you bravely, but I've learned (perhaps the hard way) that me in all my strangeness and sometimes awkward social situations give people something they sometimes really need. Just like you in the funeral you were talking about.

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    1. Katri, this really echoed what the Lake House Writer said - that the "bubble theory" applies equally well to life in our own country (and even in our own home town). Growing up, I definitely had a bubble too (I wrote a bit about it here: http://theheadspaceblog.blogspot.fi/2012/02/bertha.html). It would be really interesting to hear more about yours!

      I strongly agree that Finns are real bubble livers. At the same time, I also agree that outsiders have something new and different to add to the mix. You put it so well when you said that "Assimilating is sometimes so much easier than being you bravely" but at the end of the day, it is not only more honest to be [mostly] yourself, but also more interesting for the people around you. It's like Elena said above - we foreigners are not inconveniencing our environment merely by existing! - sometimes our ways of thinking and doing are sincerely welcomed.

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    2. PS - it is amazing to me that English is not your first language - and you too, Amel! You both write so beautifully. It's truly an inspiration.

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  10. Hi, I'm new to reading your blog. You are SO BRAVE! I've often wondered how I would cope living in a country that speaks a different language. Give yourself some credit and a pat on the back. Your strength is admirable!

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  11. Thank you so much, Carmen, for dropping by for a read and for your lovely comment. Am I brave? some days I feel anything but brave! - but thank you for reminding me to look at my life objectively and give myself a bit of credit once in a while!

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