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. 

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.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

My little mongrel

Recently, for the first time in years I spoke to my older daughter on the phone. Is it just me, or is there a huge difference between children “live and unplugged” compared with their telephonic versions? In person, the actual sound of a child’s voice is somehow less obvious - it is just one part of the overall impact. I hear what my children are saying, but their words are coloured and flavoured with countless visual distractions – animated little faces, enthusiastic gestures, and those little quirks like pulling at clothes, or jumping restlessly from one foot to the other. In contrast, all you get on the phone is their pure, disembodied voice. They sound younger and more vulnerable, somehow, and their speech sounds so much more quirky and unfinished.

And speaking to Big Sister on the phone the other day I realised, for the first time, what a strange accent she has.

Frankly, I’m amazed I didn’t notice it before. In terms of grammar and vocabulary, she speaks English well for her age (surprisingly well, really, considering that she has never lived in an English-speaking country). Her pronunciation and intonation, however, are a direct reflection of the fact that she has lived in Japan and Finland, has parents from Australia and Finland, and attends a school where teachers speak English with American, Finnish and British accents.

She has what could be called a truly international accent. Her English pronunciation is, frankly, a bit of a mongrel.

In one sense, I love this. I love that she’s not from anywhere in particular and has absorbed all kinds of cultural influences during her young life. I love that, at the age of 6, she has already learned three different languages. I love that she’s bright and original.

On the other hand, her different-ness – the very thing I love about her – makes me panic a bit. As a child, especially at primary school, what I always wanted most was to be the SAME as other children. People who were different got teased and bullied. In this sense, I can’t help worrying about my little mongrel.

I also worry from a language perspective. If you don’t speak English with a recognisable accent (British, Australian, American) is your English still, technically, “correct”? Amongst native speakers, will you still get recognised as one of the crowd, or will you always be regarded (consciously or unconsciously) as a foreigner? I am not a native speaker of Finnish, so I can’t make an accurate first-hand judgment of Big Sister’s accent in her second-strongest language, but what if my little girl’s Finnish is similarly tainted with The Unusual?

Does coming from a culturally-rich background mean, in real terms, that actually she comes from nowhere in particular, and consequently will be an outsider wherever she goes?

Many friends have told me to let these worries go; that they are not worth fretting over; that her uniqueness is a strength, not a weakness. Of course, over time I will try hard to help her be confident in herself and proud of who she is. I will try to help her embrace challenges and tackle them in her own, distinctive way.

God help me, all I want is for her to be happy, but have I, by my own hand, already denied her that? I can’t help worrying that my own life choices have set her up for a bloody complicated road through life. Please let her be up to the challenge.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Chili fries and homesickness

Several of the friends I’ve made here in Helsinki are American. Some moved here for love and are dedicated long-timers; others are expats whose days here are limited and who are quietly counting the hours. It seems, though, that this recent article (on the ten foods Americans miss most while abroad) struck a chord with all of them.  
I read through the list, thinking, seriously? Chili fries? Taco Bell? Breakfast cereal?

After reading the article and my friends’ enthusiastic Facebook reactions to it, initially I felt really disappointed. Angry, even. Helsinki has so much good food on offer, especially right now – fresh, sweet peas in the pod, an array of colourful berries, fresh salmon in abundance, my favourite Karelian pies, a wealth of delicious varieties of bread, every possible form of dairy product known to man – and yet apparently none of it is good enough; none of it quite matches up to the joy of a big greasy serving of chili fries. My friends’ longing for foods that sounded inherently unmemorable felt like a slap in the face for Finland.

On reflection, I realised how incredibly unfair and judgmental I was being. I am, after all, the woman who lives in this country of abundance, yet MUST have Vegemite in the house. I am the woman who bakes Anzac biscuits almost weekly and presses them on everyone around me. I am the woman who, while living in Tokyo (which has been named among the culinary capitals of the world) encouraged my husband to sneak Finnish rye bread and Oltermanni cheese through customs, sometimes a whole suitcase at a time.

I'd been practically accusing my friends of being obnoxiously pro-American when really, they were just homesick. Homesickness has nothing to do with culinary or cultural superiority, or rejecting local ways. It honestly is just what it is – a deep-seated longing for one's former home, and for those everyday, familiar things that suddenly are nowhere to be found. Certain very ordinary foods, or more to the point, their absence, can trigger strong emotions. Some tastes, like root beer and Vegemite, are learned in childhood and are deeply nostalgic. They are unique and irreplaceable.

We strangers in strange lands, in moments of feeling overwhelmed and alone, cannot help turning to the old and familiar – food, language, habits. It’s a conscious choice to look back and ignore local culture for a moment, and it smacks of real disloyalty to the country that is offering us a home in the here and now. Be that as it may, at moments like these, what we foreigners need (especially from each other) is sympathy and understanding, not harsh judgment and anger.  

Thursday, April 26, 2012


I seem to spend large chunks of my daily life dreading things.

Here are some examples of Things I Dread:

  1. Situations which require me to speak a foreign language
  2. Travelling/dining out/attending social events with my children
  3. Social events generally
  4. House guests, especially people visiting from overseas
  5. Answering my own phone, even when it's a close friend 
  6. Having to complete multiple tasks/commitments within in a limited time
  7. Big life changes and unfamiliar tasks/situations (actually, my fear of The Unknown goes beyond dread, and is practically a phobia)

In short, I dread just about everything except sitting at home by myself and communicating with no one. All this irrational dread bothers me, especially since many of the examples above are regular, even daily occurrences in my life.

Let me clarify one point. Most, if not ALL the things that I dread, are things I truly enjoy doing once I’m actually doing them. It’s just the thought of doing them that makes me shudder.

Recently, I finally unearthed the common thread running through the things I dread. They are all things that require me to exert myself – mentally, socially, physically, or emotionally. Deep down inside my psyche a belligerent little voice badgers me constantly, insisting that anything except 100% exertion and a perfect performance equates with failure. In consequence, just the thought of doing stuff makes me anxious and exhausted. What a fricking surprise.

No wonder I bloody-well never want to do anything.

Recently, I was invited to be on the board of the Japanese school that my daughter attends once a week. I was additionally offered the responsibility of organizing the school’s annual excursion. In the spirit of doing my fair share, I felt compelled to say yes.

I was instantly filled with dread.

I panicked myself with visions of endless meetings and correspondence in Japanese, rife with awkward moments and shameful linguistic errors. I worked myself up over the fearsome challenge of meeting the exceptionally high standards of the Japanese school community (who are known for their obsessive attention to detail and their quest for perfection in all things). What did me in most of all, though, was the fact that I’d never done anything quite like this before, making it that most feared of fearful things – The Unknown.

Long story short, I made myself almost physically sick worrying about all this Board stuff. I am embarrassed to admit that I actually thought seriously about taking my child out of the school as an avoidance strategy.

As usual, I dealt with my fear by launching myself into girly-swot-type feverish over-preparation. I made lists, I printed out a stack of relevant correspondence and documents, and I found myself a neat little file in which to store it all. I spent an inordinately long time composing a polite email in (what I hoped was) reasonably correct Japanese to the five other parents who had volunteered to help out as Excursion Committee Members. I planned what I would wear to the initial meetings of the Board and the Excursion Committee. I was determined to do anything I could to avoid “failing”.

Finally, I was as ready as I’d ever be to throw myself into the fray. I was still terrified, but at least I had charted the four corners of my fear. I was ready to be laughed at and criticized and pitied.

And quelle surprise, yllätys yllätys - the dreaded First Meeting of the Excursion Committee did not result in my painful death by cruel Japanese firing squad. It was a lovely chat with five friendly, funny, terrific mums. At the outset I apologised for my poor level of Japanese and was instantly swamped with kind comments about how nicely I wrote/spoke. Everyone had great ideas about where we should have the excursion, and we had a productive discussion. The meeting was, frankly, enjoyable, as was the initial board meeting. I was incredulous to realise that I was possibly even going to enjoy this new role.

Why the hell couldn’t I have cultivated that level of positive optimism from the outset?

I don’t get energy from staying at home quietly by myself, doing nothing. I am an extrovert who literally NEEDS constant social interaction to remain happy and invigorated. I get a kick out of succeeding at difficult tasks and projects. I am irresistibly drawn to language-learning, and have lived literally half my life in countries where English is not a national language.

Why, then, can I not stop the cycle of fear and pressure which prevents me from looking forward to all the things I enjoy doing? It's ridiculous that I get crippling performance anxiety even though I truly love the performing.

Obviously, retraining my psyche will be a long-term project. What I need to learn is this: there is, actually, no such thing as failure (unless I keep bloody telling myself that there is). Every day, human beings hit rock-bottom and resolutely start again from scratch, and they end up doing just fine, and if I’m honest, I have never in my life experienced anything even close to “rock-bottom”.

It’s ok to want to do things well, and it’s ok to prepare diligently for situations where preparation is necessary or possible, but after that life is just life. There will be days when I don’t try as hard as I could at particular things, because that day something else in my life is occupying a higher priority, and because it is inhuman and freakish and unenjoyable to put 100% into everything all of the time. And even when I do put in a stellar effort, sometimes situations will play out in a way that leaves me bitterly disappointed in myself or others. None of this is good or bad. It just is.

If I live in dread I will die having lived in dread.
That would really suck.