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.