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.