By Enrique Tessieri
A reader recently surprised me on my blog, Migrant Tales, affirming that Finnish Americans are not Finns. “They weren’t born, raised in Finland nor do they speak Finnish; some of them have never visited Finland,” he wrote. “I wonder how many could point to Finland on a map.”
His comment was not only rude but was full of holes. I challenged the blogger to visit a future FinnFest festival and make such a provocative statement publicly. I recommended that he’d take, just in case, a few body guards along.
It was the last time he brought up the subject.
Even if most Finnish Americans are legally from the United States, many of us still retain strong cultural, spiritual and family bonds to Finland. What identity we choose to use depends on ourselves. We are the only ones who decide what identity we feel comfortable with.
No matter how you express your Finnish identity, we all come from the same family because we are the children, grandchildren and great grandchildren of immigrants.
From Hollywood to Finland
When I was thirteen, my multicultural background was too difficult for me to grasp since the three cultures that claimed me, Argentinean, Finnish and Californian, demanded all of my attention.
I wrote about my cultural predicament in a book published in Finland in 1994: “Belonging to three cultures is like having three hungry children to feed. All three of them have expensive tastes. I must have spent a fortune on plane tickets during my lifetime. I am certain that I would be a millionaire today if I could turn the hours I’ve spent pampering these children into dollars.”
Using hindsight, my mistake back then was seeing these three cultures as separate when, in fact, they were all one.
Even if Argentina, Finland and California appeared like distant worlds, I never felt like an outsider in any of them. When I visited my grandparents in Finland, I felt perfectly at home in my world and identity.
Being in Finland was like “switching on a culture” and then turning it off when I returned to Los Angeles in fall. For two to three months and without Southern Californian life and culture constantly bombarding me, I was momentarily a child of the rural landscapes of eastern Finland.
One of my favorite pastimes during those times was to explore with my vintage World War 2 bike and a topographic map the woods near our summerhouse. If I did this in Hollywood, people would think that I was crazy. It would have been dangerous as well for a youngster to speak to strangers let alone enter their homes in Los Angeles.
This wasn’t the case in Finland. Some of the people I met during those short travels into the woods became lifelong friends.
I still long occasionally for those lazy late-afternoon summer days and those short travels with my vintage bike, which was not really a bike but a crude eastern Finnish version of Aladdin’s magic lamp. Instead of rubbing I peddled. The more I peddled the greater chance I had of encountering new adventures.
The adventures I took part in were not like James Bond movies but humble aspirations like visiting the woods, lakes and inhabitants of that region of Finland. I was especially fascinated by lakes. They were like islands or enclaves on land. They brought me great joy when I discovered new ones of different sizes and shapes tucked deep in the woods.
I was especially fond of ponds. For me they had more magic than lakes, which were vulnerable to human encroachment and appeared more conceited due to their size.
My presence in the woods was paradoxically a prelude to the end of those old-growth forests. Edward O. Wilson describes eloquently in his book, The Future of Life, how destructive humans are. Wherever we lay our feet, nature and biodiversity are eventually put on the defensive.
According to the biologist, there was no such thing as the “noble savage;” Eden occupied was a slaughterhouse and paradise found by humans is paradise lost. Wilson was, unfortunately, right. Sadness fills me today when I imagine those near-untouched forests I visited over three decades ago. Even the forest that stood on our land has been clear-cut beyond recognition.
Fortunately there are other modes of travel to revisit such places of beauty. I can still travel spiritually and in time to those forests. They still stand there in my mind and heart with a few magic trails leading me deeper into their unforgettable humbleness and generosity.
This column was published in the Sprin 2011 issue of New World Finn