New World Finn: My Finnish identity is fine

by , under All categories, Enrique

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.

Eden’s fate

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

  1. JusticeDemon

    There are obviously many people living abroad with biological origins in Finland who are completely or largely unaware of this, and there is some sense in disputing the Finnishness of such individuals.

    However, there are also the people of whom you speak in this article. There is a saying that in order to find truly British people you have to go to the former colonies. This phenomenon is also true of emigré Finnish communities around the world. In many respects they can become time capsules providing insight into how Finland used to be, while the old homeland has evolved in another direction.

  2. Klay_Immigrant

    Enrique, I stand by my comments that I made in the first paragraph of your article. To justify my remarks as being wrong just because if I repeated those sentiments at a FinnFest festival I would need a ‘few body guards’ is no different to White supremist justifying his views by telling you to publicly state that all races are equal at a Klu Klux Klan meeting and seeing the reaction.

    How you can ‘retain strong cultural, spiritual and family bonds to Finland’ without being born, raised or have visited Finland let alone not being able to speak Finnish or find it on a map is beyond me and I know many people including native Finns will agree with me. You don’t become Finnish or feel Finnish overnight when you find out that a great great grandfather that you obviously never met happened to emigrate from Finland and this applies to another other country.

    Ofcourse if someone wants to feel Finnish while retaining all those attributes that provide no links to Finland, they are free to, but I would warn them to not be suprised when or should I say if they ever encounter a native Finn and express their feeling of Finnishness to find a bemused person opposite them thinking of them as fake Finn and dilusional with that even if out of politeness those opinions aren’t aired out loud.

  3. Martin-Éric

    I have to agree with Justice Demon. Someone who has genetic ancestry leading back to Finland, but who doesn’t speak the language, has never visited the country and doesn’t even know one or two traditional recipes basically isn’t a Finn anymore.

    I also have to say that I’m amazed how Enrique seemingly took personal offense at the initial statement. Just because his case is of a clearly mixed culture, with strong ties to all of its ethnic origins, doesn’t mean that every US national has kept any sort of ties with all their ancestral cultures. Clearly, many don’t keep any tie beyond the second generation.

    For instance, my Californian girlfriend has, in theory, Korean heritage on one side and Native-American on the other. In practice, while she indeed keeps a traditional Korean dress for special occasions such as family gatherings, she doesn’t speak the language and always needs someone to translate to her all the amazing stories of relatives escaping North Korea in the 1950’s. She recently realized how much she’s missing on and has started to wonder whether taking Korean classes might be a good idea, just to develop passive knowledge of the language and maybe travel to (South) Korea on holiday just to get a better feel for her father’s ancestry.

    There’s other borderline cases that really makes you question who is a Finn and who isn’t. For instance, my cousin’s mom was from Turku and my cousin was baptized there too. They also visited their Finnish relatives here every other summer, when she was young, but that’s just about where her Finnishness ends. Nowadays, she can barely speak basic key phrases and only visited Finland once since her teens and she’s now in her thirties. Meanwhile, I’ve been here for 13 years, I can speak the language in several regional slangs and, nowadays, I can pretty much conclude that I no longer know enough French to function beyond mere vacationing needs. My English has somewhat remained afloat, because working in international sales requires fluent English but, even then, I’ve recently come to the conclusion that I can no longer express myself with all the nuances I need in any other language than Finnish. So, which one of us is the real Finn? Liisa or me?

    • Enrique

      Hi Martin-Éric, I never knew you had Finnish relatives. Interesting. The “Finn” is decided by you. I always say that if some people have a hard time accepting it is their problem NOT mine.

    • Enrique

      –I also have to say that I’m amazed how Enrique seemingly took personal offense at the initial statement. Just because his case is of a clearly mixed culture, with strong ties to all of its ethnic origins, doesn’t mean that every US national has kept any sort of ties with all their ancestral cultures. Clearly, many don’t keep any tie beyond the second generation.

      I wouldn’t go that far I just wanted to point out that it is a denial of your history. It’s a bit like Cuba. Those that are against the system migrate en masse to Miami allowing those that support the system or who are passive to remain behind. The government can continue to give a view of wide support because so many have left. The same goes with Finland and its “monocultural” identity.

  4. JusticeDemon

    It’s amusing to see such disputes arising over whether pink is a colour or a shade/tint of red, but this is essential to the nationalist agendum. If there are nation States with sharply defined boundaries, then there just had damn well better be sharply definable people who fit neatly into them. We have ways of dealing with any misfits who fail to conform to this neat and tidy picture of things.

  5. Juan

    This is a very interesting point. Let’s examine the case of an individual with Finnish parentage who was born, grew up overseas, does not speak Finnish, and has never traveled to Finland, etc. By Finnish law, as long as that individual can prove his Finnish lineage, he will be granted Finnish citizenship and a Finnish passport by the embassy or consulate in the country he is residing in. He does not even need to give up his other citizenship because Finnish law allows dual nationality (unlike Denmark). That is his right as an individual with Finnish lineage and that cannot be taken away from him. So to debate the Finnish identity of such individuals is moot and academic. They are as Finnish as the drunks in Kamppi.

    To claim otherwise would be to undermine the Finnish constitution and Finnish law. The bearers of official Finnish documents are Finns no matter what their color of skin is, what language they speak, what religion they subscribe to, and what food they had for breakfast. You dont need to eat a ton of mammi to prove you are a Finn.

    • Enrique

      Hi Juan, even after eating a “ton of mämmi” some will continue to see you as an outsider. As I mentioned before, this is the problem of those who don’t accept you. But the important question is that our laws don’t discriminate – or do they or aren’t they enforced adequately?

  6. Tiwaz

    -“By Finnish law, as long as that individual can prove his Finnish lineage, he will be granted Finnish citizenship and a Finnish passport by the embassy or consulate in the country he is residing in.”

    Wrong.
    http://www.migri.fi/netcomm/content.asp?path=8,2477,2549,2578
    The following people may be granted Finnish citizenship by declaration:

    * a child born outside Finland whose mother is a foreigner and whose father was a Finnish citizen at the time of the child’s birth, and whose paternity has been established
    * a person born in Finland whose mother is a foreigner and whose father was a Finnish citizen at the time of the child’s birth, and whose paternity was established after the child turned 18 or by the date of his/her marriage under the age of 18
    * a foreign adopted child (aged 12 – 17), provided that at least one of the adoptive parents is a Finnish citizen
    * a young person (aged 18 – 22) who has resided in Finland for a long time
    * a citizen of a Nordic country
    * a former Finnish citizen

  7. Martin-Éric

    Pretty amusing how Finnish citizenship by declaration can be granted on a paternal heredity basis, but not a maternal heredity basis, even though hereditary ties are easier to prove for the mother, since the kid came out of her womb, wherasa aserting paternity requires DNA testing and, even then, it can only weed out improbabilities, but not positvely prove paternity.

    JusticeDemon: would you happen to know the logic behind that particular aspect of the legislation? If yes, could you enlighten us a bit?

  8. Pertti Virtanen

    Because the citizenship is given at birth to the child if the mother is a citizen. No need to make declarations. Provided link above was not to legislation but a kind of a FAQ of the immigration service.

  9. JusticeDemon

    Clearly our resident neo-Nazi cannot be trusted. Juan was not wrong about citizenship:

    Let’s examine the case of an individual with Finnish parentage who was born, grew up overseas, does not speak Finnish, and has never traveled to Finland, etc. By Finnish law, as long as that individual can prove his Finnish lineage, he will be granted Finnish citizenship and a Finnish passport by the embassy or consulate in the country he is residing in.

    The key term here is Finnish parentage and the key circumstances are a complete absence of contact with Finland. A child acquires Finnish citizenship at birth if its mother is a Finnish citizen or if its father is a Finnish citizen and married to the mother etc. etc. (section 9 of the Nationality Act). Provided that the outcome is not statelessness, this acquired Finnish citizenship can be lost by default at the age of 22 years through inadequate ties to Finland (section 34 of the Nationality Act). It is this lost citizenship that can be restored by declaration under certain circumstances (subsection 2 of section 29 of the Nationality Act) such as those in Juan’s example where there has been no contact with Finland.
    Juan’s example is an extreme case, but by and large it is not citizenship legislation that produces counterintuitive or seemingly racist outcomes. Instead, I would focus on the immigration privileges enjoyed by applicants with remote blood ties to Finland. By combining current legislation on returnees with historical citizenship legislation (especially the 1927 Act), I think we can construct a case in which a fifth generation émigré Finn gains automatic eligibility for a continuous-type residence permit in Finland that leads on to permanent residence and citizenship with no further factors required. This is on the assumption of parenthood beginning at the age of 19 years in each generation. These privileges are based on the citizenship of a great great grandparent, and they will remain in place even after the Ingrian dispensation expires in July of this year.

  10. Mary Mekko

    There’s a big emigrant Finnish-American community in the San Francisco Bay Area, so a person can have a lot of exposure to Finnish culture here with a little effort. There’s the Finnish American Home Association (FAHA) in Sonoma, the wine country, where Finnish seniors live, and that’s where a lot of the parties and picnics and family celebrations are. Finnish artists and singers are invited to perform, and all of us can come. I’m not Finnish, but since I lived in Finland and loved it, I go to these events, too, and sing along with the music if I can see the printed words.

    I still get excited to meet Finns on my tourbus in the San Francisco tour business.

    Then I can practice a few words, those few I do remember, alas, some are swear words.

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