Why did you come here? (2/4) “Angel Barrientos: A stranger in my home”

by , under All categories, Enrique

By Enrique Tessieri

This is the second of a four-part series of a few short biographies that appeared in 1994 in an English reader called Why did you come here? The book was authored by Russell Snyder and myself. Angel Barrientos was at the time of the interview 45 and had moved to Finland as a refugee from Chile.

What is Angel’s message? Read on…

____________

…After many months of clandestine living (after the military coup of September 11, 1973), I found my way to the Finnish Embassy in Santiago. I used to know people who worked at the embassy. I am grateful to them for helping me get safe passage to Finland.
 I did not know anything about Finland before coming here. The only images I had were terribly long, cold winters and pine forests. After an exhausting flight from Santiago, the plane landed in Helsinki-Vantaa Airport on a wintry January day.
At the time all Chilean refugees were hopeful that (Augusto) Pinochet’s government would fall in a few years. We had to wait for seventeen years.
My greatest tragedy is that I did not really foresee how radically my life would change by moving to Finland. I have suffered very much. It is not easy being an outsider in this country.
I admit it is my fault that I do not speak Finnish well enough. The truth is that I have never had any motivation to learn this language. I never considered Finland to be my permanent home.
I feel that when I am living in Finland, I am living in two places at the same time. One foot is entrenched in my native land and the other is here. I cannot plan for the future because I am constantly thinking about moving back to Chile.
Do you have any idea what I feel because I cannot express myself linguistically or culturally after twenty years of living here? It is a sinister feeling that eats me up from the inside. I am convinced that my stomach ulcers are caused by these factors.
I graduated as an interior designer. As an interior designer, my job was to design the interior of large office buildings, to choose the appropriate furniture, curtains and wall paper.
During the boom years of the late-1980s, there was work for interior designers. I am presently unemployed. Around 40-50% of all interior designers are without work.
I have lived with two women. With Sirpa, my first finnish love, we have twin daughters. Our separation was a long and painful process. It is too difficult to explain in a few words.
My new wife is called Hanna. We have a three-year old daughter, Paula. I have always spoken Spanish to my children. It is important for my children to speak another language because it opens up new worlds for them.
I am especially concerned about the future. The poor economic situation and the deep recession (of the early 1990s) do not encourage me to see the future optimistically. Living off unemployment benefits forces me to live frugally. Because of my age, I think I will have a hard time getting work even during better economic times.
Sometimes I have a great urge to return to the days of my youth. Back then, people like myself were convinced we could change the world. All we needed was a few determined men and the masses to create a revolution. We were so naive.
What will I do in the future? Who knows…If the economic situation does not improve, I might pack my bags and move back to Chile with Hanna and Paula. But my age worries me, it is not easy to begin life again in another country. Maybe in Chile I would also suffer a similar fate as I did here. I would be a stranger in my own land.

  1. Seppo

    “I admit it is my fault that I do not speak Finnish well enough. The truth is that I have never had any motivation to learn this language. I never considered Finland to be my permanent home.”

    Do you need to consider some place your permanent home before you get the motivation to learn a language?

    I think times have changed since then. Less and less people have or even feel the need to have such a permanent home as what Angel is talking about. Today people are moving from country to country quite frequently. But I do understand the problem he had, one’s thoughts being all the time in the possible return to the native country, probably something shared by many refugees.

    However, when it comes to the language, I think you should not think too much if the “investment” you make in it pays off or not. Most people usually end up staying in the countries they move into longer than they thought. I have heard many people saying “I wish I had started learning Finnish earlier and quicker” but rarely someone saying “too bad I learned Finnish so quickly since I’m now leaving the country”.

    • Enrique

      Hi Seppo, that’s in a perfect world but there are different strokes for different folks on this front. My father, who lived in the United States for 21 years, was successful at work, got his master’s degree while working and raising a family, never learned to speak English well. He didn’t like the language and did not even like the U.S.

      That’s his right.

      His first job was at Varig, a Brazilian airline, and then he worked for a long time for Air France. He spoke French better than English.

      I know Finns who moved to Argentina and who have lived for sixty years and speak it atrociously. Should I judge them for that? No. It’s their choice.

  2. justicedemon

    Seppo

    One point of advice that I often give to foreigners in Finland is to behave as though your immigration is permanent if you don’t have any firmly decided departure date. However, I should stress that the formal immigration system has only very recently stopped discouraging foreigners from thinking in this way.

    Practically nobody learns Finnish unless they intend to remain in Finland, as the language is of extremely limited general utility (the rate at which expatriate Finns lose their language demonstrates this quite clearly). This means that some sense of appreciation of Finland as a permanent home is essential. We won’t get that appreciation for nothing: it has to be earned by making immigrants feel welcome. This is another reason for condemning the racist fringe and making it clear that they do not represent mainstream thinking in any way, but are rather a social element of which decent Finns should feel ashamed.

  3. eyeopener

    @ Dear friends.

    Learning to speak a language perfectly is not a necessity to live in a country. I speak 6 languages more or less fluent. Finnish doesnot belong to that set. But: does it hinder me or my environment? Probably sometimes, but that’s it.

    Do I stay in Finland?. Oh yeah. Nobody is going to chase me from this country. Will I learn to speak the language fluently. Wild guess: NO. Who minds? Wild guess: IGNORANT PEOPLE. And the best thing of this is that the people I call friends, finnish or foreigners, are NOT!!.

    So be happy but vigilant.

    Remember Leonidas words: We are Sparta!! They got killed for the cause, but saved the Greek world from being occupied!

    I would like to take this metaphore to the mental level and change a bit a famous saying:
    “a united mind can never be conquered”. The mind unity stems from the respect you have for other people. Even if they disagree. Actually it’s an opportunity to make the world better.

    Do I see a Blue Ocean Strategy here??

  4. Seppo

    “He didn’t like the language and did not even like the U.S.
    That’s his right.”

    Enrique, I have to disagree a bit. I mean, of course it is his right, but in such a situation I would not stay in the country for long and would not recommend anyone else to do so either. And how can you not like some language? What can a language do to you to make you dislike it so much that you refuse to learn it even though that learning would bring obvious benefits?

    “Practically nobody learns Finnish unless they intend to remain in Finland, as the language is of extremely limited general utility.”

    JD, I agree with everything that you wrote. Although you should know that nowadays in Europe, especially in EU countries, knowing Finnish can be surprisingly useful. Outsourcing has created all kinds of jobs in countries like Poland and Romania where knowing Finnish and other small Northern European languages is a big plus. Also in the EU offices every official language you speak in addition to the usual French and English makes you a better candidate.

    “Will I learn to speak the language fluently. Wild guess: NO. Who minds?”

    Well, I do. I do not mind the fact that you don’t speak the language fluently. Fluency in any foreign language is very hard to achieve, Finnish definitely not being the easiest one. But I mind the attitude – it seems to me that you are not even willing to try to learn it. This I cannot understand nor accept, especially taking into account that you stated that you are planning to stay here for good.

  5. eyeopener

    @Seppo.

    Don’t blame Enrique. These words you are referring to are mine!!. You are wrong about the attitude. But I disagree that the attitude MUST be aimed a perfectionism. Intent to learn is one, time and availability is two and thrust for perfection is …………..25.

    Dear Seppo. The wish of staying here for good will never make me a Finn. There are very good examples of people who speak Finnish very well. No problem with that. Maybe I am another person with as much feelings for Finland.

    But attitude is a good point.

    Perfection is another.

  6. Mary Mekko

    Seppo, there are many people around the world who associate a particular language with something they hate. For example, when Jews come on my tourbus, they hate to hear me or the tourists speak German,a nd they even come up to me and tell me that they can’t stand to hear it, as it reminds them of something in the past with their relatives!

    I don’t argue with them. I say, “I understand, because I hate the sound of Spanish. I associate it with years of street harassment by Latino males, who, without provocation, insulted me and my friends because we were white women, prime bate for their racist and sexist hatred. However, this is a tourbus, and I can’t tell the Latinos in the back seat to stop speaking Spanish because of my own suffering, now can I?” (There are almost always loud Latinos speaking Spanish on every tourbus, ignoring the English-speaking majority on board and disrupting the tourguide’s lecture. But I digress.)

    There’s a reason a lot of non-Latinos in America refuse to learn Spanish: they hate the culture. But that’s their right, since English is the official language, the only one you need to live here.

    However, if I move to Finland and refuse to learn Finnish due to some yearning for my homeland and mother tongue, that is complete idiocy, akin to Latinos here refusing to learn English. Either I am a human with free will who chooses to be Finland, or I am not. Doesn’t this fellow from Santiago even proclaim that he teaches his child Spanish because it’s “good to know another language”? Yet as a father he sets the example of not learning Finnish properly, after 17 years and two Finnish wives and three Finnish children? Deplorable!

    Your example of a Santiago native is another sad example of another unwilling immigrant, someone fleeing trouble in his homeland and desperate for any escape. Who can blame him? Finland as a nation was kind enough to accept him, and its people were not allowed to vote against his arrival and subsequent 17 years stay, including living off the public teet. Yet he has the gall to say that his homesickness is the reason he can’t put in the effort to learn the language! How is he communicating with his family, let alone the rest of the population? Does he think that they should learn Spanish, as many Mexicans in California think nonLatinos should do?

    An immigrant male living off the Finns with no work obligations should shut his mouth and hit the books. Then maybe he could get not only a job, but the respect of his daughter, the respect of Finnish citizens, and a deeper appreciation of the country that is supporting him. His laziness, lassitude, indifference, whatever you call it, is NO EXCUSE for a parasite.

  7. BlandaUpp

    The only immigrants in Finland I have come across who don’t speak Finnish or Swedish are the ones who are highly educated professionals who don’t have time to learn the language since they have to work all the time to earn money for them and their families. Their jobs don’t require knowledge of Finnish.

    Nobody working and paying taxes here should be forced to learn one of the languages if they don’t want to or if it will cost the country more money than it will make the country.

    • Enrique

      Hi BlandaUpp, this is true in some cases. Isn’t it incredible that a professional working for a company like Nokia DOESN’T have to learn Finnish but then an African who came here as a refugee is required? I think it is an example of the double standards and baloney about what integration is. If we are very critical, high requirements placed on those immigrants that have the hardest time learning such skills is a way to keep them out of the system. Their place is the classroom, unemployment office and Kela, among a few other ones. They are not supposed to get a job because that would require in some cases more acceptance of these people.

  8. Martin-Éric

    Mary,
    It seems that you missed the part where he states that he was gainfully employed until the recession came; it’s not like he wanted to become unemployed. It’s also quite interesting to note how your last comment was directed only at males. Care to explain that?

  9. Martin-Éric

    Seppo,
    Only people with the right passport can move around from one country to the next freely. While you might be allowed to go to e.g. Estonia, Germany or UK as you please, third-country nationals cannot. They have significantly fewer options than you do.

  10. Mark

    Seppo

    – The only immigrants in Finland I have come across who don’t speak Finnish or Swedish are the ones who are highly educated professionals who don’t have time to learn the language since they have to work all the time to earn money for them and their families. Their jobs don’t require knowledge of Finnish.

    Stick me in that bag. Worked after two weeks arrival and have been employed ever since, paying taxes.

    Learning a language by adults requires several things, and it quite different to how children learn language, even if research shows that the brain capabilities do not diminish as much as previously thought.

    What Finns should realise about adults learning Finnish is that adult learners are severely handicapped in not being able to simply look a word up in the dictionary. With the KPT changes and the endings, it is very often difficult to recognise the root word that you have to look up. There is no dictionary where you can put the conjugated form in and it will spit out the root and meaning, bar Verbix, which works only online and only for verbs. For the first year, a dictionary is almost useless for everyday use for this reason. Later, you do get to grips with the KPT changes.

    Next you have the difference between written and spoken Finnish to contend with. Written Finnish is your best bet in terms of learning at your own pace, but written Finnish entails complicated structures where just recognising the main verb and noun are a nightmare. Noun phrases in Finnish are an absolute minefield. Then, what you learn doesn’t equip you very well for spoken language. Even with the natural flow of ‘spoken Finnish’, which you might learn from Finnish study books is almost another language compared to what you actually hear among Finns, where contractions abound.

    The upshot of this is that there is no easy way INTO the language. Then, when you do grasp the basics, you find that conversations tend to focus around the same topics,(being a foreigner in Finland) meaning that you have little chance to extend your vocabulary. The whole focus is ethnocentric, either too focused on Finnish culture, or too focused on being a foreigner in Finland. God, there is more to life than those two topics.

    There is very little in the intermediate range of language learning resources. Plenty of beginner stuff, but after that, you are still not properly equipped for everyday Finnish. The jump then is to advanced stuff, or just everything still in Finnish, no explanations, badger your friends or partners for occasional advice.

    I wish I had been on the dole for six months and taken full time language courses for the same period. While it would have cost the Finnish government something, maybe I would have managed to overcome some of these challenges more quickly.

    There are reasons why Finnish is a difficult language to learn, and it’s not simply about laziness. Likewise, learning a language as an adult is not exactly ‘natural’. You have to swim against the tide psychologically. For some, its easy, for others, its not. The mouth just doesn’t want to make the sounds, they seem so alien! And the embarrassment and awkwardness of social situations where the learner is in the very low position is itself a massive mountain to climb. You can tolerate it for a year or two, but after that, it starts to eat away at your sense of self, at your ability to feel comfortable even trying. That’s the reality. I’m not surprised people give up.

  11. Seppo

    Mark, I hear you.

    What I was mostly talking about was the attitude, not the end result. Angel Barrientos said that he “never had any motivation to learn this language”. That’s what I cannot understand nor accept.

    “Then, when you do grasp the basics, you find that conversations tend to focus around the same topics,(being a foreigner in Finland) meaning that you have little chance to extend your vocabulary.”

    I suggest you speak Finnish with different kinds of people. Most foreigners in Finland are married to a Finn. That’s a good place to start. Me and my girlfriend we changed our language from English to Finnish. It took some time and wasn’t always easy but went actually much smoother than I would have expected. Now when we occasionally talk English to each other, it feels weird.

    “And the embarrassment and awkwardness of social situations where the learner is in the very low position is itself a massive mountain to climb. You can tolerate it for a year or two, but after that, it starts to eat away at your sense of self, at your ability to feel comfortable even trying.”

    Well this is just what learning a foreign language is about. You just cannot do it without those awkward social situations. But after tolerating that intensively for a year or two, you should be already halfway the mountain, and it gets easier.

    I understand people who feel uncomfortable in those situations. My god, I have learned several foreign languages myself! I know how it is. But I would like to repeat that that is the only way to go.

    In a way I understand also people who give up but I really think it is a wrong choice. The way I see it, in order for integration to work properly, both immigrants and the people already living in the country need to make efforts. Learning the language is an effort that the immigrant has to make.

  12. Martin-Éric

    Seppo,
    The issue precisely is that Finns have an extremely low tolerance for foreigners’ learning curve. They often expect someone to magically go from nothing to Runberg-perfect Finnish in one shot, without the transition and mistakes that happen in between. That tends to demotivate people from even trying to learn anything beyond what they need to do their groceries. Basically, Finns seldom do their part of the integration deal.

  13. Mark

    – “Basically, Finns seldom do their part of the integration deal.”

    I’m not looking for someone to blame here, but I think this is partly true. Sometimes its an individual thing, like a spouse refusing to help the foreign partner because their relationship has always been in the foreigner’s language, and so switching, while seemingly being easier for the native Finn, is nevertheless resisted, because the Finn has to also reduce their level of communication to help the foreigner.

    Also, I think that ordinary folks don’t always get the point about foreign learners. When you say ‘Anteeks, en ymmärrä’, or ‘sano uudestaan’, they immediately switch to English or they repeat the same thing at the same speed but just louder! Or just give you the WFT look!!! 🙂

    Well, friends are not like that, of course. The problem is speed. In social situations, you want to communicate as quickly and effectively as possible. Struggling in a language when there is another perfectly good language that you both understand is hard to justify. My friends often switch long before I do. Or, they speak Finnish and I speak English, but then my production skills remain rusty.

    I really really wish there were more resources available. I’d happily pay a hundred euros for decent software that could help me make the leap from intermediate to advanced. But there just isn’t any.

    When you are kids, your parents have amazing patience, telling you a hundred times that ‘this is a table’. 🙂 As an adult, I’m told once and I’m expected to remember it!! And I’m not exaggerating!

  14. justicedemon

    Mark

    There is no dictionary where you can put the conjugated form in and it will spit out the root and meaning, bar Verbix, which works only online and only for verbs.

    You may find this quite helpful.

    In practice I think you are exaggerating the problems of consonant gradation, which only become serious in the rare cases where a consonant disappears altogether and other vowel changes occur (ruuan and maybe mäen spring to mind).

  15. Mary Mekko

    Martin-Eric, my last statement refers to the Santiago immigrant of 17 years who’s living off Finnish welfare, yet complaining that he just has no real desire to learn the language. He was a male, hence the word “His”.

    You must understand also that in English, the dominant choice for all unknown genders has always been the male form, e.g. ” Everyone must decide for himself” (that includes women without specifying them). “Every voter should inform himself before going to the polls”. Etc!!!

    I take issue with any male or female anywhere who spends years in a new country, refuses to put in the effort to know the language, and on top of that, lives off the local people’s sweat! You have to admit that that is really, really, really LOW, despicable, disgraceful & deplorable. If that man or woman brings his/her own money, settles down and amuses his/herself on his/her own dime, well, that is a different story altogether. Plenty of Chinese doing that right here in San Francisco – but they don’t get welfare, they bring money to this economy.

  16. Martin-Éric

    Mary,
    You still fail to address his statement that the whole interior design sector is facing a downturn. Again, it’s not like he wants to be unemployed; it’s not like Finnish interior designers want to be unemployed either.

  17. Foreigner

    You can’t compare San Francisco with Finland. In San Francisco , immigrants are able to get jobs.I have lived in the USA, and I can tell you that on the job market, all the Americans care about is productivity.All they see is the dollar sign!

    In Finland, immigrants can’t get jobs. When an immigrant is employed, he contributes positively to society, and that in turn boosts his self esteem. No one wants to sit on Social Security all their lives: it is demotivating and demeaning. Also, by being employed, the immigrant gets a chance to improve on his language skills, by being totally immersed in the language every day.He then learns practical Finnish, not useless text book Finnish.

    The Finnish government seems to think that spending tons of money on language classes for immigrants, whilst keeping these immigrants unemployed, is the best way to go. I think the US model works better!

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