Finland Bridge*: Living in Finland

by , under All categories, Enrique

By Enrique Tessieri

Adapting to a country like Finland felt sometimes like sojourning on a long and winding path. Despite the many curves and uncertainties, there was one matter that gave me strength to continue on my journey: My lifelong wish to live in this country. I could have never succeeded by myself and without the friendship and support of so many people.

When I moved back to Finland in December 1978, one of the matters that struck me wasn’t the freezing temperatures but how few foreigners lived in the country. At the time there were under 10,000. Many of them weren’t “real” foreigners since they were native Finns who had become naturalized citizens of another country.

I had many personal reasons for moving back to Finland. One of these was to live in a country that was at peace with itself and was not waging war against other nations. My country of birth, Argentina, wasn’t a very promising prospect to build a home and family since it was ruled at the time by a ruthless military regime that had no respect for human rights. Probably the most important reason of all for moving back here was those wonderful summers I spent in Eastern Finland with my grandparents during my childhood and adolescent years.

Those two-and-a-half months I was with my relatives were like entering a totally different world compared with the mad rush of Los Angeles and Buenos Aires. In summertime near Mikkeli, time literally came to a near-halt.

While I could not place my finger on it, there was something that bothered and concerned me about my new home country. Many years later I figured out what it was. It was the near-total disregard by some Finns, the authorities and laws for my fragmented Finnish ancestry. The law stated that only the children of Finnish fathers had citizenship rights.

You could have probably guessed that my first big disappointment took place at the Finnish Immigration Service, which was then called the Aliens’ Office. A cantankerous official snapped back at me for asking her why I had to go through so much red tape to get a residence permit if my mother was Finnish.

“In our opinion, you are not a Finn,” she said with all the weight of the law. “We are not interested if you are engaged to a Finnish woman, what counts is your mother, who is a Finnish citizen.”

It was a devastating knock-out blow by the official that not only left me in pieces but raised questions about my Finnish identity. Was I a Finn?

Fortunately the law changed in 1984, when my first child was born. Children of Finnish mothers were now granted citizenship as well.

My first big break

Despite the difficulties of readapting to life in Finland (I had lived here for three years as a child), another important matter that helped me pull through those first years was my goal to become a journalist and writer.

I was so convinced that writing was the profession I wanted to pursue that I gave up everything.

Before moving to Finland, I had seen my share of hatred, war and strife to last a lifetime. Writing for me not only a way to express myself but more importantly shielded me from the hostility and indifference of the world. It was a more effective way to change and influence things around you than to seek change through violence.

My writing career began slowly and humbly. I started to publish in small regional newspapers in Finland and I spent much of my spare time writing poems. My first big break came when I was down to my last Finnish mark, unemployed, near-hopeless and seriously thinking about moving back to the United States. Pirjo Pölönen, managing editor of a home magazine called Kodinkuvalehti, published a feature I had written on a Finnish colony in Argentina. It wasn’t the semi-ghost colony that interested her but a timely question that the story asked: Will you Finns accept us?

I almost fell on my back when she told me how much the magazine would pay me for the feature.It was ten times more than what the regional newspapers paid.

There was hope and now proof that I could make a living as a journalist in Finland.

Our new identity

Today, over three decades later, I now understand what were behind those crude words of the Aliens’ Office official who told me that I wasn’t a Finn. I never really believed her because nobody never mind a law can erase who you are. The real culprit wasn’t the Aliens’ Office, but decades of war, hatred and fear that had made Finland suspicious of the outside world, even of itself.

A young woman who spoke to a group of young students last year summarized what I had felt for over three decades in this country. The woman, whose father is black and mother Finnish, said: “The first and foremost matter is accepting who you are and, if possible, reach out to those who loathe you.”

With the rise of an anti-immigration and populist party in Finland in the April election, Finland is going through a critical phase of its history. We could call it “the cultural diversity phase” since Finns are slowly learning to accept and respect other people of different ethnic backgrounds asequal members of society. There is no longer nor was there ever a so-called prototype Finn. We Finns come from many ethnic backgrounds today as we did before.

Even if we speak proudly about the heroism of the men and women who fought against a formidable foe in the Winter War, many Finns with culturally diverse backgrounds are facing a different yet similar kind of war on a daily basis.

It is a war of survival but most importantly for acceptance and respect.

*The column was published in Finland Bridge (1/2012). 

  1. Klay_Immigrant

    I was also born in 1984. I must admit even though we do disagree on a lot of issues, you do have a good heart and intentions but unfortunately in my opinion go about it in the wrong way alienating the very people (Finns) you are trying to reach out to.

    -“When I moved back to Finland in December 1978, one of the matters that struck me wasn’t the freezing temperatures but how few foreigners lived in the country.”

    What I don’t understand about your journey is surely before embarking on permanently living in Finland you did a bit of research and realised beforehand that Finland at the time wasn’t a country of immigration with very few non-ethnic Finn foreigners. You must have noticed it also while spending summers there too. So it really shouldn’t have come as a suprise that as a consequence you would naturally encounter problems in a country not experienced with immigrants.

    Your reasoning for not wanting to settle in Argentina is completely logical but what was wrong with the ‘land of the free’ and pursuing the ‘American dream’? After all you were living in LA at the time. Isn’t that the so called perfect environment you want to turn Finland into? A cultural, racial, and religious melting pot.

    -“Even if we speak proudly about the heroism of the men and women who fought against a formidable foe in the Winter War, many Finns with culturally diverse backgrounds are facing a different yet similar kind of war on a daily basis.”

    A word of note. You are not doing yourself any favours comparing the Winter war to the experience of immigrants in Finland. For a start Finland didn’t ask to get invaded unlike immigrants who voluntarily move to Finland. Secondly a whole country was at stake with it’s people, culture and language at the potential mercy of one of the most evil, deadly and paranoid dictators who ever lived. Is Finland really that bad? Immigrants get housed, fed and given spending money if they need it while soldiers in the War were stuck in trenches during one of the coldest winters on record, freezing to death and battling not only the enemy but also near total exhaustion with limited food rations.

    So please don’t insult those veterans who without them the country would have been ravaged by totalitarian communism as part of the USSR for 50 years and now only have regained independence some 22 years ago.

    • Migrant Tales

      Klay, Finland is not an easy country to figure out. I had lived here as a child for three years and spent all of my summers here. Maybe the problem was that those summers were spent in the country side, which was a different reality than what you could find in the bigger cities.

      Many expat children suffer from the same situation: They see their parents’ home country too romantically. Later on, when you move to the country, reality sets in.

      I chose Finland because it was the most difficult of the three to adapt to.

      How “free” is the land of the free?

  2. joku

    Enrique: “The woman, whose father is black and mother Finnish, said…”

    I wish you (we) would stop using such racist language. Of all places in this blog where we try to become more accepting of others!! Black people can be Finnish, Enrique!

    • Migrant Tales

      —I wish you (we) would stop using such racist language. Of all places in this blog where we try to become more accepting of others!! Black people can be Finnish, Enrique!

      Joku, I think you have read me wrong. Please go back and read what I wrote again.

      Please tell us what is “racist” about what I have written. Thank you.

  3. Mark

    Is Finland really that bad? Immigrants get housed, fed and given spending money if they need it

    If that is your attitude to the needs of immigrants, then yes, Finland really is that bad. Only, thank goodness most officials who work to help intergrate immigrants have a far better understanding of their needs.

  4. Mark

    joku

    Seeing colour is not what makes a person racist. After all, skin colour is a natural enough variation in humans that we all ‘see’. The problem comes in what kind of meaning or status you assign to someone based on their skin colour. Or do you find that kind of conversation makes you uncomfortable? Seems that way.

  5. joku

    Mark,
    I’ uncomfortable with the notion that somebody could write “The woman, whose father is black and mother Finnish…”, and not see a problem.
    This seems to imply that everybody should realise that a father who is black could not be a Finn. (Or that we of course understand that the Finnish mother must be white).
    Should this not read “the woman whose father is black and British and mother a Finn with white skin” etc.
    Face the reality: our Finland is international. Do not persist with the old stereotypes!

  6. Mark

    joku

    Face the reality: our Finland is international. Do not persist with the old stereotypes!

    Are you being serious? Do you read this blog?

    It is shorthand enough to refer to a father who is black and a mother who is Finnish. From that we read the father is a black immigrant and the mother a white Finn. It’s not racist (says Mark rolling his eyes) to make reference to this fact in this way, because it is not demeaning anybody. In fact, the issue is the child and her right to a Finnish identity, regardless of her parents origins. In fact, by distracting from that very important argument to make pedantic comments about the language, I’m assuming you don’t find that very important?`If you do, then please find something more useful to say on the issue.

  7. joku

    Mark,

    I am being serious, very serious in fact. I think it is _very_ important that we abolish old stereotypes, because they are are no longer valid.

    If somebody says someone is black, it should mean just that, color of skin, nothing more. Certainly not that the person then “of course” is an immigrant – not in today’s Finland, anyway. You say this is not demeaning to anyone. Well, I disagree!

    Or that if someone is said to be a Finn, they “of course” are white. There are Finns of all skin colors these days.

    Calling the term Finnish a convenient shorthand for white-skinned is not a good idea, especially when we are trying to abolish racist attitudes and sterotypes in society.

    I know Enrique was not trying to insult anyone, but here of all places we should pay attention to how we refer to others.

    • Migrant Tales

      –I think it is _very_ important that we abolish old stereotypes, because they are are no longer valid.

      Joku, is this what you call colorblind racism? You should be careful, joku. Here is a link: http://abagond.wordpress.com/2008/05/31/colour-blind-racism/

      I don’t think things in Finland have got so good for blacks that we don’t need to point out ethnic background any longer.

  8. joku

    Enrique, I read the text you linked here.

    I think it was your text that was colourblind. You wanted to avoid the word white and just use “Finnish” instead?

    I have no problem mentioning the colour of someone’s skin.

    I was protesting against the idea implicit in your text: black = not Finnish; Finnish = white.
    Nationality and skin colour are not linked, and neither should they be.