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).