Migrant Tales Literary (Suomen Silta 1990s): Mistaken identity

by , under Enrique Tessieri

We don’t see thins as they are, we see things as we are.

Anaïs Niin

The date and year are not important, but it is a weekday, not too long ago. Spring has arrived and spreads its magic to these sub-arctic latitudes after a long slumber. Leaves are budding everywhere; trees are stretching out their branch tips like a human with their arms upon awakening. The full moon, which seems like a white hole peeking into the darkness, shyly lightens the night as it follows you with thin clouds moving beside it, like waving silk in the sleepy wind.

I am driving alone on the motorway from Porvoo to Helsinki amid these ebon landscapes overflowing with beauty. Even if the night has robbed the forest of its individuality because it is now a solid clump of varying hues of darkness, everything is not what it seems…

Source: Statistics Finland.

We see things as they are

Like the dark forest teeming with life on the motorway to Helsinki, it is made up of infinite particles of matter and spontaneous events. It is very much like an image of our culture, also made up of individuals and endless intentions.

When I moved to Finland in 1978, my ethnic perceptions of the Finns did not differ very much from what was common knowledge at the time. The way we saw ourselves as a people and a nation had very much to do with the geopolitical circumstances of the cold war. Even if we were culturally hamstrung by such a reality, our political leaders, ethnographers, linguists, and others added to our sense of isolation.

On the foreign policy front, Finland did not officially belong to the East of the West. It was in a no man’s land reaping the best of both worlds. Linguistically and ethnically, we considered ourselves distant from the rest of Western Europe as well.

The forest is a mysterious place because its identity changes constantly. Photo: Enrique Tessieri

How many times as a child had I heard from my relatives that the Finns are a people that are not related to anyone in Europe except for with the Sami, Hungarians, and Estonian?

Ethnically speaking, the cold war was the most castrating period in Finland’s search for its cultural identity. Through the difficult circumstances of Superpower politics, Finns lost contact with their ethnic relatives like the Estonians, Ingrians, and in many ways with the children of the hundreds of thousands of Finnish migrants who lived abroad.

If it were for the parents of these migrant children, who encouraged them to visit their grandparents in Finland during summer, such cultural bonds would not have been lost forever.

It does not surprise me that even after the Soviet Union’s fall from grace in the last decade, some policymakers in the country are slowly acknowledging a new group of Finns called the New Finns. What these bureaucrats do not understand, however, is that these so-called New Finns have always existed but had not been acknowledged by the authorities.

Things as we are

One of the first scientific books given to me on Finland was written by social policy professor Heikki Waris. In his good on the Finns, he stated that one of the outstanding features that characterized Finland was its homogeneous population.

But how ethnically and homogenous it is? At the time of Wars’ statement, close to one million Finns lived as migrants outside of Finland’s borders. What about the children of these Finnish migrants, who grew up in both cultures, and kept strong bonds with Finland by visiting this country regularly during the summers?

Possibly Wars’ claim could have shed more truth if it read in the following manner: Finns are not ethnically homogenous but have been made culturally homogenous through the circumstances of history, geography, and geopolitics.

Some studies now claim that Finns are not ethnically isolated as previously believed and that they are quite “mixed” genetically with other groups in Central Europe.

The US government asked American anthropologist Margaret Mead after the bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese in 1942 to carry out a national character study on the new nation America was at war with. The reasoning behind the study was to bring forth some “national traits” of the Japanese so that the US could wage a more effective war against its new foe.

The so-called national character study by Mead did not bear any fruit and concluded that it was impossible to produce a clean list of traits that characterize the Japanese. On the contrary, Japanese culture is made up of an infinite number of sub-cultures and, therefore, impossible to categorize stereotypically.

Considering that Japan must have been a much more isolated country at the time when compared with Finland, what would have Mead’sconclusions been if she had done a similar study of the Finns?

To go back once again to the sublime forest and night that hugs the motorway from Provoo and Helsinki, who can seriously say that there are not an infinite amount of factors at play in creating such a state of beauty?

We must also begin to see ourselves as we are, and not like historical and geopolitical circumstances have dictated in the past.