Some past and present reflections of life in Finland

by , under All categories, Enrique

By Enrique Tessieri

In 1984, a groups of foreign students published a critical book of life in Finland called Strange days – the experience of foreign students in Finland. Some claim that the content of a good book can withstand the unrelenting hand of time. How would the reflections of being a foreigner in Finland sound if we read Strange Days today?

The front cover of Strange Days published in 1984. The drawing shows former Aliens' Office head Eila Kännö inspecting a black person applying for a residence permit. The drawing is by Rabbah Boussuira..

Those who moved to Finland in the 1980s or earlier can appreciate that matters have improved a lot from those times thanks to EU membership and new laws like the Constitution (1999), Nationality Law (2003) and Non-Discrimination Act (2004).  Even though there is no mention that we are a multicultural society in these laws, they do show greater sensibility to minorities and acceptance of cultural diversity.

Finland passed its first Aliens Act in 1983, or about 65 years after the country gained independence in 1917. Finland did not have immigrants at the time since foreigners were officially called aliens (muukalaisia).

Below are a few quotes picked from Strange Days published 26 years ago. Are they still valid? You be the judge:

The game of cultural politics remains heavily skewed against the “ulkomaalainen” (literally “from outside the country and in a deeper sense, from outside the world). Finnish culture is tight-knit, to be in Finnish society is vastly different from being inside Finnish borders among Finns. Quite appropriately, outsiders are administered by the Ministry of the Interior. Foreigners who live peacefully for many years here are usually outstanding individuals, and only gradually do they begin to grasp how literally the meaning of outstanding has been taken: they are required to stand outside, both in the abstract sense of social and cultural participation and often in concrete matters like housing and admission to restaurants. Greg Moore and Adrián Soto, pp. 5-6

How many times I have listened as my dark-skinned friends tell of the Finns’ awkward, insulting and violent behavior towards them. Almost every time I walk through the streets with one of my more “foreign” looking companions, some Finn figures out a way, more of less grossly, to emphasize our otherness, our foreigness. Therefore, the fact that I have white skin has definitely helped me survive here; however, my disillusion has definitely grown since I became aware of this. Steve Huxley, p. 9

But if you look deeper into Finnish society you will find a type of covert racism which is waiting to lash out as soon as the size of the foreign and minority population increases. Enrique Tessieri, p. 12

Even though Finland's immigrant population has grown by ten times since 1984, when Strange Days was published, the ongoing one-sided debate on immigrants makes this drawing still valid by Rabbah Boussuira.

…most of their history Finns have been dominated by foreigners. First the Swedes came over in the twelfth century and more or less bullied the Finns into accepting Christianity and fighting their wars against the Russians for them. Then the Russians took over and did more or less the same thing until 1917, when Finland ducked out the back door and declared independence while the Russians were distracted by revolution at home. The Finns had their own civil war in 1918 and one issue was whether the country should be run by foreigners in the future or the Finns themselves. The Finns compromised on democracy and independence, leaving foreign kings and international revolution to others. Ahti Tolvanen, p. 35

We Finns are not taught to express ourselves orally. Teachers have insurmountable problems in making their students speak. This is due in part to fear of exposing oneself to criticism. Thus, shyness, a strong faith in authorities, and the feeling of personal insignificance, result in emptiness in the head and an inability to speak after the long, silent years of infancy. Children should not receive too much attention, you know, as this would only spoil them and make them too self-confident. The best is to subdue it (i.e. the child) as thoroughly as you can, then it will eventually turn out to be a respectable, humble citizen. Maaria Seppänen, p. 47

  1. vincebel

    The last chapter is intersting. I found (but i cant find where anymore) a link about the PISA tests. Finland was first in many subjects but were among the last in expressing opinions.

    I can see that with my girlfriend and especially with my ex ;). A small discussion ended in yes, no or leaving the room cos there was an unability to express an opinion, or to argue about a topic.

    Or maybe its a girl thing all over the world 😉

    • Enrique

      –Or maybe its a girl thing all over the world 😉

      …or maybe that is the way people argue in this culture: silence – I am not talking to you! 🙁

  2. Yossie

    Did you actually quoted yourself there?

    anyways, one really really have to understand the cultures are not samekind everywhere. Finland just happen to be very reserved compared to some other cultures. Now saying we should be way more inclusive is, in my opinion, trying to change our culture and trying to make it more like some other. Basically your saying finnish culture is flawed and mine is better.

    This reminds me of a story I was told when I was about to go to my foreign exchange. There was this finnish women send on a work tour in some latin american country? cant remember which, but the culture was very inclusive. She was supervising local workers related to the project. Now there workers always invited her to all the parties and events they had. However she wasnt too enthusiasted to join all these event and rather rest after the work. This I heard caused some problems and people got upset due to cultural differences in this case. So what I would like to say is that level of inclusivness there is in finnish culture is a way less compared to some other cultures and people should accept it or very least not expect them to be invited everywhere right after meeting someone. Finnish just happen to need time to get know people before they come buddy buddies.

  3. Enrique

    Even if these points were made in 1984, a lot of things have changed in Finland for the better. Finns are more acceptant and are debating openly a social ill like racism. This is a positive matter that should not be forgotten when comparing 1984 with 2011.