On being “American” in Finland


Oh dear. I hate to sound like an unique American snowflake in the great socialist North, but here goes. I have been sent links to Tim Walker’s “Bad American Habitslisticle by a couple of people now. The first time, I just laughed at it and explained to the forwarder (non-American, non-Finnish, thought quite rightly that any writings by any Americans might amuse me) that while it was representative of some Americans living in this country, we came from countless different backgrounds and I happened to be from one that did not readily relate to all his points. Then I received it from an American friend who knows exactly what my background is and that, for some reason, made a difference. Enough so that I had to stop and consider my strong gut reaction and write about it, because where else but the internet can alternative voices quickly find a place?

So what is my big protest? I am American. I am not a white Protestant father of Anglo-Saxon descent hailing from the Eastern American seaboard and now living in Finland’s capital city. I am a first generation Taiwanese-American new mother who grew up mostly in Southern California and now lives in a small Finnish port city. Our “habits” before moving to Finland differed greatly and although I understand his points, as spoken by an individual who is widely represented in our home country, he probably did not have to pause to consider that many other Americans who do not relate to him will be lumped together in the minds of non-Americans anyway because, well, that’s what being a minority is all about. Want a quick example? How many people see an article on being lactose intolerant in a culture dietarily obsessed with dairy, or how to ship quality hospital-grade eco-friendly breastpumps overseas and think “hey, that’s American!” Yeah.

While both of our Finnish spouses would probably have little trouble finding commonalities in their upbringing, I find that I am constantly having to admit that my American experience was very much not in line with those of other Americans I would like to meet and befriend in this fair country. This is a situation that I have dealt with since pre-school, so at least I can see the bright side of it as an expat in Finland — I am rather tickled every time a Finn dismisses one of my oddities with “Oh, she’s American” rather than what I know would earn a “Oh, she’s NOT American” back in the good ol’ USA. Most Finns automatically start talking to me in rapid Finnish, then switch over to English without a pause when my 5-year-old’s grasp of their mother tongue peters out. In the States, I’ve had plenty of people try to speak to me slowly and loudly in English before I even opened my mouth, then ask why I didn’t have an accent after I did. Sure I have an accent, I’d say — a Californian one. Overall, I’d say that the Finns seem be trying to include everybody by default, whereas exclusion seems to be the American way.

Kind of a paradoxically self-defeating double standard, it then seems, that I struggle with being categorized with “Americans” by Americans and yet enjoy it coming from a non-American. Except not, in that way where it’s all about context. As expats, it becomes more clear to mainstream Americans just what being an outsider is, thereby making it easier for minority Americans to be accepted into the pack if we happen to be the only ones available. Slim pickings, right? With non-Americans, I know where I stand — irrefutably in the roomy, all-inclusive “non-Finnish” box.

Now, for the sake of being thorough, I will point out where those 5 American “bad habits” differ with this particular American.

Awkward silences. Dude, you obviously have not met my mother. Finns might be comfortable with silence, but Asian-American mothers can turn communicating with it into an art form. Laser eyes, anybody? They most definitely feel that most “Americans” talk too much and mean too little of what they say. We were told as much time and again growing up – don’t just say it, show it through your actions. They would often disapprove of endearments like “honey” and “baby”, saying that it was much better to save the words and show it through a home-cooked meal and decent clothes on your back. Something that I now understand better than ever before, thanks to becoming a parent. We show love through a million small actions and sacrifices, more than words could ever express.

Meaning what you say. Riding right along with the previous point. Except with the caveat of meaning it when you actually like the person. Otherwise, be totally obscure and say anything to get away, then never look back. A lot of the non-touchy flavors of Asian are like that — the more you like somebody, the more careful you are with your words for them. It’s a sliding quality-quantity scale of sorts. My parents before departing from Finland after our wedding, on proper leavetaking procedures with their new in-laws: “Is this the part where we hug them and warmly say goodbye?” It’s not that they aren’t friendly people — they adore the in-laws — they are just naturally reserved. To the point where it often puzzled anybody who wasn’t used to it, Finns included. Heh.

No food left on the plate. No really, you HAVEN’T met my mother. Excuse me as I fall over in convulsions. This was one of the first things I told my would-be hubby when we first had dinner with my parents. Take only what you plan on eating and finish it all. Also, allow room for when my mother will inevitable try to put more on your plate because you haven’t tasted it before and she wants to show her amicability through food. To refuse would be to insult the cook. It is something that I struggle with in my own dining room, since most of my Western guests have no qualms about leaving things on their plates, Finns included. I don’t want to give my children eating complexes, but I firmly do believe in food conservation. Heck, look at my compost bins, full freezers and leftover-eating pets. I am the product of a culture that knows the value of everything on the table and believed in head-to-tail dining before it was hip.

Coffee to go. Okay, aside from not developing the taste for coffee until after high school and not being able to afford Starbucks regularly until much later? In university, you bought that cup so you could have a study spot with wifi for several hours afterwards, amIright? If we bought something, you didn’t expect to see our butts leave until closing time, in many cases. Good times, UCLA, good times. Never had a cup of Dunkin’, sorry. I am guilty of being a fruit smoothie addict, though. Californian, remember? While I rather enjoyed the option of to-go in Cali because I would often be desperately hungry and had to spend most of my spare time commuting (4-5 hours a day sometimes), I took advantage of sit-down service whenever humanly possible. How else to load up on napkins and condiments that would inevitably come in useful in the dorm room later? Nowadays, it’s more about taking advantage of surrounding people distracting my baby while I eat in peace because he is entertained and trapped in a high chair. Priorities, priorities.

Naked people are naked. FWIW, the view I grew up with on this is that we barely even want to see ourselves unclothed if we could help it, let alone other people. If you can afford to cover yourself in a nice outfit with nice fabric, why wouldn’t you? Silly Americans and their swimsuits/shorts/unclothed medical exams. Not because we’re uncomfortable with ourselves, but because being properly clothed is just so much more aesthetic. No, really, I dare you to disagree after seeing a few posts from People of Walmart. Nakedness itself doesn’t bother me one way or another (in SoCal, we have a lot of clothing-optional weather, you’d imagine), but there’s a reason why I list my profession as somebody who wants to put clothes ON people.

Also, one last random note — the whole Finns don’t talk to you thing? Vastly overrated. Maybe it’s because I hang with the Mommy and Me crowd, which is so desperate for adult conversation at times that we are constantly looking for people to strike up talks about spit-up and wake times with. Or maybe it’s because I’m viewed as non-threatening and not immediately identifiable in origin. Finnish old ladies, kids, random dudes, mommies, students… sure, they’ve all struck up conversations. People who I don’t recognize cheerfully waving back on the street as a response to a misdirected hand movement on my part? Yep. A friend and I had a random older Finnish gentleman come up to comment on her baby recently (interrupting a breastfeeding session, no less) while we were eating lunch. Could this have something to do with our not being in the supposedly more antisocial capital? Maybe. Then again, here they say that Eastern Finland is friendlier. Could it be most married male bloggers don’t get guys plopping drinks down in front of them without a word, like another friend (while she was out with her husband, to make things more amusing) did, in a weird but strangely Finnish pickup maneuver? Probably. Was our entire office, Finns and expats alike, once sent a memo to remember to greet each other because we would only say good morning to people we knew or liked? Unbelievably, yes.

So yeah. Just sayin’.

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