Simon, South Africa
Whenever you start something new you have your entire lifetime’s experience to use, but no one else necessarily knows that.
It was April Fools’ day in 1996 that I arrived in Finland – it’s been a very long joke. It was one hell of a journey to get here! I left from Namibia, took an overnight bus with all my stuff and bags to Johannesburg then stayed with my sister. She gave me better bags for my stuff and I took a flight from Johannesburg to Sofia in Bulgaria. It was the cheapest airline at the time. In Sofia one of my bags started to split, but I had a sewing kit so I could fix it. Then I took some Russian Tupolev [aeroplane] to Copenhagen. From there I got a ferry to Sweden and when I got to the train in Sweden they told me I had to pay extra. Thank God I had some Swedish kronas. In Stockholm I met up with my boyfriend, who’s Finnish, and he gave me my first pair of long underwear. It was like ‘Welcome to the Nordics, here’s your ‘pitkät kalsarit’’. The next day we took the ferry from Stockholm to Turku, and from there a train to Rovaniemi, where I met my in-laws for the first time. The next day we drove from Rovaniemi to Salla and that was the first time I really stopped. Salla or Sallatunturi is almost like my hometown in Finland although I’ve lived in Helsinki all the time. My in-laws are from Lapland. In Salla there is a log house that my boyfriend’s father built. It’s on a lake that used to be a fish farm.
The house has an amazing view. We go there all year around. It was built as the family ‘mökki‘. Now it’s rented out for tourists as much as possible. It takes a lot of electricity to run, so the costs are covered by renting. Salla is difficult because it’s really remote. We have to do a lot of work to keep it under rental. My father-in-law died about 8 years ago and we could not bring ourselves to sell the house even if it’s very far away and expensive to maintain when our work is here in Helsinki. As long as we keep it going it’s okay.
I’m from South Africa and in the early 90s I was always very critical of people who left because we had the benefit of great education. They were leaving with all this great education and this drain was bringing South Africa down. I really looked down on my colleagues who emigrated to the UK or Australia or Canada – wherever. We were all thinking of ‘liberation’ and re-building the new South Africa and showing the world what we can do.
SIMON: I have seen really nice papers written and parts of CVs that are completely useless in another country. And I think that was my main task when I came to Finland: to rebuild my cultural capital.
When I met my partner in Namibia I certainly had no plans, but when you are 20-something you meet, you fall in love, and you think that the chances of meeting the right person are sort of slim. Particularly in the gay world because you get less choice. It’s a numbers game and logistics. Then you think if you don’t like it you can come back home and move on. I remembered from some James Bond film that he gets into a gas pipe in Moscow and ends up in Helsinki. So I knew that, even though in my mind Finland was there along with Sweden, Norway and Denmark, it had to have a border with Russia. Otherwise Bond could not have got to Helsinki. Finland has been used in loads of movies that are supposed to be Russia, but I have not been searching for gas pipes in Helsinki.
For the first years in Finland I was fully dependent on my partner for finances. I thought of teaching English, but I was told that they don’t like the South African accent, only the American. I’m a qualified architect and there was no point for me to try and be a teacher. Then I thought if I would try to do it the ‘right way’ it would take a long time, but it could be a better result in the long run. I thought I should focus on learning Finnish, because that’s what I needed. And as an undergrad I would probably be able to build a network. I joined the architects union. Many foreigners I knew from that time, who didn’t do it the slow way, left Finland. They didn’t get a network of Finnish architects and they always felt excluded. It’s still possible to make friendships in your 20s that will last forever. So the ones who didn’t do it the slow way ended up being alienated in one way or another. I had to accept that in those years I would not earn very much, but on the other hand I was building something I call cultural capital. People are motivated by money as soon as they step out the school, but that has never really been my main motivation.
The problem with cultural capital is that it does not move. I have seen really nice papers written and parts of CVs that are completely useless in another country. And I think that was my main task when I came to Finland: to rebuild my cultural capital. I had lost it all. Whenever you start something new you have your entire lifetime’s experience to use, but no one else necessarily knows that. It only comes out when you get a chance to do something and apply yourself. The first job I got in Finland was not because I had lived in another country, but because I had worked as a set designer. The only degree I have that anyone here has really been interested in is the degree I got in Finland. The language that matters is how well I can speak Finnish. All that stuff I had to collect.
SIMON: We had something like a ghetto, a group of 8–10 foreign people. Sometimes we would all talk to each other in Finnish and then, like, a native Finnish speaker would walk past wondering what the hell we were doing.
As soon as you start speaking Finnish you become a Finn and as long as you speak English you are a foreigner. There are some nationalistic Finns, but luckily not that many. It’s not about us and them, the language shapes you and you are the language you speak. If you go to a conference abroad, at some point the Germans will start speaking German to each other and the Finns will do the same and then there’s a split. I quite often defend the Finns because I’ve adopted the Finnish identity. People who don’t live in Finland have preconceptions about Finns. And for many years I had to listen to foreign students complain about Finland. You get so tired of the negative attitude of either visitors or the silly preconceptions of foreigners and then you have to say – well, look it’s not like that.
Finns still might change to English when I speak in Finnish, if I’m tired and my Finnish is terrible. But then I tend to go back to Finnish. You end up with these funny conversations where the Finns speak English to me and I answer in Finnish. We had a lovely situation at the first company I worked at. We had something like a ghetto, a group of 8–10 foreign people. Sometimes we would all talk to each other in Finnish and then, like, a native Finnish speaker would walk past wondering what the hell we were doing. We were happy to brutalise their language.
South Africa was probably one of the most disliked countries in the world during apartheid time, so when you go anywhere you end up having very difficult discussions and almost hiding the fact you are South African. If you are from South Africa you must be a racist – so it’s a difficult identity to have. It was a bit like Finland because we had communists at the border. Finland has the same fear of big and scary neighbours. Finland is always on the edge of Europe, the edge of Russia; South Africa is on the edge of Africa. We don’t see ourselves as the geopolitical centre of the world like the French, the Germans, the English. South Africans and Finns both enjoy nature, hiking, taking things easy and making a plan.
Growing up in South Africa I think you understand how racism is so deeply inside your conditioning. I think anybody who says they are not a racist is lying to themselves. We base so much on face value. I have often noticed on the streets of Helsinki that people who make eye contact with each other are Russians, people from other cultures, who are aware that you have to see who’s there because you can’t assume anything. You have to constantly update yourself and remind yourself and hold your preconceptions in check about anybody you meet. Maybe that’s why I’m lucky being foreign; you have to improvise the whole time.
SIMON: Us gay white men run into the streets demanding our rights to get married, but as soon as we get them then it’s back to shopping.
I think people have preconceptions about other humans all the time. It happened to me that I was in a meeting with two representatives from other companies and the other one was a middle-aged man and the other a much younger woman. I instantly assumed she was an assistant or something until I very quickly realised she was much more experienced than me. So just get that out of your head! It’s very hard to get those ideas from your head, like what languages somebody might talk. Like if you bump into someone on the street who does not look like a white Finn I instantly speak English to them.
I am a white male so I have all the privileges given to people with penises and white skin – so, many. Being white and male were privileges already back in South Africa. It’s a question of what you use the privilege for. If you were, let’s say, a black lesbian in South Africa you have a high risk of being brutalised, murdered, thrown out. Whatever. White male privilege basically goes for everything. And I’m a gay white man: double income, the pink pound, whatever you want to call it. I mean, us gay white men running into the streets to demand our rights to get married, but as soon as we get it then it’s back to shopping.
I’m in a good position, not driving a BMW or living in a penthouse, I’m more interested in my health. But I don’t have to think about money, I know I won’t fall over the edge. I know that if I get much more money it won’t really change the quality of my life. Those things are fine, but other things in life are more important. At my age people start to get more worried about their health. I’m in my fifties now. I had a bigger life crisis in my 20s than my peers. I suffer from the same as everyone else, my social life has reduced because I’m getting older and more comfortable. Here at least I spend my days on a bike or bus; in South Africa I would be in a car or at a shopping center. I was chatting to my sister on Facebook about the bus network here and back home. Here you have a live display telling exactly what bus is arriving when. In South Africa you would need to ask some old lady sitting on a bucket trying to sell you something.