It’s 15 years since I heard the Finnish language for the first time. When I was in junior high school I was really conflicted about my cultural identity. This is very common for people in bi-cultural upbringings and I didn’t feel like I fitted in at home, nor did I really feel like I fitted in at school. At home I was just like “ugh”, when my mum and dad kept telling me to do these things, and telling me the person I should be. I was always really into books and so I started reading about other places.
But the whole Finnish thing didn’t come from a real world face-to-face experience with somebody. It was because I was hanging out on the internet and getting to know people from other places. This random Finnish guy sends me a song and I just listen to it. He told me a little bit about what it was saying and something struck me about it, something about the story behind the song. It was a classic Christmas carol, in the middle of June. For some reason he sent me this song, and I listened to it, and he told me what it said and it just felt like, “wow, there are places out there that have Christmas songs that tell an actual message!” Not the superficial fluffy Santa Claus stuff we get in Canada.
It really encapsulated the feelings I was having about myself at the time. Once I went to university I was a little more on my own, a little bit more freedom to be myself because I didn’t have to go home and deal with mum and dad every evening. The trigger that I think really made me feel, “Okay this is something important to me, being “Finnish” is something important to me” was when I went to a concert by Rajaton (a Finnish vocal jazz ensemble). It was the first time they were performing in Edmonton. I had no idea who they were.
“I didn’t tell my parents I was applying to a Master’s programme in Finland until I needed to ask my dad for a copy of my passport.”
I had never met, seen or been consciously aware of seeing a Finnish person in front of me before, so I was like ‘I need to go to this concert.’ The moment they stepped on stage and started singing I wanted to cry. There was this energy about the music. The funny thing is because I was in a choir I actually knew the layout of the concert hall very well and I was able to sneak backstage afterwards and talk to them. It was kind of interesting, but I didn’t really know what I was doing. This is over 10 years ago now.
I felt empowered after the concert. I was thinking, I really wish I could do more with this group, I wish I could sing with them, I wish I could write something for them to sing. I was also struggling a lot with this latent depression at the time which I could say started in junior high and it was still going on at the time. I guess there was some family pressure in that. One of the things that kept me going during that time was the idea that I should go to this country and see what it’s actually like and I should be with these Finnish people.
I ended up going to Finland for a summer school. After I came back from that it became a little easier to explain my love for Finland, even if people didn’t necessarily understand how far back it actually went. It’s a lot easier to explain to people, “Well, I went there and then I fell in love with it.” That’s a much more common story; so many people have that story.
I felt like I belonged in Finland. The things people expected of me in Canada were not really easy. One of the most striking things that I noticed was that even just the most everyday things made sense in Finland. You know, you go to the supermarket and weigh your own vegetables. You don’t have to get the cashier to do it for you because they don’t trust that you’re actually going to put the right sticker on it. I’m not sure if that’s really a habit I have or whether it’s from my family or the overarching Canadian culture, but I kind of grew up always with this idea that people always want to take advantage of things. My mum was always like, “you have to be careful, people are going to want to take advantage of you, and they will take advantage of you if you’re not careful.” So there was this sort of cloud of being very watchful of things and that you can’t trust anybody. I felt like I couldn’t take any risks. But if I didn’t take any risk I would totally not be anywhere I am today.
“I kind of made a point of not participating in any of the international student activities. I just wasn’t interested. I’m in Finland because I feel Finnish and I want to be with Finnish people.”
My mum and dad are from Hong Kong, but I was born in Canada. I’m not going to say I completely reject their culture, because I acknowledge that there are a lot of things that I learned from them. A lot of values that I still keep, and find important. But there were some things that did not sit well with me. One obvious example that I think is easy to relate to is being introverted and needing time to yourself to just do things on your own. That seems to be an important thing for Finnish people, but I remember when I was growing up there was some pressure to achieve. And there was also this pressure to develop a sociable character so that you can get out and network and move up in society. Moving up in society is very important to Chinese people.
In Canada, in this sort of multicultural environment, people just sort of assume, from how you look, the kinds of values you have. People see me and they say, “you’re Asian, you must have A+ in all your courses”. They have these subtle assumptions about you. My dad has also reminded me of this a lot: you can’t escape the colour of your skin. It’s true, but in a way I would rather be judged by the colour of my skin than be judged by my values. And in Canada it was the other way around. I felt like I was judged by my values because I didn’t have this sort of capitalist race-to-the-top values.
I don’t communicate with my family terribly much nowadays. We send text messages on Whatsapp, but that’s mostly about it. I didn’t tell my parents that I had switched my major to linguistics until the last minute and I didn’t tell them I was applying to a Master’s programme in Finland until I needed to ask my dad for a copy of my passport. I just didn’t tell them anything.
“Sometimes I wish people in the office were a little more social, but that’s just personal preference. I tell people I am a bit of an introvert – I actually am – but I do talk a lot.”
Of course they’re upset! I totally get it! I think my dad has sort of figured it out. He has kind of come to accept, “well my kids are grown up, they have to make their own decisions.” My parents wanted me to have a secure job so I could start a family et cetera. Because they were immigrants themselves. Of course they moved to Canada because they wanted a better life and hoped me and my sister would have better lives.
When I moved to Finland, I kind of made a point of not participating in any of the international student activities. I just wasn’t interested. I’m in Finland because I feel Finnish and I want to be with Finnish people, so I made a point of doing that. I mean, I will freely sing in Finnish and when I graduated I volunteered to do the speech at the ceremony because obviously Finnish people don’t volunteer themselves. So I said I’ll volunteer to do it, and I did it bilingual. I got a friend to translate the text for me into Finnish (I wrote the speech in English) and I read both of them. It was fine. I think people felt like my accent was really good.
Actually people have said that about my accent since forever because I learned it from singing. Finnish is a special occasion language for me. I mean this is really my privilege speaking here; being someone from an English speaking country. Now that I moved to the capital region I am really glad Swedish is an option and I can actually learn Swedish and get my citizenship this way. There would be no way I could possibly use Finnish in a way that I could pass a conversational exam with it.
I moved to Espoo some months ago. I got a job as a technical writer for a language services firm. I generally have to work in the office. The office dynamics are really individual. I mean, it really just depends who you’re working with. One person is a bit older than me and the other one is closer to my age, so naturally I gravitate towards the person closer to my age and we have related interests. It’s really funny, I haven’t even really been in Finland that long but both of these co-workers are one degree of separation away from somebody else I know. It’s really funny; people always say it’s a really small world in Finland but I had no idea I was already in so deep! Sometimes I wish people in the office were a little more social, but that’s just personal preference. I tell people I am a bit of an introvert – I actually am – but I do talk a lot. I’m really opening up to you right now. I’m happy to talk about myself if someone asks me.
Interview by Peter Seenan recorded in Helsinki, Finland in 2017. If you wish to support our work in projecting the voices and achievements of immigrants in Finland please like our Facebook page and share Tuuli’s story.