I moved to Finland in July 2016. Much of why I’m here is down to Mel. I first met Mel when I was studying in the US at Michigan Tech. In Michigan there is the largest concentration of Finnish Americans in the country. That part of Michigan is different from the rest of the state. There is a general sense of hospitality and although culturally it’s not one hundred per cent like Finland, it still much more closely resembles Finnish hospitality and friendship. The Finnish part of Michigan is the friendliest place you can go. I was aware of the Finnish diaspora when I was living in Michigan because it was a bit of a hobby of mine to study history. I did as much as I could in school.
“People here ask me often if Trump’s the reason I came”
Mel had always been talking about Finland. It’s funny because whenever I went over to her place she would start talking in Finnish. I never had any idea what she was saying and I made up this game that whenever she would talk Finnish I would just randomly interpret and mess around with the meaning. Sometimes I really tried and I would get relatively close.
I felt that Finland could be a place where I could live after I visited here in 2015. Mel tried to get me to join her after she moved, but it was not financially possible. The cost of airfare and all that made it impossible. When I did visit we went up to Oulu to the Air Guitar World Championships. Mel also drove us to Rovaniemi so that I could see Santa Claus. On the way back we stopped here in Ii because Mel had already been talking about this, planning to buy it. When I first came here it reminded me a little bit of a town I knew when I was growing up near Detroit, called Gaylord, with about 10,000 inhabitants. The mindset here is very much that you don’t care what other people are doing – in a good way. I’ve seen that in Helsinki and all over Finland.
How I went from a holiday here to living here is a bit complicated. I started to fall in love in Finland when I first came and I was thinking I would like to make this an annual thing. Back in the States my yearning for Finland kept growing and I tried to find ways to come back more often. I thought that I could try and apply for school here, or see if it was possible. I asked Mel to tell me everything about the process and how to get here, what I had to pay and so on. Mel said to me, “Steele, you know the school is free?” I was astounded. My first reaction was, “NO!” The cost had been the biggest issue I’d been trying to work out. At that point I started to do a lot of research. Mel was here in Ii and I found out that Oulu was the closest city, so I began looking for something to study there in English.
“My father could not accept that I’m gay”
I’ve travelled to almost all the states in the US, I like to travel. People ask me why I left America for Finland, but for the first time in a very long time I feel that I’ve found home. I love being outside and the whole Finnish culture embraces that, even in Helsinki. You can be outside the city in 15 minutes, or out in the Baltic kayaking. I don’t know many big cities in the US where you can escape so easily. Finland has done a good job making sure that people’s need for nature is not lost. The people are caring and helpful. The biggest thing that I can’t get over is learning Finnish. I mean, I can sometimes understand everything but one word, and then I don’t know what the other person said. Then Finns would say, “Oh my God, I’m so sorry,” but I think they shouldn’t apologise. I am in their country.
My mum passed away when I was 10. I don’t talk anymore to my stepdad. My grandmum has always been very supportive and she is actually now just happy that I’m not in the US because of Trump. People here ask me often if Trump’s the reason I came, but I was here before Trump. I think in some ways it was easier to leave because there was no one in the US relying on me. I now see Mel and Shawna as my family. Mel has probably done more for me than my family has done. She is like a sister. I have moved past the fact that my father could not accept that I’m gay. There were other problems, but I know who he is. I just finally said no, I’m not dealing with that anymore. I tried to do my best, everything a son is supposed to do. I know where he lives and everything, I think I spoke to him very briefly when I was on the plane leaving. I told him I was moving to Finland.
“It was easier to leave because there was no one in the US relying on me”
I think it’s much easier being gay here. I mean, even the modesty in the US compared to Finland, you can’t even talk about it. It took me a while to deal with it. I thought I was pretty good and I accepted myself, but the first time I went to a sauna here Mel was like, “okay, strip.” And I was like “okay, WHAT?” She explained you go to the sauna naked. “YOU DO…?” I said. In Michigan we had a sauna and but we kept our shorts on.
I hope to get to stay here after my studies are over. I have a boyfriend here and I’m working on a sports bar thing [project] in Oulu with my friends. One thing I love about Finland is that if there is an issue, people call it out, they’re proactive. Americans just kinda go, “It’s not my fault that this happened. The tree fell over there in the driveway but someone else will deal with it.” Nobody says it for what it is in the US, but Finns act.
Andruta: “Seeing other women were so comfortable with nudity in the sauna made me more willing to embrace my own body”
Amjad: “At the reception center, we had an invitation from the sauna society and nobody wanted to go, except me”
Greg: “I feel alive, instead of being stuck in some really monotonous routine”
Interview by Peter Seenan recorded in Ii, 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 Steele’s story.