Jack Räisänen in Helsinki

“It was very profound and touching to speak in Finnish to my grandfather”

Jack, United States 

I grew up in a small town in Cokato, Minnesota, a northern state in the US. There’s a lot of Finnish-Americans there. Many Finns moved to the United States, especially to Michigan and Minnesota, where they farmed the land. Some of my ancestors moved to central Minnesota, originally from Taivalkoski and Ylitornio.

I grew up in this conservative Finnish-American community as a conservative Laestadian, knowing my ancestors were Finnish and with this Finnish last name, Räisänen. We also had Finnish guests. In the church we would have Finnish exchange speakers. One of my sisters moved to Finland and I realised that even if I grew up with this Finnish-American label I didn’t really understand what it meant to be Finnish. That’s why I moved here. I wanted to discover my heritage and know my family and explore where I came from.

I also wanted to explore the religion that I grew up with. I’m not a member of the religion anymore; I went through a journey exploring the faith and learning more about it to see if that was something that resonated with me and something I personally believed. I concluded that it wasn’t. Most of my friends were in the religious community and there was a division between the ones who believed and those who didn’t, but in school I did have some friends with different backgrounds.

The Finnishness and religion were tied in a packet with a label and people called us “The Finns”. I started asking questions about the religion and the belief system in my younger childhood, like how can we be sure that this is the only correct faith. In my mid-teens I was growing into adulthood and was exposed to many more ideas about reality. There was a specific terminology in my region to talk about “The Finns” and I think there was a disconnect between Finns and the other locals.

The sauna was a part of my childhood that was not connected to religion. My parents and their friends had saunas in their houses. That was one important part of our life and it gave a strong connection to Finland. There were other things that distinguished us [our religious community] from the surrounding society, one thing being that we did not participate in competitive sports. Some families would encourage their children not to participate in movie showings in school and we didn’t have a television, so I guess there was this separation between us and the commercial part of the US culture, if you like. I played church hockey casually and I also played golf.


JACK: Even if I grew up with this Finnish-American label I didn’t really understand what it meant to be Finnish. That’s why I moved here.


My great grandparents were the ones who moved to the US. I think to some extent having the Finnish roots was something I was proud and conscious of, but it was also a common thing in the place where I grew up. Most people I knew were Finnish-American.

I came to Finland for the first time in 2014 when I was 18. I came to study in an opisto [folk high school] in Ranua in late August and I remember that the plane ride was very long and tiring. It was important for me to come with an intentional openness to encounter all the new experiences and I remember just looking around and observing the spaces I was in. I got a scholarship from the church I grew up with; they paid for my airfare and reduced my expenses in cooperation with the school.

There was a group of 14–15 students doing a similar programme. We travelled together to Finland and we met this guy who was the vice-principal of one of the opistos in Jämsä. He was my grandmother’s godson I think, so there were these connections already in place. I just introduced myself and we hit it off straight away.

For me, coming to Finland was not so much coming home as it was just about being in another place that was home. I was in the opisto for about nine months, until the end of May 2015. Ranua is a small place and the school was about 2 km from the town. The school was near a lake and forest and had a beautiful setting. We were 9-10 people in a shared apartment. I shared a room with another student from Canada. We were close and we shared meals in the canteen. I travelled loads in Finland and Europe during that time and got to know more about the Finnish culture and made friends.

I remember one of my first trips in Finland going to my relatives’ place in Taivalkoski. I had been talking to a professor from Finlandia University in Michigan about my upcoming journey and he said he knew some of my relatives in Taivalkoski and gave me their contact details. One of the first weekends I was in Ranua I called them, introduced myself and expressed my interest in coming to see them. So we arranged for me to go there the same weekend, and it just felt like family. It was amazing.

My cousin lives with her family in the place where my great grandmother grew up. Just to see the same scenery she grew up with and walk the same routes was quite profound. The warm welcome by my cousin and her family was very special. Prior to this, neither of my parents had ever been to Finland. My mother, especially, was very touched by what I was going through and very excited that I was exploring all of this.


JACK: There was a specific terminology in my region to talk about “The Finns” and I think there was a disconnect between Finns and the other locals.


There was not really anything that surprised me about Finland, but there was this other thing, maybe a bit unrelated. My friend had organised this trip to St. Petersburg and I remember being immediately a bit resistant to the idea. I started thinking about my reaction and concluded that it must have been for the things I had heard as a child, the Cold War and US–Russia relations. And so when I went there I remember it feeling funny that it was an ordinary city where people went on with their daily lives.

I didn’t speak Finnish growing up, but there were these random words like maito, pulla, sauna, poika. I extended my stay and lived with a Finnish family in Oulunsalo over the summer. After that I moved back to Minnesota. During my last year of high school in the US I applied to universities and got into one in Minnesota to study liberal arts and I was approved for a gap year in Finland. Back in Minnesota after my gap year, I remember that daily life felt dull and I didn’t have this continuous feeling of learning and exploring so many things in my daily life. I had this call to go back to Finland and I no longer felt at home in Minnesota.

I came back in August 2016. It was really good and rewarding. I had to do a lot of work to make it happen and to sort the paperwork, finances and so on. It was really good to come back, but there were also some difficulties. I had built all these relationships in the opisto, but now I was in a completely different part of Finland in Ekenäs, which is mainly Swedish speaking. I had friends in northern Finland and Oulu, relatives in Taivalkoski, but it takes time to make friends and build a social network again.

Now I feel like I have some good friendships. I studied climate change at the opisto and thought it was something I would like to influence. I was looking for studies in English, because my Finnish was not strong enough and I found a programme dealing with sustainability, coastal management, and natural resources that just happened to be in Ekenäs. It seemed like a nice town as well.

I have taken some Finnish courses, but now I learn mostly through conversation. I’m speaking Finnish with my roommates too. I have never considered a life in Finland without knowing the language. I think it’s very important. I have a close relationship with my mother and she’s visited me, but not so much with my dad. I think he has a hard time accepting my choice to go my own path and do my own thing.

I called my granddad the other day and we had our first long conversation in Finnish, his native language. It was his parents who moved to Minnesota. The phone call was very profound and touching. To speak in Finnish to my grandfather, in his native language. It just felt so right. It felt like it was the right language to speak with him in and it fitted his way of expressing himself and his speech rhythm. In this way that seems so Finnish.


JACK: There is a much greater chance to reach the American Dream in countries like Finland, where there is a social welfare system


I was just thinking the other day that that’s something that he has never experienced with his own son. But it’s something I’ve done and the language kind of skipped a generation. My grandfather is 92 years old now. He was amazed when we spoke on the phone and he said to me in Finnish that I have become a real Finn. I think he has a less hard time accepting my choice about the religion than my father and he is critically thinking about things in relation to the religion.

We are 11 children over about 25 years. I think my oldest sister is now 37-38. I’m the second youngest. I was close to many of my siblings growing up and I was close to my family of origin in general, but the friction started to grow with some of my family members when I started expressing my differing opinions, views and thoughts about religion and social issues. As time has gone by I think things have gone better and it does not seem as pressing. With the siblings that are still in the religion we have come to accept each other’s positions. The distance and separation has probably helped.

I intend to stay in Finland. For me the nature and the appreciation of the natural world and environmental things, social justice issues, life-quality and fairness. They were kind of awakening things that I noticed when I first came here with the idea of the American Dream. The idea that everyone can succeed in a monetary way. Then I read and began to learn that there is a much greater chance to reach the American Dream in countries like Finland, where there is a social welfare system.

Social mobility is much greater here and that’s something I value; the social mobility and social fairness. And this trusting other people and the society – even the fact that here in the university area there’s a place where you can hang coats and you can have a pretty good idea that yours will still be there after a while.

 

November 2018  Jack’s grandfather Paul passed away about two months after this interview took place. They had a number of conversations in Finnish before he died. One time the phone didn’t hang up properly, and Jack overheard his grandfather tell some others that “Jack talks just like an old Finlander!”

During another call, Jack explained to his grandfather that he had discovered he was a native Finnish citizen upon his birth in the United States. Jack’s great grandparents had not yet become US Citizens when his grandfather was born in Minnesota and according to Finnish law, this made his grandfather a Finnish citizen. As a result, the Finnish government now legally considers Jack a returnee (paluumuuttaja). Jack was awarded a returnee permit in February 2018 and intends to apply for Finnish citizenship in 2021.

 

Other eye-opening stories: 

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 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 Jack’s story. 

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