Kelsi Vaahtojärvi from the United States in Helsinki, Finland. Photograph by Peter Seenan for Finland My Home project.

“Sometimes I default to Swedish when I try to ask for something in a shop”

Kelsi, United States 

“Because of the language requirements for state jobs, among other things, I’ve been also integrating in Swedish. As a native English speaker, the language is much easier.”

I’m originally from New Mexico, in the US. I did my undergrad degree there and it took me years because I studied a bit of everything. I felt I really wanted to move to Europe and thought the UK might be a good place to start so I decided to go to the University of Aberdeen for my master’s, where I had done a ‘study abroad’ during my bachelor’s degree.

When I was in the UK I met my Finnish husband, Iiro, online. While I wouldn’t recommend my way of going about it to everyone, it worked out for me. There is this photo-sharing group called Imgur and and a Facebook group was created to further enable people to socialise outside of the comments. We both joined and, at the start, everyone did a lot of meetups to get to know people in real life. Groups of us from the Imgur Facebook group had been video chatting online and that is how I ‘met’ Iiro before we met face to face.

The first thing he did that really caught my attention was in one of those chats, I had quoted something in Latin from the collection Carmina Burana, basically ‘Come, come, won’t you come’ and he came back with the other line, in Latin. He knew it from a video game, which I didn’t know. It was just so neat that he could respond to that somewhat obscure thing. We organised a meetup for Northern Europe which would happen at Loch Lomond in Scotland. There were people from Finland, the Netherlands, a number of people from around the UK and we went on a camping trip all together.

We first met all together in a big shop where we were going to buy food and drink together for the trip and that is where I met Iiro in person the first time. He was a bit Finnish and wasn’t quite sure how to approach me, so I decided I could be the ‘American’ and just gave him a hug. That was the first time I met him and after the two days he said Finland is not such a bad place and asked if I had thought about considering moving to Finland. I was like ‘sure’… I had no idea about Finland.

KELSI VAAHTOJÄRVI: They tell me they would love to hire someone like me, but then they tend to take a Finn

The only relationship I had with Finland before that was that I had a medieval literature class as an undergrad and I read the Kalevala. But I never put together that Kalevala was Finland. I just remember that I could not pronounce Lönnrot to save my life and the teacher tried really hard to get us to say it. I always pronounced it ‘Lahnrot’. Now I feel a little bad about that. It’s funny, I think I’m one of the only people I’ve met since I moved to Finland who has actually read the whole thing.

Even though he didn’t finish the equivalent of high school here, Iiro has a decent tech job. I turned 33 last year. He is almost 6 years younger than me. I got married in jeans and a hoodie in November of 2012. We were the least dressed up people at our wedding. At that time we did it for legal reasons so that I could stay. We did it at the Maistraatti (Magistrates) on Bulevardi. His close family came and it was really nice. Afterwards we went back to his mother’s house and had coffee and a cake his mother had baked and decorated for us. I had no idea what was going on around me that day at her house, since it all happened in Finnish.

I think I’ve had it easier than many people because Iiro’s English is superb and his friends speak English well so they don’t mind when we all sit down and everything happens in English.

His grandmother does not speak that much English, but she’s always made a really big effort to try and speak to me. She is one of my favourite people in the whole world and probably my favourite person in Finland. She lives in Somero and there’s a lot of the older generations there who gossip amongst each other and it’s almost like being a public figure. We might be at the market speaking English and someone might turn and say, ‘Oh, you must be Rauni’s grandson’s wife! She’s told us all about you!’ She likes to make sure that everyone knows what’s going on and keeps me and all the family included somehow… which is great because I know many foreigners feel excluded. But she has been a huge help for me here.

KELSI VAAHTOJÄRVI: I think I’m one of the only people I’ve met since I moved to Finland who has actually read the whole Kalevala

I don’t come from a very together family. I have not seen one set of grandparents since I was probably 8 and the other ones not at all I think, and I walked away from my dad when I was eleven. I do have my mother and sister and then another person I call ‘my sister’. I talk to my mother every week on video chat. The last time I saw my mom and my sister was at my sister’s wedding in DC in the fall of 2011. That’s hard to some extent.

When I was in Aberdeen as an exchange student the only way to talk to her was with her long distance phone cards and we had to schedule the calls. In 2006, not that many people had webcams and we didn’t have wifi in the dorms in Aberdeen. It was much better when I went for my master’s programme, as technology had advanced a lot. She still sends me emails every weekday and we speak for hours on Saturdays. It’s not that different from living a state apart. Nowadays you can be very close without being in the same place.

My mother tells me that she is really happy that I live somewhere safe. I mean, coming from a place where shooting someone doesn’t necessarily even make the news to Finland where it makes the news when the police have a confrontation where they don’t even fire a shot! I value how easy it is to live in Helsinki, not cheap, but so easy. You can get from place to place and you can get whatever you need, even if life is not always that easy for foreigners.

There are lots of invisible barriers to get jobs, like they expect fluent Finnish even if you don’t really need it. Also, most state jobs require a level of Swedish. Then there are also qualifications that you get by being educated in Finland, which aren’t available otherwise. This is something I’ve noticed at least in the museum field, which is kind of where I am. They tell me they would love to hire someone like me, but then they tend to take a Finn because they feel like it might be simpler to integrate a Finn into the workplace. Finns who get their education here have also been able to network into lower temporary positions. They do the selection blind, but when your education is all done abroad it’s no longer so blind.

KELSI VAAHTOJÄRVI: Since I spend so much of my time speaking Swedish for class, sometimes I default to it when asking for something in a shop

I also have native friends who studied abroad and they’ve had even a harder time to get jobs. I’ve also met lawyers and so on who come here and were then asked to be bus drivers. I don’t really understand why Finland is willing to sacrifice education and skills that these people have.

Because of the language requirements for state jobs, among other things, I’ve been also integrating in Swedish. As a native English speaker, the language is much easier. Learning Finnish was a real challenge for me. I don’t consider myself skilled at languages and I spent hours studying and conjugating. Luckily my husband was willing and able to help, even when the grammar brought me to tears. Nowadays, since I am spending so much of my time speaking Swedish for class, sometimes I default to it when I try to ask for something in a shop for example. It makes me laugh and I also feel a bit bad when the person suddenly gets this look of pure terror on their face. Many Finns of course took Swedish in school and realise that they ‘should’ understand what I’m asking but they have not spoken since high school. When I realise I’ve done that I switch to Finnish, which is usually a big relief for them. It’s hilarious, if completely unintentional.

I got my citizenship about 1.5 years ago now. I have an official level of B1 in both languages. I’ve been told that my Finnish sounds a bit like Yoda, as in my word order is sort of backwards to how sentences are commonly formed. I guess Finnish might have a word order that’s a bit closer to Old English. I’m not offended by it, I actually find it to be an interesting observation.

Other eye-opening stories: 

Kamal, Lebanon: “I would be crying because of the snow and 2010 was the coldest winter, very cold”

Amjad, Pakistan: “I just strongly feel that people need to meet each other. That’s why I wanted to share my story”

Andruta, Romania: “Seeing other women were so comfortable with nudity in the sauna made me more willing to embrace my own body”

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 Kelsi Vaahtojärvi’s story. 

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