Kathy Weidenfeller leading a music rehearsal in Helsinki, Finland. Photograph for Finland My Home project.

I still struggle between frustration with Finland and knowing there are so many good things

Kathy, United States

“It is hard being a single mom so far from home, but at the same time I am glad my kids were able to grow up in Finland.”

I came to Finland in August of 1987, I remember it was rainy and grey, terrible weather. Flying into Helsinki, you could see nothing but forest, and I thought ‘what am I getting myself into?’ The teacher I had come to study with for a year picked me up at the airport, and in the taxi joked that the weather has been like this for the last three years. I remember feeling like I was stepping into an old movie set, stepping back in time.

Before I left the States, I had people asking me why I was going to a communist country. Nobody knew what or where Finland was and it was completely different than it is today. There were few foreigners, and not a lot of variety in the shops. Nowadays, you go to a food shop and it looks like anywhere else in Europe, but not back then. I remember trying to find chicken, and the only thing you could find was a rotisserie ‘broileri’, very salty and tasting of fish.

I tried to speak Finnish from the beginning because I wanted to learn it. I even tried to find a way to study before I left, but I couldn’t. I did manage to get a hold of this little travel book with some basic phrases. Luckily, I was able to take classes at Helsinki University with a very good teacher, which is why I think I managed to learn to speak and write as well as I do. There were a couple of things that motivated me. I didn’t want to be labeled ‘the stupid American’. Also, I looked different, walked different, dressed different, I stood out. Old drunk men wanted to try their 3 words of English on me, younger men would yell, ‘How many babies did your boyfriend kill in Vietnam?’ It was hard to get service anywhere, because no one would even try to understand my broken Finnish, and very few people – even in the stores – spoke English.

KATHY WEIDENFELLER: Arriving in Finland, I remember feeling like I was stepping into an old movie set, stepping back in time.

Still, I felt I had found something unique, especially the Sibelius Academy. I think I was lucky when I came because it was easy to find work as a musician. I always had enough students, and often had to turn down job offers, there were so many. I learned a lot about myself living in a culture different from the one I grew up in.

I originally came for a year, but my teacher suggested I stay a second. I got a partial Fulbright grant to support my staying, and I ended up doing a second bachelor’s concert – I had already finished my bachelor’s in the States, but there was no possibility in those days to do just a master’s degree in Finland – and then completed my master’s degree. I’m now working on a doctoral project, since my kids are old enough for me to have more time.

I met the man who would became my husband towards the end of the first summer. I’ve brought up four amazing kids here, basically on my own. It is hard being a single mom so far from home, but at the same time I am glad they were able to grow up in Finland. They’ve had experiences here that they wouldn’t have had elsewhere, and yes, they had the benefit of a very good education system. It’s cool, too, that they are all interested in music. I love sharing that with them.

In the beginning of the ’90s it was heaven to be a musician here, but things are changing. Government policies have cut into education budgets, a lot of smaller orchestras and youth orchestras are struggling or shutting down. It’s a lot harder for younger musicians to get jobs.

KATHY WEIDENFELLER: I have now spent more than half of my life in Finland. That was hard, actually. I thought about throwing a party, but never did.

I’m very lucky to have a secure teaching position in a small music school. Even so, it’s hard to see the changes being made in the education system as positive. It feels destructive. Hopefully I’m wrong.

I think it’s interesting to see the way younger Americans and other foreigners see Finland now.

Coming to Finland in the ’90s or at the turn of the century, they know a very different Finland than the one I arrived to. I think my history gives me a different perspective, and makes me more cynical.

I’m lucky to live in a ‘rintamamiestalo’ – one of the houses built for returning soldiers in the late ’40s, right next to the ski trails in Lahti. It’s a long commute to Helsinki, but I enjoy living sort of in the woods, and luckily, there’s a great music school here for my kids. I crossed the ‘half-way’ mark a few years ago – I have now spent more than half of my life in Finland. That was hard, actually. I thought about throwing a party, but never did. I think it was an identity question. I don’t consider myself Finnish, but I also know I’m not the same person I was when I left the States.   

I do feel like I’m fairly integrated. I have a job, speak Finnish well… but I’m still the foreigner. It’s hard to make friends, both because of my job hours and commute, and because it’s hard making friends in Finland. I do have Finnish friends, and I probably keep to myself more than I should, but it still gets tiring at times to ‘let my hair down’ in Finnish. There is a group of American expats here in Lahti that get together from time to time, and it’s nice to be with a bunch of people who understand where you come from. I still struggle between frustration at living here, and knowing that there are so many things that are good about Finland.

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. If you wish to support our work in projecting the voices and achievements of immigrants in Finland please like our Facebook page and share Kathy Weidenfeller’s story. 

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