The perfect Finn (whatever that means)
Updated: May 12
This is a brain teaser for many people. Who is the perfect Finn I refer to in the title of this post?
Well, surprise surprise, it’s ME. Yes, that’s me: the perfect Finn.
I bet you didn't guess that one. Many people, even well-intentioned friends and colleagues, would argue with me. And believe me, they have. It seems counter intuitive: how could I, an immigrant to Finland, and someone who will never, ever, reach maximal fluency in Finnish (whatever that means) be a perfect Finn? To many, I am and always will be:
Someone who just doesn’t understand how we do things here.
Someone who can't even speak proper Finnish.
Have I got news for you: I do get it. And no amount of othering or language shaming or showing me the metaphorical--or literal--hand can take that away.
I am a perfect Finn, I just happen to be a perfect Finn who speaks English and was born in America.
I have spent the majority of my life in Finland, starting at the age of 16. Major components of my identity, of course, are American—whatever that means. I value those parts of myself and will never apologize for them. But at the same time, when I look backwards at my life, I observe that my ethos and values were formed in no small part through my early experiences in Finland.
Let me explain.
I grew up in an LDS village in Utah. Everything—everything—in my childhood revolved around the Mormon experience and Mormon values. This is not the time or place to go into details, but let’s just say: I saw some really messed up shit. Like anywhere else, there were really good, wonderful, kind people, and there were also people who were doing really messed up shit to their kids, to other people, to their business partners, and so on, but no one talked about it. These people would show up at church on Sundays just like everyone else did, paste on a smile, and sit on a church pew with their family on display. It was the social norm.
I found this all very confusing. During my upbringing, there was a lot of talk about good and evil, and it didn’t make sense to me that people could do evil things and still be considered good people because they showed up at church on Sundays.
My experience is nothing unique, and anyone who has grown up in a devout religious community probably has similar stories. But this story is about me. During my childhood, my worldview was that being a good person meant being a good Mormon. Whatever that means.
I lived in Finland for one year as an exchange student, staying with four different families, in the 1980s. Koivisto was president then. It was the Cold War. None of the people I lived with or knew at that time were Mormon, but, wow, they were good people. They were good to me, they were good to their children, and they were honest in a way I had never seen before. And also: they were unapologetically not religious. Like, at all. It seems so self-evident now, in retrospect, but at the time this was a revolutionary concept: it was possible to be a really good person without being a really good Mormon. The value system I had learned as a child was turned upside down.
The year I spent in Finland was a formative one, and the things I learned and witnessed rooted deep in my character. I learned to value education and learning. I valued hard work. It became important to finish what I set out to do, but not with too much commotion, and certainly with no drama. The Finnish ideals of gender equality, the separation of work and family, the respect for differences and for autonomy—all starting with the home, childhood and family—resonated for me. I suppose it is no surprise that, in the long run, I ended up living, working, and having my own family in Finland, a place where things just make sense to me.
Being a perfect Finn does not mean looking a certain way or speaking perfect Finnish. It means a lot of different things, including sharing a set of common values and priorities. I share those values and priorities. The lessons I learned from my process of becoming Finnish come up again and again, sometimes in rather unpleasant ways, and it's time to issue some reminders.
It is possible to be a really good Finn and be born somewhere else. It is possible to be a really good Finnish without speaking really good Finnish. It is possible to be a good Finn without looking like you just walked off the cover of an Elovena box. I am a perfect Finn, I just happen to be a perfect Finn who speaks English and was born in America. (For the record, I have been a Finnish citizen since 2012, but that is beside the point.) My husband? He is a perfect Finn who happens to have been born in Sweden. My daughter – now there is a perfect Finn. She is a beautiful, inquisitive person who happens to speak Finnish as her third language. (You are welcome, Finland, that we supplied you with such a wonderful citizen and future taxpayer.) My daughter’s friend, too, is a perfect Finn: born in China and now in every way part of a Finnish family and community. Same thing for her very best friend, who came to Finland from Iraq, via Sweden: she is a perfect Finn—as perfect in her story as my mother-in-law. My mother-in-law, what a woman! She grew up on a farm in Lapua and for a time shared her childhood home with a refugee family of three from Karelia, along with their cow, Rusina. They, too, probably turned out to be terrific Finns, especially Rusina.
I could go on, but I'll stop. We are all perfect Finns, whatever that means—and everything that means. Finland has always been a place at the crossroads of languages, ethnicities, religions and cultures. To deny that is to deny history—or to willfully refute it, and I don't have the patience for that. The current era is nothing historically unique. It is time to deal with it and move on.
Which, by the way, is another thing I learned in Finland: deal with it. We didn’t win the Winter War by sitting around complaining.