Thursday 16.07.2020

How to ‘foreign’ in Finland

In August I will celebrate my 10th anniversary as a resident of Finland. Despite having acquired Finnish citizenship and feeling at home in Finland more than anywhere else in the world, I still identify as an immigrant and a foreigner.

Over the years I faced different ‘phases’ in my integration. I had the initial enthusiasm, the depressive phase, the ‘should I stay or should I go’ era, ups and downs alternating all the time. It took me several years to understand what my place in this society is.

While this inner conversation is still emotionally charged, I have somehow found a balance when I realised how much I had allowed myself to internalise the negative narratives around immigration promoted in this country.

I know I am not the only one, as I see the same manifestations in many around me. Many keep feeling like guests and when they grow exhausted with it, they might leave. I believe we have the power to rise as individuals, beyond the labels and up to our potential. I believe we have a lot to give to this country.

These are my advice to take back the narrative and start growing out of the tiny spot that is now reserved for us in Finnish society.

Don’t give up to the “not enough” narrative

Over the years I have compared testimonies of newcomers and they all share a feature: people’s self-esteem inesorably precipitates.

Our diversity is an asset for Finland, even if the country has to wake up to that yet

The first lie you are sold is that you need to learn Finnish language and magically all doors will swing open for you – because this is Finland, the happiest country on earth. In time you realise that no matter what you do, the finish line keeps moving further. Once you have learnt the language, you are unemployed because you don’t have a strong network. Once you have built a network, it’s your lack of experience working with Finnish businesses. An application form you have missed to fill in, a qualification you are missing, there’s always something you are missing to do… or be. Flash news: it’s not you. Expanding your skills and being aware of societal dynamics is useful, but you need to be aware of what is in your control and what isn’t.

Diversity is an asset, not a liability

The public discourse around immigrants in Finland implies that integration requires a huge investment for little return. Inclusion is not charity. Foreigners bring something valuable to the table. We import fresh perspectives, new skills, cultural heritage, and we act as bridges between communities and countries.

Our diversity is an asset for Finland, even if the country has to wake up to that yet. You have to believe it yourself first, if you want others to. Over the years I have accumulated evidence that people with a foreign background shape Finnish society for the better.

Forge your own path

I am someone else entirely when I speak Finnish and frankly, I don’t like her very much.

Don’t let anyone try and fit you in a box. Choose your own labels. Despite the integration flarepath, each of us will face a unique journey to become part of this society. For example, learning Finnish language is an individual decision based on several factors, not a compulsory tickbox. You own your cultural evolution, no one else does. Be the master of your integration path, not a passive element in it.

I have started my life in Finland eager to learn the local language and I have invested consistent time and money for years into it. Then one day I have realised that I will never be able to express my identity in Finnish. I am a different person when I speak Italian or when I speak English. Similarly, I am someone else entirely when I speak Finnish and frankly, I don’t like her very much.

That person will never be able to hold a public speech or defend an argument or write a column like this one. At some point I realised my Finnish skills were enough for my basic needs and I needed to invest my time and money in activities that filled my life with purpose. Maybe you need Finnish language in your career or lifestyle, and that’s okay: pick your choices according to what serves you, not someone’s else plan.

Demand to be included

Reject the “you’re a guest in this country” pathetic narrative. It is not true and even if it was, in my world guests are treated with upmost respect. Do not expect to be invited into spaces, occupy them. Moreover, leverage resources where you can.

I want foreigners in Finland to rise their heads and proudly assert as members of society

As concrete examples, Google Chrome’s translate function allows me to follow some of the local news; Facebook’s translation function allows me to join Finnish-speaking Facebook groups and participate in discussions. There are tools that allow you to break out of your bubble and access important spaces. Assert your existence unapologetically. You are a member and contributor to Finnish society as much as anyone else.

I have walked into valuable meetings held in Finnish language and spoke English. I have convinced schools and associations to offer communications in English beside the ones in Finnish. If I have to choose between giving up active participation or asserting myself, I choose the latter. Things won’t change if we stay silent and keep a low profile. We exist as members of society and human beings, and our existence should be acknowledged.

Keep the door open for others

The most versed racists walk among foreigners. This is because when people overcome a struggle, they always fall in either of two categories: those who want to spare others the pain they went through and those who want to inflict it themselves.

Don’t be the latter. Every foreigner has a unique story, different purpose, personal perspective. Even if we share some labels like ‘immigrant’, ‘expat’, or ‘foreigner’, we should be very well aware that we are a heterogenous community, and we should support each other in our diversity and in the different ways we choose to participate to society. Treasure any struggle you face and find ways to give back to the community.

If we truly want to flip the script, we need to start to see, think and talk about ourselves differently. I want foreigners in Finland to rise their heads and proudly assert as members of society.

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