In sixth grade I did a genealogy project where I had to make a family tree. The overall goal was to gain an understanding of where my family came from and what sorts of traditions that we had as a result. It’s safe to say that, like many Americans, most people in my class listed off countries where their families came from with ease, as well as introduced certain customs and beliefs practiced in their households that somehow survived the test of time. As you could probably guess, I listed off my family’s origins, but focused on Finnish traditions (mostly recipes from my mom’s side of the family).
When I was younger, I attended First Apostolic Lutheran church with my grandparents. Most of the families that attended the church had Finnish last names, family living in areas populated by Finnish settlers (namely the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and Minnesota), and some unquestioned loyalty to their Finnish heritage, often exercised by placing stickers on their cars announcing their Finnishness to the world, a fascination with hockey and a general knowledge of what SISU really means. I mean, we even had visiting ministers that gave the service in Finnish, then translated into English. You don’t get more authentic than that.
So, I always identified myself as Finnish, even though I knew that I was also Swedish and German and French and Italian and English and Welsch and Dutch and Irish and probably any number of other things. It’s quite common to do so in the States. It’s also common to selectively choose your identities to reflect what is desirable or what may be advantageous for you (think of being Irish on St. Patrick’s Day). Being Finnish meant that I was different than most of my friends. It gave me an opportunity to explain my understanding of Finland and its customs to others, some of which didn’t even know Finland was a country, let alone where it was located in the world.
I never thought I would live in Finland. I applied to University of Helsinki and was accepted. My motivations for applying are many and varied, from not knowing what I wanted to do after graduation (quite possibly the reason carrying the most weight) to knowing that I would save a lot of money (given the free tuition) by attending. My Finnish heritage was also a reason and one which I made a point to include in my application materials. My mom had cousins that have lived in Finland for varying amounts of time, so it seemed logical to pursue a dream that had roots in my own personal history.
It’s become increasingly clear since coming to Finland that proclaiming I am Finnish results in raised eyebrows and a series of questions that I simply don’t have the answer to. Where in Finland is your family from? I have no clue. So, you’re Finnish, but you don’t speak the language? Yep, I would agree. Your family recently came to the States, then? No, not exactly… Unless you count 1900 to be recent…
Essentially, my idea of Finnishness was made possible by understanding that such things are acceptable in the States. Through conversations with my friends and peers, it’s become clear that tracking one’s heritage is an inherently American concept. Rather than ignore other cultures, we are taught in school (sometimes through exercises like my genealogy project) that other cultures carry weight and significance and should be respected (though there is certainly much work to be done in this area). This is not to say that people in Finland do not do this; there are instead more practical applications, like when someone moves to another country when they are young or knowing that your grandparents lived elsewhere before moving back to Finland before you were born. It is simply not as common to know the history of your family tree countless generations into the past.
If we deconstruct this a bit, we can see that my Finnish identity in America was significant in that it was exclusive and it was almost unquestionable. This was then reversed when I came to Finland and really started opening up and explaining my motivations for being here. It’s not a bad thing, per se. It’s just a new way to look at my identities.
It’s also interesting that I never really considered my American identity until I left the country. It’s frustrating at times to be labeled “the American” in a group, given certain stigmas associated with being American. I think that my American identity is most potent internally and I realize this most when thinking about certain issues or ideas, like healthcare or poverty. As I have learned in class, identity construction is a lifelong process and I am definitely in a period of transition in terms of some of constructing and reconstructing my strongest identities.
It goes without saying that moving across the world can be quite trying. If you ask my parents, you will find that moving a few blocks in Chicago may be near the top of the list of things that I find most difficult. But moving here was pretty seamless. I am beginning to realize that I am being tested in unanticipated ways. For instance, I am struggling to learn how to relax without the constant pressure and demands of jobs and coursework and extracurricular activities. I am also at odds with myself at times, internally debating what I am and what I am not, what I do and do not believe in, questions that are often unintentionally raised in my lectures. I think the aim of education is to inspire you to question and to make your own conclusions about things, so I guess I must be doing something right.
Though my idea of my own Finnishness has changed, I think that this is an important step in learning about myself. I feel like I am constantly negotiating my identities, but I’m quite okay with this. One of the things that I most hoped for in partaking in this experience was to gain a broader worldview, and I think that I am well on my way.
Edit: An earlier version of this post stated that I attended Laestadian Apostolic Lutheran Church. To clarify, I attended First Apostolic Lutheran Church.