Cultural identity and where you feel at home are intriguing concepts, particularly for those in multicultural families or jobs that take them regularly to new countries for long periods of time. Although my own situation is much simpler, having lived almost as long in my new home country as in my country of birth, I find my own identity difficult to define. I spent my childhood and youth in Finland but most of my adult life I’ve lived in the UK where I settled after finishing university. (As an avid Anglophile, where else would have I gone?!) I found moving abroad and figuring out how everything worked mainly exciting although I’m sure there were plenty of frustrating and annoying moments as well. However, once you have a home, work, and a (real-life) social network, you can just roll with life, especially as a carefree young adult!
Despite keeping in close touch with my family and old friends, I wasn’t actively looking to meet other Finns in England and I rarely took part in events organized by the Finnish church, groups, and societies. (That hasn’t changed much since the early days.) The way the British working culture, services, councils, tax office, and utility companies operated first became understandable and later “the norm”. You could say my life is now as British as it can be in a culturally and ethnically diverse, international university city where my friends are like a miniature UN, coming from so many different countries. Because of all this, I would describe my main identity as Anglo-Finnish-European with a slight global twist. Customs, habits, and traditions are happily mixed together, and shaped and honed by experiences, friends, and travels.
However, after regularly flying between Finland and the UK for almost two decades, I have noticed a curious and slightly amusing phenomenon that I can best describe as an identity switch. It turns out the Finn in me, usually quietly observing at the background, makes a grand entrance when I arrive in Finland. Similarly, when I return to the UK, the Brit in me wakes up and puts the Finn to bed. “The Cultural Mongrel” identity takes over a couple of days later when I’m fully back in my normal life. The change is not quite like a flick of a switch but close enough!
The first moments in Finland always feel a bit disorientating but surprisingly quickly I feel at home again. The Finn in me is awake and understands the Finnish psyche! People’s behaviour in different situations, the unwritten rules, and the way life runs make perfect sense even if I’d normally behave very differently myself. I soon get used to the long distances in a car (not that I necessarily like it!), quiet roads, and the seemingly never-ending forests and countless lakes by the roadside; I understand the fascination for mushrooming and berry picking; I find forests relaxing and think it’s perfectly normal that an elk, bear, or even a lynx can be close by when you walk in the woods. In fact, I saw my first ever wild lynx crossing a country road near my parents earlier this month – a pretty amazing sight as the big cat is so elusive!
In Finland, having a coffee means drinking it from proper cups and sitting at the table that is laden with all kinds of goodies. Silence is just part of the conversation and not a sign of an awkward social situation. (However, I talk a lot so gaps are rare anyway!) I can easily have a sauna on a daily basis and swim in the lake if it’s summer (winter swims have always been a big NO), and I can’t wait to almost over-indulge in salty liquorice, Karelian pasties, or smoked salmon. I don’t even look for wine in a supermarket but head straight to the (very well stocked) off-licences with their knowledgeable staff. Although I have no particular interest in interior design I even stop to admire and touch Marimekko, Iittala, and Arabia tableware or textiles. However, I draw the line at Moomin products! If I’m in Finland for Christmas, Midsummer or May Day Eve (all big festivities over there) I take part in the celebrations with gusto like everyone else. The country has of course changed over the years and there are concepts I have no idea of in Finnish but I dare claim I can still pass as a proper Finn when I’m out and about. I even wait for the green man at the pedestrian crossing, even if there wasn’t much traffic.
Then I return to the UK and the Brit in me takes over. I feel I’m at home when I see the green fields with their sheep and surrounding hedgerows as my plane is approaching London; I feel at home when I hear the familiar accents in railway station announcements, even when the message is about a cancelled or delayed train! I love how people queue to board buses and trains; I love the English pub culture and how everyone instinctively knows when it’s their turn at the bar and who was before them.
The person who happily sat in a sauna every night doesn’t even think about saunas, let alone miss them. Karelian pasties are replaced with English muffins, and coffee is slurped from big mugs on the sofa. I’m surrounded by different nationalities and languages when I walk to my favourite coffee shop or grab a bottle of wine from a supermarket – and cross the road when and where it seems safe to do so. My home is not – and I don’t want it to be – a showroom for Finnish interior design although I’m happy to mix the presents I’ve been given with (colourful and quirky) glass and tableware from elsewhere. I forget or don’t bother with the Finnish festivities, and I don’t cook traditional Finnish foods, even for Christmas. (However, it may be worth pointing out that I rarely cook anyway and traditional dishes of any country are not my strong point!) I’m glad I have two places where I feel at home, albeit in different ways. I don’t miss one when I’m in the other, I simply make the most of my time, whichever country I’m in.