Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Immigrant or New Finn?

The following is an opinion piece which I wrote for the most recent edition of the New World Finn.

People have been migrating from place to place for thousands of years, in search of opportunity, safety, or even just new horizons. I relocated to Finland from the U.S. five years ago. In my case it was for new horizons. I had recently married a Finnish woman and we decided to pursue our future together in her home country. Having spent time in Finland previously, as an exchange student and as an assistant teacher in a preschool, the country and its ways were not entirely unknown to me. I have spent my time here productively, first in an immigrant education program, then at work as a bartender, and now as a graduate student at the University of Jyväskylä. I have gradually learned the subtleties and nuances of the culture and society in which I am living. Now that my wife and I are expecting a child, I have started to think about my place in this country that I have come to know as home. It is time for me to make a choice. Should I remain merely an immigrant or should I become a New Finn?

In making my decision to relocate to Finland, I joined a group of approximately 120,000 people who have decided to do the same. We come from a variety of places including Russia, Iran, Somalia, Turkey, Thailand, China, and Afghanistan as well as from other countries within the European Union. Approximately 4000 of us received Finnish citizenship every year. The face of Finland is changing.

With immigrants come change, and quite often, the unfamiliar. This is perhaps most noticeable when dining out. Cuisine from around the world is readily available. One of our family’s kesämökki (summer cabin) traditions is to order takeout from the Mekong Café, - a Thai place located in Haukkala, which is a tiny village in Etelä-Pohjanmaa. A quick phone call and a short drive through the countryside of barley fields, birch trees, and old hay sheds, and we have pad thai and other southeast Asian delights for lunch. Sisu and sauna – make way for spring rolls! With time, the unfamiliar becomes part of daily life – something to celebrate rather than be suspicious of.

As the population changes, we all seek ways to redefine ourselves. Finns have to rethink the questions “What makes us Finnish?” and “What is best for the future of Finland?” Those of us who have moved here also have some thinking to do. “Am I going to stay here or am I going home?” For some of us - the refugees – returning home safely is not possible. For those of us who do have an option, there eventually comes a time when a decision must be made.

Shall we be immigrants (maahanmuuttajat) or should we become New Finns (uussuomalaiset)? These are the choices that we foreign-born face. Should we cling to our own languages and cultures and hope that our stay here is temporary? Or should we become comfortable with the fact that this is where we live and that this is where we must forge a future for ourselves and for our adopted homeland? If so, we must make every effort to improve our language skills and to begin the gradual process of assimilation. Nothing comes for free, and certainly not without hard work.

And what about Finland’s responsibility to us? Will Finland just hope that we move away eventually, either back to where we came from or to anywhere else but here? According to Helsingin Sanomat, 44% of Finns oppose increased immigration. This is their right. It is no wonder that this mentality prevails. Immigrant unemployment is high and we are often seen as a burden on society. Under the current system refugees are prohibited from working, and the employment options of other immigrants are limited by inadequate and inefficient language education programs.

If Finland comes to terms with the fact that we are here and that they actually need us, then some changes are in order. No one who is used to working chooses to stay idle. People who have been accustomed to voicing their opinion will begin to feel frustrated by standing to the side, mute for lack of knowledge of Finnish. If the proper investments are made, the future returns will benefit us all. A more streamlined system of language education combined with a fast track to employment – any employment- will help us begin the transformation from immigrant to New Finn. With the proper tools and our perseverance we are bound to make a positive contribution to our new homeland.

The studio at the Old Rifle Factory, where I paint and write.


  1. What's interesting is that no matter where, if you go back far enough in history, the people came from somewhere else, but once they are all settled in and established, they don't want others moving in. We have the same problem here in the States with people not wanting immigrants from south of the border. They complain about the illegal immigrants taking jobs away from citizens, but very few put the blame where it belongs, those that employ the illegals!!

    The blog "Migrant Tales" by Enrique Tessieri has done many posts about immigration in Finland. What's interesting is the comments on his blog are very similar to comments here in the States.

  2. Your post touches upon one of the biggest challenges facing Finland in the new century: how will Finnish identity, the "us" and "them" change as more people move to this country. Since we have lived and grew up in the United States, we know that immigration can be a powerful positive force. Unfortunately, too few people in Finland understand this, which means that they are throwing away an opportunity.

  3. Your use of the word "refugee" is very interesting in this article. It is odd to think of an American as a refugee in Finland. The legal definition of a refugee in the States is someone who is fleeing persecution in his or her homeland. Clearly, you are not fleeing persecution. But it seems as if you are, in order to gain acceptance there. Including yourself among "actual" refugees is enlightening in your description of the challenges you face in gaining citizenship.

  4. I don't feel as though I have labeled myself a refugee. I have just included refugees and foreign residents such as myself in the same group-immigrants-which is what we all are.

  5. I do think you are a refugee of sorts. Fleeing your "homeland," or, perhaps, neighborhood, as a result of persecution (whether or not self-inflicted). But I didn't think that you used the word "refugee" to refer to you or other immigrants similarly situated to you. I really liked what you said and found it thought provoking and well written.

  6. Willie, great post. I agree with you that the debate about immigration currently tends to put "maahanmuuttaja", "siirtolainen" and "pakolainen" in the same basket. I've written about this topic as well here.

    Thanks for visiting, by the way.