Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Borders and Differences Are a Matter of Perception - My latest column in the New World Finn

The following is an article of mine that was published in the Summer 2010 edition of the New World Finn. As always, if you are interested in Finnish-American/Finlander cultural issues, I suggest that you subscribe to this fine quarterly.

Borders and Differences Are a Matter of Perception
©Willie Lahti 2010

For the first time in two years I’m heading back to the country of my birth. Our son is almost a year old and I want to show him where his daddy is from. I want him to hear the wind blowing through the popple leaves. I want him to feel the way the sun shines up north in Minnesota. I want him to taste the dirt from the fields where I grew up.

A lot has changed in the U.S. since I last visited, or at least that’s how I imagine things. A new regime has replaced the old. The national debt is bigger than ever although the dollar seems to be getting stronger, and someone has torn a hole in the floor of the Gulf of Mexico that no one seems to be able to close. We are still force-feeding freedom and democracy to people who may not actually want the brand that we are selling. One percent of the population of the United States is behind bars. The rich get richer and the poor get fatter. After all my years away, these things seem distant and strange to me, regardless of the fact that we live in the age of the internet and 24/7 global media broadcasting.

I’m not living under a rock. I have a pretty good grasp of the world we live in. If Obama cranks out a fart at the dinner table you can be sure we’ll hear about in Finland. When multi-national greed in the form of the third largest energy company (and the fourth largest company in the world) results in the worst human-made disaster in the history of capitalism (capitalism, incidentally is as nearly as old as humanity itself) I understand the global consequences.

I try to buy local as much as possible, but sometimes in the winter the only red bell peppers are trucked in to Finland from Spain. I like grapes, which are pretty much are never produced in Finland, with the exception of a few vineyards in Ahvenanmaa. When the grapes are out of season in Italy and Spain, they are shipped in to Finland from Chile and South Africa. Before asparagus is in season anywhere in Europe it is flown in from Peru. Pineapples, kiwis, tree-ripened mangos, sweet potatoes - the list of delicious fruits and vegetables that make up a varied (and sometimes expensive) diet goes on and on. Wild Finnish blueberries are the all rage in Japan, Finnish perch fillets are worth their weight in Foie gras in the restaurants of France. Any food is a super food if it’s marketed the right way.

People travel the globe almost as much as food does. As of 2009 there were approximately 155,000 people of foreign origin residing in Finland officially, myself included. This is approximately 40,000 more of us than there were in 2005. Our new homeland is struggling to come to terms with us. The laws regarding immigration haven’t managed to keep up with the times. Before the summer vacation season hits full swing, our Finnish government is planning on deporting grandmothers. One has already been granted sanctuary by the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland, her official whereabouts unknown. The other is in too poor of health to hide. Chances are if either of them is deported to their respective homeland (Egypt and Russia) they won’t have much longer to live since their only living family members are children who reside in Finland. And what is the crime of these grandmothers? According to current law, parents and grandparents of legal immigrants aren’t classified as family members. I haven’t yet decided whether or not this is the result of bigotry, protectionism, or just plain old stone-hearted bureaucracy but I do know that I get angry because I know how important my gramma was to me. Sometimes you know in your heart that the law is unjust. I’m waiting for a Finnish Sam Cooke to write a song about how change is gonna come.

I don’t have the time or energy to spend my whole life being angry and worrying about the world. I like to focus on the simple things. Mixing pine tar with linseed oil and brushing it on the old wooden rowboat. Turning the clay in the garden with a shovel and busting the clods with a hoe. Heading off to work and then watching the clock till it’s time to go home. Pushing my boy down the street in the stroller and stopping to say hello to the people that I run across- the old duffers and the grammas, the natives and the immigrants, the working folks, the white collars, the park bench winos. We all have our own place and purpose; we all breathe the same air. Borders and differences are a matter of perception. Someday change will come.

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