Thursday, December 23, 2010

No longer a second class citizen

This essay was published in the recent New World Finn under the title No longer a second class citizen.

You can also read the article in pdf format by clicking here. (page 16)

Not too long ago the Finnish Immigration Service called my place of employment to check up on me. According to Matti, who answered the phone, all they were interested in was whether or not I was still employed at Vakiopaine. This bit of snooping by the government agency that can make or break any immigrant’s chance at a future in Finland was welcome on my part. It meant that they were finally handling my citizenship application which I had dropped off at the local police station about a year ago. When I turned in my paperwork, the bureaucrat behind the desk let me know that the process could take anywhere from one to three years once my application had been sent forward to wherever it may be that such decisions are made. The fact that my paperwork had made it to the top of the pile in such a short amount of time was more than likely a good indication of a positive outcome.

To make a long story short, I received notification in the mail at the end of October that my request for citizenship had been approved. I am now the holder of two passports, a citizen of two nations. The most obvious benefit for me is that I am no longer merely a second-class resident of the country where I have spent the last 5 years of my life. Although I had received a permanent residence permit a year ago and was guaranteed every right enjoyed by Finnish citizens, I was denied the most important right of all, the right to vote in national elections. Now that I have the right and responsibility to vote, I also have the right to complain, to expression my dissatisfaction with the status quo. For the time being, I’ll keep the negativity to myself. There are still some months to go before the next general election.

What would my great-grandparents think of all this? They made the decision to set off across the seas to an uncertain future, looking to find something different than what they were used to. They decided to gamble with their own lives in the hope that they would find a better place with more to offer than the Finland that they left behind. Speculation on what might have been is a fairly useless exercise in my opinion, but I feel that these ancestors of mine made the right decision. They managed to avoid the one of the bloodiest civil wars in European history (the Finnish Civil war of 1918). We American-Finns, at least those of us who are descendants of the great migration that occurred towards the end of the 1800’s don’t have to bear the psychological scars that accompanied the legacy of bitterness, fear, and hatred that followed that horrible conflict. These scars, to some extent, still affect Finnish society today. We were also spared the trauma of the Winter and Continuation Wars, which even now, over sixty-five years after the fact, affects the collective psyche of the Finnish people. Of course as Americans we have had our own wars and domestic struggles over the decades that have left their mark upon us. Korea, Viet Nam, the War on Drugs, the War on Terror. McCarthyism, corporate opposition to the Labor Movement, and more recently the Teabaggers trying to crush the pursuit of happiness for everyone but themselves. I guess we too have our own painful histories that have the potential to leave their marks across generations.

On December 6th I will be celebrating Finnish Independence for the first time as a Finnish citizen. I’ve never been one for in-your-face patriotism, but I will be the first to admit that there is something really fine about the independence of a sovereign nation, especially when the ideal of democracy is able to be fulfilled. I wonder how Kiimingin Kalle or Kyrönlahden Matti would react to the fact that their great-grandson is a citizen of a nation that didn’t yet exist when they struck out from their homes in pre-independence Finland towards the hopeful shores of the United States. Although I have moved on from the country in which they chose to make their own futures, that doesn’t mean I have turned my back on it, in fact it is highly likely that I will come back to America to live and work from time to time. We live in a big new world with greater possibility than ever before. With migration comes a new way of seeing the world and a greater chance for understanding our fellow humans. Immigrants should be regarded as a potential resource rather than a burden. We can improve upon our humanity, if only we don’t squander opportunity.

December is upon us, and so is the polar night. The skies are dark and the air is crisp and cold. I feel optimistic about the world we live in, despite the occasional setbacks that befall the human race. I for one am going to try to remember the responsibilities that accompany the rights that I am blessed with. With that in mind, I guess I should go to the kitchen and wash the dishes. Maybe after that I’ll take out the recyclables and enjoy a moment in the chilly darkness of this winter evening in the country that I have come to regard as my second home.

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