When I think about the discussion, debate, and campaigning that takes place around the upcoming municipal election, I notice that 99% of it is held in Finnish or Swedish. I may exaggerate a bit now, but we seem to by default make a supposition that the over 400 000 people across Finland, whose native language is not Finnish or Swedish, are not interested in participating in the discussion nor should have a true voice in the municipal decision making.
The above is of course not entirely true. Among those over 400 000 people, many do speak fluent Finnish or Swedish, and are hence capable of attending. Another thing is if they feel welcomed to attend. Luckily there are always those courageous individuals who, despite the language barriers, want to ensure that their message is being listened to. I appreciate those individuals highly, because it is not only about language, it is also about cultural differences that require lots of work to overcome. Becoming understood is not only about being able to say your message, it is also about being able to make the receiver listen and relate to what is being said.
In 2019, 4% of the population of Hyvinkää represented other nationality than Finnish citizenship. It means around 1 800 people. Not being a Finnish citizen does not of course mean that you do not speak either of our national languages. But I think it is a good reminder that within this 1800 people, we are likely to have those to whom this society is not self explanatory. To some of these people, being an active member of the society requires a lot more effort and willpower than for the majority of us.
Stranger in Canada and the UK
I have been a foreigner twice in my life. At the age of 17, I packed a huge suitcase and my ringette gear, and flew to the east coast of Canada to be an exchange student. I was welcomed with open arms by a local family, who hosted me over that year, and a friendly rural society, which gently supported me through a year in a local high school.
The second time was in the late 2000, when I lived and worked over 2,5 years in London, UK. The financial crisis hit soon after I landed on UK soil and found a residence near the square mile, the hot spot of the European financial services. I saw the Lehman Brothers collapse, and the people being made redundant carry their belongings in brown boxes from the offices during the financial crisis. More importantly, I saw the life of a major city (and absolutely loved it at the time), and experienced how it is to live a self sustained life outside your home country. To me, the experience was very empowering and taught me a lot of appreciation for different cultures, habits, and ways of life.
My foreigner experiences do not compare anywhere close to how it is to live as a foreigner in Finland. In London, everyone is more or less a foreigner. Therefore not being British is nothing special. And of course having a common language is one big aid. If you are able to communicate sufficiently, it does lower the barriers. It does not mean that the journey is smooth, because language is only one factor in the equation, but it certainly helps.
Wanted: Humble pride
The biggest learnings I have as a result of the years I have lived abroad are rather simple. They relate to appreciation and respect for differences and being different. I think one of the best ways to learn about nondiscrimination is to represent the minority yourself. It opens your eyes to how it feels to be the one who does not fit.
I have been very lucky to have empowering and positive experiences about being “the odd one”, I have received the appreciation and understanding needed in such a situation to make you feel whole, capable, and equally important. It has also been a good practical reminder that one cannot just sit and wait for others to accept you, but it is a two-way street. You need to do your share.
Another learning is more complex. It is being appreciative for the society around you, and simultaneously being true to yourself. The society is not there for you, it is there with you, and you need to make an active choice of wanting to be its member.
Adapting to society does not mean that you need to change yourself, but quite the opposite. It means that you need to be very humble and appreciative for the way the society around you functions, and be willing to understand and adapt. Simultaneously, you need to be clear with your own values and things important to you, and hold on to them tight. It is a fine balance, and not easy at all, but it does become easier the more you let yourself adapt to the flow of the society around you. Having the sense of belonging yet simultaneously having the appreciation for your differences is possible, and can be very empowering.
Being a foreigner in Finland is not a walk in the park. The Finnish human nature is in general reserved, timid, and does not find chit chatting with strangers a pleasure. Our employers tend to prefer employees who speak Finnish, even though the work could be perfectly well carried out solely in English. Things are slowly changing, but I hope that the change accelerates in the near future, and for example finding a job in Finland without fluent Finnish language skills becomes easier.
We still have a lot to do, especially on the attitudes side. All kinds of racism and prejudism around us worries me. We could start by ensuring that in the municipal elections, we do also hear and listen to those with whom we do not share the first language.