David Brown is a language consultant and journalist, regularly covering stories in Africa, Asia & the Middle East. He has lived in Finland for 8 years.
SOCIAL DEMOCRAT leader Jutta Urpilainen triggered a storm of controversy recently when she suggested that foreigners moving to Finland should keep in mind the phrase “when in Rome, do as the Romans do.’’
As a foreigner, I really don’t understand much of the anguish at all. To me, the idea that a migrant, much like an air mass, takes on the characteristics of the land over which he or she passes is a basic survival mechanism. We move, we learn languages, we encounter strange belief systems and habits, and we emerge better people for it. We also pay taxes, start businesses, spend money, and on occasions even marry local women. We observe local laws and customs, and do so without compromising our own identity.
As a New Zealander I’m frequently appalled by the reluctance of Kiwis to do as the Romans do – it’s as if many never notice that they are actually living on foreign soil. Refusing to learn languages, wearing All Black jerseys or Maori necklaces are not what makes us Kiwis. Identity is held not in empty plastic jewellery or symbols, but in our national characteristics and values.
It is not only possible to still be a Kiwi whilst speaking Finnish, eating trout instead of snapper and drinking Kukko instead of Speight’s; it’s a moral obligation. It’s a manifestation of the Kiwi values of hard work, fair play and doing it yourself.
I’ve never felt it was Finland’s duty to get to know me or adapt to my way of doing things, because ultimately Finland did not choose me, I chose it. While I can – and do – whine incessantly about the Finnish weather, the accursed partitive case and the appalling lager, it’s still my choice to leave if I want to.
Thus, Ms Urpilainen is right. Finland would be a better place if all foreigners learned Finnish, if we adapted the Finnish values of hard work and honesty, and if we all paid our taxes. In doing so, we earn the right to complain.
It would be a better place, but it would not solve all foreigners’ woes. Many, many foreigners up and down the country have thrown themselves into the local culture, only to find they get little back in return. At work, their ideas are not listened to, their work is not appreciated, and their commitment is not valued. They are, in effect, invisible, and they always will be. They are foreign.
This, no amount of adaptation can entirely resolve. It is the point at which foreigners, having moved 90 per cent of the way along the path towards Finnishness, need to wait for Finns to come the other 10 per cent to internationalism. While many Finnish organisations talk about operating in an international marketplace, remarkably few have looked to their own international staff for ideas on how to do so.
But at least while we wait, we can master translatiivi and complain about the weather.