Tuesday, June 30, 2009

on returning.

lexi asked me a while ago whether i could write about returning home after spending time abroad. since i have always come back home between my visits, my experiences are probably different from those who spend years as expats.

the shortest of the visits i count as "spending time" (rather than just traveling) abroad was a four-month summer job in london. the longest is slightly over a year. my visits have spread over fifteen years and, therefore, my interpretations and experiences are fairly age-bound.

since i'm not exactly sure how to approach the topic, i'll perform a pseudo-interview consisting of questions posed to me by different people when i've returned.

don't you hate noticing how small finland is? as much as i could start lamenting on how depressing it is to return to finland and the tiny little circles of people we deal with here, the fact remains that social circles seem to be almost as small everywhere else you go. the universal capability of people to form a significant relationship with only a limited number of people applies in london, new york city and helsinki alike. our yearning to live amongst people we relate to creates small villages and communities of people inside metropolitan areas: i actually think my neighborhood in willyburg felt more like a community than my hood in helsinki. then again, i hardly ever feel annoyed by bumping into the same people regularly; if anonymity is your thing, then a larger city provides more opportunitites to go incognito.

have you noticed problems with language? this was apparent after my year in toronto. it was the first time i spent several months abroad and i had virtually no finnish contacts. a time of no e-mail and expensive global calls, i spoke my native tongue rarely. i returned with deteriorated finnish which i hated because writing was extremely important to me, and i value our rare linguistic background. more frustrating was to note that my english wasn't exactly impressive either. it was the first time i realized it was extremely easy to slide into a state of poor bilingualism. as a partial solution, i bought thesauruses in both languages and still try to use them regularly.

my accent (or actually lack of) has created more trouble. i have always sounded native as an english speaker and am never mistaken for a foreigner. it has created embarrassing situations with slang recognition and in academic situations where i sound "stupid" because of my comparatively limited active vocabulary. as a finn i tend to use more anglicisms than the average person which i find equally embarrassing and a sign of a poor grasp of lexis.

are there characteristics you find incomprehensible in finns after being away? rudeness: the fact that people stop and stare at you when you try to pass them in crowded spaces uttering an apology. the fact that they rarely apologize after bumping or stomping on you. the fact that apologies are often met with rude remarks. incredible, really.

uncompromising law-obedience: after returning from nyc i walked to a zebra crossing in turku. the red light was on, there were people standing waiting and there were absolutely no cars in sight. a fleeting thought passed my mind that perhaps they knew something i didn't, an inconceivable and invisible threat perhaps, but the second passed and i realized that they were just standing there because of the red light. as i crossed there was a disapproving murmur. hilarious.

rigid ageism: finns seem incredibly intolerant when it comes to behavior, looks and interests that are atypical for a certain age group. this observation may come from the fact that the cities i've lived in are metropolitan areas with global immigrant populations and inhabitants from such a variety of backgrounds that individuality is not sneered upon, and it may well be that the same type of intolerance applies in every country's smaller towns. nonetheless, it is too common that i hear people disapprove of someone choosing something because they are "too old". it saddens me.

i think many of the cultural habits that annoy me nowadays come down to the fact that we're just used to an incredible amount of personal space. not having a translation for "excuse me" kinda points out the obvious, but i am looking forward to a more crowded finland and the cultural development that brings.

any things you value more after being back? modesty: there is a perk to our non-boastful egos. although people are exactly as shallow and egocentric as the next person, we make our judgments without the need to act pompous everywhere. i found it almost degrading when i noticed that in order to have colleagues at columbia pay attention to me i had to utter an abstract cv of my career highlights. it could have been the environment of ruthless ivy league competition, but it feels inhuman to begin from an assumption that people should actively prove their worthiness before being allowed any time socially.

equality in healthcare: my worry over the slow vanishing of the social state grows more intense every moment because of my experiences in countries where economic classes are further apart than in finland. i have seen a roommate travel the subway with a cracked skull after being run over by a taxi while riding his bike on manhattan and waking up in the hospital realizing that being unemployed he cannot afford the bills. his irrationality was not odd, but the fact that he was allowed to leave strikes me as unfathomable. moreover, i have witnessed a friend move to another state to have an operation on his knee because california hospitals are too expensive and his medical insurance won't cover it. moving meant having to quit college and spending his savings on rent and hospital bills.

what was the hardest part in adjusting when back? the fact that people's lives go on regardless of whether you're around or not. thus, feelings of being outside after returning are plentiful. sometimes as short a break as a few months can eradicate a friendship although i'm sure it's rare. there is no amount of story-telling that can compensate the lack of social interaction while away: people grow tired of your anecdotes and feel hesitant of repeating their daily activities.

after a while the time away feels like a social burden you carry with you and hide because it can grown into an annoying bubble your friends ultimately cannot relate to. in the end, your time away is insignificant to even the closest of your friends. personally i felt physical pain after i had to return from nyc and realized i was alone with my yearning. the result was an incredible bitch of a person i am glad is (hopefully) gone...

hopefully i dealt with some of the thoughts lexi hoped i'd clarify. if any of you want to know more, feel free to ask and i look forward to hearing your own experiences. as a finishing note, here's a brilliant new single by holy ghost! called "i will come back".


Anna-Maria said...

I have made very similar observations between Finland and U.S., it's nice to see that there are others who feel the same way about things. I guess Finland has it's good and bad sides as any other country, however I feel like I'm never truly satisfied and "me" while I'm living here in Finland. I need big city life and people around me, some place where sun always shines and people are smiling at you even after a hard day at work. You won't get that here. Ohh, how I miss Cali!

stellagee said...

yup, my thoughts often float towards feeling more "me" in other places. for me the pace of nyc was perfect: i was never the finicky, nervously flickering fast-talker i am sometimes conceived as here because everyone else was at least as fast and finicky as i was.

sometimes it seems though that the mere fact that i experienced my time abroad alone, had to start over from making friends and finding my place, and only momentarily shared my daily life with someone already familiar, contributes to the feeling of being more "me". because i was allowed and had to be extremely preoccupied with me, more than i need in finland where normal things just roll along.

i guess it is a combination of the above-mentioned self-immersion and being in a more fitting environment, but i believe i totally understand your longing for cali...

Lexi said...

i can relate to a lot of that!

i've also found that after a while of living abroad, i've become the "eternal outsider". didn't mean to sound as dramatic as that might have sounded! i mean that i'm always considered to be a foreigner both in finland and cyprus, although i have been brought up in both countries and have both nationalities. neither country feels like home whenever i'm visiting, which makes me feel slightly unfulfilled. so far supercities like london and new york have felt like home the most. i've felt like i belong there from the moment i first stepped out of the airport, and others who have lived in either city have told me the same in conversations. i suppose it's because most londoners and new yorkers have come from elsewhere as well, and created a diverse new place where no one really seems to care if you're pedigree or a little bastard from all over the world!

stellagee said...

yeah, i can relate to the "eternal outsider" for the periods i've been away. for me they are rather brief (but still dramatic, i think) disturbances in the continuum of my life, but for someone who's spent the majority of their life abroad, it must feel eternal in a way. so i think there's not reason to feel it's too dramatic a term...

large cities definitely are easier to fit into and become part of because of the backgrounds of people, but the personal experience of not having a shared history with almost anyone still bothers at least me -- even when i am in places where people can relate to the feelings i have. i guess it comes down to sharing the feeling of being the eternal outsider and actually subjectively experiencing being eternally outside that i'm trying to grasp here.

there is a feeling of community between migrants, expats and nomads because of their pasts, but they all experience their loneliness and outsiderness personally nonetheless. or i am off here?

personally my history is definitely not that dramatic, but because i do have a pretty long continuum and have shared most of my life with the same people and had several periods of being away, i think i can feel the tension between the two states of being. or not. dunno.

Anonymous said...

Returning to Finland after 15 years is pretty hard. Most of my old friends have new lifes/families and no desire to meet up...
I feel like i have moved to a "new" country where the language is the same, as in the country i once knew and called home.

stellagee said...

anonymous, i can just about imagine what it might feel like just by following how my sister feels on her visits. she's lived in london for at least 12 yrs (i've lost count) and describes her sentiments just like you...