CULTURE SHOCK FINLAND

You can’t go home again.

-Thomas Wolfe

What do you think has changed in Finland is a question I often get to answer. My honest – or routine – answer is: Not much. More cycle lanes, and more diversity in people. More gyms, and more people who run.  

The strong feeling of not belonging here I had every single time during my visits to Finland is gone. It almost feels I’ve never been away, and life in Cape Town was just a dream. Have I become as resilient as Talky? Or am I just fooling others, and more importantly, myself?

CULTURE SHOCK FINLAND

There are only three things I found truly “shocking” when returning to Finland.

The first was number of drunk people regardless time of day or day of week. Drunk people of all sorts and allover. For Talky this was even a bigger shock, as he hadn’t really seen drunk people before. Yes we had wine. Often and plenty. Kids (almost) always present. There were a few occasions when somebody drank a little too much, but never ever did we see drunk people on the streets. I think the reason was they simply won’t survive in a society such as South Africa.

The second was, and still is, how attached people in Finland are to their phones. Buses and trams are filled with people staring at their phones. What used to be a romantic dinner for two is nowadays a romantic dinner for four as there will be two humans by the table and two phones on the table. When kids “play” together, they sit together staring at their phones occasionally poking each other to show something.

We strongly discourage primary school children from having cell phones. Please do not allow children to bring phones to school unless there is a very good reason. If they have to bring a phone to school, it must be handed in to the class teacher for the day. Cell phones should never be in your child’s room when they go to bed. Have you checked your child’s phone in the last couple of days? Kronendal Primary School. Oh boy do I miss this!

Thirdly, people use swear words a lot. A lot. Like in every sentence, sometimes twice in a sentence. Coming from a culture where using swear words is a sign of severe mental or behavioural problem, hearing them everywhere (business meetings, running events, fancy restaurants) from more or less everybody is, well, embarrassing. Last week Talky went to movies with his class. The movie was about hobbyhorses. The only thing Talky said about the movie, in addition to falling asleep, was that the girls used (the Finnish version of) the F-word a lot. Wow.

REVERSE CULTURE SHOCK FINLAND

The hardest part of moving overseas is the reverse culture shock of coming home. Returning home brings with it an expectation that everything will be the same, but the people I left behind have moved on. I’ve changed as well.

-Mihal Greener

Brave was the word many used when we told that we would be moving Cape Town. I never felt brave. Restless for a change, yes. We reasoned that if it didn’t work out we could easily just come back. The decision that took real bravery only came when we decided to leave our home in Cape Town, and return to Helsinki.

To outsiders, this probably didn’t look like the difficult move. We were going back to Helsinki, the city where I’ve lived for almost all my life, to an extended support network of family and friends, to a more stable society, to easier opportunities, to “everything better on paper except weather”. But from discussion with my repatriate friends, I knew that remigration (didn’t know such word existed), or repatriation in their case, was frequently labelled the hardest move of all.

The world felt so much larger, and life so much freer in Cape Town. I know it sounds funny, but despite the restrictions in physical freedom, I felt free like I couldn’t even imagine. In a way returning home has felt like the world suddenly became much smaller again. Fresh perspectives and new experiences require a lot more work.

I Am A Triangle is an online group, evolved from a blog where Naomi Hattaway describes how a person leaves a country (Circle) and moves to a country (Square) turning into a Triangle. A Triangle no longer fits in either place. The problem of being a Triangle is that so much feels familiar and at the same time so strange, causing moments of complete disorientation and surreality.

Finland has been welcoming us back home (Thank You!). Still, I’ve been struggling with the realisation that I will always have a part of my heart 11,000 kms away. And this is the part that requires the most bravery, as people – quite understandably – expect us to just return to normal as if we’ve never been away.

REVERSE CULTURE SHOCK (FINLAND) – HOW I’M GOING SURVIVE

Finland sometimes drives me mad. All the rules, petty politics, general hypocrisy, rude people. For me ways of dealing with feelings of frustration, emptiness and even anger are running, writing this blog, and working. The latter one is so Finnish! When reality bites, we tend to become workaholics or alcoholics.

I’ve accepted the fact that some friends I had before I left no longer are there. They’ve moved on, they’ve changed. Why hadn’t they! That means I need to make new friends, and value the old ones that are still there for me and us. Just please be patient.

I’m also allowing time of aloneness to reflect. I’m hopeful eventually my social life will pick up and I will be oh-so-Finnishly busy again. For now I’m enjoying taking it easy and exploring my old new home like I did in Cape Town, one step at a time. Often alone. Running, or walking with my camera.

I try hard to play down my talk about “in Cape Town”. I know talking is an essential part of the re-adjustment process, but I also know there is a point when to stop. I’m also trying to remember how curious I was while in South Africa. I’m trying to consider people here as interesting foreigners, and try to remember to ask what’s going on in their lives. I don’t think I’m doing very well in this respect, but my intentions are good.

I’m gradually coming in peace with not being special anymore in the eyes of others. Not that being a foreigner made me or us very special in Cape Town, but we were definitely more special than back Finland. Nobody is the least bit of interested in how on earth did I end up living here. Nobody asks what funny language we are talking. Nobody wants to hear about the world famous South African education system. We’re back to “where do you go to school” and “what’s your job”.

Yet on the other hand I do think I am special, we are special. We did something most people never have the guts (or urge) to do. We picked up and left our cosy and comfortable previous life in Finland and threw ourselves into a foreign country and gave it all and even a bit more. We had life changing experiences. We were frequently humbled, we adapted, we grew, we laughed, we cried, we loved, we hated, we were scared and we survived like never before. That will never completely fade away, and I believe it will carry on directing my and our future until the very end.

I’m in a constant state of missing Cape Town. There are rough, and often surprising moments of meltdown. This week I was sitting in a train with two extremely smart colleagues, we were coming back from a successful customer meeting. The sun was shining, we were chatting and laughing. Talky called me telling he was at home waiting for me to come and read with him (his Finnish reading skills are developing fast!). All of the sudden I felt a physical pain. A heartache. For missing Cape Town and my life there. Everything was almost nearly perfect, yet I suddenly felt completely numb. Is this it? For the rest of my life?

I know it will get better with time. At the moment I feel my mood changes like Cape Town (or Helsinki) weather. Which means it changes quickly, and often. I’ve heard a culture shock has a lot in similar with stages of grief. At the moment I’m grieving the loss of a life abroad, a city, a mountain, a climate, people I loved. Loss of park runs, loss of Sunday hikes, loss of spontaneous braais, loss of waking up not knowing what will happen today. Loss of a future that will never be. That’s a whole lot to grieve.

I love Helsinki as much as I love Cape Town. The difference is I can always live in Helsinki, but I know I’ll never again be living in Cape Town.

If we were meant to stay in one place, we’d have roots instead of feet.

– Rachel Wolchin

Pictures below were taken today during my Sunday morning run. A year ago today I was running Cape Town Marathon. Both were beautiful and enjoyable runs. Completely different.

13 thoughts on “CULTURE SHOCK FINLAND

  1. Wow! What a read! It’s fascinating to read your stories and I’m trying reflect back to my own remigrations to Finland long time ago. I do recognize a lot of the things you write about, but not all of them. I think the difference is that when I was living abroad I lived there for shorter periods of time than you did this time, but most importantly, I always knew that I was going back to Finland eventually. I’ve honestly never left Finland ‘for good’. That must be a huge difference mentally. We should have lunch one these days to reflect more – on this and other stuff as well. 🙂

    1. We should 🙂 Yup, I think there is a big difference between knowing you’ll going back vs. living some place else “until further notice”. Not that I ever thought I left Finland for good, just didn’t think coming back either. Which is sort funny as I didn’t think I’d be spending rest of my life in South Africa, either.

  2. Hi Triangle! Thank you so much for putting my exact feelings into words. I’ve been “home” in Finland for over two years already, and was only away for three ears, but I’ll always grieve or miss that life that was. The spontaneous bbq’s, the people, the climate – everything you described. The realization that the life we had ended and will never return still makes me sad.

    Tervetuloa Suomeen, nonetheless!

    1. Kiitos & Thank You! I guess letting go (for good) of anything meaningful is painful. Knowing there are others who went through the same, survived and lived happily every after makes this phase a whole lot easier 🙂

    1. I think you have! I hope you also read about our kids being Starts. Thinking Talky as a Star, and all the other kids around the world who are “global citizens”, always puts a smile on my face.

  3. Oh my Triangle friend.. so much I say about that shape.. things you would understand in the African sense… we will chat soon..grief never leaves us, yet it makes realize what we have, what we had and what we will ‘never’ have again.
    11000kms not that far.. hop, skip and a plane..

    1. Thanks Felicia, I so miss your smile and no-nonsense humour. Chat to you soon! Actually I will be hopping on a plane in a month 🙂

  4. Welcome back! 🙂 Just so you know, you will probably never lose this feeling of longing. I still have it, even though I was a kid when I lived overseas and the city I left has changed so much that I can’t even recognize it anymore. Still, just getting a wiff of humid air or hearing a familiar accent takes me back instantly. <3

    1. Thank You! I know, longing will be part of the luggage from now on. Some days making life a bit heavy, some days making it lighter with good memories. I so know what you mean with the accent! Talky’s lovely Cape Town Southern Suburbs accent is so quickly being replaced with a strange mixture of American English (many of his classmates) and British English (his teacher). I love(d) his accent for taking me easily, even if briefly, back.

  5. Näitä on kiinnostavaa lukea. Pystyn samastumaan useimpiin fiiliksiin aika helposti. Luulen, että sun ja teidän kokemuksista lukeminen auttaa myös valmistautumaan omaan paluuseen. Tsemppiä kaiken läpikäymiseen!

  6. Dearest Siri – I love reading your blog! I just got back from a 2 week trip to Germany, Sweden and the UK. And whenever I get back to Cape Town I am always completely confused and full of almost “disloyal” thoughts about where home is. I wonder if I will forever be living slightly in limbo – loving UK “home” and then loving the crazy, unpredictable, alive cauldron of Cape Town. So I hear you, big time! What I realise is I love the freedom of being able to flit between them and both will always be there. Where we will ultimately settle – I have no idea!! I’ve been in CPT for 15 years and still not sure its home, whatever that is. See what thought process you’ve started!!!! Anyway – I send you all huge hugs. When is your next trip over? We miss you all terribly. Lots of love to you xxxx

    1. Dear Beccy – so happy to hear from you, even if you made me miss Cape Town once again, badly. Next time you need to include Helsinki in your itinerary! I think I must write a post about the things I don’t miss in Cape Town, mostly to remind myself that it isn’t just sunshine, wine and happiness. We miss you too! I miss our boys being annoying and loud and silly and funny and how seeing them together always put a smile on my face. I’ll see you in a couple of weeks, but the one you miss the most will only be there in December.

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