If you walk down Paris Street in Sudbury, Canada, you will see this sign:
It is a strangely comforting sign for me, not because I am a member of the Helluntaiseurakunta, but because hiding in the tiny pockets between English and French, there is Finnish in the world. (Or what locals, oddly and charmingly, refer to simply as ‘Finn’–the adjective ‘Finnish’ never apparently having arrived in Sudbury.) If you drive down this street towards the South, take a left on Regent and then another left on Caswell you will come to Leinala’s Bakery, where you can buy a freshly made munkki or Karjalan piirakka, or even–which made me quite homesick when I first arrived in Sudbury from Finland– Erittäin Hieno Suomalainen Koivushampoo in the familiar green bottle.
Having left Canada in 1999 as an ‘East Indian’ or Indo-Canadian, I seemed to have returned in 2008 as a Finn.
In the intervening years I did live in Finland with my Finnish-born-and-bred partner, but it was a genuine surprise to me to find not only that I had become Finnish during those years, but that outside Finland people would recognize me as such too. At Leinala’s I have been served quite naturally and unremarkably in Finnish. The ladies there have no problem in including me in their Finnish world. As I have written about on this blog before, I do not take any sense of cultural belonging for granted, and so I have always found it rather touching that this little bakery in Northern Ontario is one of the few places where I feel as though I can belong. Nevertheless, part of me thinks I can never make a claim to be Finnish, and when I lived in Finland, it was certainly clear to me that many of the people around me would never really consider me Finnish either, whether I spoke Finnish fluently or not. Finland is, as a recent article from the Helsingin Sanomat declares, a racist country.
The article is hardly news to any person of colour who has lived in Finland, or indeed their white Finnish friends and family. What I found most interesting about it was that it was published a day before Finnish Independence Day on December 6. If, the editors at Helsingin Sanomat had made the decision to publish this article in the Independence Day edition of the paper, I would have been impressed by their willingness to challenge readers with another side of nationalism and Finnish identity. As it was, the impact of the article was diminished by the juxtaposition with next day’s normal coverage of the public holiday.
Finnish independence, as in many other countries in the world, is a victory against colonialism, and so it is something to be celebrated. In the case of Finland, more than six hundred years of rule and government by the Swedish and the Russians preceded the declaration of independence. Like any anti-colonial struggle, the years before Independence were characterized by an incredible passion, among people we now describe as Finnish, for learning who they were; for identifying and producing literature, music and art that was Finnish; and for exploring an active and creative sense of what it might mean to be Finnish, when in a very real sense such an identity had never before been allowed or acknowledged.
Is it so incredible to suppose, then, that today there are people, immigrants to Finland, or the descendants of Finnish emigrants to Canada, who are also learning and recreating what it means to be Finnish today? And that, perhaps, the learning, the desire to be Finnish and not their skin colour, white or black, is what matters.
The ladies at Leinala’s are responding to something real, then, when they include me in their Finnish world, because during the last ten years I really have spent a lot of time learning to be Finnish. Some of that learning has been the kinds of things you would expect an immigrant to do, such as learning to read and speak the language (my spoken Finnish is still very shy–I can speak, but I often don’t have the confidence to do so) or learning about Finnish history. Nevertheless, cultural understanding and belonging, is not built entirely on words and concepts, but also consists, in a very visceral way, of sensory and affective experience.
The first time I visited Finland, in 1994, I remember that the smell of tar (by which I mean the wood tar Finns distill from pine) was almost nauseating to me. I could not understand how Finns found it so comforting, even going so far as to use it to flavour candy! I encountered the smell again and again, often in the form of drops that are used to scent the water you pour on the heated rocks of a sauna stove. As the scented water turns into steam, the whole sauna becomes pleasantly infused with the strong, clean smell of the tar. I can remember the woman who did not like the smell of tar–the not-yet-Finnish woman–but I also know that now, the smell is as resonant with feelings of cleanliness, relaxation and comfort for me as it is for my partner.
We can learn to become what we have never yet been–by knowing, experiencing, sensing and loving the world we find ourselves in. It really doesn’t matter whether those are things you’ve always been around or whether they are absolutely new to you. In 1917 the people who were living in Finland had to create ‘Finnish’, just as people who live in Sudbury do so now in order continue to be ‘Finn’ in some way. Among those possibilities, surely there is space for immigrants like me to be allowed to become Finnish too.