Home, Away and In-between
Writing: Paula Hämäläinen
Illustrations: Tuuli Ollikainen
Those who know me know my – probably extremely annoying (I would say endearing) – habit of being a judgemental bitch. For me, though, it’s the ultimate manifestation of affection. If I don’t diss the shit out of you, I probably don’t care that you exist. You can only take the piss out of someone, or something, once you’ve reached a certain level of intimacy, which I think is the highest form of flattery. For some reason my pals don’t always agree.
So, this is of course a love letter. To Finland, to Japan, to Britain, and to the bizarre, fantastic folk that reside in these corners of the world I can call my own.
Growing up in Finland for the first two decades of my life I wanted nothing as much as to escape.
I hated everything about Finland and the small excuse of a town I grew up in: the closed minded, mean and boring people, who could not tolerate anything even slightly different; having to hike 4 kilometers to the nearest shop just to buy candy; the brain numbingly cold and dark winters and the fact that almost all of my friends lived a two-hour train ride away.
Retrospectively, I think my longing for a world outside of Finland came from books and later on from an immense exposure to American popular culture. I spent my childhood reading every single Young Adults book in our small local library, and was especially obsessed with Sweet Valley High, the bible of every prepubescent girl in the late 1990s. All I wanted from life was to be Jessica Wakefield, the ultimate cool girl who wore crop tops, lipstick, and dated oh-so-dangerous boys on motorbikes and genuinely didn’t give a shit (unlike her boring miss goody two shoes sister Elizabeth, who wore cardigans and dated a guy called Todd). In the real world I of course resembled Liz much more than Jess; a shy child who would blush and shit her pants if a boy said as much as “hello” – but still, underneath it all I always loved the rebellious misfit characters and wanted to be like them (and totally still do).
When I was 13 we moved house, which meant that suddenly MTV was available in our cable – a real life-changer. I spent after school hours glued to the screen watching how teenagers in the Big World Out There spent their days at pool parties, at the beach, “hanging”, and even the unpopular kids with braces and too much black eye make-up seemed to have a good time and boyfriends (also, the weather was always sunny on MTV). I was mesmerised. When we had to write an essay at school on the subject of “me in 10 years time” I envisioned that at 23 I would be living in Los Angeles with my husband and have a successful acting career. My vision of course didn’t quite come true (I was 24 when I first set my foot in LA, chronically boyfriendless, and never having had the courage to do any type of acting in my life).
Consuming massive amounts of books and television (generally known as being a loner) convinced me that the world was a thrilling place (and that this thing they called “a prom” looked amazing to the lovesick, pimple-faced 14-year-old me). I simply could not spend my life trapped in a town of 15,000 people who only seemed to be interested in fixing their mopeds, getting drunk, or if they were my parents generation – Nordic walking. Lieto in South-Western Finland was a place that clearly could not ever get me and my grandiose desire to be something more.
During high school my interest shifted from the US to Japan (for reasons I will elaborate in the next part of this essay series). I sat through lectures glass-eyed doodling manga characters on my notebook instead of equations, and generally for three years did not talk to anybody who didn’t share my interests which at this point consisted of Japanese underground heavy metal, men with a lot of makeup and piercings, and the DDR (as in the arcade game Dance Dance Revolution, not post-war East Germany). My hatred towards Finland had reached its peak.
At 19, with the 10,000€ burning in my pocket that I managed to save working in a warehouse during my post high school gap year, I finally said toodles and moved to the other side of the world. In a way, now eight years later, I am still on that same journey.
After all those years of vigorous, dedicated hating, it only took me nine months after my departure to be standing on a stage taking part in a Japanese speech contest, the speech of course accordingly called “The good things about my country”. It was a passionate rant about all the things that were wrong in Japan, and so much better back home (bread, dairy products, gender equality). It was the first ever patriotic moment in my life; standing on that stage while smugly announcing the fact that yes ladies and gentlemen, Finland indeed has a female president (the good old Tarja Halonen, though the political landscape has since gone downhill for us unfortunately).
It’s such a cliche, but here we go: sometimes you have travel far to see close. In a matter of months I had gone from a Finland-hating angsty teenager to someone who would listen to Eppu Normaali while blue and white tears streamed down my face. I think everyone who has ever lived abroad can identify with these thoughts and feelings. Once detached from the sometimes suffocating embrace of the motherland, all the things that once were annoying and depressing suddenly feel like the best thing on the planet. Nowadays I fondly think about the times a bus driver was rude to me (“so raw, so honest!”) or even the winters that were so cold that it felt like you were being stabbed in the chest while breathing the -27 celsius degree air (“so exotic!”).
As much as I loved Japan, we were never meant to be forever. We had a good run for three and a half years with its ups and downs, but in order to preserve the love and fond memories of all those years we had to go our separate ways. Leaving Japan was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do, but despite the extreme grief that I felt leaving my friends, my job – my entire life – behind, I haven’t regretted my choice once. An era was ending, and I knew it was time for me to go.
From Tokyo I moved back to my parents’ place in Lieto, and experienced the biggest culture shock of my life. I was wobbling through the streets of my childhood town again, feeling generally disorientated and isolated for months. Lying on my ridiculously narrow bed meant for a toddler, on the same sheets I had as a teenager, staring at the ceiling that still had the same pattern I had been staring at almost ten years ago, I felt like I had stepped through a weird time capsule. Perhaps Japan had been a dream all along. A hypnotic, pastel-coloured dream filled with the sweet scent of fabric softener (that I swear lingers EVERYWHERE in Japan), sweaty summer nights and flying cockroaches. Lying in that room in the suburbs of Finland defined by pine forests and endless farmland, it felt as distant as the moon.
I failed to get a job at the local call centre, as my Swedish skills I had spent six years desperately trying to attain had said “adjö!” and completely left the corner of my brain where they had been collecting dust. The interviewer also expressed concern about the fact that apparently even my oral Finnish “didn’t seem confident enough”. I’ve always been a nervous talker, and this interview in all its humiliation made me want to shut up forever. I had no idea who the bloody hell I was supposed to be anymore. None of my qualifications I had gained in Japan meant anything in Finland according to the Job Centre lady. Here I was, 23, back in Lieto, unemployed and extremely lonely, thinking maybe I had made a terrible mistake leaving Japan with months still left of my visa, leaving a job and the biggest friendship group I had ever had. Back in Finland nobody really seemed to understand why I felt so out of place. Outside I looked normal, but inside felt like an alien. My hometown was intact, just like I always remembered it to be. This alone was a reason to freak out as I, of course, wasn’t the same anymore.
These days, I live in London. A few months after my return to Finland from Japan I learnt that I got accepted into a British university to do international politics. I was psyched – my life had a course again! Knowing that I was able to leave again made the rest of my year in Finland much more bearable, and after the rocky start I actually ended up enjoying my time back in the motherland. Looking forward to the Saturday evening Putous (a live comedy show massively popular in Finland) each week like every other Finn, I felt integrated into society again.
The love between me and the UK has been a slow burner. Unlike Japan, I came to London without any expectations, or even a real desire to be here. It was pure convenience – I wanted to do my degree in a language I knew (and wasn’t Finnish), and Britain happened to be the only English speaking country in the EU (except for Ireland of course, but the idea of living in a country that would deem me a criminal for having had an abortion did not feel too inviting).
Finland, like the rest of the world, is full of anglophiles who masturbate to the thought of Prince Harry and other posh English gentlemen with upper-class accents while listening to Blur, but none of that really interested me (in fact, I hated britpop). I would have rather done my degree in the US, but unfortunately I didn’t have the tens of thousands of dollars that would’ve required. Thus, Britain and the embrace of a medieval monarchy it was going to be. Japan was not for me anymore, and in Finland I felt like an oddly shaped piece of a puzzle that just wouldn’t quite fit in the damn hole.
The first night in London I got to learn what “single-glazed windows” meant. It was a stereotypical English day in September – full of rain, wind and general gloominess. My room in our otherwise beautiful house was not much bigger than Harry’s cupboard on Privet Drive, and had dusty old carpet flooring the shade of orange resembling a baby’s puke. It was my first day so I didn’t have a duvet, and was shivering under a Primark black satin quilt (the ugliest and most depressing quilt I have ever seen). We hadn’t yet figured out how to turn the heating on, and it was so cold that I could barely sleep. The next day my mattress was damp from the chilliness, and later a big painting of mold would develop on my wall. I felt miserable in my new country of residence and spent the next day trying to hold back the hot tears that were burning in my eye sockets.
Despite this rather tragicomic first encounter, during these four years I’ve somehow began to truly call this place home. Of course, there are still many things I don’t get or like about Britain, such as the preposterous habit of wearing shoes inside. Not only do you bring all the dog shit and other crap indoors, but why would you want to wear sweaty, heavy foot prisons in pretty much the only place you can opt out from doing so?. And what are all those “x”:s at the end of messages about? Sometimes there’s one, sometimes two, sometimes none and sometimes – the confusion – capitalisation is involved. I still haven’t managed to figure out the complex politics of the “x”, which is why I refuse to use it completely – probably at the risk of seeming rude or cold but as a Finn that reputation is probably granted anyway. I also don’t get the excessive use of pet names (please feel free to drag me into an asylum the day I call someone “babe”), the education system (single-sex schools? Hey UK, the 1800s called and they’d want their abusive, Victorian system back), or why on earth these people are so obsessed with Cadbury’s cream egg, surely the most mediocre chocolate experience to ever have existed on this planet.
Yet, somehow, for some reason, here I feel at ease. When I’m sitting on the second floor of a double-decker bus, listening to Popcaan while cruising through the nightly streets of London, I feel more alive than I ever did in Finland. The chaotic surroundings of the city seem to match, and in a weird way calm, the always slightly turbulent state of my mind, whereas in peaceful, quiet Finland, where the only sound in the middle of the pitch black night is an old clock ticking, I feel the need to scream.
During the years I’ve grown to become fond of all kind of small things on this island. The ginger beer, the English breakfast I once used to think was repulsive but actually is one of the best culinary experiences ever, the crips and the Tesco hummus, and the undeniable fact about London that everything is always just a tiny bit grim. And the people, of course the people. I’m not sure how this happened, but I think I might actually really love the Brits. How they use words such as “minging” and call dessert “pudding”, how they get overly excited about things like Pimms and the footy, and finally, how a “cuppa” brings them all together (tea is to be taken very seriously, as I learnt when I left the bag in the cup for too long for my colleague’s taste). When I’m watching Gogglebox on a Friday night with all the various social classes and ethnicities on it I always want to hug my television. If there was one word to describe Britain it would be cozy.
I have no clue how long I’ll stay in this city or on this island, but if and when I leave I know I will mourn my departure with the same – if not bigger – intensity as I once did for Japan.
Now at 27, I’ve yet to experience proper “adult life” in Finland. I’ve never lived anywhere else than in my parents’ house. I have never been to higher education nor had a skilled job in Finland. I’ve never been on a date or had sex with a Finnish man. I have absolutely NO CLUE how to be flirtatious in Finnish (admittedly not my greatest skill in any language). I know some foreigners who work or study in Finland and feel strangely jealous of them, as they in a way know my own country better than I do.
I’ve now become something the Finns call ulkosuomalainen, which directly translates into “an external Finn”; a Finn living abroad. This status is something I rarely think about, except when I’m actually visiting Finland. In our culture it’s a massive faux pas to make a fuss, or as we’d say, “make a number”, of oneself, which is why I always try to keep it very low key when it comes to the fact that I live abroad. At social events where everybody is Finnish I sometimes get paranoid that people would find me odd, and I worry about not knowing pop culture or current affairs references. Meeting new people in Finland is especially nerve-wracking, as I feel that my ability to produce Finnish “banter” is quite rusty (and naturally I’d want everyone to think I’m hilarious). I worry about using too many englisms as I know Finns despise them and seem to think anyone who uses them is an arrogant dickhead. In Finland I often don’t feel like I can say anything negative about the country without people getting defensive or offended, and thinking of me as an ulkosuomalainen snob. But it should be made clear that critiquing something isn’t the same as being a hater or ungrateful. I definitely don’t feel the hatred towards Finland I once did as a teenager, nor do I think it’s the best country in the world, but it is a pretty damn decent place up North we’ve got. Saying negative things stems from frustration towards a place I love, not hate (the same applies to Britain, greetings to all the people who angrily ask “why don’t you move away then?!” when I’ve once again bashed your nation’s poor skills to build wind-proof housing).
I don’t know if I’ll ever feel at home in Finland again – I’m not sure if I ever did to begin with. I don’t know if I’ll ever feel truly at home in any one place. This sounds like a very wanky thing to say, but I can’t find a better way to describe how I actually feel. And it’s not necessarily a negative feeling – I’ve become to accept my current place in the “in-between”. Living in the in-between is feeling homesick while weeping aggressively to Paperi T and Matti Johannes Koivu, but feeling relief when the airplane wheels roll out and touch the British soil. It’s having a home in London but a Home in Finland (not to even mention the third one that appears in those psychedelic dreams I mentioned before). More than a geographical location, Finland and “home” is an identity, something to carry around, something that transcends any physical surroundings. It’s being able to think in the one language you don’t have a funny accent in, it’s having a surname with a lot of confusing umlauts, it’s having a sense of humour as dry as your aunt Phyllis’s tart, it’s feeling awkward in most social situations unless there’s heavy drinking involved, it’s finding enormous amounts of comfort and bizarre empowerment in songs that were written by a funny looking dude in Ylöjärvi in the early 1980s (my love for Martti Syrjä cannot be described). And it’s knowing that wherever I am in the world, there’s always a place far up North, where the bread is black and the souls are shy but warm, where I know I can return.