When I started this blog, my husband suggested the name “Stranger in My Homeland” for the site as I was heading over to Finland for several weeks after having left the country and moved to the States over 20 years ago. I indeed do feel like a stranger when visiting Finland. I feel different. I don’t know all the practical customs (e.g., you weigh your own fruit and vegetables and put a price label on the produce before going to the cash register). I say hi to all other runners when passing by, which is a big no no. You don’t talk to strangers. You show respect by minding your own business and not intruding. I also don’t know my Finnish coins. We still had the Finnish mark when I lived in Finland and now it’s the euro and I have no idea which coins are which. I get a lot of confused looks when I’m trying to count my pennies (or cents as they're called). I also often still feel like a stranger in my other home country, the US. I stick out. I sound different. I’m known as the “mom who has an accent and who is from Europe” by my kids’ friends.
However, I chose to switch the words around for my blog and intentionally express the feeling of being at home wherever I am. That’s what immigrants do. I often say that I am at home nowhere and anywhere. I have made a home in the U.S. physically and made the U.S. my home mentally and emotionally. I love my life in Minnesota. That’s my home (and yet I also say I’m going home when visiting Finland) - notice the layers. I have definitely integrated well into the American society, gaining high levels of education and employment. However, I have integrated on my own terms. Being seen as different gives me the permission to be different and express myself as someone who doesn’t automatically fit in. My comfort zone is in the cracks, in the no man’s zone, in the boundaries between micro-cultures and expectations. It’s hard for anyone to define me. Since I don’t fit in. I am just me. There’s a lot of freedom in that.
Who are MY people in the society? I relate best to people who for some reason find themselves in the margins of the society. People who work hard to gain access to spaces, roles and resources. People who like me find themselves in a strange place seeking home. The most amazing people I’ve ever met are immigrants or international students, who are brilliant, resilient, courageous and generous, and who are doing hard things in their lives. I see students who come to visit my office inquiring about the Honors Program. They’re modest, yet driven, clearly still learning English. I ask them how long have they been in the country and they say “two months.” Two months!! Dear reader, do you get how absolutely remarkable this is?
It is funny to think about how others see me. There are people who have even called me the all American girl, which is so funny to hear given my immigrant background. Then there are others who know that I have a different background but that I speak English and expect me to really be just like anyone else. There are even some who don’t even know that I have immigrated. I am just one of the 320 million unique creatures in America. When people ask me where I am from, what bothers me is not that they ask, but that they can’t move on. They get selfishly stuck with the fact that I grew up somewhere else. They can only see me as the foreign girl with her backpack with a Finnish flag on it at the airport moving into the country. I have lived 21 years in the U.S. and built on other layers on top of the first layer. I want you to show interest in those as well.
When I first moved to the States 21 years ago, I wanted to “go back home” (=to Finland) every day. Actually, I cried pretty much every day for four years. It is hard to move permanently to another country. It takes time to create a sense of home in a new place. And my journey as an educated, privileged white woman is so easy compared to other immigrants, who are less privileged. This is why I have devoted my life to advocating for individuals who have all the potential and amazing talents but who are underestimated and disregarded by the wider society for whatever reason. You are my people and I’ve got your back.
*Note about the picture: *The creature in the picture is the Moomin Troll, a beloved Finnish story character. While all these trolls look similar, they each are unique in their hearts. See the difference in the seemingly similar. Let people define who they are.