My Cultural Integration Story

When I immigrated to the States 21 years ago almost to the day, I had no idea what my life there would be like. I was madly in love (I still am!), but other than that I didn’t know what to expect. I had just left everything I knew, my dear family, my professional life and goals, literally every physical thing I owned (I was a young, married gal who had just graduated from college and we didn’t have the funds to ship everything over the ocean). The beginning was so hard. I was miserable. I was so far away from my family. Everything was strange – the sounds, smells, how people behaved themselves, how everything worked. My biggest fear (I know it sounds funny now) was that my husband would, accidentally or purposefully, leave me behind at a rest stop on the interstate on our way to Wyoming to see his family (from Colorado where we lived then) since I would have no idea how to get home from there. Thankfully he never did that. He is such an awesome guy for not having done that.

But I was determined to make my life worthwhile in my new country. I knew I could. I had travelled a lot, spent extended time abroad: I spent a year in Germany as an au pair, a summer in Sweden working at a hotel and a summer in California as a camp counselor. And we had taken many family vacations across Scandinavia and Europe when growing up. I spoke English. But this was different; I moved permanently to another country. It was hard. I was miserable. There were days when I was so lost and just plain wanted to go home. What kept me from going back was simply that I really, really loved my hubby. Had I just moved there because of a job, there’s no way I would have stayed. We were (and still are!!) so happy together and I felt at home being with him.

My hubby had credibility in my eyes. As an undergrad at the University of Idaho, when he noticed that he would graduate a year early (yep, he’s a smart one), he wanted to go and study abroad. He was just an ordinary American, a “cowboy” from Wyoming (not really a rancher), and he wanted to study abroad!!! Yeah, that’s a lot of currency in my book. And he chose Finland, what?! His grandfather was 100% Finnish. Not only did he stay in Finland for one year on study abroad in my university, but he chose to stay on for another two years as a regular student to get his Master’s. When he made the decision to stay, I wasn’t in the picture at all yet. And he learned Finnish! We were together for two years in Finland before getting married and my parents lived in the same town. My mom didn’t speak any English, so my hubby wanted to know Finnish so he could speak with my mom. Yep, that’s pretty sweet. He is fluent in Finnish still today.

So when I was miserable in the beginning and my husband consoled me, I trusted him. How long did it take me to get used to being in my new country so that I wouldn’t cry every day? Four long years. That’s a long time. I’ve also suffered from anxiety and panic attacks all my life and these four years were an especially difficult time with my symptoms. But today after 21 years of living in the States, I can honestly say that I LOVE my life and would absolutely not move back.

So what helped me integrate? My Finnish and international friends, hands down. We had a bond like no other. At the same time, I was very intentional in progressing with my career and professional goals and not just “get employment.” I was a highly educated professional in Finland and had high aspirations for a career. Since my teaching license from Finland didn’t transfer, I went back to school to learn more about ESL, how to work with immigrant children in schools. School was a comfort zone; I love learning and I was a good student. Doing everything in English was still hard. I was a good writer in Finnish and I wanted to be as good in English. It took some time to find my voice in English so that I didn’t sound like a textbook. I consciously operated at a level of i+2 (this is two steps higher than I comfortably could; a normal “healthy” level is i+1), so taking on positions, jobs, and tasks that were super hard, harder than I was supposed to be able to do. But I persevered. This moved me closer to the center in the society, away from the margins. I was playing with the native-speakers and that felt good. Today, I feel fully integrated. I can be in the room with high-ranking native-born executives and hold my own!

The point of my story is that the process of integration is very personal. Every immigrant’s story is different. It’s about survival. The main thing is not to judge. People do what they have to do to survive physically, mentally and emotionally. There are several approaches to integration that individuals utilize when moving permanently into a new country. There are four commonly discussed categories of integration/acculturation:
1. Assimilation
2. Separation
3. Integration
4. Marginalization

There’s an excellent scholarly discussion on the four available free online at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3700543/. I will discuss these categories in more detail in a future blog post with examples from real life.

*Picture:* My hubby and I on our wedding day in Finland on May 18, 1996.