“Where are you from?” I have heard this question close to 22,000 times by now (about three times every day for 21 years). I am very aware that I don’t quite fit in anywhere. I’m different. That allows me to be whatever I want to be without worrying about any predetermined expectations. I feel very American and that is my main cultural identity. This sense is strongest when I travel abroad, especially in my native land of Finland.
Right now I’m traveling to Finland for a Fulbright experience and am sitting in an airplane flying from London to Helsinki. I see and hear several “actual” Finns around me, and it is so hard for me to believe that I ever was that Finnish. I say this with the highest degree of respect. I definitely have lost a lot of my cultural capital associated with being a Finn.
The Finns think I am very American, yet they get confused because I still speak Finnish, and even the heaviest countryside accent there is. But my mannerisms, interpersonal gestures, and the way I use language to communicate is not very Finnish at all. Yet back at home in Minnesota, I receive the above questions about my home, where I am “really” from every - single - day. So I really don’t count as an American either. This leaves me often confused and truly feeling like I belong nowhere.
For me home is not a location, but it is a sense of belonging. It is a place where people around me see my uniqueness as a legitimate positive trait that makes me who I am. Not as an interesting feature that one is curious about or a deviation. My kids and my hubby make me feel like I belong exactly as the way I am. For them I’m just a unique mom or just a cool wife (yes he thinks that). When mom speaks, my kids hear me, with all of my idiosyncrasies, without drawing/paying attention to something that is there that shouldn’t be or isn’t there that should be. They just let me be me. That is where I truly feel home.
I get the same feeling of special belonging when I travel. Sitting at the Heathrow airport in London and listening to all of different languages, variations of English, native and non-native, truly fulfils my soul. The richness of culture, ways of being, clothing, mannerisms, and language inspires me and makes me feel that I belong. I get the same feeling when speaking with my international students. There’s kinship that is hard to explain. There’s pride in what I know they’re doing by studying abroad far away from their homes going after their dreams, with courage and determination. There’s also the shared experiences of looking into the American society from the outside and comparing and contrasting our observations with another view/other perspectives from another place.
This is it for now. Let's keep our eyes, ears and hearts open!
Note about the picture: When I landed in Finland, I saw these cute figurines wearing the traditional costumes from Lapland, the northern most part of Finland. Yes, I looked like a tourist taking pictures of these, me and the 20 tourists from Japan there side by side.