On Being Finnish

For most of my life, being of Finnish descent meant having a last name chock full of vowels that no one can spell nor pronounce; possessing stereotypical traits like shyness, taciturnity, individualism, stubbornness, an inherent fondness for ice hockey, coffee and vodka, and knowing how to ski from the time I could walk; and genetic traits like photophobia, depression, susceptibility to headaches, fine, blonde hair, green eyes, a tiny ski slope of a nose and a skin color that’s just a shade darker than albino.

My grandparents came over to the United States after their hometown, Viipuri, was ceded to Russia and became Vyborg. My grandpa didn’t much like being a Russian soldier so they became Americans instead. They bought a farm in Michigan and became Americans in every sense of the word. They completely disavowed their Finnish culture, except for the dried up excuse for food my grandmother would cook. To this day, I’m not sure if all Finnish food is tasteless and dry, or if my grandmother was just a bad cook.

My father doesn’t speak Finnish at all, which means I don’t either. I’ve tried to learn the language, but being American, I have no idea what to do with umlauts. They confuse me. The Finnish language has eight vowels. That’s right, eight vowels: a, e, ä, o, i, ö, u and y. Umlauts, what the hell do you do with umlauts? I’ll never make a proper Finn.

There are only five million Finns in Finland. I’ve met four of them. They were very cool and didn’t seem to mind that fact that I’m a stupid American all that much. They spoke perfect English and the only word in a whole evening’s conversation that they didn’t know was “secular”. Imagine a world where you don’t know what secular means because there is no need for it. It sounds like heaven to me.

When George W. Bush was reelected, me and my ilk were so pissed off that Americans could be so utterly stupid as to reelect that jackass that there was talk of a mass exodus. Since American education, when it comes to learning languages, mostly sucks, countries where English is spoken were prized escape locations, e.g. England or Australia.

Since my grandparents and father are Finnish, I check into repatriating to Finland. I’m not kidding. The benefits of being a Finn in Finland, besides the fact that it’s a liberal, progressive country with excellent social services, is that it’s also a member of the European Union. With an EU passport, I could travel all over Europe without having to worry about visas. The one downfall of my great plan was the umlauts. To be a Finnish citizen, you have to speak Finnish. The language and, frankly, the weather were my great stumbling blocks. Finland has winter – real winter, the kind of winter I moved clear across the country to escape, only worse. Plus, I’ve never actually been there and don’t know if I’d even want to live there or not. It was a nice dream though and still serves as a backup plan if things get really bad.

Even though I no longer have any plans to move to Finland in the near future, my “Escape American Stupidity” plan did have one unforeseen result. It forced an interest in my heritage upon me. Finns are fascinating people and I share much in common with them besides my appearance and the many vowels in my last name.

I’ve started reading Finnish literature. I’ve read books on the Winter War. If you know nothing at all about Finns, just read the wiki on the Winter War that I linked and it will give you a pretty good idea of the size of Finnish balls. Outnumbered 4 to 1, facing the Soviet empire and they still managed to hold them off for a time. I wrote about the Winter War in the post A Frozen Hell. That’s what the Finns call sisu. Sisu is one of those words that’s untranslatable into English since it contains many different concepts. Basically, it means quiet determination in the face of insurmountable odds and the Winter War was dripping with it.

I’ve read the Under the North Star trilogy and The Unknown Soldier by Väinö Linna (note all the umlauts in that name). I’ve read the strangely Egyptian epic, Sinuhe The Egyptian by Mika Waltari. I’ve read The Year of the Hare by Arto Paasilinna and Seven Brothers by Aleksis Kivi, the national author of Finland. One thing I’ve found is that Finnish literature is full of misfit characters in absurd situations, tongue in cheek humor, drinking, debauchery, hard work, sacrifice, sisu, downfall, retribution and learning from mistakes. Finnish characters are Paul Bunyon, Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett and Beowulf all rolled into one, but without all the boasting. They are stoic roughnecks and stormy louts with a firm sense of right and wrong, do or die, whose actions speak louder than words.

One of these years, I’ll actually go there. I’d like to see where my grandparents were from. Of course, I’d actually have to go to Russia to see it since it’s a part of their country now. I’d like to see where I might have lived had WW2 not happened. I’d like to immerse myself in a culture that I never knew.

Both of my Finnish grandparents died within six months of each other when I was barely in double digits, shortly after their 50th wedding anniversary. I remember both of them fondly. My grandmother was everything that a grandmother should be – warm, caring, patient, nice, generous, and expressing a love and affection for her grandchildren that is unsurpassed. She was short, pudgy and had rosy red cheeks like a storybook grandmother. She was also a bad cook. My grandfather was slender and incredibly tall at well over six feet. He was not what you would call talkative. My father isn’t all that talkative either, but in comparison to my grandfather, he’s downright chatty. My grandfather’s pride and joy was a cherry-red, 1969 Chevy Nova SS Coupe with a V8 engine and more horsepower than entirely necessary. My grandfather and I both loved that damn car and it’s what inspired me to get a muscle car of my own. He never told me a story, but he did show me how to cross-country ski, work on the car, grow things in the ground and build things. He had a workshop in the basement where he spent most of his time, much like his son.

I’m a little angry with my grandparents for diving so headlong into American culture that they didn’t pass any of the customs or language down to us. However, considering how much hatred was floating around for immigrants at the time they became Americans, particularly towards Finns who were viewed as troublemakers, I guess I can understand why that is. Still, I wish they had taught me how to pronounce an umlaut and make proper Finnish pasties. I think they’d both be very happy that I’ve taken an interest in where they were from.

Even though I don’t know all that much about my cultural heritage, I do know from what little reading I’ve done that I’m proud to be a Finn. Being a Finn is like being from Detroit (which I am as well). Having Detroit as your hometown gives a certain intangible badassness that, say, being from Iowa, doesn’t have. It means that you were born and raised in the former murder capital of the world. It means that you’ve lived through something. Being Finnish is similar. It means that you are probably wryly funny, taciturn, pragmatic, loyal, hard working, hard playing and larger than life. It means that you were born with sisu. I wouldn’t want it any other way.

This post is part of the On Being Series.