We make mistakes because we’re human. How we choose to react to and handle these mistakes, however, builds our character and our relationships for better or for worse. I do not claim to know what is best for all multicultural relationships but the advice I give below are the lessons I have learned over time through my own personal experiences.
Don’t always assume you know what your partner is “really” saying
Words can have many meanings culturally as well as personally. The language we choose to communicate with should be considerate of the other person and sometimes, especially in multicultural relationships, you will have no idea beforehand that something you said, which you thought was harmless, could cause such a negative reaction. People can often be quick to react or feel hurt by certain words or phrases that evoke past negative experiences or feelings. We then cling to those specific elements and forget to listen to understand. We’d rather only listen to respond. This communication breakdown fails to resolve the issue. Without open and clear communication, we stay lost in translation and without compassion, we often fail to give our partners the benefit of the doubt.
As an American woman, I feel the English word “sensitive” can be very loaded and is often negatively used to belittle or to make others appear as weak. However, when my partner once used the Finnish word “herkkä” to describe me, which loosely translate to sensitive in English, my response was unnecessarily explosive because in that moment I could not consider how that word could be anything other than negative or even seen as a positive trait in Finnish language. We both had to exercise a lot of patience and compassion to overcome our misunderstandings and better understand one another.
If you feel upset by what your partner has said to you, it is important to explain how you feel but to also patiently and compassionately listen to their explanation. Maybe they meant something else entirely or even misused a word, particularly in a language that is not their native tongue. The best advice is to assume less and communicate more.
Don’t be unwilling to compromise
All relationships require compromise. In our romanticized modern societies, compromise is often seen as the antithesis to romance. However, as Alain de Botton, a modern philosopher, insists (somewhat tragically) that “choosing whom to commit ourselves to is merely a case of identifying which particular variety of suffering we would like to sacrifice ourselves for.” We, as humans, all have our complexities and we only fully start to understand them when we try to love and live with another complex individual. Often these complexities can be polar opposites.
Compromise is about learning to negotiate inevitable differences with a more kind, forgiving, and even humorous perspective. If we are not flexible in such a way, relationships will eventually break rather than learn to bend.
Don’t lose your curiosity (in your partner)
This advice will apply more to couples who have been together for a long time. Our culture, our upbringing is second nature to us and more often in multicultural relationships we frequently learn what is completely normal to us is often entirely foreign to our partner. In the beginning of any relationship we eagerly listen to our partners stories and want to learn everything about them. However, at some point in the relationship we wrongly assume we have done enough “homework.” We believe we have figured out our partner and have very little more to learn. Nothing could be further from the truth.
We are always learning, and people change over time. The person you know and love now is not the same person you met years ago. This reality is so easy to forget but vital to remember.
After nearly six years together, my partner and I have certainly made our fair share of mistakes, but we always try to follow the advice above. We continuously recommit ourselves to building a relationship we both want to last.
De Botton, A. (2016, May 28). Why you will marry the wrong person. The New York Times. Retrieved from: nytimes.com/2016/05/29/opinion/sunday/why-you-will-marry-the-wrong-person
I am an American and a recent graduate from the University of Helsinki currently living in Helsinki with my Finnish partner and our lovely dog, Luna.
It could be a cultural thing, it could be a regional thing, or it could just be me, but here’s the thing: there’s been so much I didn’t expect during pregnancy. Where I grew up, women are reminded daily - if not hourly - that it is our purpose in life to have kids. Forget about how that decision can affect all areas of your life, some of these not very positively. People insist on how lovely it is to have kids, how much of a societal need it is… and they conveniently leave out how harrowing the whole process can be.
So, here I am telling you about my own experience with the matter, trying to be honest about what surprised me and what didn’t. For the courage to do this I have to thank the honesty of other mothers that came before me.
I want to start by saying that I consider myself an educated woman, one who loves reading and entered this situation willingly. That is, my partner and I chose to have a kid. And this is where it starts: choosing to have a baby makes me part of the 36% of people in South America who plan their pregnancy. So apparently, I am at least aware of family planning (thanks, mom and dad!). Yet I was still not very well instructed on how difficult pregnancy can actually be. I knew of cases where people had to stay in bed for 3-6 months, but I mostly thought that only happened in extreme circumstances. I was hoping to have a normal pregnancy, one where I could still do what I needed to do: do lab work, write and publish papers, and do other kinds of work. I was actually able to do some of those, but not all, and not for long, and definitely not for lack of trying. So, here’s a bunch of stuff I expected, and some I didn’t.
I was expecting nausea, as this is fairly common during pregnancy. It happens to around 60% of women so I thought this would be my case too. And boy did it begin soon, during the second week already. It is commonly believed that this only happens during the first trimester, so when the first trimester and nausea ended together I was quite happy with myself. Turns out, it can come back! And it did in the third trimester. Not too happy about that one! Luckily, in my case, it is mostly a morning thing and in the third trimester it has not been as strong as in the first one.
One of the first things I noticed when I suspected we were successful in conceiving was how my nipples changed colours. I had read that it can happen, and it did in my case. What I did not know was that other parts of the body change color, too; that was interesting to see! The most obvious one I noticed was the hair line, the one that goes from in between the breasts all the way down to the navel and ends in the pubic bone. This line darkens during pregnancy, and it can also become a bit hairier (luckily not between the breasts, though).
When my half sister was expecting she was quite swollen. I was hoping that came from her mom’s side of the family, and that maybe I had inherited a luckier set of genes. Nope! It seems my mom also had swollen feet during her pregnancy. Of course I only found this out now, because people ::couhgMOMcough:: for some reason ::coughgrandkidscough:: never discuss how bad their pregnancies were before you are pregnant – so I was not very lucky in this department. Soon I realized this was related to me standing for too long, so of course it meant I had to reduce the amount of time I was standing and therefore no more long lab work time for me. In the last trimester though, I woke up some days and my feet are all swollen and I just have no idea why it happens seemingly randomly.
EXPECTED BUT DID NOT HAPPEN
It is funny that one of the most characteristic anecdotes people have from their pregnancy is how much their cravings affected them and their relationships. It is also funny that this did not really happen to me. During the first trimester I wanted spicy Korean soup -Ramen- more often than not but I was not dying to eat them constantly either and since I do love Korean spicy soups anyway this was not the disgusting combination of food I was told to expect to want to eat. I was expecting some weird craving like olives, mayonnaise, pickled onions and blue cheese – things that I detest – yet this never occurred. Quite the opposite, I hated them even more and as little as smelling or seeing them made me gag.
I was told by many that I at some point I could become quite angry, either at friends or my partner. Curiously enough, this also did not happen. At least until now my husband was saved from being yelled at randomly by me. I do feel more sensitive to some feelings though.
When I first started to feel the fetus move I had some trouble sleeping. However, in time I regained my sleep and it might be related to the fetus having some change in sleeping patterns that allow me to sleep more or just being lucky in this department. There are days when I wake up a bit too early and I do hit the bathroom quite often, as expected, even during early hours of the morning but mostly I can go back to sleep afterwards. I think that something that helped me sleep was that I bought baby pillows that I used to place my belly in a comfortable position at night.
Socially expected feelings
The narrative is that, when pregnant, a woman is inundated with overwhelming joy and love. A kind of love never before experienced. I have been suspicious of this narrative for a while, especially after reading about some mothers that felt nothing like that, which caused them to feel very discouraged and guilty. They would blame themselves for being such horrible people for not feeling these things that apparently everyone else does. I felt that these were traditional ideas of womanhood being imposed socially, and that there may not be any truth to them. Perhaps women have felt the need to say it out loud to be socially accepted. However, once a friend that is not a very traditional or religious person confided in me that she did feel that when expecting - I believed her because she mentioned this in private, with no one around to prove anything to. This led me to reading a bit more about it and concluding that some may feel this love and some may not. And that is fine.
At around the same time, something else made me curious: reading in a blog of another very unconventional woman that she only started developing a relationship with her baby once the baby was born and realizing that meeting the baby was like meeting any other new person in her life. So I read more about different experiences and concluded that this too is a possibility, and that this is fine and I am in no position to judge how a person feels about their pregnancy.
I have to thank all these brave women that I was lucky enough to meet and that were honest about their feelings regarding their children, however taboo the topic might be. They helped me and now I do not feel bad at all for not feeling the “overwhelming love” that I am supposed to feel. I am content with my pregnancy, but I do not feel this fairytale type of love and I welcome openly any form of feeling that happens onwards, however the delivery goes and whatever I feel when I look at my child once they are born.
Of course the fetus moves inside me, but I was not expecting the baby to have hiccups. It was quite obvious that was happening because of the rhythm. I immediately read that it’s normal, and also asked the nurse and doctor and they reassured me it is fine, I have nothing to worry about if the fetus is having hiccups. It is just that I was not expecting it.
Pain during baby movements
Normally when people talk about baby movement there is this aura of awe and happiness about it, and people love to mention how magical it is to feel the human-to-be move and such. I was waiting to feel it, and it happened a bit earlier than expected for a first timer. However, as the baby grows and runs out of space, these movements become amazingly uncomfortable. By the time they are more visible, the pain is quite strong and hard to ignore. This makes writing very difficult, if not impossible. It does feel like the baby is either doing yoga or karate inside and it is not fun or enjoyable in any way. “Can you feel the baby move? Awwwwww” It’s more like “yes, and ouch”.
My vulva hurts!
As the baby grows and the belly becomes heavier, I’m starting to feel an increasing pain in my vulva. I asked and checked and it is apparently normal and related to the weight of the belly and having my vulva endure all that weight. Although it sounds quite logical, I was never told this could happen and never heard a woman complain about this before. Needless to say, I was not prepared for this.
Something that can help with this is getting a pack (kylmä/lämpöpakkaus) from the pharmacy, freezing it and placing it in your private area, it can be quite relaxing!
Although a part of me knew I would be tired I did not expect it to be this level of tired. I find it harder and harder to walk, move, or even sit as the pregnancy advances. I am more comfortable laying down but at the same time my head will not be convinced that I should be like this the whole day. I try to go for walks at least but doing all the yoga, exercises and things that are supposed to be helping my body get ready for delivery seem like a daunting effort I am not going to be able to make. I am sure some pregnant people can even run during pregnancy -or play and win tennis matches- yet each pregnancy is different, and I think that one has to be realistic about one’s limitations and try to avoid comparisons.
Feeling bad about my body
The status quo is feeling uncomfortable about one’s body. Very rarely do I find a person – in particular a female identified person – who feels happy with their body. I am more or less at a stage in my life that I learned to accept how my body is even when I tend from time to time to look at older pictures and wish for “that body” rather than the present body I now have. Pregnancy made the awkwardness worse. I am aware of the fact that luckily, I do not need a “perfect” body for my line of work. I am not a model or actress, or singer and I do believe women and other people of different genders have no need whatsoever to comply with current and unrealistic standards of beauty. I am also aware that being beautiful itself is no indication of worth and there is no need to make any effort to be beautiful. A person is worthy regardless of their physical aspect.
This does not mean that I am impervious to the media’s push to have a particular type of body, in particular when trying to find something that could fit me while my belly is growing. I am a Latina and with a good-sized butt – and proud of it, mind you – so I was horribly frustrated trying to find pants that could fit me even at the mommy section of shops that for some reason was now full of skinny jeans. I just could not fit in those things and could not understand who could possibly want to be made even more uncomfortable than what one already is at this particular moment in life.
Finding clothes during pregnancy is hard, in particular if one is not very much into what is considered feminine. Too much of the pregnant people clothes tend to be too “sweet” and “pure” and have a kind of “virginal air” and this is not at all my style and I did not feel comfortable with it at all.
I am aware that this stage is short lived and that mostly my body will change once the baby is born, however I can’t help from having these feelings, so I rather acknowledge them and share these experiences than pretend they are not happening.
Every pregnancy is different. Some people will have it easier than others, so this is just what happened to me. A positive thing in my case was that I am mentally in a better state than before and hope to continue being so, despite the difficulties that may rise once the baby is here. Even regarding the detail about the painful baby movements, I can say I quite enjoy my partner’s reaction when the baby kicks and he feels them. It is really cute in a way even if the kicks can be super strong.
After spending about a year or two in Finland with my suomalainen mies, and because my momma was particular about politeness, I quickly learned the words for thank you and sorry – kiitos and anteeksi. I also picked up some other sounds and grunts from the Finns around me—Yoh-oh and non-iin—and learned to use each with different intonation and meaning. But, I mixed up my double consonants and confused my mother-in-law when I tried to practice my Finnish with her. I would tell her I was making this delicious keittiö and she would wonder how our kitchen had suddenly become tasty. Only now after 4 years, have I finally got it right, keitto for soup, and keittiö for kitchen. And, my sweet mom-in-law? Well, she has learned to decipher my own special version of Finnish.
When I left Finland’s shores, I didn’t realize that words and mannerisms of a place kinda become entrenched in the very fibre of our being.
We were rushing to get our connecting flight in Istanbul, just fresh off a Finnish flight. And, there was I, very politely trying to make my way between the crowds at the airport. After the quiet and peaceful Helsinki airport, it was a “shock” to find myself in a crowded airport. It was only when I was finally seated and ‘seat-belted’ in the plane that I realized: I had not been saying “Excuse me,” but “Anteeksi.” No wonder then, that I had to jostle my way between the weaving queues. All the while this polite me was spouting Finnish in auto-mode, but no one was able to understand what I was saying!
Fast forward to the land of Genghis Khan. Mongolia and Mongolian. Where one learns that it is Chinghis Haan, not Genghis, with a J, but Chingg-his, and definitely not Khan with a “k”, for the great one was a Haan, a King. Mongolia, a beautiful land and lovely people. Far removed from the history of terror and rampage. And in their midst, a kantasuomalainen man, and me, an Indian.
Habits, they die hard. New ones get picked up easily, and if one is constantly hearing certain expressions used by those around, one can also, quite unconsciously begin to use those very same words.
Being the “agreeable” person that I am, I’ve always felt the need to verbally agree with things people say. And what better way to do it than to use Yoh-oh—the Finnish equivalent of yes, of course, yeah, and suchlike—spelled in Finnish as Joo. What a strong word. Much better than the “Yes, yes,” that I used to use as an Indian. Only, in Mongolia, the Joo, bothered our friends. And really bothered them. During a short tea break at our Mongolian language school, I was busy discussing something with my mies, and loudly said, “Joo!” I was agreeing with him and using my classic Indian head-shake for emphasis. When I said “Jooh -oh,” for the second time, our Mongolian language teachers popped into the classroom, concern writ deep on their faces, “Is everything Ok? Are you well? You’re not sick, are you?” Baffled, and with an extra vigorous Indian shake-of-the-head that emphasized my answer, I said, “No!” The Mongolian teachers sighed their relief. Apparently, Joo is a sound that Mongolians use when they are in grave pain, it is the “sound” of pain. Almost like an “ouch” but only for more grievous wounds and injuries.
And so, it was that I had to quickly learn other expressions, I didn't want our Mongolians to think that I was constantly in pain. I remember telling myself that my choice of word or expression also had to complement the great Indian headshake. And so, I found many other Mongolian expressions and put them quickly to use.
After less than a year in Mongolia, I’d picked up lots of Mongolian-isms. Once, we had a visitor from Finland who was busy narrating a rather dramatic story. And when she was describing the events that befell another Finn, I blurted out, “Tiimo!” To which our Finnish friend, said, “No! Not Timo!” She was annoyed that I hadn't kept up with her narration and also wanted to correct my pronunciation, especially because by then, the legendary me was known for mixing up her double vowels and for using incorrect pronunciation. It took a bit of explaining to tell her that I was not talking about our mutual Finnish friend Timo, but that I’d used a regular Mongolian expression to show my surprise.
But, it’s not just me who gets into such predicaments. The peculiar way of rolling one’s head to show that you agree with someone or something is that is quite unique to Indians. But, my husband remarked that perhaps I had learned this habit from pigeons who visited the ledge under the balcony of our apartment in India. From their angle of observation, the pigeons had to tilt their head to look at us. Kinda like in half-agreement till they turned their head to another angle and gazed at us with their other beady eye. It soon became my husband’s favorite way of spending time when we were at our apartment. He would gaze at the pigeons with their bobbing heads and they would stare him down, shift focus, nod and tilt head and begin again. They knew they were safe as we were too far up above them. The Husband was thrilled about having discovered that “not just Indians, but even the pigeons in India tilt and shake their heads.” Hmm, I bade my time. After our return to Finland from India, someone remarked and told my husband that he had picked up a queer mannerism - apparently, he wobbled his head his head whilst saying “Joo.” I smiled my quiet smile and said to The Hubby, “Yeah! It must've been those pigeons.”
Worst part has been my last two years because my TE-office official is an immigrant as well. Our conversations have been mostly over the phone and in Finnish. She has a very strong accent that makes it very difficult for me to really understand all she says and the letters I have received from her have had some bad grammar mistakes. During the conversations I have had to ask her to repeat herself many time to make sure that I have understood what she had just said and that made her very impatient and she often had very vocal sighs of frustration.
During these two years I have studied myself a new profession here and I was expected to report the progress of my studies to the TE-office which I did. However I did have to keep asking if the official had received my reports to which she often replied with a delay of well over a week. Same thing was happening when I asked for help and clarification, I had to wait for a long time for an answer. I am not expecting them to answer to me right away, they do have hundreds of people to manage per person after all. I would appreciate some acknowledgement that my emails have been received.
Now that I have graduated there was time to update my plan of employment. Again, all I got was a phone call not a face to face meeting. During that phone call I was briefly interviewed and quickly asked what kind of work I would like to look for. I didn’t get a change to really express my wishes of what I would like and would not like to do because the occupation I studied qualifies me to do many very different kinds of work. All I was able to say was that I would like to do office work and that pretty much concluded the call. After that I started receiving the work offers that mostly had job description of customer service over phone. Exactly the kind that I do not like to do. The jobs seem to have almost always a requirement for fluent Finnish which I do not have.
The situation for me is very frustrating and I am certain that I am not the only immigrant facing these issues. For me it would be very important and helpful if I would be able to have face to face meetings where to really go through the plan and where my hopes and wishes are listened. I would like to have an official who would acknowledge me and my questions in a reasonable time. Most of all I would like to have an TE-office relationship where at least one of us was fluent in Finnish. These decisions made in and with TE-office do have a big impact on my personal economy and wellbeing.
Different varieties of fresh seafood satisfy our daily craving. They are caught in our neighboring seas and sent to the market within one day. Because they are so fresh, we like them simply steamed or pan-fried with moderate amounts of spice; never too much spice or sauce, we love them the way they already are.
Maybe I got the impression from reading about Norway, that I imagined there must also be various seafood options in Finland. Only after a while, I realized fish are the clear favorite in the Finnish seafood culture. Here the word seafood is almost synonymous to fish, be that sea fish or lake fish. (By the way, I love muikku! The first Finnish word I remember how to spell and pronounce.) Fresh crustaceans and molluscs can only be found in the market occasionally, and are mostly unshelled or cut already. They don’t seem to be a very popular choice for Finns. My experience tells me not to buy frozen seafood. Also, I rarely purchase processed or prepared ones (like cooked, unshelled or cut). So I haven’t really got to taste too many varieties of seafood since I moved here.
One lucky day, I surprisingly found a bag of cockles in Ruoholahti Citymarket. I was excited and asked if the cockles had been purged of sand beforehand. The sales clerks at the seafood counter didn’t seem to understand my question, and finally admitted they have never cooked cockles, so they don’t know the process. Ok, maybe they don’t like them? Anyway, I still bought 1kg of those cockles. That bag of cockles looked still able to survive for a day or two, worth to give it a shot!
Back home, after purging the sand out of the cockles, I steamed them with white wine. I used the soup extracted from the white wine and cockle juice to stir rice, onion, garlic, some tomato paste, and surely the cockles. It was so delicious! My husband loves all kinds of seafood as much as I do, and we were delighted and content with the fresh taste of the cockles. This is not always the case though. Another time we bought cockles from Stockmann and thought the taste simply wasn’t good. So it really seems to be by pure chance whether you get good fresh seafood ingredients in Finland or not.
So we don’t always find fresh seafood (other than fish) as we hope, but we keep on looking. Do you know where to buy fresh shrimps, crabs, clams, squids, and cuttlefish in Helsinki? How did you cook them?
The air is so sweet! I can taste it.
That was the first thing my mother remembers from the time she arrived to Finland nearly 30 years ago. She could remember the humidity and heat when she left her country. But here in Finland, the air was fresh. She arrived at the airport wearing summer clothes and sporting a rather pleasing appearance overall. She met with her husband-to-be, my father, who brought her from the airport to the small town where they were to settle down in the beginning and start building a life together.
My mother had left her country with excitement and thrill. She studied books about Finland in an international library and attended a cultural event organised in her local community by the ambassador of Finland. She remembers being escorted to the airport by her friends and feeling like it was the beginning of an adventure.
On her arrival and during the bus trip from Helsinki-Vantaa airport, my mother recalls some of her first observations from Finland. She realised the bus had a lot of space inside and people tended to choose seats far away from each other. After arriving to their destination, she noticed how only few people were walking on the streets. Interaction between people appeared strange as everyone seemed distant from one another: people were somewhat cautious and very silent, and seemed to avoid direct eye contact with each other.
My mother noticed how having dark hair seemed to draw certain attention. Once she decided to go outside for a walk, but felt that everyone was staring at her wherever she went. This felt so unnerving that my mother felt discouraged to go outside alone.
It was tough in the beginning. Back in her home country, my mother had a respectable job, a college degree and plenty of social circles and friends. In Finland, she experienced a sense of captivity and isolation. She knew no one, didn't speak the language and every day, my dad left for work leaving my mother to figure out how to occupy her days sensibly.
Little by little, my mother started to challenge her mind to look at her situation from a wider perspective. Having her first child soon after moving to Finland kept her busy and filled her time. This gave her a sense of fulfilment. Yet, from time to time, she felt the need to connect to other people, especially her kind.
All these experiences and struggles took place nearly 30 years ago. Much has changed then, most importantly the increase of the number of immigrants in Finland and the arrival of internet and social media. I asked my mother to reflect on her coping strategies on being an immigrant in Finland. She provided me with the following:
Respect cultural differences
This means keeping an open mind. Being the stranger in a new country, you should introduce yourself to the culture and focus on the challenging tasks that lie ahead, such as mastering the language. In a different culture, it is important to acknowledge the limits of what is acceptable and expected social behaviour. Even it there is something you don't fully agree with, you can take it with humour.
It is customary in my mother's home country to go to church every Sunday. Throughout her difficulties my mother found strength through her faith. She also found new connections through church. This leads to another very important factor that helps you to cope with daily life: peer support.
Relating with other foreigners and sharing their own respective experiences makes it easier to deal with the day to day challenges in life. When you are lonely, your friends provide you with emotional security and support. My mother's new friends knew other people in the community, and soon her friendship circles started growing.
So, after nearly 30 years, what has my mother got to say from her journey in Finland? Now, she feels like at home here. She has noticed how there is more multicultural openness in Finland in comparison to the times when she first arrived here. My mother also mentioned this about Finland: ”I admire the bureaucracy here. It works. The law applies to everyone. It doesn't make any exceptions to the offenders based on their social status. There is no corruption.” My mother also thinks that the Finnish government takes care of its citizens. Finns can openly criticize politicians, unlike in her home country where people are afraid to voice out their real opinions because the country has known to have a heavy history with dictatorship. In Finland, people know about their civil rights and hold on to them.
In the end, my mother states, it is all about your attitude and the mindset you choose. You need to be ready to consider your goals and adjust your mentality to cope. Today, my mother looks back at these years with pride of what she has accomplished. She looks forward to the future when she can embrace more free time to explore life's opportunities. After all, life is full of blessings when you know how to focus on noticing them.
If you and your family are anything like mine, you'll probably find the two situations below familiar.
Over ten years ago, at university in Australia:
Bob: What languages do you speak?
Me: Finnish, English, Thai, Spanish
Bob: Oh wow! Where did you learn Finnish, Thai and Spanish?
Me: Well, Spanish – that I learned on the streets of Barcelona. The rest I learned from home.
Bob: Oh – but which one is your first language?
Me: Well… I suppose I learned Thai first, then Finnish, then English.
Bob (looking very confused): But how come you speak such good English then? Did you live in the US? And how did you learn Finnish? And wait, how do you speak English so well? Thai people have an accent.
In the lift at our condo in Bangkok:
Somchai: Hello, little boy.
My son: Sawasdee krub (Hello)
Somchai: How are you?
Me: Khao phoot angrit mai pen (He doesn’t speak English) (I lie)
Somchai: You are such a nice little boy.
My blond 5-year-old gives me a skeptical, raised eyebrow look.
I am a bi-ethnic, transnational, and trilingual third culture kid, and so are my children. This locker is not very crowded, but it’s definitely where I would place myself and my kids. There are numerous occasions in my life that I have had the previous conversations, with variations, depending on where in the world I’ve been, and who I’ve been with.
My kids are not little geniuses. They can speak three languages fluently, and that is perfectly normal, given attention and care when setting the language policy at home. While it was not seen as the norm for a person to have several national and linguistic identities back when I was a child, it is becoming increasingly normal today. It’s important to talk about this, because there are a lot of misconceptions surrounding language acquisition and national affiliation. I won’t go into the nitty-gritty details, but as a linguist, I will say the following: Child language acquisition is a very simple thing. Under normal circumstances, children learn as many languages as they are consistently and frequently exposed to.
Children will not develop the same capacities in all their languages. This is no cause for concern - monolingual speakers do not all speak the same way, either. Kids develop different styles of communication in their different languages because the set of people they interact with in each language is different. I am better at argumentation and analysis in English, more paranoid in Finnish, and more chilled out and helpful in Thai. It is not a sign that I am a ‘poorer speaker’ or ‘semilingual’ in any one of the languages, but simply that I am conditioned to feel different emotions and express different ideas in different languages due to the variation in speakers I was exposed to growing up. If a monolingual speaker were shy and not-so-talkative, people wouldn’t rush to say that their language is underdeveloped, the same way as they do for multilinguals when they are shyer in one language. I would argue that it is more accurate to say I have as many personalities as I do languages, as opposed to saying I am a person who speaks many languages.
Generally speaking, a monolingual speaker learns to express a lot of things very well in one language. Then, when a monolingual learns a second language as an adult in a classroom setting, even if they learn it more or less perfectly, they tend to be ‘compound bilinguals’. This means they have one concept, and simply use two different words (in two different languages), to express the same idea. This can often give rise to the feeling that speaking a second language is difficult, because the concepts don’t quite match up, no matter what is written in the dictionary. A ‘coordinate bilingual’, on the other hand, learns two languages independently of the other, and thus develops separate thought paradigms. These two languages do not directly translate, but rather, the words have slightly different ‘coordinates’. This is the reason why multilinguals find it easy to code-switch, and can tell you all about how two words that are dictionary translations of each other are still not quite the same thing.
Growing up, my brothers and I always spoke Thai (if we happened to be in the same country). For me, it is the language of being looked after, and the language of endless discussion about food and poo. It is the language where I can be as stupid as I want, or try to be smart, and I am still the baby of the family. Finnish was the language that I sometimes spoke with my dad. He didn’t speak much when I was a kid, and was often condescending when he did. Finnish became the language of being defensive, of being wrong. My parents spoke English to each other, and I went to international schools in several countries, starting from my kindergarten days. My teachers were encouraging. English became the language where I was right, where I could build a logical argument, and where I could hold my own ground. Of course, over time, I’ve learned other patterns of behavior in all three languages, but my childhood most certainly set the tone.
I never questioned my tri-lingualism until I became an adult and had to defend it regularly. I still couldn’t tell you which is the language in which I ‘experience a sense of self’. That’s mainly because I am 100% myself in all three. I am just three different selves. These selves are not inherently Thai, Finnish, or even international. These selves are a product of the models of interaction I learned as a child.
Which brings me to the present day. My children are also both citizens of Thailand and of Finland. They speak Finnish with their wonderful, encouraging dad, and have a great sense of humour in Finnish. My husband speaks almost flawless English, and so we speak English at the dinner table. Despite this, our kids have a more Indian/Philippine accent in English because they go to an English language daycare where their teacher is from the Philippines and their classmates are Indian. In Thai, they tend to ask more questions, and are probably more argumentative, probably because of my own role in the family. None of it has anything to do with a ‘Thai side’ or a ‘Finnish side’. It’s all to do with social interactions.
When you look at it that way, you can see that the kids will both develop different interaction styles in all three languages, too. My son is totally blond haired and has grey eyes. For some people, like Somchai in the second scenario, language and ethnicity are so intricately tied that they believe hair-colour has something to do with language acquisition. My daughter, on the other hand, is often described as a carbon copy of me. Nowadays, mixed-ethnic children are so common that nobody questions her ability to speak Thai. On the other hand, they do not expect her to be able to speak English, then, and it wouldn’t surprise me if she still has to encounter people like Bob in scenario 1 when she grows up.
I want to make sure my kids are equally proficient speakers of all three languages. As we currently live in Finland, Finnish is taken care of. They get plenty of exposure to English, too. Thai is a bit tricky. It is unfortunate that many Thais here either believe a) that their child can only learn one language fluently or b) that they will automatically learn Thai because they are half Thai. The foregone conclusion in both cases is that the Thai parent speaks broken Finnish mixed with some Thai to their child(ren). Apart from ensuring that the child probably won’t pick up Thai, many of these kids end up needing speech therapy. What further aggravates the issue is that the Thai teacher who teaches school children also speaks a mish-mash of the languages, a fact that the cities of Helsinki, Espoo and Vantaa have not reacted to, despite numerous complaints from parents.
It is also important to remember that on my own, I cannot make sure my kids speak Thai well enough to communicate with a lot of people. They would only have a limited vocabulary and interaction style if only exposed to one speaker. So I employ a Thai teenager as their babysitter twice a week, and expose them to as many people who speak Thai to them as possible. When my kids were smaller, I gently reminded my friends not to speak Finnish with them. While some people saw me as harsh, I also believe I have made a difference in my circle of friends and acquaintances. Many have told me that after seeing how my totally blond kid can speak Thai, they have been more careful not to mix languages around their own kids. With the help of some friends, we set up a Thai kids club, where mothers speak to each other in Thai, and we arrange fun activities for the kids in Thai, and Thai only. Language is a social thing. The human brain is calculating and efficient (some would say lazy), and it certainly won’t bother learning a language well if it figures out there is an easier way to communicate. That’s the reason why many multilingual children do end up speaking just English (or whatever the dominant language is) to their parents. My kids would do the same with me if it weren’t for the community of people they are regularly exposed to that only speak Thai. Thai is a necessity for them, not an option. Of course, for some, this can seem like a lot of effort. And people should totally do what works for their families. If some language is an unnecessary burden for the family, why maintain it? Whatever works, right?
Do you want your bi or trilingual children to feel that they are themselves in your native language(s)? That should influence your decision as to whether you a) actively expose them to strong communities that use that language, and let them find their own place within them, or b) feel that you alone are sufficient as the main source of language exposure. The former means that your child will probably develop a strong character independent of you, and be able to navigate a wide array of social situations in that language. The latter means that they will primarily see it as a language they can only speak well enough to communicate with you and perhaps a select few people who know them very well.
Of course, you can always cross your fingers and hope that the child finds a place in that language community later on in life, and save yourself the effort. That happened to me with Finnish – I had more or less stopped actively speaking it, but then I went and married a Finn and moved to Finland. I am now a native speaker of Finnish slang, with practically no knowledge of Finnish written style. It’s a good thing my ‘Finnish community’ in Finland are the young people I work with, who seem to mainly appreciate my informal style of communication, and my colleagues, who care more about content than grammar or style! However, my mind still goes on overdrive thinking of ways to defend my poor grammar every time I send out an e-mail in Finnish, though, as I am sure someone will complain. My English character, a zealous grammarian, cringes in disgust at my low standards, yet applauds my practicality. My Thai character can't wait to hit send, seeing as there are better things to think about, such as if I ought to have mentioned I wrote it on the toilet, and what new thing to try for lunch.
Autumn 2012 I moved to Finland because I married a Finnish man. Before I moved here I didn’t know much about my future home because I had just travelled to Finland two times. I thought I knew how to use English to communicate with in Finland and I knew some Taiwanese people here already so I though it wouldn’t be that difficult to settle down here. However, after being married here for a week or two, I had the feeling that I wanted to go back to Taiwan. Little by little I got to know that the life wasn’t going to be the same I thought it was like when I travelled here. I knew I was going to be here for long time or even for the rest of my life.
Not just only the weather, food, the way of transportation and the people are different here also the culture shock reduced my self-confidence. When I went out to talk with people or when I tried to do anything, looking back now, I used the Taiwanese way of thinking and doing. That limited my own behaviour, and doing things that were normal and accepted here made me think that I had done something wrong and I felt guilty. That made me avoid social contact and interaction, I just stayed home for almost a month in the hands of one sort of a culture shock. All the communication around me was in Finnish and I wasn’t quite able to follow what is happening around me as completely as back home in Taiwan. Eventually my reducing self-confidence prevented me from going out and I started to close down into my own shell.
When the winter started to set in and the darkness got to be all around, I started to have depression symptoms and that reduced my ability to function even more. This made my husband to spend more time and energy to take care of me and I was feeling more of a burden and I felt guilty for that, even though he didn’t say anything of the like. I was worried if this situation would be getting worse, and how would this influence my marriage. I was afraid that it would go to the worse.
One day when I was staying home sitting during the daytime not really knowing what I can do here I was reflecting about what is going on in my life. Was I regretting to marry into here? What can I do here? Can I talk about my feelings with anyone, even with my husband? In the end I knew that all of the situation was because of the different country, different culture, different environment, different people. All that I didn’t know well enough and how I was still using the Taiwanese way of thinking. I decided to give up a little of the way I had been used to think and start little by little to care less about what the people are thinking about me and what I do. This for me was the first big revelation on how to overcome the culture shock for me. If I could be more openly me, showing my feelings and emotions, being able to talk about what I am, then I knew I would settle down better and I would start to feel more at home here.
Now that I have lived here in Finland for 4 years I have learned to be more open and I dare to talk more about my own ideas and stand by them. I can share my opinions with my husband, my friends, in school and even at work. I have more courage and confidence to overcome and face the difficulties that might lay ahead in the future. I have been able to give up the part of my Taiwanese thinking that limits me and have acquired the part of the Finnish way of thinking that whatever lies up can be faced and overcome with friends and family.
What I would like to say to someone facing these difficulties in their new home country is that do not close your mind but try to figure out what the actual problem is and do not think too complicated. Try to find someone you trust and do not be shy to talk with them, and try find the way for yourself to sort out the issue in a way that you are comfortable with. Do not run away from the problem but instead face it and tell yourself and believe in yourself that you can solve the situation. That gives you the positive energy to get through. Remember, if it could be, just let it be and it will be.
My advice to the Finnish spouses is: be patient, be present, be there for the spouse. Find the way you can comfort and give support. For me it was my husband being patient, listening to me and hugging me every day to make me feel good and loved. Try to find a way to make your culture shocked immigrant spouse feel safe, loved and understood. Give them stability, predictability and do your best to help them get involved with the everyday Finnish way life.
I am a love immigrant from Taiwan and have lived in Finland for three and a half years. I used to be a workaholic, who dismisses the idea of marriage. After several heartbroken I met my Finnish husband unexpectedly which I’ve never imagined before. I was 35 and I had really put up a lot of courage to make the hard decision to give up my beloved families, friends, job (and salary!) and all my ties back at home to come to Finland. It was really a hard decision for me.
To me, marriage is a covenant, that only through consistent mutual contribution and hard effort, can we create a win-win situation for both of us. Before we got married, my husband and I thought that we had a very good understanding of each other’s background, values and families but only after we went through a pre-marriage counselling program through a church in Taiwan, we found out that there was still much to learn for us. Luckily our mutual understanding has become deeper and deeper ever since.
Culture shock and difference have nourished my life and even brought the birth of a book!
Even though I really like the Finnish culture and I had think hard and prepare a lot for this marriage abroad, my arrival here in Finland still give me tons of culture shock, amazement and challenges. To record all these special experiences, as well as to continuing to improve my Chinese writing skill, I’ve since set up a blog writing about all the positives and negatives things that I’ve went through. I’ve learnt a lot through writing this blog and luckily a small group of supporter for the blog has grown and the interactions with them gave me a lot of feedback and encouragement. Last year during my visit back home, I was then offered this chance to publish my experiences here in Finland to share with more people back in Taiwan.
In Taiwan, people long for different perspectives and foreign culture and especially, Finnish design and its education system is rather famous amongst the general public. Also a growing number of people has come to believe that interracial marriage is now trending and ever more acceptable. For me, I’ve found a brand new set of value here in Finland and I want to convey these values to my reader back at home.
My book is about "intercultural issue" such as intercultural marriage, life style, design, local color and self growth. The book is written in a bibliography style, mostly consist of dialogues between me and my husband. I try to write it in a humorous way to describe my life experiences, as well as my reflection on the conflicts between my husband and myself and the two cultures, what values I used to have that has changed, and what I consider to be unique and must keep. Maybe, through these conflicts and reflections, I can invent a new culture which describe the goods of interracial marriages.
Through writing and photography, I had the chance to get to know myself a bit more, and also to maintain the ties to my mother culture. I encourage all the immigrants to write about their experiences, so through writing, they may find new values in themselves and their position in the new society.
Two and a half years ago, my husband and I welcomed the fruit of our love, our daughter Ida. I’ve since entered a new stage in my life, and everyday Ida brings me new joys and surprises. While in Finland, I’ve learnt that being pregnant is not all about inconveniences, rather, a pregnant woman has so much creativity and potential to achieve, that what she can do, is almost unlimited. The wife can also take the active role in creating intimacy in the marriage.
Be patient! Our job as parent is not to dictate or to control, but to give time, space and encouragement so the kids can grow at their own pace, naturally and freely. Once in a parent-teacher meeting, Ida’s teacher totally shocked me by pointing out … the harsh, strict “Asian” parenting that I’ve grew up under, has so much hold on me that I have unknowingly applied the same altitude to my child. How to raise a child in a bi-cultural family, has always been an interesting problem my husband and I tried to solve. Early in my pregnancy, I’ve often troubled myself on the potential difficult task of raising a mixed-blood child, questioning my own ability to meet the standard of a proper parent.
But in fact, it doesn’t matter where you live in the world, nor what background the parents came are, the most important factors to raise a healthy and happy child are the parents’ unconditional love and positive values. Similar to other countries in the Nordic, Finnish emphasize on children’s growth and education and I feel very grateful that I’ve the chance to learn how to become a confident, able and loving mother to my Ida.
While living in Finland, there’s two Finnish proverbs that I’ve often find helpful: “Alku aina hankalaa, lopussa kiitos seisoo” - The beginning is always difficult, in the end stands the thank and “Rakkauden tunne on kuin aurinko molemmin puolen” - To be in love is to feel the sun from both sides.
I wish to share these two proverbs with you being a love immigrant makes your life richer and more promising.
(Huan Ya, Chen Ketonen)
"Love recognizes no barriers. It jumps hurdles, leaps fences, penetrates walls to arrive at its destination full of hope."
"I know there is strength in the differences between us. I know there is comfort where we overlap.”
"Rainbows introduce us to reflections of different beautiful possibilities, so we never forget that pain and grief are not the final options in life.”
"An intercultural relationships is more about 'hello' and 'nice to meet you' than 'goodbye' and 'farewell'. It's about gaining another country, another culture, another language and another family."
"Diversity is the magic. It is the first manifestation, the first beginning of the differentiation of a thing and of simple identity. The greater the diversity, the greater the perfection."
"I am still not a political person, but I am proud that Richard's and my name is on a court case that can help reinforce the love, the commitment, the fairness, and the family that so many people, black or white, young or old, gay or straight seek in life. I support the freedom to marry for all. That's what Loving, and loving, are all about."
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