A couple of days ago an opinion piece appeared in Finland’s biggest newspaper, Helsingin Sanomat. In it, a man talks about his American neighbors who moved back to the U.S. after three years of living in Finland. At their going away party he’d asked them if they had enjoyed living in Finland. “It’s impossible to have fond memories of a country where people don’t even say hi to each other,” they said. THAT’S why they left?! I mean, I would understand if they’d left after Lostari closed down or after Sweden won the Ice Hockey World Championships in 2013, but because some of the people who lived in their building didn’t say “hi”?! Perhaps it was for the best.
I’ve been living in Finland for 25 years now, and I’ve seen many people from many countries come and go. The biggest mistake most of them make is to expect Finland to be just like home. It’s not. No place is. But wait a second… isn’t that why you moved in the first place? If you want things to be just like home, you’re probably better off staying at home.
Moving to a new place isn’t easy. You want people to embrace you with open arms. After all, you’re a guest in their city or country. But being a guest comes with responsibility, too. In fact, most of the responsibility is on the “mover”. You have to work hard to understand the people and why things are different.
Maybe if the American couple with the terrible neighbors had done that they would have learned that some Finns don’t talk to strangers because they’re shy, not rude. Or maybe they should have tried “moi” instead of “hi”. Or better still: “Hi, we’re the Smiths. Would you like to join us for a beer or ten?”
When I arrived back in Nakkila after spending a year there as an exchange student, there was a cardboard sign waiting for me. It said “Jenkki go home.” Luckily I’d learned enough Finnish by then to be able to read between the lines. “Jenkki go home” is Finnish for “We’re glad you’re back”.
Love thy neighbor,