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Mistaken identity

June 9, 2007

We don’t see things as they are,
we see things as we are.

Anaïs Niin

The date and year is not important, but it is a weekday, not too long ago.
Spring has announced its arrival and spreads its magic to these Sub-Arctic
latitudes after a long slumber. Leaves are budding everywhere; trees are
stretching out their branch tips like humans with their arms upon awakening. The
full moon, which seems like a white hole peeking into the darkness, shyly
lightens the night as it follows you with thin clouds moving beside it like
waving silk in the sleepy wind.

I’m driving alone on the motorway from Porvoo to Helsinki amid these landscapes overflowing with beauty. Even if the night has robbed the forest of its individuality because it is now a solid clump of varying hues of darkness,everything is not what it seems…

We see things as they are

Like the dark forest teeming with life on the motorway to Helsinki, it ismade up of infinite particles of matter and spontaneous events. It is very muchlike an image of our culture, also made up by individuals and endless intentions.

When I moved to Finland in 1978, my ethnic perceptions of the Finns did notdiffer very much from what was common knowledge at the time. The way we sawourselves as a people and a nation had very much to do with the geopolitical circumstances of the cold war. Even if we were culturally hamstrung by such a reality, our political leaders, ethnographers, linguists and others added to oursense of isolation.

On the foreign policy front, Finland didn’t officially belong to the East or West. It was in a no-man’s land reaping the best of both hostile worlds. Linguistically and ethnically, we considered ourselves distant from the rest of Western Europe as well.

How many times as a child had I heard from my relatives that the Finns are a people that are not related to anyone in Europe except for with the Sami(Lapps), Hungarians and Estonians.

Ethnically speaking, the cold war was the most castrating period in Finland’s search for its cultural identity. Through the difficult circumstances of Superpower politics, Finns lost contact with their ethnic relatives like the Estonians, Ingrians, and in many ways with the children of the hundreds ofthousands of Finnish migrants who live abroad.

If it weren’t for the parents of these migrant children, who encouraged them to visit their grandparents in Finland during summer, such cultural bonds wouldnot have been lost forever.

It does surprise me that even after the Soviet Union’s fall from grace in the past decade, some policymakers in this country are slowly acknowledging a new group of Finns called the “New” Finns. What these bureaucrats do not understand, however, is that these so-called “New” Finns have always existed but had not been acknowledged before.

Things as we are

One of the first scientific books given to me on Finland was written by a sociologist called Heikki Waris. In his book on the Finns, he stated that one of the outstanding factors that characterized Finland was its homogeneous population.

But how ethnically homogeneous or near-homogeneous is it? At the time of Waris’ statement, close to one million Finns lived as migrants outside of Finland’s borders. What about the children of these Finnish migrants, who grew up in both cultures, and kept
strong bonds with Finland by visiting this country on a regular basis during the summers?

Possibly Waris’ sentence could have shed more truth if it read in the following manner: Finns are not ethnically homogeneous, but have been made culturally homogeneous through the circumstances of history, geography and geopolitics.

There are some studies that now claim that Finns are not as ethnically isolated as previously believed and that they are quite “mixed” genetically with other groups in Central Europe.

The US government asked American anthropologist Margaret Mead after the bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese in 1942 to carry out a national character study on the new nation America was at war with. The reasoning behind the study was to bring forth some “national traits” on the Japanese so that the US could wage a more effective war against its new foe.

The so-called national character study by Mead did not bear any fruit and concluded that it was impossible to produce a clean list of traits that characterize the Japanese. On the contrary, Japanese culture is made up by an infinite number of sub-cultures and therefore impossible to categorize in a stereotypical fashion.

Considering that Japan must have been a much more isolated country at the time when compared to Finland, what would have Mead’s conclusions been if she had done a similar study on the Finns?

To go back once again to the sublime forest and night that hugs the motorway from Porvoo and Helsinki, who can seriously say that there are not an infinite amount of factors at play in creating such a state of beauty?

We must also begin to see ourselves as we are, and not like historical and geopolitical circumstances have dictated in the past.

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