When I first landed in Helsinki 7 months ago, the arrival gate doors open up and I saw Marianna (a Finnish Fulbrighter who was in Washington D.C. during the fall semester) smiling and waving at me like a friend I had known for years. My fears melted away as I eagerly returned the ear-to-ear grin, and set out on this adventure. In that moment, I felt cared for. I soon realized that this is at the heart of Finnish culture. One Finn described this philosophy as thinking about how you are only doing as well as your neighbor so if your neighbor isn’t doing well, you better help out. This amazing generosity was shown to me over and over while I was making a home in this beautiful country.
A few months ago, I was working with an English class and they asked me what I knew about Finland before I came. I had to be honest and the class laughed as I said I only knew that it was dark, that winters were snowy, and how to say hello. When I asked them what they wish people knew about Finland, one student chuckled, “that we have homework, lots of it and we don’t have any polar bears.” I promised I would spread the word about the many well-kept secrets hidden here in Finland.
I hope I have learned to speak less and listen more during my time here. It isn’t that Finns are a quiet group of people; it is often that they are carefully listening before choosing how to respond. I have learned how important the silence is in a conversation. It gives you time to hear what has been said and think about a response that adds meaning, reflection and depth to the conversation. But I don’t want you to think Finns are always so serious. Given the right table to gather around, they can be a rowdy bunch and many of my nights with Finns were full of laughter and tales of teaching and life that can unite any culture.
I appreciate that when a Finn tells you they are going to call, I guarantee you they are going to call. This is such a refreshingly honest approach to making plans. There is no doubt that plans will happen, it is just a matter of when. I have learned how valued a person feels when you actually make that coffee date plan or send that email introduction to a colleague.
Finns also have a great perspective on the balance between working and home life. Stores are often closed on Sundays and restaurants are empty because people are home with friends and family. Holidays are for everyone and so businesses close for the day. Coming from a consumer driven culture, this took a little getting used to. By the time July arrived and the whole country disappeared to summer cottages, I had fully embraced this perspective. Days are long and summer is short, so every moment should be enjoyed. I was lucky to spend many days at cottages and on the lakes that surround Jyväskylä. I got to pick berries off the bush and eat pancakes cooked on an open fire. This life is peaceful and helps you feel centered and ready to work again. I want to remember when I am knee deep in papers to grade, the feeling of drinking coffee with friends and enjoying the endless days of summer.
Maybe my most important lesson from the Finns, is that you and I have equal worth in this world, even if we like different things. My project was based on looking at the similarities and differences between upper secondary school choices and the motivation behind students’ decisions. The education system in Finland honors differences in interest, approaches to learning and in the pace learners need to achieve their goals. Each educational path and later career path is unique and no one path is better than another. Possibilities are endless. When you combine this with the idea of taking care of one another, it becomes clear why Finland is ranked as one of the best places to live in the world.
My desire is that during my time here, I became a little more Finnish in my approach to life. So when you see me taking my shoes off in a staff meeting (it is so much more relaxing without shoes!) I am simply tying to keep the best parts of this culture close and care for others in the same way I have been cared for while I was lucky enough to call Finland home.
Project website: www.fulbrightinfinland.com