I’m a Finnish Fulbright scholar staying in the U.S. for the autumn semester with my 15-year old daughter. This means that in addition to my own observations, my daughter provides me a teenager’s inside view of American high school life, and I also experience the local education system as a parent, which is extremely educative.
In Helsinki, I teach many immigrants and only now, when struggling with official papers with codes and complicated language, I myself get to feel the amount of frustration the linguistic incapability can give to a person with Western education – not to mention my students, whose parents might have lived in refugee camps and who have a totally different cultural background.
It makes a big difference whether my daughter’s teachers can relate to her lack of English skills – if they can talk with using their hands, use examples and simpler words and slow down. It is also important if they can understand that if she has difficulties doing her history homework, it’s not because history is difficult, it’s just a matter of vocabulary. I recommend any teacher to try to read a high school history textbook in a language where you know only the basics!
In fact, my daughter is often telling me that her school in the U.S. is easier than her 9th grade in Finland is, even if her school days here are longer and she has more homework to do. In addition, sometimes my daughter has to rewrite something just because her pen was of the wrong color. And she, without being a particularly ecological person, is shocked by the amount of waste the Americans produce in their everyday life. One could do things in many different ways even with a normal school lunch.
All this reassures me of the fact Pasi Sahlberg and Amanda Ripley have brilliantly analyzed in their books: Finland is an educated country, in its deep and ecological meaning. Finnish teachers are highly qualified and they can think of many different ways to teach and explain things to different kinds of students. Even though heterogenic classes are challenging for teachers no matter how qualified they are, the teachers are able to increase students’ creativity in thinking, when they constantly face different learning and teaching methods.
In spite of everything, my daughter says – and now things get interesting – that she would rather stay here than return to Finland. Regardless that there are no recesses, the lunch break leaves her 5-10 minutes to eat (quite unhealthy and not so tasty food which she has to pay for), the students are being extremely controlled at school when it comes to going to the bathroom or using cellphones at lunch (strictly forbidden!), or the clothes they wear. Despite the longs school days that always last 8 hours and the homework that takes most of her time after school. Even after all this, she’d like to stay! Why on earth?
The reason is the people, American people. They are kind, friendly, helpful and polite. And this is not to say that Finns aren’t, but from my own experience, Americans are more friendly right from the start.
When I think about a person meeting another one for the first time, there are different stages from biological fear to becoming friends who trust one another. But it is as if the Americans have skipped the first steps, so when they meet a stranger, it feels like they already know one another. The Americans greet you when standing in traffic lights, and ask whether you need help if you are looking around. And of course they do it with a smile and an assumption that you’re also being friendly to them. At first my daughter couldn’t believe the way the American girls of her age were saying “excuse me” when passing by. In Finland it would be almost embarrassing to be that polite as a teenager.
I ask myself, whether this cultural difference is due to different political history, or Finns’ almost genetic need of being left alone – which includes the most beautiful moments of peace and silence as well as the most tragic stories about having to struggle alone. Whatever the reasons are, we can’t change them. But we can change our culture from this moment on. Hopefully we can preserve the many good qualities we have, but also become more polite, smile more and approach one another easier. To be honest, it doesn’t even matter whether the person in the supermarket queue is being kind only because you are supposed to be. It just feels good, and makes me want to be polite as well. After all, I can still keep my own space and be the critical, introvert Finn.
The Americans have their fears and tragedies just like we do, but they can teach us a great deal about everyday friendliness. And we Finns are more than happy to tell about our education system and ecology. As an American once said – “we are all in the same boat now.”
You can read more about the Fulbright experience of Inka Ritvanen, Maija Kallio and Mikko Rahikka from their blog: http://dfat13fi.wordpress.com/