Cultural Oddities and Other Observations
A splash of pink and yellow catches my attention as I step off the bus into the chilly October air. It’s an elderly Indian lady dressed in a traditional salvar kameez. Her long, black braid swings from side-to-side and the little bells sewn onto the hem of her tunic jingle cheerfully to the rhythm of her step as she waddles along the walkway. She is a miniature carnival, a stark contrast to the grey-toned crowd she’s making her way through. I can’t help but wonder about her life, whether moving to Finland had been her only option. I wonder what this culture looks like through her eyes and whether she feels at home here. Does she view our social reservation as a form of segregation or our diffident demeanor as indifference? I start rewinding the events of the past 20 minutes, feebly attempting to see the “normal” every-day occurrences of my bus ride as something strange and unfamiliar.
The bus stop had been crowded by Finnish standards; nine people had stood waiting, at a safe distance from each other of course. I had joined the crowd, carefully placing myself where I wouldn’t invade anyone’s private space. Private space is important to us Finns and almost as if to prove my point, the lady next to me had given me a mean sideways glare, which I had understood as a silent command to move further from her, a command I hastily took to heart. Would her small gesture have gone unnoticed by a non-Finn or rendered as meaningless?
At the sight of the approaching bus, we had formed an orderly line in front of the quietly hissing bus door and waited patiently. Orderly lines are a vital component of our culture. Neglecting to stand in line will almost always be met with the deepest condemnation and disapproval. It’s high offence to cut in line, because for someone to wait less than the others would be unfair and we Finns are stalwart defenders of fairness. But such zeal over standing in line might look a tad ridiculous to a non-native.
The bus driver had greeted me with a quick inattentive glance and a stony expression, but of course, I expected nothing more. Chitchat, small talk, whatever name you give it, is a waste of breath. Speech should be reserved for meaningful subjects, valuable information and it should happen with familiar people. Exchanging small pleasantries with strangers is pointless and lets be honest, quite awkward. But it’s not a stretch to see how someone from a more sociable culture might view this restrain as impoliteness.
On the bus the mean-eyed lady had answered her phone and had immediately dropped her voice to a secretive, monotone murmur.
“ I’ll be home in twenty minutes, tell Jimi to heat up the meat casserole. No, no, I’ll take you to swim practice tonight. Ok, see you soon, “ she had said. Nothing even remotely interesting, let alone embarrassing. But I knew she had dropped her voice not to disturb the other passengers. It’s important not to cause disruption in public spaces; God forbid someone should think less of you, were you to make a ruckus.
In the end it didn’t take much effort to step back from my world and notice that every aspect of my culture could be flipped upside down to loose or take on a wholly different meanings in someone else’s culture.
Every-day manifestations of urban Finnish culture are the norm for us natives. We function according to social conventions and build a worldview from fractions of the reality we’re surrounded by. Our value system is largely a product of the culture we are brought up in. But what happens when a solid conceptual understanding of the “right” values or “normal” behavior is thrown into an unfamiliar setting?
A holiday abroad is one thing; the traveller always remains on the outside looking in, but permanent relocation is a whole other story, one that begins with a crash and a shock of the old familiar world catapulted into a new and strange locale. This crashing of the worlds is aptly called culture shock. Emigrating is in my books a damn brave thing to do for numerous reasons; codes of social interaction might become illegible, there might be new social status to conform to, values may have to be reorganized, a new language to learn, new customs to adopt, and as a few added bonuses in Finland, a reserved culture and endlessly long, dark winters to survive through.
At best culture shock is an opportunity to widen ones horizon, question fixed ideas about normalcy, challenge, re-imagine and then maybe be new. It’s a precious experience in terms of being able to empathize with non-natives back home. Because emigration demands for adjustments to be made, eventually, once the initial shock has faded, a deeper sense of cultural identity and appreciation of heritage can take root. The Indian lady was a fine example of this. I read her colorful dress as a statement about her cultural identity. She embraced the vibrancy and flamboyancy of her own culture, completely disregarding the norms of Finnish culture which dictate that one should avoid being flashy. By extension you could say she enriched the street scene.
In the end the question is, what’s mine, yours or ours when it comes to culture? In a globalized world we can’t afford to keep the fences high and prejudices higher. Not when there are multitudes of opportunities to learn from diversity and possibly intergrade aspects of different cultures into our own, making it less alienating and incomprehensible to those from abroad.
If I had more courage I would walk up to the elderly lady, invite her for coffee and cinnamon rolls and ask her too many questions about her life, but my cultural (and personal) inhibitions keep me in check. The chilly air nibbling my fingers hastens my pace, but before I step into the warmth of the corridor, I add a point to my mental to-do list: “try, if you can, to make this country a home for everyone.”