The Power of a Name, a Place, and a Passport: the Importance of Cultural Identity and Belonging

Fulbright Year

September - October 2018

While my first month was characterized by unconditional love for my new home, the next month brought unending struggles to carve a place for myself in this new culture. Looking back, I recognize that I was still on vacation during my first month; I took three trips abroad and went to an intensive Finnish course four times per week, a course which was filled with foreigners. The only Finn in that class was the teacher herself; by this point, I had yet to interact with any Finns regularly. The sun shone constantly, as well, and the weather was temperate. I biked all over Helsinki, using the incredibly convenient city bike subscription (kaupunki pyörät or “city bikes”), occasionally getting lost and ending up on neighboring islands (it is very difficult to travel by bike without any knowledge of the city itself, especially under a 30-minute time limit imposed by the rental service). All in all, life was great. My Helsinki rent cost me half of my Boston rent and I lived alone in a spacious studio apartment instead of with three roommates (all three of whom I adored, however!), complete with inclusive electricity, heating, hot water, laundry facilities, and a sauna. I remember feeling utterly at ease, like I could breathe for the first time since the struggle and hustle that was my Boston life. Then my courses at Sibelius Academy began. The first two weeks were still great. I was thrilled to be taking classes in Feldenkrais and Finnish pedagogy. I was excited to make new friends and build a small community for myself here. However, in my long-term plans, I hadn’t accounted for the “fear of the foreigner” because I didn’t realize how much import was placed on your origins, on what nationality your passport decreed you to be.

Let me explain this seemingly prejudiced statement. No matter where you go in the world, there will always be some groups, or individuals, who harbor an intense dislike of foreigners, usually founded in a fear of how allowing foreign-ness into the culture will irrevocably alter what is good, pure, and “authentic”. This is happening in the States as we speak; numerous anti-Muslim bans, continuous proposed travel bans, the rise of neo-Nazi, white supremacist groups, increased hate crimes, and the whole business regarding the border wall. Not to mention the perpetual systemic injustices directed towards minority communities across the country. In terms of “fearing foreigners”, most people will be quick to claim the States as the poster child of this phenomenon. Finland is the fifth country I’ve lived in and I believe that no country is better or worse than the rest, that merely the way in which this sentiment pans out will vary based on the culture in which it manifests. In India, there is cultural and racial prejudice inherent in the caste system, based on a class system that is further perpetuated by conceptions of light and dark skin color. The largely pro-Hind government actively works to oppress Muslim Indians, the largest minority population in the world. Not to mention, many Hindus take it upon themselves to punish Muslims who handle cattle – a sacred animal for Hinduism but a source of livelihood for many Muslim communities. In Norway, the welfare system creates the perception that everyone is equal, and millennia of cultural and ethnic homogeneity created a lot of confusion over why immigrants, especially Muslims, seemed unwilling to adapt to their new country’s cultural values. Here we see the rise of right-wing parties and radicals like Anders Breivik who murdered 69 children for being associated with the liberal-minded Workers Youth League. My own father, a liberal-minded but old school Norwegian, still struggles with the concept of the hijab – whether it is empowering or oppressive. In Japan, the West is idealized through a Hollywood lens but divergence from societal norms results in social rejection. Japan has had a long history of closed borders and an aversion to foreigners and their rigid society makes it difficult to look or behave differently from everyone else. Even looking different in Japan is enough to be called “gaijin” (a derogatory term for foreigner) as you walk through the streets. Finland’s second most popular political party is the socially conservative “True Finns”, whose popularity has increased over the years due to immigration concerns. Finland itself didn’t accept refugees or immigrants until the mid-1990s so we are looking at a country relatively inexperienced in handling and accommodating cultural diversity. The Finn’s reserved culture also likely prevented the open discourse on race issues that was happening among their Scandinavian neighbors. And while the States is currently the poster child of anti-foreigner sentiment, a lot of people intentionally overlook the inherent diversity of America. Post-colonial America, from its inception, was already a cultural melting pot; political and religious refugees fled to the eastern coast, bringing with them their black slaves, starting their new life with bloodshed against the indigenous communities and political strife against their mother kingdom. Following this came waves and waves of immigrants, first from Europe and then from Eastern Asia. When my mother moved to the Seattle from Japan 30 years ago, she was an oddity and felt an “outsider” very much in her new home. At this point in time, the Japanese who had been forcibly relocated to interment camps during the war were only just receiving their financial compensation for the injustices wrought against them – nearly 30 years after World War II. At 22-years-old, the same age my mother was when she first moved to the States, the very same city she moved to had long transitioned to an open-minded, liberal, cultural melting pot and was one of the first places to declare itself a “sanctuary city” during President Trump’s immigration crackdown.

In the States, race relations have intensified, warped, and near-exploded, spurred by President Trump’s divisive and bigoted rhetoric. White supremacists have emerged, activists have emerged, “social justice warriors” have emerged, all bringing their respective movements with them, and others have retreated from the fight. It has largely become a moral debate: what is “right” versus what is “wrong”. The issue with this kind of discourse is that is has no solution, because “right” and “wrong” are subject to opinion, meaning that nobody will be satisfied with any solution. As much as before, or perhaps even more so than ever, your skin tone is the sole determinant of your cultural heritage. Growing up as a mixed-race, first-generation American who passes as white presented its own trials and tribulations, especially once social activism became a “trendy pastime”. As a child, I was often bullied for my Japanese bento lunches or for the fact that I had an unusual name. I was jealous of the white girls with their generic American names and their chemical-filled white Wonderbread sandwiches. A middle school peer once stopped talking to me when she found out my Japanese grandfather fought in the Japanese army during World War II – as if ostracizing me for a country’s political agenda more than 50 years ago would change the way history unveiled itself. She probably didn’t stop to consider his fate had he refused to join the Japanese army. “You’re not really American,” my peers would say, as if “American-ness” had one cultural or visual aesthetic. At home, I wasn’t Japanese enough or Norwegian enough, which disappointed my parents, and at school I wasn’t American enough, which made social integration difficult. It was like having each foot in a different doorway, trying to maintain your balance in a precarious position, but consequently being unable to enter either realm as a result. Here my nationality meant nothing; my cultural upbringing and my name yielded more weight than anything else.

And then everything changed. With an increased awareness of cultural diversity came the liberal white-shame of benefitting from the oppressed minority groups. The recognition of generations upon generations of mistreatment of black Americans and the indigenous spread like fire to all other ethnic minority groups in America. And one day I found that I couldn’t even call myself Japanese anymore, simply because I inherited my father’s Scandinavian skin tone. I was then accused of fetishizing Asian culture and once during a course on “Social Justice and Music”, a white American peer was incensed that I had the nerve to mention the Japanese interment experience during World War II because I had “no right to talk about what I didn’t understand”. Even though ten years ago, I was ostracized because of my grandfather’s participation in the Japanese army. Now, the place I was from and my skin tone became more important than my name or my cultural heritage. “Why is your middle name Japanese?” and “you don’t seem Asian at all” were comments I began to receive. This experience taught me the vast importance of a name, a place, and a passport, as well as your skin tone, because these are the sole determiners of how other individuals determine what you are. It is interesting, because this is all from a country that has had hundreds of years to work out racial issues.

So, I was excited to move to Finland because there wouldn’t be the complexities regarding my heritage or race anymore. People wouldn’t be confused anymore. I would be some vaguely-Scandinavian looking person in Northern Europe who only spoke English because I wasn’t ethnically Finnish. I knew that immigration troubles abounded throughout Europe but wasn’t expecting a generalized fear of the foreigner. Because Finland isn’t building a border wall – on the contrary, they’re certainly doing a lot to bring refugees and foreigners into the country. Yet, once I moved, it seemed there was quite a bit of resentment regarding this, much of which (I believe) has to do with the 800 years of foreign dominance and oppression in Finland. Sweden ruled Finland until 1809 and largely suppressed their culture and language. At this time, many Swedish speakers didn’t consider the Finns to be European (likely due to Finnish being a Finno-Ugric and not Indo-European language) and even the Nazis considered only the Swedish-speakers as being white (as claimed by Edward Dutton in his 2007 article on race relations in Finland). Today Swedish-speaking Finns comprise 5% of the Finnish population but continue to wield tremendous power; they have their own churches, universities, towns, political parties, and even their own Parliament. Everything in Finland must available in both Finnish and Swedish, despite the small percentage of native Swedish speakers in the country. All political party members in Finland must be fluent in Finnish, Swedish, and English, making it difficult for foreigners to enter the political sphere. Resentment abounds, and many Finns complain that the Swedish-speaking Finns are the best treated minority in the entire world. During the Winter War of 1939 – 1940, Karelia (in Eastern Finland) was ceded to the Soviet Union and 400,000+ refugees had to be resettled. Many Swedish-speaking towns rejected these refugees out of fear of being outnumbered by the Finnish-speakers (an uncannily similar situation in many countries today, no?). One perspective is that this unsavory past has spurred powerful Swedish-speaking interests to suppress anything that could call attention to race, perhaps exacerbated by the fear of losing their privileged status (and fear of their ancestors’ behavior coming to light). Finns, in general, are not prone to upsetting the status quo and are unlikely to bring forth grievances - this was seen most clearly during the Soviet Era. During this time, Finland retained its independence but their proximity to the Soviet Union meant that Soviet influence was great, economic ties were close, and sovereignty was uncertain. “Finlandization” was a term that encompassed the West’s fear of independent “Soviet-satellite” nations. However, “Finlandization” was necessary for Finland to survive. This presents a problem when Finns are unhappy with current states of affairs. For example, Finland’s membership in the European Union means it is required to accept asylum seekers. In 1990, there were 21,000 immigrants in Finland and by 2005 this number had reached over 140,000. As of 2017, there were 373,325 foreigners living in Finland, or roughly 6.8% of the population. This is an incredibly small percentage, even given the small size of Finland, but the influx of immigrants has increased exponentially in nearly 30 years. Russian and Estonian immigrants integrated fairly smoothly (Finnish is the language of Russian Karelia and Estonian is very similar to Finnish) but Somalis and Sudanese have had significantly more difficulties. In 2017, hundreds of Muslim asylum seekers converted to Christianity after having their asylum applications rejected by the Finnish Immigration Service (Migri). Immigrants are often blamed for the increased crime in Finland, which contributes to this anti-foreigner sentiment. Official 2005 data indicated that 27% of rapes in Finland were committed by foreigners, but the rape support helpline Tukinainen reported only 6% of rapists were foreign during this time. Despite a generalized discomfort with foreigners, Finnish culture prevents them from addressing the issue directly, which builds resentment over time.

As for me and my personal experiences? Well, those lovely Nordic welfare benefits that supposedly everyone gets? You must be Finnish to get those. The fascinating part is that, theoretically, one only needs to be a citizen of the Nordic region to receive these benefits. Consequently, for all bureaucratic issues, I’ve been using my Norwegian passport in the hopes of getting better services, but to no avail. Norwegian-ness is still foreign-ness, meaning I can’t get anything done in a timely or efficient fashion. I felt this most strongly when I had the flu for three weeks and couldn’t access any quality medical care. Flu shots are second nature in the States but when I inquired about getting a flu shot in Finland, most people stared at me like I was crazy and replied that only “the young, the old, and the weak need flu shots” – an odd sentiment for a country that is lauded for having the best health care in the world. So, as luck would have it, I got the worst flu of my life and was sick for three weeks. In Finland, you can’t buy any medicine at the pharmacy (besides pain killers and some general nasal sprays for allergies) without a doctor’s note as drug distribution is highly regulated. You especially cannot buy nasal decongestants because they can be turned into methamphetamine (thanks to my student, David, who is a biochemist and supplied this interesting tidbit). After four days of being bedridden with a high-fever, intense sinus pressure, and an unrelenting migraine, I decided I should probably visit a doctor so that I could get some medicine. I knew I didn’t need to visit a doctor, but this was the only way I could get the necessary medicine. There are private and public health sectors in Finland and the greatest myth is that everyone can access both. Anyone can access the private health systems because you pay for those out of pocket. Sometimes these hospitals accept KELA (the social security benefit) and sometimes they don’t. Public health care is theoretically available for everyone, but you need to be registered in their system in order to make an appointment. It had been three months of trying to get into the student health care system; my information was never properly input, then the information was lost, then I was told that I could only make an appointment in person with my passports. I honestly believe that they didn’t even put me in the system to begin with because they couldn’t be bothered with an American such as myself. At this point I wasn’t sure if I was registered in the system and I knew that there would be a very long waiting list, so I made a next-day appointment at Terveystalo, one of the private hospitals. For a mere 170 euros, I was admitted to the rudest and possibly most incompetent doctor I’ve ever encountered in my life. Once I told her I would prefer to use English because I don’t speak Finnish, her entire attitude changed towards me. She near-yelled at me that she had a patient suffering from a heart attack right now which was significantly more important than my issue, which I don’t disagree with and I would have happily waited for another doctor than to be unnecessarily berated. She then half-heartedly listened to my symptoms and when I told her I’d like a nasal decongestant for my sinus pressure and migraine, she prescribed a cough medicine for me. I was utterly perplexed and tried to press my point that I didn’t have any coughing and instead needed a nasal decongestant but was promptly dismissed. I went home feeling no better than before and incessantly bitter that a private visit to a general practitioner in Finland cost more than what a specialized appointment with a specialist, such as a dermatologist, would have cost in the States without any health insurance. The next day I called the public student health service to see if I was in the system and if they would accept my appointment. Lo and behold! After 3 months of pestering, I was finally in the system. Only to be yelled at by the customer service representative for my completely disrespectful attitude towards the private doctor I saw. She was appalled that I was dissatisfied with the service I got and told me “in Finland, we trust the doctor’s opinion and we don’t disrespect them by seeking another opinion”. She then – in a quite facetious and unsolicited way – diagnosed my symptoms to tell me I had the flu (which I already knew) and then berated me for not buying a thermometer to measure my temperature, a vital piece of information she apparently needed to know. I wonder if she would have dragged herself out of bed just to buy a thermometer if she were as sick as I had been. She was unmoving when I explained that I wouldn’t be calling if the private doctor had properly listened to my symptoms and all I need is an appointment to get a nasal decongestant, which I can’t buy at the pharmacy. She then proceeded to argue with me that you could in fact buy medicine at the pharmacy and I was wasting her time. I told her that was false, and I need an appointment to get the appropriate medicine and could she please help me schedule an appointment. She paused before smugly telling me that “there is room to accommodate me in January” (three months in the future) before hanging up. Surely, this would have never happened had I been Finnish because I would have already been in the system and the doctor and service representative would have granted enough respect to listen to my issues. Also I would have been able to speak Finnish fluently.

The struggle is that using English is the first indicator that you represent “the foreign”. There are many in Helsinki who pretend not to understand or speak English if you make inquiries, which is so frustrating because English is the unofficial second language of Finland. Every university in Helsinki offers English-speaking programs and everyone is taught the language from a very young age. I certainly wouldn’t mind if English weren’t used at all because that would appropriately tailor my expectations but given the amount of resentment from Finns needing to use English with me, I wonder if it wouldn’t be better for Finland to reject bilingualism entirely so that they could retain cultural homogeneity. In the States we have many immigrants but unless they speak English well, there is little room for social or financial advancement. A friend told me that a member of the Finnish Board of Tourism once said that “all Finns want is to be left alone”. It seemed that open borders, accepting immigrants, and being a tri-lingual country was completely at odds with this sentiment.

So back to these nice Nordic welfare benefits – I wouldn’t mind the fact that Finnish bureaucracy doesn’t enable foreigners to access these things had they not presented it in a way that makes it out to be free for all. Because they’re not. And it creates a false perception of generosity. I don’t know what’s better - pretending that everyone gets these benefits but creating so many institutions that prevent them from doing so or straight up telling foreigners they don’t get access to anything at all unless they’re citizens. Even then, with both systems you can’t remove the stain of foreign-ness from your name or your identity. The result is the same, but one approach is more honest at least.

This “outsiders” sentiment manifested at the Sibelius Academy as well. Part of it had to do with the fact that I wasn’t a degree student and therefore couldn’t receive the same benefits as matriculated students, a concept which is understandable and with which I also agree. However, Sibelius Academy is a rather small school and nearly 100 students are on an exchange of some sort, usually through Erasmus, a European exchange network. To me, it seemed odd that only basic classes and resources were accessible to these students, who make up a significant portion of the entire Sibelius Academy population. There were many workshops and courses that would have greatly supplemented my Fulbright project, like Alexander Technique, Yoga for Musicians, and Pilates but priority always goes to the degree students. Sibelius Academy has many great physiotherapist benefits…for their degree students. I, however, can pay 80 euros for a 45-minute session. Most of the health benefits or musical benefits that Sibelius Academy offers are for degree students. I began to view it as a microcosm with Finland’s struggle to adopt foreign-ness, only in this case foreign-ness was being an exchange student.

The core of the instrumental program here is the coveted “apprenticeship” with the local symphonies, such as the Radio Symphony, Opera, and Helsinki City Orchestra. Not only is this great musical experience (you get to rehearse and perform with the orchestras), it is also basically the only orchestral experience you’ll get during your time at Sibelius Academy. There aren’t regular concert cycles and each student might play in only one or two official orchestra concerts per year, with about 1 week of rehearsal preparation for each concert. This is 2 weeks of orchestral training, compared with the nearly 30 weeks of orchestral training I received at New England Conservatory each year (for my three years there). My frustration regarding European orchestras peaked less than 2 months on the continent. I arguably have more cumulative orchestral experience than most degree students at Sibelius Academy (after spending 7 years in higher level education, playing in orchestras almost every day) and yet whenever I applied for orchestral jobs in Finland, my resume was rejected. For non-musicians – when an orchestra has a vacancy, they announce the opening, applicants send in their resumes, and the orchestra will invite applicants for an audition, which takes place in several rounds. If it is a high-level orchestra like the New York Philharmonic or Boston Symphony, those who don’t currently have orchestral positions will be required to send in a pre-screening tape consisting of several excerpts which are then judged by the administration. Qualified applicants will then be invited to the large audition. The orchestras I was applying to in Finland were nowhere near this level, quite small in fact, and despite my extensive orchestral training, my application was rejected from several orchestras without even a pre-screening offer. Meanwhile, Sibelius Academy freshmen were getting invited to audition for these orchestras. The only thing different about my resume was that it screamed “American-born and trained” all over it.

So, what is wrong with being an “American-trained” musician? To be honest, I really have no clue, because whenever someone mentions how “American” I sound, and I ask for specifics, they can’t provide any concrete details. The bolder critics will venture forth with “oh Americans just sound so bad when they play music”, a barbed statement obviously intended to hurt rather than to clarify. The most concrete reason I received was “you guys play the way Europeans played 50-years ago! You just sound so outdated”. I’ve given up trying to impress my peers here and whenever someone asks, “so now that you’re studying here, how would you say Europeans sound compared with Americans?”, I say “I don’t notice a difference at all”. Music is music and if we continually focus on how our differences make us superior to others, then that is a world I will reject. The fact that my passport is not Finnish and the fact that my name is not Finnish shouldn’t be the reason why I am inhibited in being as successful as I can be.

“Where are you from?” is now the dreaded response when I ask if someone can converse with me in English. Half of me wants to say “Norway” to avoid the rude behavior that immediately follows once I reveal I am from the United States, but the incessant prejudice I’ve experienced as an American here (ranging from snide comments about my musicianship to being directly told that I am hated and should leave) has done the opposite of what these individuals have likely intended. My mixed and culturally confused upbringing stamped out any national or cultural pride I might have ever developed so there is nothing left with which to make me feel shame about where I am from. I was shamed at home, in Japan, in Norway, and now Finland. The lesson I’ve learned is that the place changes, but people don’t – that people will always decide what you are without ever taking the time to learn what you are like. I’ve observed some of my Fulbright peers begin going through the excessive “American-shame” or the “American-pride”. In some ways non-belonging is a blessing, because you can observe the oddities of human prejudice and cruelty with a slightly more impartial eye (not that I am not incensed by it). However, it means that in my new home, I am more isolated than I have ever been before, because I can’t be “categorized” so easily. I spent 24 years of my life coming to terms with my cultural and racial status in America. In my 25th year, I am beginning to learn what my place in the world means as an American. I now think often of what Tanya said of our good friend Anya: “she travels the world and behaves so impeccably that people are so surprised to hear she is from Russia. But she is showing us that we, too, can be proud of being Russian”. When I experience frustrations about my Fulbright project not panning out like it should, I think that maybe behaving impeccably as an American will do more than my project would to further cross-cultural awareness in a country that is only now just opening its doors to all that is foreign.

Tervetuloa Suomeen / Welcome to Finland

Fulbright Year

August - September 2018

Every now and then I attempt to write a post about my musical on-goings only to grow increasingly frustrated with the quantity of what I want to say, not to mention the time it takes to convey it. I also know that most people aren’t going to scroll through my excessive rambling. However, I think there is something valuable in documenting a process, not only for my friends at home, but for myself years down the road. As an American Fulbrighter in Finland, I am well-positioned to discuss the Fulbright process, my project, my year abroad, and living as an American on a continent that largely despises American politics, culture, and people. In this era of social media and advanced technology, if you don’t document your experience, it’s almost as if it never happened. Of course, I am writing this post retroactively; September 2nd completed my first full month in Finland and now it is already mid-October. During this time, I traveled to Estonia, Russia, and Lapland, took an intensive Finnish language course at the University of Helsinki, had a full week of Fulbright Finland orientation, began my research and studies at the Sibelius Academy, and presented on “American Identity in Classical Music” at the 2018 American Voices Seminar in Turku, Finland. This post will cover events through the end of Fulbright Orientation.

My Fulbright project focuses on musicians’ injuries and methods of preventing and overcoming musculoskeletal disorders. I think we are all familiar with the realm of athletes’ injuries but performing arts’ injuries are less well-known, though can be equally debilitating. Of course, if you overuse and misuse your body in any way, you are at risk of injuring yourself. I’ve heard cases of authors getting focal dystonia (a neurological disorder, which you can read more about here), but one would never think of writing as being a particularly physically taxing profession. Musicians suffer frequently from repetitive stress injuries; by performing in the same position for 4+ hours per day, every day, for years, certain muscles become fatigued. This is exacerbated by the mental pressure musicians’ experience in a world that continuously fails to realize the importance of art, and the added physical stress of laptops and cellphones. My own journey with injury and recovery prompted an interest in understanding musculoskeletal disorders. I attended a rigorously academic public university and one of the world’s best conservatories - and at every level, young musicians (and professionals) are susceptible to repetitive stress injuries.

Why Finland, you might ask?

Finland has one of the best education systems in the world and is a society that highly values the importance of art. This means there are many resources available for music research Their medical field is making incredible progress in performing arts medicine and medical doctors are required to be trained in this field. This means if you get tendinitis or trigger finger or tennis elbow, your doctor probably isn’t going to tell you to have surgery and “rest until it gets better” (which is a common “remedy” in America). The music education curriculum is also designed to set students up for better physical and mental health. Finnish education is much less rigorous than it is in the States, but this does not mean that the academics are of poorer quality. Grades, if given, are a lot more flexible and failing a test often is followed by a makeup test, or several if you so choose. The idea isn’t to measure you against your peers but to measure you against yourself. A migraine on a particular day or a death in the family won’t be the sole reason to punish your transcript and, consequently, future career opportunities. Not all systems are perfect and this one is set up to benefit those who already have developed a lot of intrinsic motivation. School is also entirely free in Finland (with exceptions if you come from outside the EU or EEA) and the lack of financial stress alone is enough to improve student wellbeing and output. While I have not yet been in Finland for long, I already understand how Finnish society values the health of its members. This is based on the idea that the next generation will contribute to society, so it is in the nation’s best interest to set everyone up for success. This is exemplified by the following photo:

I’m spending a year of study at the Sibelius Academy, one of Europe’s premier music conservatories. I am granted nearly all the benefits of a degree student, which means I can fully immerse myself in Finnish music education curriculum. The Sibelius Academy particularly attracted me due to its heavy emphasis on physical and emotional/mental wellbeing; a glimpse at the course catalog reveals classes in Feldenkrais, Body Mapping, Alexander Technique, and Performing Learning and Coaching (addressing the mental aspect of performing). My undergraduate school didn’t offer any somatic methods and my graduate studies only offered one course, Body Mapping, and it was a recent addition. Additionally, there are many workshops on yoga for musicians, Pilates, and the Alexander Technique, and my own professor is coordinating a session on ergonomics specifically for flutists. Though I have not been here long, I already feel spoiled by the wealth of resources I have at my disposal. My current teacher, Petri Alanko, has also had a long and tedious journey with injuries and I am excited by the prospect of studying with one who has built an excellent career despite it all.

My first month, however, was mainly spent settling in. I had an immediate welcome to Finnish bureaucracy. For example, when one moves to Finland, one must register with the maistraatti (local register office). Not only is this a requirement of the Fulbright program, it must be done if you are living in Finland for 6+ months. Visiting maistraatti was the first thing I did, and I was promptly told that I could not be registered because I am not a permanent resident (obviously, one cannot be a permanent resident unless they register with maistraatti so I was pretty impressed by this lack of logic). If I do not register with maistraatti, however, then I cannot really function in Finland at all – I need this to open a bank, to get a bus pass, to get a library card, etc. After much negotiating, I was able to convince maistraatti to register me (note: by this point, I had already received a residence permit with a Finnish personal identity number or henkilötunnus so I was already in the system to a certain extent). I then went to the bank, Nordea, bringing 3 forms of identification (my two passports and the residence permit), along with bank statements, and all necessary Fulbright documents. The bank informed me that I was not registered with maistraatti and therefore, could not open an account. I tried to use my Norwegian passport (since Nordea is a Nordic region wide bank), but even then, I still needed maistraatti to populate my information in the system before I could open a bank in Finland. There was a lot of back and forth between maistraatti and Nordea that day, but Nordea finally agreed to open a bank account for me and the whole process took over 1.5 hours. On top of that, because I am not a Finnish citizen, I don’t get the benefits of real banking – like having a credit card or getting to deposit or withdraw cash, and the Visa Electron card I received can’t be used for online purchases, really, so for the most part I was stuck using my American cards anyway. Additionally, it costs extra to access online banking and if I ever want to withdraw or deposit cash, I need an officially signed form saying I am receiving money into my account every month. The most incredible part about this is that I have a signed Fulbright grant saying I “earn” money each month but as the bank attendant generously mansplained to me, “that is not an income.” I learned that my situation with Nordea was not uncommon, but the actual experience differs per person. Three former Fulbrighters went into Nordea at the same time and all came out with slightly different account benefits. I quickly learned that this is simply the way official business is conducted here.

Getting a phone plan is also equally tedious business. I had been using the prepaid card for a while but wanted to upgrade to the student discount plan with Telia Finland which offers unlimited data throughout the Nordic and Baltic regions and 10G of roaming elsewhere in the EU/EEA for 23 euros per month. This is a wonderful deal but getting a phone plan is only available to residents of 2+ years. Perhaps because of my status as a Norwegian citizen, they allowed me a phone plan…for a meager deposit of 500 euros, which they informed me only AFTER I had signed several legally binding documents. Nothing could be done because it is just the way it is. After speaking with several friends, I realized I “lucked out” in this situation and most foreigners are turned down flat when they try to get a real phone plan. My bank account is still reeling from this experience.

My first three weeks in Finland were characterized by the intensive “Finnish for Foreigners” course at the University of Helsinki. This is a “Finnish taught in Finnish” course so the teacher’s explanations of grammar were in Finnish (or suomi), which I didn’t find particularly helpful but encouraged me to study independently to master the grammar and vocabulary. I think there is a misconception about the difficulty of the Finnish language simply because it is largely unrelated to most other languages. English has a blend of Germanic and Romantic linguistic properties, so as native-English speakers, learning many other languages is not incredibly difficult. Finnish is a Finnic language within the Uralic language group and is most similar to Estonian (interestingly, Estonians can understand Finnish, but Finns cannot understand Estonian. My friend Mikko has a theory regarding Finnish radio waves reaching Estonia during the Soviet Era but not vice versa, hence the comprehension only going one way). I could write extensively about Finnish, since this has undoubtedly been the best part of my time so far, but I’ll leave with you with some key ideas which, I hope, highlights the practicality of Finnish.

Like Spanish, Finnish verbs have personal pronoun endings. The infinitive form of “to love” is rakastaa. “I love” is rakastan, “you love” is rakastat, “he/she loves” is rakastaa, “we love” is rakastamme, “you (pl.) love” is rakastatte, and “they love” is rakastavat. You’ll see that the ending of the verb takes the form of its’ personal pronoun. Everything is consistent and logical; there are only three conjugation exceptions among all verbs. I think if you can get over the length of many Finnish words (and the speed at which it is spoken), you’ll find it is actually quite manageable. There are 6 different verb types and they all conjugate differently, but the general principle is the same. Finnish also has many case endings which create larger, compound words. In fact, words can be very long:

Koiran Meme.jpg

However, this means there are fewer distinct words overall in Finnish. Some examples include derivations involving the word kirja or book. From this word alone, you can get kirjasto, kirjata, kirjautua, kirjallinen, and many more (library, record, log in, written, and various other things involving writing or books). The pronunciation is also entirely phonetic. This doesn’t seem particularly impressive considering the plethora of phonetic languages throughout the world, but native-English speakers (and ESL learners) will appreciate this. The stress of the word is always on the first syllable and the inflection of words and sentences falls. Even when asking a question, the intonation falls instead of rises. This is important because there are many compound words in Finnish, and if you stress them incorrectly, Finns will have a hard time determining where the word begins.

Finland is a bilingual country, with Swedish being an official second language. You’ll hear many people say that it’s better to learn Swedish than to bother with Finnish since “Finnish isn’t useful elsewhere in the world”. My response to this is: “Swedish isn’t really either?”. I’ve found that most Finns speak English much better than they do Swedish. Swedish is a mother tongue to small communities of Swedish-speaking Finns, but these Finns also speak Finnish and English. Finnish isn’t really spoken much outside of Finland and Swedish isn’t really spoken much outside of Sweden, and since you can get by in Finland AND Sweden with English, it might be best to simply learn Finnish if only to have a gateway into Finnish culture. Prioritizing Swedish over Finnish is likely due to the accessibility of Swedish to English (both Germanic languages).

On weekends, I took several trips abroad, knowing my schedule would be too busy once the academic year began. Below you will find three sets of photos with brief descriptions of my travels.


Tallinn, Estonia

I became interested in Estonia after watching a documentary called “The Singing Revolution”, which examined how Estonians resisted Soviet occupation through song. This is a topic worth investigating since we generally only learn another country’s history if said country is large, rich, or impacts our politics directly. Estonia was (and is) a gateway from Eastern Europe to Western Europe, which made them a strategically placed and highly-coveted country. Though small, their grit and resilience in the face of a foreign superpower is admirable and their history is a testament to the power of art as the means of creating a cohesive identity to further generate resistance. Estonia today is known as “the Silicon Valley” of Europe (they created Skype) and Tallinn (the capital) is a popular destination for Finns and Russians alike due to proximity, affordability, and the beauty of the town. It is one of the best-preserved medieval cities in the world and was recently declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Just a hop, skip, and jump from Helsinki, I do recommend paying this little country a visit if you’re ever in the region.


St. Petersburg, Russia

I kept this trip on the “down-low”, for a variety of reasons. With the current state of US-Russia relations, I think there is a lot of fear about Russia and Russians throughout the world. I’ve found, especially as an American in Europe, other people will think of you as a direct extension of your country’s governmental policies. Hence the belief in Europe that all Americans lack class and the perception in America that all Russians must be shady. This is more a testament to the ignorance and pride of humans in general and says almost nothing about the way a cultural group is. From a purely artistic standpoint, there is so much to be admired about Russia. You can’t talk about literature, music, or art without coming across Russian legends and how they have shaped the course of artistic history. Even considering a trip to Russia wasn’t realistic until I moved to Finland (if you look at a world map, you’ll see that Helsinki is much closer to St. Petersburg than it is to many other European countries). An NEC friend and St. Petersburg native helped coordinate my trip. I stayed with her dear friends Tanya and Igor for a long weekend and was floored by Russian hospitality. If I had any expectations about Russia or Russian culture, my experience exceeded them greatly.


Lapland, Finland

If you tell someone you are going to Lapland, they’re likely going to reply with “where is that?!”, which is unsurprising considering most people thought I was going to Norway or Sweden for my Fulbright project; Finland is somehow off the maps. Lapland is the northernmost region of Finland and is home to Santa Claus (he lives in Rovaniemi) and the Sami, the indigenous people in this Arctic region. Sami territory is called Sápmi and encompasses the northern regions of Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia (Murmansk area). Lapland typically refers to the area of Sápmi within Finland’s political borders. Like every other indigenous group in the world, they have been treated poorly, even by the Finnish government, which is generally well-known for its positive approach to human rights. As an American, this is largely unsurprising to me considering my own country’s indigenous rights’ history. Even our friendly Canadian neighbors, despite their overall goodwill and happiness, have a dark and persistent history with indigenous injustice. Another Fulbrighter, Harrison, and I made the trip out to the Arctic via two trains and one rental car, and after nearly 12 hours of travel, we were well rewarded for our efforts. We spent three days and two nights in Lapland and had a brief glimpse of the aurora borealis. The pictures speak for themselves and I hope you are as impressed by the diverse and fragile landscape as I am. I also want to impart the urgency in climate justice and protecting this delicate region of the world and that what you see today may not exist in 5 or 10 years.

September wrapped up with a week of Fulbright Orientation, which was filled with some "Very Finnish Things", including saunas, swimming in the Baltic Sea, touring the city, experiencing Finnish art, as well as attending lectures about Finnish history and politics. The Fulbright Finland Foundation is comprised of some of the most positive and friendliest people I have ever met. They have certainly set a high bar for my Finnish experience. After spending a month with minimal human contact (Finns are very reserved people and I am generally a homebody), I was shocked back into healthy doses of social interaction. Despite my introverted tendencies, I found myself quickly making friends with the other Fulbrighters and the term “Fulbright Family”, though cliché, is quite apt in this situation. Perhaps part of it has to do with this shared experience of living abroad in the same country (which is how I made some great friends from volunteering in India), but more likely has to do with the fact that Fulbrighters are some very high-quality people overall (“compost humans” as I call them) and could not be otherwise if they wanted to make it this far. I felt (and still feel) incredibly proud, humbled, and dare I say it – deserving - to be part of this wonderful group of compost humans. Onward!

Shanti Bhavan: Empowering Lives Through Music (Week 1)

Welcome to India

ASTEP Camp through Graduation (June 1 – June 9)

I begin my journey aboard a Bangalore-bound plane from Seattle, WA - with a brief layover in Paris. I know nothing about what I will find once I arrive on the Indian subcontinent. Books, research, stories from friends, a vision to help the world with music are all I have – that and a small dream to one day visit the birthplace of my grandmother. For the entire trip, I am filled with excitement and a little bit of fear. This project was 9-months in the making – from my initial discovery of the program in September to pitching and defending a grant for funding in April/May –  and at times it felt like it was just a dream that would not come true. And by the time I left, I wasn’t entirely sure if I was ready to go. I wondered if this would be another one of those “biting off more than you can chew” situations to which I am prone. Friends who have gone to Shanti Bhavan before told me how wonderful the children are and I hoped my experience would be as positive and impactful as theirs was.

I landed in Bangalore around midnight on June 2nd to find that my luggage – including all of the instruments I brought for the children – were still in Paris. I flew with Air France, which a dear Italian friend nicknamed “Air Chance” because they are bound to lose your luggage. Indeed, there were about 15 other passengers waiting in line to file a baggage claim and all received a pre-made toiletry container. Apparently, they lose enough luggage to prepare plenty of toiletries in advance. Two hours later, I am in a taxi headed for Shanti Bhavan (lit. “Haven of Peace”). The trip from Bangalore to Shanti Bhavan is about 1.5 hours and I battle sleep in order to see what little I can of the city. Those who say New York City never sleeps definitely haven’t seen Bangalore. At 2 in the morning, traffic is horrendous and the driving even more alarming. “Lane discipline results in long life”, the signs warn us as my taxi driver squeezes between two other cars in a questionably 2-lane road. Yet somehow there is order among the sheer chaos and I have complete faith in my driver to take me to my destination in one piece. Once we leave the outskirts of Bangalore, we drive on small, winding, dirt roads, ravaged with potholes from the unforgiving monsoon rains. Even in the little villages we pass, several individuals are active and stray dogs flee from our car at every turn. After an hour on these little roads, we pull up to the gates of Shanti Bhavan. I am greeted by one of the on-site administrators, who takes me to my little room and shares some of her toiletries with me after learning of my sad luggage situation. Having been awake for nearly 24 hours, I am happy to finish my travels and sleep.


I planned my trip to India so that I would arrive one week before Shanti Bhavan’s graduation ceremony. The summer term begins immediately following graduation and I hoped to use that entire week to adjust to Shanti Bhavan and a new lifestyle. The two weeks prior to graduation are consumed by ASTEP’s Summer Arts Camp. ASTEP (Artists Striving to End Poverty) is the organization that sent me to India to teach music and they also host two arts camps during the school holidays in May and September. Shanti Bhavan doesn’t have a music curriculum in the way that they have a math, science, or economics curriculum. Music teachers come when they can but they are few and far in between. ASTEP music teachers are required to stay for a minimum of 3 months but most don’t stay much longer than that, as it is a long period of time to take away from life back home. As devoted as many are to supporting underserved communities with art, after coming to Shanti Bhavan, I understand how hard it would be to stay here long-term as an artist. While the school itself is very idyllic and peaceful, most musical opportunities are 2 hours away in Bangalore and it is difficult to get in and out of the rural areas. The ASTEP Arts Camps provide children with a creative outlet they don’t normally have during the school year and I was fortunate to be able to witness all the wonderful things this organization does. The ASTEP camp crew consisted of Broadway musicians and directors, singers, dancers, and visual artists. From morning to evening, the children were involved in an immersive creative process which culminated in 3 nights of performances leading up to graduation on Sunday, June 9th. As for my leisurely adjustment period? It was absolutely non-existent. The day after I arrived in India, I was immediately roped into helping two other ASTEP musicians, Katy and Ben, with various rehearsals and productions, even transcribing instrumental parts and performing with many musical acts myself. ASTEP camp was the most chaotic thing I’ve ever probably ever experienced in my life and by the time I came, the ASTEP volunteers were already a little stressed, focusing intently on creating three nights of fabulous performances. I did my best to help where I could, all the while learning more about the ASTEP volunteers and the students at Shanti Bhavan. Katy sent me on a mission to interview students for Broadway’s Babies and through this task, I learned a lot about the students’ home lives and aspirations. I was shocked by the number of female students who either “had no father” or whose fathers had left their mothers. I realized then that I still didn’t understand anything about the severity of India’s caste system. Until this point, poverty was a thing I’d read about in a textbook and could intellectually conceptualize. However, after getting to know these modern, young female students (who could easily adjust to an American lifestyle, I’m sure), I wondered what lives they would be living had they not been selected to attend this institution. Many “untouchable” girls are forced into marriage, sex slavery, or begin work at a very young age due to circumstances ( I was very grateful that these young women had escaped such a fate, but was disheartened at the thousands more who were not fortunate to attend a school like Shanti Bhavan.

Ben and Katy have a goal to “spruce up” the music room at Shanti Bhavan. They founded an organization called “Broadway’s Babies” which, through fundraising concerts, raises money specifically for the music program at Shanti Bhavan. Their ultimate goal is to fund a music teacher year-round at Shanti Bhavan which would be a fabulous opportunity for the students. Having a significant sum of funding, Ben and Katy planned a trip to Bangalore for the sole purpose of purchasing music supplies. They generously invited me along and I helped them pick out new drumheads, replacement guitar and violin strings, new drumsticks, guitar picks, resin, guitar tuners, and any miscellaneous music items we could find. This was my first time in Bangalore (in daylight) and it was a chaotic experience, as I have come to expect anything in India to be. Normally the school drivers speak English, but this one only spoke Kannada (a dialect generally spoken in Karnataka) and we had difficulties communicating to him that we wanted to go to 3 or 4 different music stores and to an art supply store to pick up paint to re-paint the music room. In the United States, we are used to our cab drivers having GPS systems to guide the way. In India, you tell the driver where to go or he asks for directions from passerby on the streets. We ended up using Google Maps on my phone to find the way (thank goodness for international cell phone plans but my monthly data allotment was used entirely after that trip). Despite our driver’s frustration with our incessant needs, we picked up most of the necessary supplies. During this shopping expedition, I was struck by the convenience of living in the United States. Back home, any of these supplies could be found in most music stores or could be ordered easily online and delivered within two days. While the prices of instruments in India were significantly cheaper, the stores we visited did not have nearly the same selection of products. For example, we never found violin chinrests anywhere but you rarely see aspiring or professional violinists play without them. I always knew American culture was materialistic but I never once felt the benefit of such a culture until now. It also made me view materialism in a new light; I always believed that American buying culture is negative and unhealthy but it also has benefits. I certainly wouldn’t have used most of the supplies we couldn’t get, but to be unable to fully equip a music room when the funding exists is a little unheard of. After a quick lunch break at a small restaurant called Suryawanshi (which served the best shrimp and fish I’ve ever had in my life), we continued with our adventures. I additionally used this trip to pick up my luggage at the airport; after four days of back and forth communication, frustration, drivers hanging up my phone calls when they were unable to deliver the suitcase, I finally told Air France to keep my luggage at the airport and I would go pick everything up myself. It was a successful day for all and I could finally stop wearing the same outfit.

As ASTEP camp became increasingly hectic with non-stop rehearsals, I spent most of my time organizing the music room and the supplies therein. Katy taught me how to restring a guitar, we both learned how to change drumheads (yay Google!), and 4-5 ASTEP volunteers helped us paint the music room ceiling white (one of the ASTEP visual artists even helped paint a mini mural in the music room). There were cabinets which contained guitars, cellos, violins, and ukuleles, but the glass sliding doors had jammed and most instruments were inaccessible. Ben and Katy broke the glass (with the help of ASTEP stagehand, Eric) and after repairing and polishing the instruments, we put them in their new, easily-accessible homes. I took inventory of the instruments, organized them, and added my two plastic flutes to the music collection. I was very content to be out of the way of the preparation-craze and quite amazed that coming to India would teach me a thing or two about instrument repair. It was very helpful to observe Ben’s and Katy’s classes – particularly the choir rehearsals – as it provided insight regarding the student’s musical skill level. Prior to leaving for India, I was most concerned about choir. I had minimal voice training and my piano skills have long deteriorated since quitting lessons nearly 15 years ago. I felt more confident once I heard them and knew I could still be useful to them and spent any free time formulating lesson plans for the various classes I would be teaching (2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th grades, choir, and private lessons).

The graduation festivities were lavish; each day we were served a special meal and witnessed an hour of artistic performances. These performances encompassed everything from Broadway musical numbers to classical Kathak dancing. Even teachers performed skits and former Shanti Bhavan graduates came back to sing and dance with their underclassmen. The graduation ceremony itself was short and sweet. Shanti Bhavan associates and supporters flew in from all over the world (as far away as Sweden) to give speeches and congratulate the graduates. One student’s father even gave a passionate speech in Tamil and the whole school smelled of jasmine and tuberose. Dinner was served outdoor under a canopy with both Western and Indian styles of food and it was the first (and likely last) time I ate paneer at Shanti Bhavan. Here, in rural India (of all places), cultures combined but never clashed. Parents who could only speak Tamil, Telugu, or other local dialects were able to enjoy the festivities with the help of their tri-lingual children. And no matter which religion people practiced or which dialect they spoke, everyone enjoyed the three nights of music, dance, and art. The week ended with everyone wishing the graduates a fond and tearful farewell; they loaded into a Bangalore-bound bus and everyone prepared to resume their typical school schedules. I had a wonderful introduction to Shanti Bhavan, ASTEP, and Indian culture, but I was exhausted from all the preparation and music-making and was happy to get into a less exciting routine.