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.