Some thoughts on being an immigrant

Some influential people in the EU over the years have theorised over the possibility that national identities could eventually disappear, to be replaced by a European identity. According to the theory a strong national identity leads too easily to nationalism, which is harmful and leads to wars. Better a newer, looser, all-inclusive European identity. Who knows, in the long term they may be right. National identity is after all a relatively new thing in European history – Europeans have been identifying themselves strongly via their nationhood for only about two hundred years. In the short term, however, they are surely wrong: national identity means at least as much now as it did in the EU’s infancy in the 1950s.  

About seven percent of the Finnish population are defined as having a foreign background. It is a somewhat difficult definition to make, since there are different ways of measuring it: for example, according to citizenship or mother tongue. Still, the figure gives us a rough idea of how many, or rather how few people of foreign origin there are in Finland: only about one person in fourteen, considerably less than that in the provinces although somewhat more in the capital area.

Some people who move abroad integrate more or less completely into the local community, some rather less so. Some stay in some kind of expatriate ”bubble”, surrounded by other expats. All sorts of factors can make it easier or harder for an immigrant to integrate, such as the attitude of the local people, the immigrant’s own attitude, whether the immigrant is married to a local or not, whether they are of the same religion or not as the locals, whether they learn the local language or not, whether the immigrant is of a different skin colour or not, and so on. What unites immigrants is a sense of being different, of being ”other” in some way. Having lived in Finland for twenty-one years now, I’m beginning to wonder whether the sense of being ”other” ever goes away.

I suspect it does not. You can live most of your adult life in another country, but you cannot escape the fact that you were brought up elsewhere, that you spent your formative years in a different country with a different culture. You cannot shake those years off, nor should you: they are an essential part of what makes you. It may be different for younger immigrants who spend at least some of their youth in their new country. Still, their skin colour, foreign name or religion might mean that they stand out despite appearing to be fully integrated.

In numerous situations I have felt I stood out as the only foreigner. Sometimes I know I was, such as in the Kerava over-40s football team or in theology lectures at university. One’s attitude to this is key: is it a challenge or an opportunity? I have chosen the latter: the experience of living abroad is an endless source of matters of cultural and linguistic interest. Only the other day I was discussing with my colleagues why Finns tend to answer, eg. ”I was born in 1968” when asked how old they are. Is this because the Finn assumes that the Finn they are speaking to enjoys doing basic arithmetic? A Brit answers simply, ”I’m 51.” Is this because the Brit assumes the other Brit cannot do basic arithmetic? Such questions can be a source of endless speculation.

I suspect that every single person feels slightly different from the crowd: slightly older or younger, of a higher or lower social class, better or worse educated, richer or poorer, more or less popular or attractive or confident than the people around them. Being of foreign origin is simply one more category we use to define ourselves and others. We all feel a need to be accepted by the people around us. At the same time we should accept what we are and be proud of it.

Chris Montgomery, pastor

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