Thoughtful Tuesday: Identity & The Heaviness of the Word

This is going to be one of my longest posts so if you would like to do some stretching before you read– go right ahead. With immigration talks and refugee talk in Finland being politicized and I can see it escalating. I felt I should talk about identity.

The thing about growing up with two different cultures is you always end up offending either one. Especially, if the cultures are polar opposite, one is very patriarchal loaded with expectation of what a woman should become or be. While the other is quite maternal, the expectations are that everything is egalitarian and women can be anywhere—don’t expect men to open the door for you, if you can open it yourself.

What makes matters worse or better is because I don’t look like one of my parents—people always assume that I am a step daughter or that I am just accompanying one of them. It used to bother me. When I am in  Finland, I do not fit into the national structure of looks. I was not born there–so I do not really care. When people tell me I don’t speak Finnish with an accent, or I speak so well and how long have I lived there. I chuckle.  Due to my looks and cultural affiliation, I do not feel the pressure to learn the language or the culture as I grew up with it. My imprints of the culture have been passed on to me by my parent, I did not realise how different I was till I went to school. Where whispers of what my cultural identity was and why one parent did not look like me.

According to my paternal culture—one has to belong to the culture of their father ALWAYS. To me that is stupid, let’s be honest which parent usually spends more time with their children ? Why can’t one identify as both? Why does one have to choose? When people ask where I am from I claim my dad’s country—Kenya. It’s mainly because people love to assume. When I claim both, people brush it off and immediately claim my dad’s, totally rubbishing the other culture I grew up in. For instance, while in Finland I made a mistake ordering a packet for another country via a company’s Finnish page. I had automatically assumed since the package was been packed at the country I was sending the package to they would notice. Of course as expected– it got mixed up in the local post in Finland when it should have stayed in Sweden. I told this to an acquaintance  who was affiliated to the company and she offered to call the post office on my behalf to sort it out. When they asked her why I didn’t call myself- she blatantly said “ She’s a foreigner her Finnish is not that great.” I was not only offended but she said it without batting an eye and did not even apologise for it. Their assumptions were based on Face Value. Or when I go watch a movie in Finnish and people related to me have the guts to ask me if I followed? I have had lots of incidents like that even in Kenya.

I am trilingual and studies have shown that people who speak more than one language, tend to use the language of their social interaction as it is convenient to them. Mine is English—as you can clearly tell. Anyway I learnt Kiswahili in school and even spoke it as a child but where I grew up, most of the neighbours went to British or foreign schools. My interaction with Kiswahili speakers was based on my Tanzanian neighbour and outside the neighbourhood. I hardly used it. For those of you who have parents from different cultures and languages the common language is either English or whatever is convenient to both of them. I had my aunt and cousin visit recently and my cousin was translating what my aunt was saying from Kiswahili to English. Which to me was just laughable, but like I said I just let people assume, ignorance indeed is bliss.

The only thing that I regret is that my father travelled a lot so I couldn’t fully learn his native tongue. I do understand some words in passing. It’s not too late to learn. I just have to be consistent. I would have been quadrolingual you know?

I digress, identity to me is fostered by different aspects of your national identity, it allows you to feel a sense of belonging especially when you come from a homogenous community.

When you come from a bi or multicultural background people only take you by face value. My beautiful niece hails from three continents and carries 4 nationalities within her. When people ask her where she is from she claims where she lives. People do not generally believe that she could be so culturally diverse. It is not something they come across.

So for those people that like to tell people to go back to their country after being a 3rd generation or 2nd generation even if they were born there. Just because they speak another language other than the national one. You better read closely.

My sister was born in Finland not too shy from the 70’s . As I write this she still gets people telling her how good her Finnish is. People ask her where she is from. She was brought up in Finland, went to school there and is more Finnish than I am due to the cultural imprint that surrounded her every day of her life. As much as there is Kenyan in her– Finland is her home.

I remember going to an engagement party and “the talk started”. By the talk– I mean how people should go back to their country and how people are sucking up the social system. I knew of a 2nd generation Somali ( Somali Land to be exact) refugee who not only did not go to nursing school but has a BA in International Business. Apart from that her sister at the time was working at the bank and her brother was an electrical engineer. All of Somali origin, when I mentioned that to these people– they were shocked.

In every society there are people who want to work and those that are comfortable with just being. In Finland there are refugee and immigrant bus drivers, cleaners who hold degrees as construction engineers, doctors or physicists but the society won’t give them a chance.

It is focused on otherness and the excuse that their language skills are not good enough. Even though they may be fluent in Finnish. So to support their families they work in industries that under employ them. There was a case of a man of Nigerian roots who had tried for years to graduate form Medical School, done all the credits, internship but was not allowed to sit an exam. He got a note once that said Apina ei saa sivistyä – The monkey is not allowed to be civilized. I do not like the term civilized as it suggests that a certain culture is better than the other. I would prefer socially advanced. It’s not only people of African back ground that have gotten notes of intimidation (bullying) at work, even a Swiss National (European) born and bred confessed to me that they got  anonymous notes on their desk as well. There was even  an undercover stories that the National Broadcasting Corporation YLE did on how it’s harder for non-Finns to get employment, apartments and even going to a nightclub .


Togetherness in a society that looks down upon others

I have also heard of stories of children of immigrant background who go to career counselors at the end of compulsory school and have the desire to go to university but are convinced its not achievable–but are encouraged to become registered nurses or do housekeeping because that is where they belong. I too was looking to apply for Universities and Applied Universities. A friend of my mum a fellow Finn immediately suggested hoitoala–nursing. My mum knew that it was not my calling so chose to ignore the friend. The same friend when I graduated from my first degree, suggested I should apply for a job at her daughter-in-law’s friend’s cleaning company.

Speaking of nursing, I do not know how many times I have been mistaken by my doctor for working in the hospital, or being a nurse or people just assuming I am a nurse. Once I went to a short-lived course–a story I shall share for another day. I had not been in school for a week because I was working on a festival and my travel business– and my then Iranian classmate asked me why I had not been around and I said I was working. He immediately said “Cleaning!” I once sent an open application to a place for a job application with my CV. I was working on my Msc degree at the time. I got a reply that there were no openings in my field but a receptionist or house keeping job were the options they had. Also my CV has been forwarded to the head of house keeping–who is Kenyan and “..would happily have me.”

Some people who had other degrees succumbed to the pressure and went to study nursing as those were the only jobs where they would be accepted. I have no problem with nursing or housekeeping. My problem is the assumption that based on a background one can be one or the other. The other problem I have is in Finland the word maahanmuutaja equated to foreigner is focused on people from certain continents and religious back grounds. The word Expat is reserved for people of the Northern Hemisphere to the west. It is a struggle and with the economy in Finland being what it is now, those are the people who felt the brunt of recession even before the Nationals felt it.

I have seen this saying by Mark Twain being shared more than once on my timelines on Instagram and Facebook

” Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness, and many people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all of one’s lifetime.”

All these suggested jobs, feelings of people who should go home to their countries– were suggestions from people who have lived abroad,  are well traveled and well read. One of them even holds a PhD. One thing I have noticed, is travel does not absolve people from narrow mindedness, prejudice, bigotry–not even adopting a child from another continent, ethnicity or country. Neither is, sponsoring a child from another country or continent. People perceive what they want to perceive, people will change when they want to change.

So to spread lies that refugees get government money when in fact it’s a stipend from the UN. The UNHCR looks for placements for refugees and it’s the countries themselves that answer the call. On another note think of it this way, you lose everything, your home, savings and even your pictures because of a political strife. The only thing you have is the clothes on your back, your family and your feet. Running for cover to save your lives, your former lives are just a far away memory. You see people you love being killed and you do not have time to mourn as you have to get to safety.  Separated from your loved ones and maybe never seeing them again. You are finally in a place of peace but the war is still in your head. You do what you have to do to get by and no one bothers to know what pain you may have gone through but are quick to tell you to go back. To what? Where? Expect you to press play, insults are hurled at you everyday but you focus on why you are there.


Where should they go?

People always try to figure other people out and start placing labels on their being, because of where they are from and what they assume they should be. Being African born and partially bred, people in Europe get confused when I say I am from two continents. Due to the way I carry myself, I am supposed to have grown up in Europe or I get comments that my maternal side taught me well. For instance, people assumed that thanks to my maternal side I became tech conversant. While others just assume that Sinun pitaisi osata osata käyttä tietokonetta — I should know, really know how to use a computer. Despite my protest of my knowledge from using one and it being compulsory from school up till University. You would be surprised the words and foolery uttered from people’s mouth’s sometimes, I do not know whether to laugh or cry. That too is a story for another day or a book.

Being different is okay, we cannot all be the same or have the same experiences. Not respecting someone’s being or heritage is not okay as you are diminishing a part that makes them–them. That aspect of the other  culture is an important imprint and forms the way they think or shape their thoughts. Unless, someone is on another level of consciousness that’s innate; that is different. If they are born and raised in a culture other than their own, they are likely to have cultural imprints and codes of the country where their heritage is the other but identity based on the nationality of the country they live in. While others despite not growing up in the minority culture their attitude and mannerisms are shaped by aspects of the home. So my dear third culture kids, bi-cultural. Multi-cultural and multi-lingual you are not alone. I love the speech Taiye Selasi made on TED talk it really summarizes my thoughts on identity for those of third cultures or those who can’t be from a country or place.

What is my identity? I am Donna first, my life roles second, my cultural identity and my nationality last.




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  • Reply
    09/12/2015 at 11:09

    Excellent write up Donna! You are down to earth and honest about your experiences. I’ve lived in Finland for 11 years, yet I still feel unwelcomed. I pity even my kids who have been born here and are “Finnish citizens”, but who will certainly still suffer descrimination thanks to the way they look. I’m hopeful though, that things might get better someday when they are older? That they might be that change in Finland?
    I’m a victim of having to study Nursing even though i know its not my calling coz i hate going to work everyday! And to think i’ve been here for so long and can’t even boast of Finnish friends! And the annoying comment of immigrants coming here to rip off their social system drives me crazy! In fact, i could write a book too about the experiences out here but well, i’ll leave that for another day. Congrats on your graduation.

    • Reply
      09/12/2015 at 12:35

      Thanks you so much Arléne. It’s a new day & I want people to talk about it & not suffer in silence. It’s a hard world out there nothing worse than feeling unwanted in your own home. Love to you and we shall continue the conversation.❤

  • Reply
    09/12/2015 at 12:04

    I felt like we were having a conversation…your writing is beautiful

  • Reply
    Thoughtful Tuesday: Piece de Résistance – donnasmélange
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