Permanent Outsider


There’s something no one ever tells you about being a long-term expat or an immigrant. On some level, you become a permanent outsider. As much as you try to assimilate into your host culture, you’re bringing years of lived experience with you. When you interact with “your” culture, you have a new set of filters that you run everything through. You are neither wholly one nor the other anymore, so you no longer quite fit in either place.

When I’m chatting with people online, and writing blog posts like this one, I can edit myself. In “real life”, Katie and I tend to speak Finglish, a mixture of Finnish and English. We use Finnish place names, for example. I say keskustassa, apteekki, and pesula instead of downtown, the pharmacy, or the laundry room. It’s makes it easier to communicate with people, and it helps us to use and reinforce the amount of the language we actually know.

Because we’ve had many friends from the UK, or are around people whose English is more British-centric, we’ve also fallen into using British English terms. We’ll say flat and lift instead of apartment or elevator (although I’m more inclined to say hissi for the latter, because, well, it’s fun to say HEES-see). For loan words, I’ve taken to pronouncing them the Finnish way. Instead of pronouncing tortilla “tor-TEE-ya” I say “TOR-teel-lah” (with a rolled R) because that’s how it’s pronounced in Finland.

More than Language

All of which gets us strange looks from visiting Americans. We’re not affecting an accent, or trying to be pretentious. We’re trying to transition into using Finnish as much as possible, in spite of gaps in our vocabulary and grammar. It’s a matter of wanting to be understood when we come across Finns whose English is about on par with our Finnish. We spend a lot more time in that situation than we do interacting with people from the United States.

This seems like a superficial overview of why I feel like an outsider, but there’s more to it. A lot of it is uncomfortable to talk about, or at least go into in any sort of detail. When you meet people and they find out you’re from the U.S., and the first question they ask you is how you feel about the current political administration, it’s weird. You don’t know what side they’re on, whether they’re testing you, or if you’re about to get knifed if you give the wrong answer. Not from Finns so much as people from other places, whose relationship with the United States is, and historically has been… complicated.

The hardest part for me is when I have to hear “that would never work” in regards to some social, cultural, or political idea. Most of the time it’s things that some Americans want to reject out of hand, that Finland and Europe have been successfully doing for decades. Once in a while it’s an American concept that is roundly rejected for ideological reasons by Europeans, even if it has a proven record of positive results.

Permanent Outsider

There is an expectation among Americans that I will be either an expert on Finland, a perfect ambassador for the United States, or both. I’m neither. I’m Berin. Finns are more grounded and realistic, for the most part. But they want me to be an expert on American culture and politics, which I am not. They want me to love all of the things about Finland that they love, and be critical of all of the things about Finland that they’re critical of, and a lot of the time I’m just sadly uninformed about whatever it is they’re referring to.

The thing that makes me feel like an outsider is that my status as an expat/immigrant causes people to project things onto me. They have expectations about who I am, what my values are, and even how I will behave. I can’t live up to (or down to) that. I won’t conform to that. At the end of the day I’m just me, a guy from one place that now lives in another place, and no longer quite fits anyplace.

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