“So, where are you from?” is the polite way of asking “Who are you?” to strangers. Either way I remain conflicted answering the question. The honest, full answer of this question is much too complicated to give most people who ask. My answers all have varying levels of detail, and I’ve learned from experience to give the one that will require the least explanation. If the person is actually interested in getting to know me, they’ll ask follow-up questions. I think of myself as a Choose Your Own Adventure book. On any given night I can be a product of suburbia who can carry their weight in sports talk, a lost country boy who is more at home in the fields than in a building, or an exotic foreigner who can speak another language. My suburbanite credentials are from outside St. Louis where I grew up, mostly because I don’t remember much from my first four years of life outside Cincinnati, Ohio. For family events and holidays we commuted to Weeping Water, Nebraska, population 1,042 according to the sign, anyway. On my grandma’s small, secluded plot it felt more like population 5 but only while we were in town. We spent enough time there that I can feign expertise in farming life, but not enough to go up against anyone who can do more than identify a hay baler. Operating big vehicles still intimidates me. I side much more with my European side when it comes to car size. My Finnish passport certifies my pedigree of having an immigrant father. Telling people I’m Finnish doesn’t always have the “wow” factor I would hope for, especially since most people don’t know where it is on a map. My language skills are somewhere between passable and a third grader, but luckily there aren’t enough Finnish speakers to debunk my touted expertise. Yes, I can say something in Finnish: “Kyllä, mä voin puhua suomea, mutta se on tyhmä koska et ymmärä mitä minä sanon.” It means “Yes, I can speak Finnish, but that is stupid because you don’t understand what I’m saying.” Yes, I know the curse words. Depending on my mood this could lead down a rabbit hole of talking about my history of learning the language and fielding any questions the person has about Finland. Or, if I don’t plan on remembering the person’s name, I’ll stick with the weather and baseball talk.
I’m lucky enough to be a white male with a Midwestern accent I can hide behind, so I get to be selective with my actual identity, which is a balancing act of this amalgam of cultures. Sometimes I wonder, ‘If Finland went to war with the United States, which side would I fight for?’ Then I remember I’m a pacifist and would probably have to seek political asylum in Canada. The greater question still remains, though: which culture do I belong to?
Historically I take the most pride in Finland. Perhaps this is because much of the history of ethnically Finnish people is simple. The Finnish Ministry for Foreign Affairs confirms the following summary of Finnish history. Through the middle of the 12th century Finland had no central government or ruling body, though the land bordered both Sweden and Russia. In 1323 a treaty was signed between the two powers, making Finland an administrative district of Sweden. As Sweden’s power declined Russia pressed its advantage, waging war in 1808 to take control of the territory in 1809 and officially created a Grand Duchy that was autonomously administered. Russia fell into turmoil in 1905, and in 1917 an independence movement rose to make Finland a separate nation. The country fell into a bloody civil war between the loyalists and separatists, ending in 1919 with the formation of the Republic of Finland. The wounds of the civil war were not overcome until the Soviet Union invaded in 1939. Despite facing a superpower with substantially more troops and recourses, Finland was able to unite and resist the winter invasion with skis, Molotov cocktails, and forest coverage, with an armistice finally being reached in 1944.1Dr. Seppo Zetterberg, “Main Outlines of Finnish History,” Finland Promotion Board, January 2014, http://finland.fi/Public/default.aspx?contentid=160058.
All of my exposure to literature, TV, and movies has told me that this is one of the great success stories in history. The small David of Finland staving off the Goliath of Russia to achieve its sovereignty is an epic I am proud to call my heritage. The story of America’s independence from England has similar elements of overcoming long odds, but cognitively I can’t help but question the actions taken in the formation of the colonies and many of the actions taken by the country since. In America’s self-portrait there are too many details that are glossed over to call David innocent. Finland’s relation with the indigenous people, the Sami, has a much shorter history. Although not perfect, Finland’s relations caused much less severe damage than American relations with indigenous peoples; as of 1996 the Finnish government “must negotiate with the Sami Parliament on all decisions that will affect the Sami as indigenous peoples.”2Stefan Ekenberg, “Indigenous Peoples and Rights: A Baseline Study of Socioeconomic effects of Northland Resources Ore Establishment in Northern Sweden and Finland,” Lulea University of Technology, 2008, http://pure.ltu.se/portal/files/4717921/Indigenous_Peoples_final.pdf. From what I remember learning in school, the American occupation of the East Coast was seemingly only limited by the population of whites, with little acknowledgement of Native Americans other than their hostility and their generosity with corn. As a linguistic and cultural minority group of Sweden and Russia, Finland’s story of independence almost sounds like what Native Americans might have dreamed of when faced with westward expansion by the United States. Finland was lucky enough to have a nearly homogenous population whose differences were largely political and possible to overcome in the face of invasion. The term “Indian,” contrastingly, seems to have only two ways in which it unifies. The first is as an ascribed identity, which is described in Philip J. Deloria’s essay “I Am Not a Mascot.” He highlights how these caricatures are used as a sort of celebration of cultural domination. Indeed, it seems that as a reward for the ability to conquer the majority white population and their athletic teams they have earned the ‘right’ to portray the conquered nations as they please.3Phillip J. Deloria, “I Am Not a Mascot,” in Native American Literature: An Anthology 1999, ed. Lawana Trout (Chicago: NTC/Contemporary Publishing Group, Inc., 1999), 46. By Vine Deloria Jr.’s account, the second binding factor between different natives is a mutually identified coping mechanism—a sense of humor. In his essay, “Indian Humor,” his opening line wonderfully describes the reason humor can serve as a unification point as he writes, “One of the best ways to understand a people is to know what makes them laugh…in humor life is redefined and accepted.”4Vine Deloria, Jr. “Indian Humor,” in Native American Literature: An Anthology 1999, ed. Lawana Trout (Chicago: NTC/Contemporary Publishing Group, Inc., 1999), 655. For this reason, then, the jokes on Columbus and Colonel Custer appear to be some of the few universal touch points that exist between all tribes. Status ascription, broken treaties, and displacement are the legacy left by westward expansion and the foundations of the white mainstream American population. Joseph Bruchac described in his poem “Ellis Island” the emotions that swept over him while visiting the Statue of Liberty. Through one side of his family he feels hope, optimism, and opportunity with the arrival on American shores, but, being partially Native American, he writes “yet only one part of my blood loves that memory,”5Joseph Bruhac, “Ellis Island,” in Native American Literature: An Anthology 1999, ed. Lawana Trout (Chicago: NTC/Contemporary Publishing Group, Inc., 1999), 408 (line 18). capturing the same conflict I feel as I anonymously receive privilege for the actions taken to establish the United States. As often the American David is portrayed vanquishing his enemies to “establish justice and ensure domestic tranquility,”6“The Constitution of the United States,” Preamble. I can’t help but think about the rifle he held in his other hand pointed at the indigenous. My Finnish lineage and history feel like a morally sound reason for my genetic existence. As an American I just have to continue suspending belief for the justification for the land beneath my feet as long as I live on conquered land.
A great element of many Native American cultures that is largely missing from modern American mainstream culture is a spiritual journey. For various religions there is a rite of passage, but there is a difference between being knowledgeable of spiritual practices and building a fundamental connection between one’s self and the universe. John Fire Lame Deer with Richard Erdoes published “Alone on a Hilltop,” which told the story of his hamblechia, his vision quest, where he knew that “when it was all over, [he] would no longer be a boy, but a man. [He] would have had [his] vision.”7Richard Erdoes and John Fire Lame Deer, “Alone on a Hilltop,” in Native American Literature: An Anthology 1999, ed. Lawana Trout (Chicago: NTC/
Contemporary Publishing Group, Inc., 1999), 135.
Being from a secular home makes it difficult to comment on the impact that Confirmation had. From my friends I got the impression that it was bothersome to go to church regularly, but also a relief that once their obligation was completed their grandparents (and sometimes parents) would no longer pressure them to practice religion regularly. Fundamentally, my friends remained unchanged from their passage, so I felt no envy. The suburban community I came from provided no clear time frame for when my generation would ‘grow up,’ only an expectation we would participate in school and other activities somehow culminating in transformation into a new person.
At fifteen I found myself lying in a bed staring up at the ceiling wondering, ‘How did I get here?’ I still do not remember how the conversations went or the decisions that had been made. Unwittingly I had somehow become an exchange student living in Finland. I recall scoffing at the “culture shock” training. Culture shock? Ha! I’ve been studying Finland my whole life. There was nothing I didn’t already know about the country. I remember meeting with all the other students in New York City before they flew to all corners of the globe and hearing how nervous and excited they all were. I was cool, calm, and relaxed. I was an experienced traveler and even knew the language of the country I was going to. The flight was like any other trip, only I was greeted by complete strangers when I got off the plane. My new family was warm and welcoming. They tried to get to know me by asking about my interests, making me realize I knew nothing about myself. I was horrified. Half-answers about friends and spending time outside held them off temporarily. Meanwhile, I tried desperately to understand what was happening to me. My mind swam from hearing all the language. I had embarked on a vision quest that I didn’t sign up for. The room they gave me became my mental fortress. Staring at that ceiling, in the country that was supposed to be my second home, I completely and totally lost myself. Only in hindsight can I recognize that the question I had no answer to was, “Who am I?” At the time I became paralyzed with anxiety and retreated within myself, preferring isolation to risking becoming someone who would be unrecognizable to my friends back home. Home. Home! There was my answer! If only I were home I could talk to my friends about the twisted feeling of isolation in my chest. If only I were home, everything would go back to normal. And so began the process of doing whatever was necessary to get back to where I wanted to be. I listened to every suggestion from my host family, my parents, the exchange program, jumping through every hoop they gave me, determined to let nothing sway my objective of returning home. I went to an orientation where all the students on exchange to Finland in my region gathered. There were bonding activities, trust exercises, discussions, reflections, and projections. We were each given a sheet of paper to write a letter to our future selves to be read during closing orientation just before going home. Mine said, “Dear Kerry, if you’re still here reading this letter then go fuck yourself. Sincerely, Kerry.” I may not have known who I was, but I knew what I wanted and nothing would stop me from getting it. Two and a half months into my exchange, I stepped off the plane in St. Louis and was overwhelmed with relief. I finally rejoined society and the self-inflicted seclusion ended. Lame Deer’s vision quest taught him who he was; mine taught me the same thing. Who was I? I was a child. I was nothing without context. I was someone who would delay facing myself in the mirror as long as I could.
The move to Lincoln, Nebraska, away from my family and friends was when I fully began questioning my composition through a combination of classes and meeting new people who would ask that same question, “Where are you from?” in order to determine all they needed to know about me. I quickly realized that explaining my Finnish heritage was much too lengthy, and I immediately needed to find something to make friends to avoid the exchange student disaster again. I jokingly refer to my freshman year as having majored in sports, wearing proudly the symbols of my Cardinals baseball team in hopes of having a neutral conversation topic I could use to connect with anyone. Through my first two years I went through an extensive trial and error process of different aspects of my personality, picking up a number of good friends with whom I could bond over certain aspects of my character. Occasionally worlds collided, but as time passed I grew unsatisfied with each component and restless in my search for self-identity. Political Science became my major in the hopes of understanding the composition of the American political system and the way things work so that I might have a way of helping society overcome the injustices of the past and move into a brighter future. Instead, I became more jaded, cynical, and frustrated with the realities of achieving progress in the United States. Overcome by anxiety from my identity crisis, I found there was only one answer that would satisfy my question of national identity: return to Finland.
Determined and with the complete support of my family and community, I returned to Finland with confidence and set out to answer the question, “Am I Finnish?” and finally resolve my crisis. Like Lame Deer alone on his hilltop, I spent much of my time alone in my room, thinking, meditating, and indulging in ways I never had time to do before. Time was the greatest resource study abroad had brought me. Finally I was able to cleanse myself in the way Lame Deer did with his cries and dreams, removed from all obligations and focusing only on finding an answer within myself.8Erdoes and Deer, “Alone on a Hilltop,” 138. In significant contrast from Lame Deer, though, was my communication with the world. After spending four days in isolation he is awoken by old man Chest, his spirit guide, who told him that “he would interpret [Lame Deer’s] visions for [him]. He told [Lame Deer] that the vision pit had changed [him] in a way that [he] would not be able to understand at that time. He told [Lame Deer] that [he] was no longer a boy, that [he] was a man now. [He] was Lame Deer.”9Ibid., 139. I had no elder to give meaning to my thoughts and interpret the images of my projected self. What I had instead was the loving help of old friends, my parents, my sisters, and a close friend who talked me through my studies, my language and cultural questions, my relationships, and ultimately the line between who I was and who I wanted to be.
When I returned, it was clear the way I was living my life did not reflect my ideal self and would not allow me to achieve my goal of helping others. No, I am not Finnish. I am not American. Who am I? I am the culmination of all my experiences. Where am I from? I am the cross between two cultures. I enjoy playing the introduction game because the path others select in my Choose Your Own Adventure book reveals a part of their identity. What their choices inform them of I’m not sure; I only know my context no longer shapes me. My identity is defined by my actions moving forward. I make myself who I want to be.
Bruchac, Joseph. “Ellis Island.” In Native American Literature: An Anthology 1999, edited by Lawana
Trout, 408–409. Chicago: NTC/Contemporary Publishing Group, Inc., 1999. “The Constitution of the United States.” Preamble.
Deloria, Phillip J. “I Am Not A Mascot.” In Native American Literature: An Anthology 1999, edited by
Lawana Trout, 45–48. Chicago: NTC/Contemporary Publishing Group, Inc., 1999.
Deloria, Jr., Vine. “Indian Humor.” In Native American Literature: An Anthology 1999, edited by Lawana
Trout, 654–662. Chicago: NTC/Contemporary Publishing Group, Inc., 1999.
Ekenberg, Stefan. “Indigenous Peoples and Rights: A Baseline Study of Socioeconomic effects of
Northland Resources Ore Establishment in Northern Sweden and Finland.” Lulea University of
Technology. 2008. http://pure.ltu.se/portal/files/4717921/Indigenous_Peoples_final.pdf.
Erdoes, Richard and Lame Deer, John Fire. “Alone on a Hilltop.” In Native American Literature: An Anthology 1999, edited by Lawana Trout, 134–139. Chicago: NTC/Contemporary Publishing Group, Inc., 1999.
Zetterberg, Dr. Seppo. “Main Outlines of Finnish History.” Finland Promotion Board. January 2014.
References [ + ]
|1.||↑||Dr. Seppo Zetterberg, “Main Outlines of Finnish History,” Finland Promotion Board, January 2014, http://finland.fi/Public/default.aspx?contentid=160058.|
|2.||↑||Stefan Ekenberg, “Indigenous Peoples and Rights: A Baseline Study of Socioeconomic effects of Northland Resources Ore Establishment in Northern Sweden and Finland,” Lulea University of Technology, 2008, http://pure.ltu.se/portal/files/4717921/Indigenous_Peoples_final.pdf.|
|3.||↑||Phillip J. Deloria, “I Am Not a Mascot,” in Native American Literature: An Anthology 1999, ed. Lawana Trout (Chicago: NTC/Contemporary Publishing Group, Inc., 1999), 46.|
|4.||↑||Vine Deloria, Jr. “Indian Humor,” in Native American Literature: An Anthology 1999, ed. Lawana Trout (Chicago: NTC/Contemporary Publishing Group, Inc., 1999), 655.|
|5.||↑||Joseph Bruhac, “Ellis Island,” in Native American Literature: An Anthology 1999, ed. Lawana Trout (Chicago: NTC/Contemporary Publishing Group, Inc., 1999), 408 (line 18).|
|6.||↑||“The Constitution of the United States,” Preamble.|
|7.||↑||Richard Erdoes and John Fire Lame Deer, “Alone on a Hilltop,” in Native American Literature: An Anthology 1999, ed. Lawana Trout (Chicago: NTC/|
Contemporary Publishing Group, Inc., 1999), 135.
|8.||↑||Erdoes and Deer, “Alone on a Hilltop,” 138.|