As ya’ll know by now, I was born and still live and study in Finland. It’s a country of natural beauty, social security, and personal freedom – all in all a pretty great place to live. When I travel and inevitably encounter that obligatory question of “where ya folks from”, I am proud to say I’m Finnish. Even though I am not terribly patriotic and might occasionally berate my dear homeland for being boring and bland, being from Finland is an important part of my identity and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
The travel blogging community (at least the part that blogs in English) seems to be pretty homogeneous in origin, with Canadian, American and British bloggers dominating the scene. In part this is may be due to language skills – not many non-native speakers of English can consistently produce quality posts in a language that’s not their own. So, as a way of making my little country a little bit more visible and a way of giving insight into what it’s like being a Finn abroad, I decided to write this post.
I’m exotic abroad.
Statistically, Finnish people travel a lot; in 2014, approximately 90% of Finns took a trip somewhere (unfortunately, the only source I have is in Finnish). However, since we are a nation of avid campers, a lot of those trips would have been trips to the family cottage and therefore domestic. Even if you look at the most popular destinations abroad, they are all safe, unsurprising choices. They are countries close by like Sweden, Estonia and Russia, or alternatively countries with established all inclusive hotels and package holiday tours like Spain, Italy and Turkey. So, even though Finns travel quite a bit, they don’t seem to do much backpacking.
During my two months in Southeast Asia I didn’t meet one Finnish person. On my nine month trip to Australia – half a dozen. Many backpackers that I make friends with have told me that I am the first Finn they have met on their travels. And talking to those people I have found out that people outside of Finland don’t know much about Finland. So, looking for a connection, they tentatively ask me about the few things they suspect about it: It’s pretty cold, right? Don’t you guys have a pretty good education system? Is that where Nokia comes from? Your natural hair colour must be blonde! (Recently I have started to add that Angry Birds is Finnish, too; sometimes, if I’m feeling brave enough to take the dismay, I tell people how we go to saunas naked together and then roll in the snow.) Even though I have to answer the same questions over and over again, I don’t mind – I’m happy to teach you something new about my wonderful little country. I’m used to flaunting my Finnishness, so that after a while of travelling together you won’t be asking for Finland Facts of the Day anymore – I will be volunteering them.
At the same time, the fact that other travellers don’t know much about Finland can prove disruptive, too. It’s hard to find a connection to something you know very little about, and often after the topic of Finland has been on the table for a bit, it gets surreptitiously brushed off. There’s only so much new information you can handle until you want to regress back to chats about Sunday roast and Manchester United.
I get asked about my travels a lot at home.
Like I already mentioned, Finns don’t habitually travel to a lot of exotic locations and they don’t backpack much. That’s why travelling to countries like Cambodia and Vietnam might raise a few eyebrows: people just simply don’t go there. (My mum still thinks Vietnam is like it was during the Vietnam War.) A lot of people that I’ve chatted with about travel – even in my own age group – don’t know what hostels are like and think I’m brave for travelling solo.
I feel like an ambassador of Finland.
When you’re travelling, you automatically become a representative of your country. Giving out your country of origin is like handing out a business card. In a fast-paced hostel environment where the turnover is huge, people will forget your name and instead call you by the name of your home country or town, and whatever you do, you will get characterised by that place. I remember telling a story about a rude Dutch girl to a group of other travellers: she was complaining that in a bus where 90% of the seats were broken, she should get a full refund for her trip because hers was broken, too. A girl in the group, Dutch herself, rolled her eyes and said: “That’s so Dutch.”
I might be the only Finn my fellow travellers ever meet, and I want to give them a good impression of the people of my country. I understand that as nationalities we might always be defined by a stereotype; even so, I wish to make Finland’s stereotype a positive one.
Culture shock is huge.
It’s not common in most Western countries to experience the things that upset us the most when we travel: cows on the streets, food poisoning, violations of personal space. However, as a Finn I feel like I experience these cultural differences very intensely. Finland is the mecca of recycling and clean nature, so trash on the streets makes me sick. I’m naive to corruption and insecurity. And, coming from a country that (according to Wikipedia) ranks 161st in population density, that person squeezing next to me on the metro makes me feel like she just stuck her finger in my nose. Even crossing streets is difficult to someone who has spent her whole life obeying traffic lights – even when no cars are coming.
On the other hand, I like how huge the differences between Finland and countries like India and Myanmar are. They make the experience more exotic and they provide a welcome change to the calm, peaceful life in Finland. Then again, travelling to these countries always make me appreciate Finland even more than I do now. I swear, tap water doesn’t taste as good anywhere as it does in Finland.
Sometimes it’s hard not being a native speaker of English.
I’m fluent in English and I have a British accent, so if you talked to me you probably wouldn’t guess I’m from Finland unless I told you. However, no amount of skill has made me able to understand every single accent, slang and dialect that exists, and sometimes it makes hanging out with other travellers more difficult. I also have pretty bad hearing, so if we’re spending time in a bar, I am guaranteed to shout “WHAT??” in your face multiple times a night. Oh, and then there’s the people who despite all evidence are convinced that my English is inferior because it’s not my first language. It’s true that I don’t know all the words in English, but it feels patronising if you explain the words you use to me without me asking (well, unless you’re talking some funky slang that even native speakers can’t understand) or if you correct my language when I make a typo that quite clearly is just that. English might not be my first language, but I can still beat your ass in Scrabble.
Another thing I don’t always get are cultural references. While others might be happily yapping away about their favourite stand up comedian or a show they used to watch as a kid, I can’t help but feel like a little bit of an outsider. Well, that is until I hear a reference to something similar that exists in Finland, and I can crack out the famous phrase that every Finn abroad has once used: “In Finland we have this thing called…”
Hope you enjoyed the read! If you have any questions for me, feel free to ask in the comments. Where do you come from? What does it mean for you to represent your country while travelling?