The Scandinavian Cultural Center in my area is one of the cool things about moving to the lower mainland. Aside from the Finnishness that would enter my life through the friends and social life of my parents, I did not have the benefit of complete Finnish community growing up. My brothers grew up in Ontario in the Finnish communities of Sudbury and Sault St. Marie where they had Finnish friends and were part of a larger Finnish community where it was normal to speak the language. For me, while I had Finnish friends, two other girls from Finnish families whose parents were friends with mine, I did not speak Finnish with those girls. In fact, in every respect, we were Canadian girls whose parents spoke a different language and often forced us to celebrate holidays in ways that were different from our Canadian peers. It was not always a comfortable difference.
Moving to the mainland and taking part in some of the events and language classes offered by the Finland House at the Scandinavian Cultural Center was a first peek at what it would be like to have my own Finnish community. In taking intermediate Finnish classes, I met a group of people, older and younger than me, who had the same memories of holiday’s celebrated with Lanttuulatikko and Jouluapuki instead of turkey stuffing and Santa Claus. I wasn’t really sure what I would encounter joining a language class – aside from speaking Finnish while travelling I had long since lost the naturalness of the language that my mother claims I had as a child. I was also curious about the idea of Finnish culture – how different was this center’s representation of culture, or the experiences of other members for that matter, from my own experiences growing up in the north Okanagan. Or even more acute was the question of whether my experiences could even be counted as big C culturual. My Finnish childhood, as opposed to my Canadian childhood, was predominantly spent with old people and as I mentioned sad it odd opposition to the normalized life as a girl in small town BC. In fact, we three Finnish girls, who were really more Canadian than Finnish, only had old Finns to tell us or show us what was particularly Finnish about our life and for me, this was not an obvious set of voices from which to take direction and develop a cultural identify from.
Finnishness was the house slippers worn by my mother’s friends, bright orange slip-ons with strange bumps on the soles. I would slip my feet into them when she wasn’t looking and giggle at the strange, uncomfortable feel. I remember looking at the woman who wore them, a large, white-haired, fair-skinned woman who was old then, and continues to be old now. What kind of woman could wear those shoes all day long?
There were the open-faced Finnish rye bread sandwiches, with butter, maybe ham, mild cheese and a slice of cucumber. The rye bread was coarse and baked in the shape of a pizza with a hole in the center. Cakes filled with jam, not creamy butter icing or pudding. And of course the sauna Saturdays spent at the homes of other Finns, my parents stopping at a corner store on the way over to buy a glass bottle of 7Up for after sauna.
We did have some toys and books that were distinctly Finnish – I had copies of Aku Ankka, comics featuring the Finnish Donald Duck, and cassette tapes with Finnish songs that I would sing by myself. I had stickers from Finland in my sticker collection and a doll with Finnish traditional clothes that matched an outfit my mother made for me in grade one for a multi-cultural pageant. But what I remember most about these items was the strangeness of them. They were not toys shared with Canadian friends. The colours were off somehow – too bright, wrong shade of reds or yellows. They did not fit in with the Strawberry Shortcakes and Barbie Dream RV. What I see as the distinct difference between the childhoods of my brothers and my own is that being Finnish was weird in my world. It was something that had to be explained. Why was my name different? What is a sauna and why do you have one in your basement? Not to mention the accents of my parents. My peer group was distinctly “Canadian” which at the time meant English-speaking, white, small town folks. They were families who ate white bread with peanut butter and jelly, whose mom’s bought clothes at K-mart, and the sugary cereals that my mother rarely let me eat.
So, while a long time has passed since I felt that way about my Finnishness, I came to the Finnish classes curious about whether or not my memories of things Finnish would connect me in someway with others. What I found was a mix of people who were coming to their Finnishness from places that were different from mine and the same. Some were married to Finns and were looking to improve their Finnish to ensure their children would learn the language (and I assume learn to love sauna and pulla – although one takes decidedly less effort than the other). Others were like me having spent some part of childhood in both worlds and now wanting to bring some of those experiences back in adulthood. As we stumbled through language lessons, I recognized in others the moments of excitement when a word is remembered, or an entire phrase repeated that had once been forgotten. Like tasting anew a fruit once enjoyed but forgotten long ago.
Last christmas the cultural center held craft fairs to highlight Scandinavian products and baked goods. What I saw when I attended was an entire complex of people who were like me and my family and all those finnish friends of my parents. Pulla, joulutortu, karelinen pirrakka and fazer chocolates filled tables next to second-hand marimekko designs and iitala glassware and jewelry that reflected the sleek modern designs so common in Scandinavian. I found a translation of the Kalevala and other books in Finnish and English.
So in all that what I found at the Scandinavian cultural center was a little microcosm where my Finnishness was normal. And I guess I can say that I was able to quantify what it means to have a place, a school or a community where one can go to be connected to that part of one’s self that is not a part of the wider social context. It’s a strange realization to make in such diverse society as ours but there is an invisibility to my Finnishness that I want to uncover.