The DNA results came back. I’m 100% Finnish. It was a surprise— I expected some Swedish, maybe a little Russian. Family myth had that there was some Roma in the bloodlines.
I’m 100% Canadian. I was born there, educated there, from kindergarten to all three of my degrees. I have only ever paid taxes or owned property in Canada, and both of my children were born and live there.
What about Bajan? I live here, in Barbados. I’m part of the surfing community, and I have a wide circle of other friends. I have my favourite fish cake and veggie ladies; cook with local ingredients; wait patiently in restaurants, lines and traffic; and back into parking spaces. We have just renewed our Visa for another year.
Yet, I am not Finnish. I was not born there. I have never lived there. My Finnish was learned as an adult, and although I can get by I can only pass as a native speaker for a few minutes, in simple conversations.
My family on both sides come from Finland, but they were not the modern Finns who are educated and fly back every year or two to keep the connections with family and culture. All my grandparents came over in the 1920s, poor farmers fleeing political and economic instability, drawn by the Canadian offer of free land to those who would clear it, farm it, and build a house. Only one, my mother’s mother, ever returned to Finland to visit, long after her parents had died. The others never saw their parents or siblings again.
Like many immigrants, they clung hard to The Old Country, not realizing that their homeland was changing with the times. They lived in Finnish communities, and over more than 40 years only one grandfather learned rudimentary English, enough for when he hired out his horses to a road building crew. My mother was born in Canada but never spoke a word of English before she was dragged by her brother to the one-room, rural schoolhouse that had a picture of King George on the wall.
My mother used to say, “Marry a Finn. There’ll always be food on the table.” Yet when we moved to British Columbia when I was 6, away from the Finnish communities of Northern Ontario, my parents only spoke the language when they didn’t want us to understand what they were saying. None of the 6 children in my family married a Finn.
We kept some of our heritage. My sisters bought Finnish dishes; my brothers built saunas in their homes. When I was a young adult and had started studying the language, I learned how to make piirakka and we reintroduced the Finnish Christmas Eve that had been abandoned when we moved away from the grandparents. Yet until recently I was the only one of the siblings who had been to Finland.
On my initial trip, in my late 20s, I took my parents for their first visit back to the Old Country, and I was shocked. I felt like I was at a family reunion, at all times, even when amongst strangers. So many traits and habits that I thought were unique to our family turned out to be generally Finnish. Having been raised in multicultural Canada it felt uncomfortably homogenous (this was in the 80s), but my interest in my Finnish heritage only increased.
The first trip deepened my family’s connections with our Finnish relatives, and they began to come to Canada. I visited Finland 4 more times, including a 6 week home exchange with my two young children and their father. My daughter has a Finnish name, and my son spent time in Finland after he finished high school. We have Finnish passports. Several times I have considered moving to Finland, if only for a year.
My children still joke about my “Finn-dar,” my ability to spot Finns in the most unlikely places. On the shore of the Thames in London, on the side of a Vancouver Island mountain, in a museum in Tokyo: I will walk up to someone and say, “Oletteko te Suomalainen?” (Are you Finnish?) And the answer is almost always, “Kyllä, olen!!” (Yes, I am!)
It happens even here in Barbados. I have made a good friend, Jaana, who has lived here for over 20 years but still returns to Finland annually. I met another Finnish woman while surfing, and a young Finnish man while touring a rum distillery. I had Finnish Christmas Eve here this year with my son, a neighbour and his part-Finnish children.
Yet at my core, I am Canadian. Finland feels comfortable because of family, but there is also a compatibility with Canadian values. If I had to choose only one country, it would probably be Canada.
And what of Barbados? Friends and family assume this is an extended vacation, my Caribbean Covid plan. I have not been born into my relationship with it, so it is the first country that I have actually chosen.
Time will tell. The numbers don’t need to add up. I am Canadian, I am Finnish and now I am a little bit Barbadian.