100% Finnish. 100% Canadian. Or Bajan?

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.

Yup. No measurable amount of anything but Finnish.

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.

My mother (the youngest) with her parents and 4 of her 5 siblings.
Tarmola, Ontario, ~1930

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.

Sauna at my cousin’s in Finland. Behind me is the lake.

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.

Can I find a traditional Finnish sauna in Barbados? Yes. I can!

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.

A few ingredient substitutions and none of my Finnish serving dishes, but mostly traditional Finnish food at Christmas Eve

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.

4 thoughts on “100% Finnish. 100% Canadian. Or Bajan?

  1. Very interesting to read your story.  My father moved to Canada with his parents as a child.  His father returned to Finland after retirement.  My father visited Finland but stayed in Canada.  In spite of years abroad,  I am Canadian in so many ways, and my wife who is from Japan has mostly acculturated to Canadian life.  We love nature and appreciate the comfort and safety of life here, but it’s also “American” here, materialistic and wasteful, with a growing gap between rich and poor and shameful stewardship of the environment.  I am retired this year, and my wife is in a couple, and we’re actively preparing to move to Finland in a few years, and this move will likely be permanent.  Finland isn’t perfect, but in a few basic ways, life may be better there for us.   It has  “jokamiehenoikeus” and proper bike paths, and more social equality, more livable cities and better housing.   It is not culturally diverse, but it has lots of rye breads and piimä.   We want a simple life, far away from the busy and crowded clamour but with a functioning infrastructure.   This is hard to find in Canada but easy in Finland.

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    1. I agree with all your points about Finland. Being able to buy piirakkaa whenever I want is an appealing thought!

      I am still considering a move to Finland for a year, to try it out. Of course everything is dependent on Covid- right now I am staying put!

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  2. Unease withe the homogeneous speaks a great deal to how far we have traveled as a ‘world’ people. It is good and it is also good that we still have our home cultures and our identifying markers which make us homogeneously unique. 🙂 Then too we are individuals and being individuals we have the right to choose our preferred individual landscape. You are Finnish. You are Canadian. You are you. And thank you that someone like you has chosen to live in Barbados.
    Curiously, I have said often that I would make Canada my second home country if I could. I love Canada.

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