I was a bit disheartened last night.  I was feeling bored from waiting on my project supervisors to get information to me about my training sessions, and feeling bored means I had a lot of time over the weekend to be in my own head.  And that tends to make me lonely.  Not to mention, it’s really hard to keep up with friends when you’re 7-10 timezones apart.  So I joined a bunch of facebook groups and decided to take my own advice (“Say yes to [almost] everything“).  I went to a language cafe meetup with an expat group.  I thought meeting other expats, maybe making some friends, would help with the loneliness.  And maybe I could pick up on some Finnish.  Surely, other expats are struggling with the language too.

I found the Mascot Cafe, a dingy student bar across the street from the Hakaniemi market hall, and joined the Finnish conversation table.  Immediately, I was lost.  Words flew around and I could only hear a fraction of them, since the music was so loud and the space so acoustically absorptive.  Every time someone new came to the table, it was the same embarrassing situation over again: they would spew a novel at me in what seemed flawless Finnish, and I would look blank and then apologize, saying I wanted to listen and learn, and that I had only been here two weeks.  Inevitably, I got a blank stare in return, and a sort of “Oh… well then.  You should take a language course” before they turned back to the rest and I sat in mortified silence.

sunset duck

Eventually I started up a conversation (in English) with a kind Chinese man who taught me a few Finnish slang phrases, and then we gave up and moved to the English table.  I had a decent conversation with two Finnish men and an American, although in hindsight I wonder why the Finns were at an expat meetup.

Around 9:45, the four people who had been willing to talk to me got up and left suddenly, and I found myself having a rather forced conversation with a Finn (I think) and a German.  They were nice enough, but there was no mutual interest, and I excused myself politely when I saw the chance.

Walking home in the twilight, I felt very dejected and began questioning myself.  If I couldn’t bond with fellow expats, how would I be able to make any friends here?  Why were they acting so cold towards me?  Was it me?  Was I breaking some kind of unspoken etiquette?  I thought I was getting ahead of the game by joining groups and getting out there to learn the language.  But I got the cold shoulder for it.  Were you not allowed to call yourself an expat if you haven’t been in the country that long?  Most of the people I managed to speak with had been here for years, and had studied Finnish in their home countries before coming here.  Maybe they didn’t want my type in their group–eager but naive–and maybe they already had their group dynamic the way they wanted it.

In any case, it was depressing.  I tried to think back and remember if I had felt this way in London.  I think I did, but not as much because I was busy as soon as I arrived, and I had twenty automatic new friends in my programme.  It’s much harder to make friends when you move alone across the world to be a grownup instead of a student.  This morning on my way to the university, I also realized that I had been feeling defensive about my lack of language skills.  I had been told to go to another table, for a language I could speak well.  I said I could read a little bit of French and Dutch, but not speak either of them passably.  I tried to make a joke and said it was my terrible American accent–it made French sound like I was trying too hard.  No one laughed, they just looked at me judgingly.  I wanted to say that it’s hard, when you grow up in the States, to learn another language well.  I wanted to argue that the education system is all wrong and doesn’t put enough emphasis on functional second language skills, that no one told me four years of Latin isn’t going to do you any good in the real world.  (To be fair, people probably did say that, but they still let me take the courses.  And my friends who took 4 years of French, Spanish, and German can speak less of those than I can speak of Latin.) I wanted to argue that except for Spanish in the South, there isn’t really a need or a purpose for knowing another language, and geographic isolation is a powerful thing.  I wanted to argue that there’s a critical period for learning phonemes: the brain goes through a pruning phase in development and will save the sounds from the languages you know as a child, making it neurologically nearly impossible to learn another language perfectly as an adult, because you can’t hear or reproduce the sounds.  I thought, if I had studied French a little more, I could speak it passably.  If I practiced.  But why didn’t I ever want to practice?  If it’s okay for most of the world to be unable to pronounce the English ‘th’ sound, why isn’t it okay for me to speak French with a terrible accent?  Maybe it’s just me feeling paranoid, but sometimes I sense a double standard.  The rest of the world loves to get on Americans about being unable to speak another language, but for some reason the English and Australians and Canadians get a shrug.  And Americans often aren’t given a chance to practice in an immersion setting.  In Holland, if they detect a trace of accent in your Dutch, they will switch back to English and refuse to speak Dutch with you.  I’ve heard the French tend to do that as well.  Every interaction becomes a war within yourself: do you attempt to communicate in the language of the land, and possibly be forced to switch back mid-communication because of a word you don’t know?  You risk the “stupid Americans, can’t learn another language properly” stereotype.  Or the “stupid Americans, trying too hard with their terrible accents.”  Or do you give up and do the whole thing in English, almost guaranteeing the “stupid Americans, can’t bother to even try another language” stereotype?  I was sure I had incurred all of those stereotypes at once, and probably a few more, at this meetup.


Today I began to think of it a different way.  What did these people have in common?  They were joining together to emphasize their alienness, but some of them have been in Finland for a decade!  Then I realized that maybe this isn’t the approach for me.  I want to integrate myself into the city and its culture, and become part of it.  I want to find a home.  And I realized that you can’t search for a new home if you’re constantly looking back at the one you left.  It’s a completely different mindset.  I’m not an expat, I’m an immigrant.  I’m not focusing on what I’ve come away from, but instead I’m looking toward where I’m going.  

ochre close

And with that fresh, positive outlook in mind and a gorgeous, hot and sunny summer day, I had two very successful meetings at the university.  I was anxious about it, but when I stepped into the EEG lab, it felt like home.  My work home, anyway.  And when I met the people working there as well, they were kind, interested, funny, relatable, confident, passionate, intelligent, and above all, friendly.  All of them.  They were exactly what I had been looking for in the expats.  And I’m not lonely anymore, because I get to be a part of a group that is focused on awesome collaborative research.  And that’s all I wanted all along.




Add yours →

  1. Start coming to the IESAF (https://www.facebook.com/groups/iesaf/) & expat (https://www.facebook.com/groups/45107353822/) social events & you’ll meet loads of great people. We have a really good bunch of regulars & everyone is always open & chatty.
    I was warned off the language meet-ups (having heard of similar experiences to you), but things like the pub quiz, karaoke, curry night, Nukksio walks/bbqs etc are always a real good laugh……. Also if you enjoy a drink or two, we’ve just stared running a Helsinki pub crawl – will mainly be back-packers & expats that come along, so plenty of opportunity to meet some new people & discuss our war stories (why we ended up here etc).


    • I dunno… I have no idea what Iesaf means and I’m really hesitant now. Is it just the particular group of people that come to the language cafe, or what? It seemed kind of hypocritical to me, to tell me to go take a language class first and then to say that you can’t learn it properly from classes… it’s like they just wanted to get rid of me any way they could. I thought about going to the street festival meetup later this week, but now I’m not sure.


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