Unpacking the Problems

Before the fair maiden and I moved to San Francisco, we looked at each item we owned and interrogated it.

“Do we need this?” we asked. “When was the last time we used it?”

If our memories or an answer was unclear, then away the item went – not to the garbage, mind you (we’re more than aware of how much garbage your average American produces), but to friends, family, a donation center, or to someone on Craigslist who just couldn’t do without it. (I’m very proud that we’ve spent really almost nothing furnishing our apartment; it’s all been accumulated through exchanges and re-evaluations.)

But, as life-long Californians, we’ve always had an intuitive understanding of the weather. With climate change, the range of what “normal weather” is growing slightly, but we’ve felt comfortable always knowing what we needed to have to be prepared. (One of the last legacies of my unsuccessful tenures as a Boy Scout and a trait inculcated by an uncle who specializes in all denotations of the word “prepared.”)

This experience, this Fulbright Distinguished Award in Teaching to Finland was, obviously, a new one. Neither of us have lived outside of California for any appreciable time (save for our own global travels). Neither of us have ever lived in a mainly non-English speaking place (save for those years in San Diego, where parts of the language mix are – or were – close to 50-50.) More concretely, neither of us had ever experienced cold – true, bone-chilling, breath-taking, “Winter-is-freaking-coming” cold like this before.

Which gets us back to the opening point. It’s hard to pack, to plan for contingencies, to be prepared when the context, the setting, the expectations are so foreign. I mean, how cold is negative seventeen degrees Fahrenheit anyway? Okay, but snow boots, do I really need them? Socks: how many is enough? If each item needs to have a purpose, then that requires at least an initial understanding of the work that the item can, would, or should do. (This glosses to me, at least at this point, punch-drunk from plane travel, as something akin to Heidegger’s “present-at-hand” from The Origin of the Work of Art.)

And this is completely neglecting to explore and discuss the many agonizing moments evaluating what books to bring. I’m an English teacher by trade (and, I’m told, by sentiment [and sweater collection]); I wanted to bring all the books. I was immovable and thus stymied until the fair maiden pointed out that this is close by, so I just opted for Hamsun’s Hunger (not Finnish) and a translation of the Kalevala, Finland’s ancient oral heroic narrative, which forms part of the native cosmogeny and, the nerd part of my brain compels me to inform you, much of the back-end for Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.

Of course, I’m talking about more than just my packing problems – although they were serious and myriad, involving crises and serious reflection (until we quit and just opted to pay the baggage overage fee). The same issue permeates our whole time here and, vitally for the reason I’m here, the project I aim to do.

I know I’ve promised to expand more on the exact nature of my project and I will, but for now its minutia are secondary. Essentially, it examines what it means to be Finnish for Finns. I’m interested – and have been, I’m coming to realize – in various nested layers of identity – gender, race, creed, of course, but also political affiliation, subculture, adherence to a indeterminate and self-created diffuse community. That question is an infinite one.  Once I make any forward progress, subcultures or enclaves will spiral out. Culture is not fixed or discrete or clear or limited. It is, like all human experience expansive and uncertain and shifting and growing.

So, the best advice then is returning to my malaproped Heidegger. The best way to understand Finnish identity is to be present in it. Because it is an expansive and shifting concept, the only way to “capture” what it means per se if via participation, experience, evaluation of the close and immediate. The specifics of how to do that, I’ll leave for a later time. But in a word: engage.

I think I can do that.


3 thoughts on “Unpacking the Problems

  1. This is a great introduction to your journey. It smoothly and effortlessly showcases your background, initial struggle, and gives an idea of what is to come.
    I would just like to finish by reminding you that a similarity between cultures and lifestyles, is just as important as a difference. Focus not only on the differences, but also the similarity, and how they maintain them in their vastly different climate, geological location, and political/economic stability (if these differ).

    I am very excited for more posts to come, so keep up the great work!
    -Ben Pearson


    1. Ben:

      A very thoughtful response. Yes, I think you’re right: the similarities are often as or more important than the differences. You touched a little bit on the underlying premise of my project. Finland is a young democracy (1917 was their declaration of independence) and they were founded less on religious or ethnic grouping and more on geographic and ideological bases. (The other country I’ve spent some time in and researching, Israel, shares many other qualities with Finland, like compulsory military service, for example, but was founded on religious & “ethnic” principles.)

      I’d be curious to see what you (and your peers) think the similarities are between a relatively liberal state like CA (in the context of the greater U.S.) and a relatively liberal country like Finland (in the context of the greater E.U.).



  2. It’s a manic-depressive climate all right: the darkness in the winter is the worst feature for me (and you never know about Helsinki winter: wet, windy, cold, snowy, wet, windy, cold etc. etc.) And then you get the Nordic summer madness with the amazing burst of energy and nature – and even in Helsinki almost 20 hrs of daylight. It’s certainly not dull…


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