Looking back now, it is amazing to think about how my entire summer in Finland evolved and only then be able to see the beginnings of the countless things I have experienced and learned along the journey. Just months ago, I filled out the application for the FUSYE scholarship with an inclination that I wanted to go somewhere that I never thought I would go. When I found the opportunities for Finland I thought exactly what my friends and family would later say when I applied – “Finland!?? What is there?” That is how I knew that I had to learn about the country. I had done some background research and that inspired me, if not solidified my compassion to truly understand what this nation has to offer. I was impressed with the staggering superlatives of the nation and intrigued by the idea of a lone nation with only 5.5 million people that could affect our world so much – yet also be so humble to largely go along with its hard work under the radar of the rest of the world’s superpowers. I felt the drive to find out how the nation worked and what made it achieve its exemplary statistics and significantly high standard of living. I knew that living there was the only way I could satisfy my desire and curiosity to learn about the nation.
At my YFU interview, filled with questioning about my lifestyle in America and what I looked for in traveling overseas, I was confident in my idea that I wanted a challenge. That is why I wanted to go to Finland. I wanted to learn about this nation that I largely never knew much about and submerge myself in this foreign culture that I had little preparations for prior to departure. I wanted to be actively learning amongst a nation with a language I have never heard along with the warnings that it was one of the world’s most difficult languages due to its lack of linguistic relatives anywhere in the world. I wanted to prove it to myself that I could make many friends and experience and learn about teenage lifestyle in a nation that is stereotypically known for being extremely shy and "silent in more than three languages". I had my lists and I had mentally prepared myself to step out of this "comfort" zone and really put myself in a situation more foreign than I had ever imagined yet. My expectations for myself were high, and I was ready for the experience of a lifetime.
Arriving in Finland was a whirlwind. Everything happened very fast and I bonded quickly with the other American scholarship students as they became my support and home away from home. Our orientations were very structured, yet, as we had learned a lot, the true experience hadn’t truly begun. Right away after moving in with my host family, I realized I had received my challenge. My host siblings were young, 8 years old and two 3 year old twins. They were as cute as can be, but past that "tip of the iceberg"I learned just how much care, attention, and patience is required for young girls.
I remained very proactive and optimistic and even through testing times, I really made the effort in myself to make every experience a learning one. The fact was that I was having the normal struggles of simply living in a foreign environment including experiencing the culture shock also with the addition of this immense lifestyle change. I was a 17 year old male teenager with a natural brother aged 16, now living in a household with girls less than half my age. I found it in myself to make the most of these challenges and I was able to pick up some Finnish as well as some newfound maturity as I figured out my role in the family. I made the choice early on that I was not going to stand to be an outsider or a guest, so I became the big brother instantaneously.
Surpassing my expectations of a challenge, I was given a true test of patience and will power to find the positive aspects in my newfound lifestyle and as the weeks went on I found the benefits to be very rewarding. I learned Finnish words, matured as a teenager and also mastered body language to communicate with my young siblings. I feel that I took my experiences in an optimistic light and in the end I came to have a love and compassion for my new lifestyle, host family, and siblings.
In terms of other expectations, I was ready for Finland to have everything close by and near – for being a small country, everything must have been only a bike trip away, right? From my Mapquest searches of my house before I traveled, I saw that I was only a few kilometers away from the city of Turku, and my grand plan was to just ride my bike and experience the life of the city! Not that it was a pessimistic realization, but I lacked the realistic idea that Finland was a spacious nation with a lot of area in between its communities. This mistake that is now laughable didn’t affect me much since I found so many great things in my own city including scenic nature routs, friends, neat places, and even historical venues – all still by bike. I was so happy to be able to learn about my own city, and even though I did travel to the city often, I made my own journeys in my own island and nearby towns just as memorable with experiences.
Before coming to Finland I was under the impression that since Finland was known for successes in English proficiency amongst its citizens that I would be able to freely go around speaking normally as if back home. Even though many friends I had met in Finland had years of experience through school, I didn’t take into consideration the fact that while Finns learn a lot of English, they rarely are able to use the language. This challenge presented me with the difficulties of breaking down my own speech (and thus realizing how difficult it is to express a thought with as little words as possible!) while also understanding a different form of English responding to me. Living in America, our culture tends to make us hide the truth, or possibly soften things. The Finns on the other hand tend to be more blunt and to the point, and this does come across with their English as well. Many instances took me by surprise when my own native language was making me barrier in a defensive since some things came across stronger than possibly the speaker perceived, or more than likely, out of the norm of ‘American’ English. The concept is difficult to fully describe, but over all, while learning Finnish, I even learned about my own language in what is meant by the words and phrases we say, and how different cultures can use them in the same way, but mean many different things. I ultimately learned the versatility of a word, and the meanings universally of complex thoughts through hearing my native language from foreign tongues.
One of the greatest impacts of my experience in Finland was the great friends that I had made in the country. I knew coming that I would have to ‘break out of my shell’ and be the outgoing one if I wanted to make friends. Although I may have had darker features than the ‘average’ Finn, I may have not have been pointed out immediately as a foreigner. I was however noticed for being different when I would walk up to a group of teens and say ‘Hi, I am Chris, and I am from Michigan in America!’ while simultaneously pointing at my city on the map of Michigan on my hand (a little trick all Michiganders use!). Many of the times the teens I met would look either petrified or just stare blankly like I was mad. It was only after a bit more talking that they really became comfortable and began asking many questions about myself and my country. This expectation from what I learned was that Finns are shy in the outset of an introduction. However, a little bit of charisma goes a long way, and conversation and friendship was then found easily. This became so true, since the friends that I made in Finland really became true friends and wanted to show me their country and introduce me to their friends and hobbies. This was one of my prominent goals and through a little effort, which, being honest, was mentally exhausting, in the end provided me with so many lasting friendships and memories that I desired when coming to Finland. Like my other challenges, I took this one with a determind mindset as well, and in the end experienced the satisfaction of accomplishment.
Finland surprised me by having so much to offer. For all of my family members and friends I will proudly emphasize how great the scenic landscapes are in the nation – from the bustling cities with impressive architecture and market squares, to the silent but overwhelming beauty of the northern Lapland regions which I was also able to discover. Through my travels by boat and train around the heart of Finland to the North, and also around the coast of the archipelago region I was able to see just how diverse this nation really is. Along with this, the weather, with its promising four seasons of beauty as well as summertimes filled with long nights, campfires, boat trips, saunas, coffee parties and berry picking shows how much cultural experiences await. Aside from the amazing physical elements of the nation, the people of Finland are also something major in which I would note. The hospitality and friendship that I received was excellent and truly provided a very positive impact on me about how the citizens in Finland take pride in their nation and their neighbours. I feel it is this reason that the country of Finland has so many impressive statistics in the world and has a high standard of living. I would advertise these great memories and experiences so that my family and friends can experience and discover the same great thing!
The FUSYE program allowed me to discover far more than I ever thought possible while pondering my initial goals for international travel. Initially, I wanted to learn of a culture that I did not know much about, yet, along with this, I gained so much more. Along side tackling the obstacles of language barriers and small cultural misunderstandings in both sides of a situation, I discovered myself analyzing the world around me, constantly creating an understanding through comparison and contrast, and ultimately gaining the skill of appreciating my world community through the observations I was able to make through the care of a new family, and many newly founded friends. The hospitality of Finland welcomed me with caring family members to true friendships that really provided me with excellent opportunities to see so many facets of the Finnish cultural spectrum. Starting from a nation that caught my eye from staggering superlatives - Even more impressive characteristics and details of the nation were revealed by living and experiencing the nation alongside real Finnish citizens who wanted me to experience the great parts of their nation along with them. Thinking back, I feel that means I had achieved my goals since a country that sounded so grand in statistics proved that they are not just by any coincidence; Finland has grown to be what it is today because of its patriotism, pride, and hospitality, all of which fully embody and symbolize what the FUSYE program has given me and many other Americans in the present and past.Writing a three page essay on Finland (... thus turning to seven... to emphasize my point) is quite a challenge since it is quite impossible to capture the true feelings and all of the knowledge, charisma, and confidence gained while living in such a situation, environment, and country. I tried my best for myself personally to keep my new life up to date with a daily online journal and even there, with hundreds of photos and stories, I do not feel that every detailed has been served the justice of its potential. Over all, I have learned so much and it proves that the only way that I can express what I learned while living abroad is sharing my stories to others and spreading the excitement of world travel. With this realization, I feel that is the true meaning and goal of the FUSYE program in the first place.