The Displaced Nation

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What the Finnish Spring can teach us about expats and politics

SPECIAL TREAT FOR TDN READERS: Anu Partanen, though she’s currently on the road, has promised to “come in” and respond to your comments and questions over the next few days. So, ask away!

Anu Partanen has done the impossible. She has made me care about the Finnish Spring, and I’ve never once been to Finland.

No, we’re not talking travel here, though I’d love to go to her country someday and see the ice melt and the vivid violet sinivuokko push their way through the leaves.

Rather, I refer to Finnish politics. Partanen wrote an op-ed that caught my eye in the May 13 edition of the New York Times. It was about Finland’s parliamentary elections, which took place with the arrival of the sinivuokko, on April 17 — the outcome of which, she claims, is the Finnish equivalent of the Arab Spring.

No, the Finns did not have any armed uprisings, just a quiet, proper democratic election. But the results were just as revolutionary:

Overnight, Finland seemed transformed from possibly the most sensible, even boring, country in Europe — known for excellent schools, zero corruption, gender equality, and a pro-European Union approach to politics — into the nationalistic, populist, Euro-skeptic home of the True Finn Party.

The only thing is, I haven’t quite decided yet what to make of the True Finns. According to Partanen, as an American, I “might consider them the equivalent of Tea Partiers (if they didn’t support the welfare state, that is).”

Most significantly, the True Finns will do anything they can to block Finland from contributing its share to bailing out bankrupt European countries — Portugal being the latest example, following on the heels of Greece and Ireland.

Notably, Partanen, too, admits to some ambivalence about the European experiment, for the first time in her life:

Myself, I’ve benefited a great deal from the European Union — I’ve studied abroad, traveled easily, enjoyed a strong euro. … Yet I was shaken when I learned that we Finns were supposed to lend money to Greece. It didn’t seem fair that my taxes would go to a country that had been living beyond its means.

Political voyeurism

But another big reason why I’m so captivated by Partanen’s take on Finnish politics is that she’s an expat based in the United States. Currently living in Brooklyn, she continues to work as a journalist for several Finnish publications. In addition, she is writing a memoir about being Scandinavian in America.

Partanen told me in an email exchange that the book is still in the early stages. I’ll be curious to see what it has to say about the challenge of participating in home-country politics from a distance.

That was something I used to think about a lot during my own expat years. If you care about the politics of your home country — as Partanen clearly does, as I did — then why aren’t you living there? Unlike me, Partanen keeps a foot in Finnish politics by continuing to write articles for the national media.

Still, it must be strange for someone as highly politicized as she is to be in the United States while an important debate is taking place about what kind of country Finland is, and wants to be.

In her Times op-ed, Partanen mentions that although she has offered her couch in Brooklyn to friends from home who would like to become political refugees, as yet no one has taken her up:

…my friends in Helsinki seem to be deciding that this is no time for retreat. Instead they’ll stay to help determine the future of their country.

Hmmm… Is that a reason why, despite my love of living overseas, I eventually bit the bullet and came back to the United States?

Politics not as usual

By the same token, Partanen shows us that living abroad can help you see your own country’s politics, and those of other nations, in a new light. Domestic politics can be very village like, and in my experience, it’s not until you step away from the village tribe that you begin to discern your own beliefs.

As already mentioned, Partanen has discovered since leaving Finland that she has developed some sympathy for the idea of setting limits on how much of its wealth Finland should share with other Europeans.

In her Times article, Partanen suggests that her position may have something in common with that held by the Americans who’ve expressed a reluctance to contribute to universal health care. Noting that America is twice the size of the European Union, she says:

It’s not quite parallel, but if Finns were asked to contribute to the health care of the Greeks, the Irish, and the Portuguese, they might feel a little like the Americans.

My experience is rather different from Partanen’s: I was an American living abroad, first in England and then in Japan, which meant listening to everyone excoriate the United States. But like her, I found that getting physically outside of my country was a stimulus to thinking outside the box and deciding on my own core truths — never mind what the mainstream parties and their media outlets (the village elders) kept telling me to think.

Also like Partanen, I moved further to the right (I hope she won’t mind me using that term) — but not on universal health care. I benefited from socialized medicine in both the UK and Japan so can be counted as a fan of Obamacare, though I do wish it included a public option.

What I came to appreciate much more fully was the tough role the United States has been assigned in world affairs. I can’t tell you how many times I felt like saying to the European and Asian critics who accosted me: “You try policing the globe, and see how much you enjoy it!”

(There were of course far more European critics than Asian ones. The Japanese, though they don’t relish the thought of our Marines continuing to be based on Okinawa, see it as their best hedge against, among other things, the wacky North Korean leadership.)

Now, that’s a true political awakening — call it an Expat Spring.

* * *

Question: How about you? Are you an expat, and if so, what’s your relationship with your home country’s politics — do you remain involved, and have you adjusted any of your basic political beliefs since going abroad?

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14 responses to “What the Finnish Spring can teach us about expats and politics

  1. Karen May 27, 2011 at 2:18 pm

    I was raised in a highly political family, as both of my parents were elected to office back in the day (State Rep and State Senate for my Dad and City Council for my Mom). It would be unthinkable for me not to care about my nation’s politics no matter where I lived. It’s my responsibility and privilege as an American citizen. People gave their lives over multiple generations so I could do so!

    The beauty of being an expat is sometimes you get to experience the incredible gifts America has given other peoples (I attended the FIVE DAY! celebration of the American liberation of Plsen, Czech Republic, for example). I also get to hear first hand the views of people who have only skepticism about my country and its foreign policy. (All of my Turkish friends believe Osama Bin Laden is not a real person. I keep telling them it would be impossible to keep a secret across two parties like that in the United States but they don’t believe me.)

    I am soooooooo much more aware and global in my citizenship due to being an expatriate. I can’t recommend it enough and yet only 20% of Americans have a passport.

    • ML Awanohara May 27, 2011 at 3:13 pm

      @Karen
      Interesting what you say about being raised in a political family. I wasn’t. My interest in politics came much later — largely as the result of living abroad. That said, I eventually came to see the expat life as something of a political vacuum.

      Camden Luxford has written very eloquently about this issue on the Matador site, in an article entitled “Expatriatism as Political Revolution”(January 10, 2011).

      She talks about how removed she has become from her native (Australian) politics, reporting that she didn’t bother voting in the 2010 elections:

      There’s a few reasons for this flouting of Australian electoral expectations. I’m not living in the country, and I have no plans to move back in the foreseeable future. Should my opinions on tax, health care, and energy policy really count as much as someone who is affected on a daily basis by federal government decisions?

      I could really relate to her experience. The longer I stayed abroad, the less involved I became in the politics at home. And I give Camden kudos for being brave enough to own up to her apathy (she got a lot of flak in the comments).

      Where she and I parted company, though, was in her attempt to maintain that expatriatism itself could be a positive political act in the 21st century. She argues that changes in labor mobility and in the nature of communications have enabled expats like herself to engage in a wide range of issues – local or international, home country or host country – sometimes without even setting foot in the country in question.

      Somehow that didn’t sit right with me. I think nations still matter. And that’s something I’ve learned from being abroad…

      • Kate Allison May 27, 2011 at 5:50 pm

        Political vacuum – exactly. Too long out of the UK to vote there, but not allowed to vote in US either, that’s my position. I know how the suffragettes felt now.

  2. Anu Partanen May 27, 2011 at 3:45 pm

    Greetings from Finland! I just went out for a walk by the seaside with my brother’s dog and it is soooo beautiful here right now. Everything’s green and blooming, the birch trees are white and green and it is just incredibly lovely – despite all the political turmoil going on.

    Thank you for your post, ML. Glad to hear I managed to interest you in Finland! I’ll consider that a special achievement. I have to say I’ve been quite surprised myself by how many people actually seem to be interested in my humble home country at least based on the response to my article.

    It’s fascinating to read other people’s thoughts on the matter. For me personally living in the US and working for Finland has been both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand it is somewhat exhausting and sometimes alienating to have one leg in each country and not really stand properly in either one. On the other hand it gives me a lot of food for thought when comparing the politics and collective psychology in the US and Finland. I am definitely seeing many events in Finland in a completely different light after being exposed to different ways of thinking in the US. But I also definitely still think many American ways of thinking are pretty crazy, too. I absolutely, utterly, completely still support the Finnish universal health care and find the American system in many ways terrible.

    My comment about this in the article was mainly a thought on how we’re often happy to share wealth with people we consider as “us” – the same in color, language, religion and traditions but if they live too far from us, whether it is on the other side of the US or Europe, or if they look too different, speak different language, eat different food, then we don’t feel like it’s our responsibility to share anymore. So when Finns are full of self-righteousness when comparing their own attitude towards things like universal health care to the American attitude, I do try to point out that you might not be so charitable yourself, if you had to share with someone very different from you. Which is what we are seeing in Finland and Europe right now.

    And ML, you’re certainly not alone in being baffled by the True Finns. Most of Finland is baffled by them. In some ways they are very much a left-wing populist party, advocating taxing the rich etc, but in some ways they are a very conservative group with values that are usually considered as right-wing, such as often outright racism or opposing same-sex marriage etc.

    Trying to follow the politics of your own country from abroad– now there’s an interesting topic for an expat! My main thought on that is that times they have a-changed. I lived a year in Paris 10 years ago and a year in Australia 20 years ago and in each of those cases I was completely cut off from Finland. I had no idea whatsoever of what was going on over there, and I think I also cared a lot less. Now the internet and especially Facebook have changed everything. I get almost all my Finnish news on Facebook as most of my friends are very interested in politics (as is probably obvious from my piece) and they spread the news and comment on them constantly online. That is really what keeps me in touch with the pulse of, if not the country, at least my own circles.

    Being a journalist I can also participate in the debate in Finland more than most people as I’ve been writing columns for several newspapers and magazines while living in the US. Whether those columns have any effect on anything is of course a different matter entirely – as both ML and Karen have noticed, the world has strong and often quite negative views on the US. I think many Finns get annoyed if someone like me tries to come in and tell them what I’ve learned, since in their view nothing good comes out of America.

    I do think of returning to Finland every now and then, and it did occur to me during the election fever that maybe I should return in the same spirit as the Egyptians did when they were going back home to support the revolution, although I personally would’ve returned to stop the True Finn revolution. I did vote in NYC though, of course. Luckily, my candidate did get elected.

    • ML Awanohara May 27, 2011 at 11:18 pm

      @Anu
      Your description of Finnish spring (or is it now summer?) is tantalizing. To reiterate, I hope I can see it — Finland in the spring (with small “s”) — some day… Actually, is spring the best time to visit?

      What’s more, I applaud you for trying to connect with your fellow Finns through your journalistic writings. That’s more than most of us are doing! What other “lessons” have you tried to teach them besides the analogy between Americans rejecting health care and Finns recoiling from helping Southern Europeans? I’m curious…

  3. Jeffrey May 27, 2011 at 7:02 pm

    ML has wondered if I might chime in, but I feel out of my league!

    It’s interesting what has happened in Finnish politics as it seems to be mirroring (to what degree I’m not sure) what happened in Denmark’s recent elections. Furthermore, we have France increasing border “security” with Italy because Italy can’t seem to control its international border (political refugees from Tunisia’s essential bloodless revolution?).

    I felt pretty divorced from American politics in the two times I lived in Japan. In fact, about the only time I paid much attention was during my first, short trip there in 1979. This was the summer of the second “oil shock” and Carter was shaking up his cabinet. Pre-Internet and CNN via satellite, reading the Japan Times daily and Time and Newsweek weekly made it sound like the U.S. was imploding – long gas lines every where and the government was falling apart. Of course, by the time I got home in August the most interesting thing from the summer was cheeky but flash in the pan band the Knack had released “My Sharona.”

    And with that, I say good long weekend to you all in the States.

  4. ML Awanohara May 27, 2011 at 11:21 pm

    After reading the above comments, I have two thoughts:

    1) I recall having a debate with Jeffrey once (on my other blog, Been There, Done That, Seen the Elephant) about a post that I did on the Tucson shootings. He pointed out that members of the “global elite” — that includes all of us — have more in common with each other (in terms of travels, political views, lifestyle choices, etc.) than with the folks back home. This was in the context of discussing our mutual difficulties in repatriating to the U.S. (he’d lived in Japan for a long time, and I in the UK and Japan). Now that we’re home again, we are feeling very isolated in our struggle to get used to — among other things — gun control laws that enable crazy people to buy guns, and to even crazier(?) people who support their right to do so.

    2) In the rather heated debate following Camden Luxford’s article on the Matador site — which I think is a “must read” for anyone interested in this set of topics — Camden pointed out that being from a “middle power” (Australia, and I suppose Finland, too, would be in this category?) was not at all the same as being from the United States. As an Aussie, she felt she could do more good as a global citizen than as an active participant in her home-country politics — which might not be true of expats from the U.S.

    Anu says that times are a-changing, but the upshot of both of these developments is the same: if smart people go abroad and remain only weakly connected to their nation-state politics, then who’s left at home? The Tea Partiers, the True Finns, the Little Englanders, the Japanese nationalists. In other words, all the people who think that global citizenship is a load of old rubbish and wouldn’t be caught dead with a passport (esp true in America, as Karen points out!). Such people make it their goal in life to keep out the “riff raff,” meaning anyone who looks different from them.

    And though it’s all well and good to say you aspire to be a global citizen, the fact is, global citizens don’t have much of a power base. By contrast, the people back home are able to harness the nation-state apparatus to their will and effect real (often scary!) change.

    So we come back to my original question: aren’t we (the global citizen types) letting the side down by abrogating our duties as national citizens for the sake of leading more thrilling lives? True, we become enriched by our travel experiences, but unless we “go home again” and teach others, then whom are we helping exactly?

    • Anastasia May 28, 2011 at 3:51 am

      ML I recall you mentioning that crux before at your other site — we global citizens are on our own. No power base, no representation. So, not much of a voice or impact no matter how big a picture we can see, or bring to the discussion.

      Thanks for the intriguing post, Anu and ML!

  5. Anu Partanen May 28, 2011 at 4:46 am

    Hmm, I guess I’ve never personally felt that I’m somehow responsible for keeping Finland on track. That actually seems a fairly egotistic thought to me – I don’t think a country needs one man or woman. In the case of Finland, there are plenty of smart people to go around, so I don’t really feel at all that I should stay involved in local politics as a civic duty.

    When I do think of returning to Finland, my motives are purely selfish. My life over there was way easier in many ways than my life in the US. My thought of going back to support the fight was really just an amusing comparison with much more dramatic world events elsewhere, not any serious contemplation of actually doing so at least for that reason.

    I think of myself more as a curious person who is interested in discussing the human condition and the ways of organizing the world everywhere, not within the limits of one nation state. That was one of my motivations when writing the NYT article: feeling that I can contribute to the discussion in the States, too, not just in Finland. I don’t have a strong interest in party politics as such or the politics of any particular country, just the world in general.

    It is interesting to hear you talk about feeling like you’re in a political vacuum. I’ve never felt that way, but perhaps my job as a journalist automatically gives me a sense of participating. But then, isn’t every discussion over dinner participating?

    • Anastasia May 28, 2011 at 8:25 am

      I don’t feel I exist in a political vacuum *personally* — anymore — but perhaps I still do in terms of other people.

      I know my latest round of expatriatism in Istanbul coincided with a return from apoliticism…the first political campaign I volunteered in was a Democratic primary candidacy for president. That candidate (Ret. General Wesley Clark)’s makeup and global experience (as the former commander of NATO’s SHAPE) also put me into perspective for the first time — how I could be from a countercultural, anti-war town and want a military man in the White House. I guess you could call it finding my own global American political self. And I took non-local action (I sent letters to voters and published op-ed pieces in American newspapers which mentioned my foreign residence, and my status on ‘the frontline of American foreign policy’ as a citizen abroad) from my expat home.

      • ML Awanohara May 28, 2011 at 9:44 am

        @Anastasia
        In some ways, I don’t think it’s surprising at all — your political reawakening after being abroad. I’m curious what you think the catalyst was for your transformation from anti-war Berkeley-born American into expat supporter of a former NATO commander. In my own case, I found that living outside of America gave me a more realistic sense both of the dangers that exist in the world as well as the role the United States plays in providing protection.

        By the same token, though, as I also tried to express in the post, I’ve become more critical of America’s “you’re on your own” society and our tolerance of a widening gap between not just rich and poor but the middle class and the superrich. Other cultures — particularly Japan in my my experience, but probably Scandinavia, too — get it much more right than we do.

  6. ML Awanohara May 28, 2011 at 2:38 pm

    @Anu
    I can appreciate what you say about not being personally responsible for keeping Finland on track. But my sense is that you fall into the category of “cultural bridger” — i.e, someone who gets to know other cultures so well (including mastering the language, an essential) and who communicates so well (you’re a fantastic writer!) that you succeed in making many meaningful contributions as a global citizen. That’s been true of a certain class of foreigners, of course, since time immemorial… We’re talking about the kind of people who “go native,” become bicultural, are known as country experts, etc.

    For the rest of us, though, who remain mere mortals — or expats — the situation can be trickier. I see that Kate Allison’s humble comment (above) has been overlooked so I’ll paste it in here:

    Political vacuum – exactly. Too long out of the UK to vote there, but not allowed to vote in US either, that’s my position. I know how the suffragettes felt now.

    As Kate intimates, many long-term expats reach a point where they feel like “floaters” rather than “bridgers.” Most of the time it’s okay, but then when something God-awful happens in their adopted land or their homeland — a theme we’ve been featuring this month — they feel powerless to do anything other than watch helplessly.

    Kate said she now knows what it feels like to be a suffragette. Knowing her, I’m sure she meant it tongue in cheek — but there’s truth in humor. Voting is a symbolic act (if an irrational one — a single vote doesn’t make much of a difference). And when you can’t vote in the country where you live, it can make you feel rather infantile and disempowered.

    That’s actually one of the reasons why we created The Displaced Nation — if I can now get away with making a shameless plug for our site. A home for people who feel at home everywhere and nowhere!

    While there are clearly good things about that state of mind — for a start, we eat better (or more exotically) than most, and many of us are also creative (see Kate’s novella) — I’m wondering if some of us might also regret the sense of powerlessness that prevails…?

    Goodness, that was a rather bleak ending! Maybe I should have been Scandinavian?🙂

  7. Sabrina May 28, 2011 at 5:28 pm

    Hello from England! I loved this post as it was quite timely for me. I sat fixated in front of the BBC coverage this week as Obama visited the UK. His time in London and his speeches were of particular interest. I have to admit that I am a political junkie and I have a soft spot for American politics. I attribute this to spending nearly twelve years in Washington, DC. I followed what happened on “The Hill” with a daily watchful eye. What transpired in congressional hearings directly impacted my work. Happy hours were spent with close friends who were speech writers, congressional staffers, and government employees. I have to admit that while I cherish a quieter life in England, I miss not being so close to the action. I felt my face flush as I saw Obama’s limo push through the busy streets of London this week. And, well, a bit embarrassed. Did he really need “The Beast?”

    I remain loyal to American politics. I feel guilty about this as I should be following what is happening in England as well. It isn’t that I don’t care. I do. However, to be honest, I am still adjusting to my life here. Daily activities often feel laborious at times. Following the political happenings in the US is comforting to me. At least once during my day, I log onto the Washington Post, New York Times and BBC websites.

    @ML Awanohara
    I completely agree with your comment in this post about how putting some physical distance between yourself and your country is an opportunity to consider your core truths. I have found this to be the case for me. Not surprisingly, living abroad has merely validated the ideals and morals that I hold so close.

    @Kate Allison
    I had to chuckle when I read your comment about voting. I recently went with my husband to vote at our leisure center several weeks ago. I was embarrassed to admit that I hadn’t taken the time to understand the issues in this election. I am still struggling to comprehend a completely different political system. It feels irresponsible to not take the time to learn more about the political process here. I also recognize that embracing it and deeply understanding it takes a bit of time….

    • Kate Allison May 29, 2011 at 5:37 pm

      After the last general election where the Lib Dems called the shots despite only winning the bronze medal, I’m not sure I understand the process either. Quidditch rules make more sense.

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