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.
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.
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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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