Of Diaspora and Me

Québec City seen from Île d'Orléans

I'm sitting in a bus with someone I vaguely know, having a chit-chatty conversation in English. After a moment of silence this person starts speaking again, this time in French:

"You know Melissa, you really have to start speaking French. You're in Québec now, in here we speak French. It's not any harder than Spanish, Italian, German or any of those languages. You just have to start talking."
"All diasporas are unhappy, but every diaspora is unhappy in its own way", as my favourite literary theorist Vijay Mishra puts it by mimicking the famous opening sentence of Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina. Anyone who has been even vaguely around me during the past spring semester is aware that my Bachelor's Thesis was about this very topic - not due to any selfhelp-therapy-reasons, but out of pure academic interest. However, now that I find myself more or less dislocated, it feels natural to return to the topic from a more personal point of view (by ruthlessly quoting myself from aforementioned thesis).

Diaspora - a sense of existent or imaginary cultural dislocation - is a phenomenon which applies to masses and individuals on the moment of migration: cultural clashes create readjusted and redefined cultural identities as solid habits, traditions and values are getting inevitably questioned. To live in diaspora is to live displaced. The people of diaspora are more or less migrants, drifters, travellers and people with a problematic understanding of ”homeland” and ”belonging”. Whether the dislocation is an existent state or an imaginary displacement, ”a sense of self-imposed exile” (thnx Mishra), it affects an individual's positioning within their own culture as well as their perspective of the postmodern, globalized world.

Diaspora is to leave your homecountry to escape the terrors of war to an unknown land, as much as it is to sit next to a local and get lectured about my imagined reluctance to integrate into their culture. It's the clash that happens when the culture you're living in is no longer your own, it's the hunch of discomfort and fear in your stomach as you're willingly or unwillingly stepping out of your comfort zone. It's the opposite of filtered Instagram-pictures and #wanderlust hashtag - it's what they don't tell you about migration.

Canada is my Terra Incognita, the Land Unknown - for a Syrian refugee it's something else. Every diasporic experience is different, but the very fundamental feature of all these experiences is the sudden lack of contextual knowledge and understanding of cultural resonances needed to fully adapt to the new environment. Here, have an example:

This is a picture of me lying in a pile of corn leaves. Corn tastes good. However, I must've made an amazing impression on my mother-in-law when she handed me a corn and I proceeded to ask "So uhh.... How does this work?"

Never before had I thought about it, but now that I encountered such a situation, I found out I have no idea how to handle corn.

I ask a lot of questions. Questions that make my quebecois partner look at me with a weird face and go "...huh?". So far I can remember asking the following huh?-questions:

1. "But how does the state know you've moved if you don't send an announcement about your new address to the postal office of Canada?"
2. "Can't you just go and vote anywhere in the city during the pre-election dates?"
3. "But how on earth are you supposed to wash your windows if you can't OPEN THEM?"
4. "How can you ever receive mail that's in an A4-sized envelope if your mailbox can only fit postal card-sized mail?"
5. "... You don't lock your front door for the night?!"
6. "How come you can only make a new rental agreement once a year in July??"
7. "You don't get money from returning old glass bottles?"
8. "......... You don't use a knife?"

I have no idea how this society works. In Finland I return my old wine bottles and get 20 cents in return, keep my front door locked at all times and happily open my double-glazed windows so I can wipe them. I stand silently in an elevator and seek for the last empty seat in a bus to avoid sitting next to a stranger. I forget to say "please" and ask "Ça va?". I use a knife. I eat a salty breakfast. I fucking love my salty breakfast.

Diaspora is not about going for an exchange semester in Leicester to rave in The Revolution on New Walk every Friday. It's about the helplessness you feel when you face the everyday reality of a society that isn't yours, and suddenly you feel like a second-class citizen. You're excluded. Diaspora is about getting dislocated, literally and figuratively. A semester in England with all its International Offices, tutors and mandatory orientation soirees could never have prepared me for the solitary life of an immigrant, who tries to ramble on with her life even when she's standing in front of her bank's office with an actual 90's-style cheque from her employer in her hand. Seriously Canada, cheques?

There is nothing to hang on to. The cities look different, the culture is different, you're afraid to open your mouth in the fear of saying something inappropriate (to this day I'm still not sure if I should in any circumstances refer to Quebeckers as Canadians). No matter how much you enjoy adventuring, exploring and get positively surprised when people start chatting with you in an elevator or when suddenly no one owns Marimekko, at times you get this little feeling of helplessness.

A very English cityscape from Shakespeare's hometown, Stratford-Upon-Avon, UK.
Good news: it won't last forever. One's cultural identity is an ever changing pallet of evolving, transformation and crises. We indeed have a shared history, a past, with a certain community and this history can hide in the core of our very (Finnish) cultural identity, but the relationship we have with this history can be redifined, questioned and even denied. The approach we have to our own communal culture can be readjusted by the way we position ourselves in relation to this history. I develop my identity by questioning, redefining and rejecting the images I have of my own individual or collective cultural identity as a part of the Finnish society. I see, I compare, I realise the differences and assimilate new habits in relation to my new cultural environment.

A migrant's cultural identity becomes a hybridized mosaic of fragments, a mosaic where I might forget to say please, but still frequently exclaim "cheers" as a remnant from my times in Leicester - and who knows, maybe after a year in Québec I've gotten hooked to my overly sugared breakfast cereals and caramel paste. This is hybridity: it's what happens when we start to assimilate features from the culture we have migrated into, blending these features with the ones we already hold.

One day I might hold a different citizenship. On that day I might look at myself from the mirror and see all the rambling, the diaspora and the past dislocation, but I will no longer forget to say my "please".
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What's up?

I'm an immigrant. I live the life of an immigrant, which is, for obvious reasons, rather different to the one I led in my dear old Finland.

Or is it really?

I've reached a point where I feel like my integration to the local society has come to a pretty comfortable state: I have a job, a bank account, a phone number, a bus card, a fidelity card for my nearby grocery store, I even do volunteer work for the local cultural centre every other weekend. I take the same bus 800 to work every day at the same time, at 7:33 from St-C.-Garnier to Univ. du Québec, work 8-16.30 from Monday to Friday, life has gotten really ordinary. There's a certain kind of excitement in living an ordinary life in an unfamiliar place, where your every ordinary day still feels like yet another adventure to the unknown. I step into the bus 800 at 07:33 and say "Bonjour!" to the driver, and everytime I open my mouth I'm afraid of how it will sound this time. Is my pronounciation of my nemesis, the letter "R", even slightly in place? What if my bus card has ran out of trips and I don't have 3,25 dollars to pay for my journey? What if today, when I'm going to the pharmacy to buy myself a new bus card, I forget how to speak French, or what if the cashier tries to small-talk with me again and I'll just look and feel stupid like I do everytime I don't understand the immensely difficult quebecois accent?

But outside of all these questions of my everyday life's little struggles, the life is really ordinary. I've gotten a few frequently repeated questions from people on the other side of the Atlantic, and instead of always answering something short and general to everyone, I'll do my best in answering these questions with a great attention to detail.

1. How's your French? Do you even speak it? I thought you studied Russian.

Now that you brought it up, yes, I miss Russian. Every muscle in my mouth wants me to speak Russian when I go on autopilot on the streets and someone suddenly starts to talk to me (because like said, that's what quebeckers do). Many times I've accidentally answered "Да", as many times as I've wanted to avoid the Rrrr-ed word "Bonjour" by going with the surprisingly more comfortable "Здравствуйте". To me, Russian is my The Foreign Language. It's the language I speak more or less, with occasional struggles though, the language in which I still have to stop and think a little of what I'm saying, but while listening to Putin's annual speech, I'm able to catch the drift. It's not like English, which I use comfortably enough to love in this language, or which I use to talk in my sleep nowadays. (these two aspects became poetically combined in a situation where I tried to stop Alex from going to work in the morning by grabbing his hand in my sleep and saying "Please don't go. I love you".) I'd still love to go and do an exchange semester or an internship in Russia to make sure I'll one day master the language I enjoy the most.

But when it comes to French, things get a little tricky. My love is not as sincere, it's even a little forced. I took 2 courses of French during my last year of uni and that's it - that was my level of French when I landed in Montréal. I've heard all these stories about people learning languages by immersion, and to be honest, I'd like someone to tell me how the fuck these people manage to do that.

I've come to terms with l'accent quebecois. I can handle the jaw that seems to be moving in ways that shouldn't be possible for the human physiology. I listen to them speak and I understand 50% of the things I hear if the said person speaks with a clear voice and loudly enough (i.e. mumbling to your stereotypically Canadian beard is not cool, guys). I'm able to make sentences if forced. I'm more afraid of speaking than actually not being able to speak, and it's impossible to say whether it's because of my own strive for perfection or my prejudice against French-speaking people being compassionate about foreigners trying to rape their language. At this very moment I'm still a little bit afraid to go to the pharmacy and tell the cashier "bonjour, je vais prendre une carte de bus, douze fois s'il te plaît". I often amuse people with my perfect pronounciation of the famous swear "tabarnak", while I still struggle with my favourite word, "aspirateur".

Dear French, I know you're not like Russian and you'll never be, but I want to get to know you. You sound nice but you're a shitty thing to pronounce. Give me some time.

2. Have you found work?

Photo from Activision.com
As a matter of fact, I have - for 2 months at least, since it's a temporary contract for now. I work for Beenox, a videogame company responsible for the development of products from Activision Blizzard. That's pretty much everything I'm allowed to say, since my obligation to confidentiality is close to the one of the FBI (which is also why there is no demonstrative picture). Most of my work happens in English, but my colleagues are native French-speakers (with an admirable level of English, merci my dear fellows). I really love it there. The days are long and at times I'm exhausted from all the concentration that comes with working in an environment with an advanced-level linguistic immersion, but I don't think I've ever enjoyed more being in a job where I have to face clear zero customers per day. Videogames are cool and Activision is cool.

Afterwards? No fucking idea, once again. Life is an adventure.

3. Are you still with Alex?
This is a funny question, and a bit on the private side too, but I'll answer it nevertheless. I understand your concern - I mean, we met on an exchange semester, spent 11 months in a hardcore long-distance relationship, and then I ended up moving halfway across the globe to be with him during the last year of his uni, so we could move together back to Europe next autumn. The odds are always a little against us, BUT. The odds don't overrun the fact that we still ended up being in a long-distance relationship for 11 months, during which the longest time spent apart was 4 solid months between January and May. It also doesn't overrun the fact that I have, after all, moved on the other side of the world.

I wrote a little love letter for him once at the end of our semester in Leicester. The last chapter of this little piece of poetry will serve as my answer to this question, despite the overly cheezy and possibly even a little embarrassing atmosphere I'm about to create by sharing it here. Brace yourselves:

   My life with you is a travel. You take me to an excursion to myself, you make me discover parts of me I didn’t know exist. I might have sat next to you on the rocky wall of that fort in Marseille, staring at the horizon of the Mediterranean Sea, the southern wind in my hair and salt on my skin, but of all the places I have seen with you, the things I find when I stare into your eyes are the most breathtaking of all.

 The answer to this question is Yes, Yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes like Molly on the last page of James Joyce's Ulysses. Yes, I am still with him.

4. Do you miss Finland?
The picture above would suggest that balancing in the nature is what Finland is to me. What Finland is to me, though, is a country that brought me up. I was raised in the Finnish cultural context, I've assimilated Finnish customs, I am a Finn. English might be the language that has been titled as my mother tongue more than once since I arrived to Québec, but I still, regardless of the situation, always count in Finnish in my head.

Before Leicester I thought Finland is boring. The culture is boring, the people are a bit boring too, the weather sucks and there's too much Iittala in every home. I wanted to get out really badly, swearing I'd never miss anything I left behind.

That was, of course, very naive of me. I enjoy the fact that I don't live there at this time, and I don't have any intentions in doing so in the near future. But moving abroad to broaden your own understanding of cultures, customs, people and life in general has never been the binary opposite of appreciating where you come from. I'll share a little concrete example here in the form of a discussion between two approx. 13-year old Finnish girls I once overheard in a tram in Helsinki (I assume they were students from the nearby international secondary school) after I had just returned to Finland from my 8 months in Leicester:

Girl A: So uhh, are you like completely a Finn or are you from somewhere else...?
Girl B: No, I'm not a Finn. I'm 1/16 Finnish-Swedish.
Girl A: Really? That's so cool! So like, do you speak any Swedish?
Girl B: Yeah, I can say "Jag heter...", it's like "My name is". and I can say "Hej!" and "Tack!"
Girl A: That's so awesome!
Girl B: How about you, are you a Finn?
Girl A: No, I'm also 1/16 Estonian.
Girl B: Oh wow! Hey, say something in Estonian!
Girl A: I don't know any Estonian....
My grandfather is a Swedish-speaking Finn. My great aunt is Russian. But I happen to be a Finn and it's cool. It's cool to come from a country with a good reputation abroad - it's a sign of good education, possibly a great skill in languages, awesome "Scandinavian" culture that becomes more and more trendy all the time. Finland has given me enough in this life for me to be able to leave it, knowing that if I ever fall and need a cave to crawl into, Finland is waiting for me with open arms and free healthcare.

I miss Finland at times. I miss the silence. I miss how I can maintain my resting bitchface without getting asked if I'm alright dear. I miss the absolutely amazing public transportation system of Helsinki (there are still things to develop for sure, but in here it's no surprise if the bus is 25 minutes late on a daily basis). I miss my weird-ass language with its weird-ass expressions. But at this very moment of time and space, Finland is not the place for me to be.

5. Do you plan on staying in Canada for good?

Canada is absolutely breathtaking. The nature leaves me in awe everytime I put my foot out of the city and the people are as polite as all the stereotypes make you think. Despite the non-European atmosphere from architecture to city structures I've taken for granted all my life, I feel like I've settled in here rather well. Actually, I'd like to share this piece of artwork with you as a way to sum up my feelings about Canada. (side note: quebeckers don't like the Canadian national anthem. They have their own unofficial anthem "Gens du Pays" by Gilles Vigneault and Gaston Rochon. Listen to it HERE)

But no, I don't intend to stay in here for good. Why? Because I'm participating a mobility program called SWAP Working Holidays, aimed for university students and newly graduates to go and work around the world for a year with a work permit. My SWAP Canada visa is valid until the 23rd of June 2016, after which I'll have to return to Finland at least as a courtesy. My better half has also expressed his desires to leave the country, so who am I to disagree.

Instead I plan on applying for several MA programs for September 2016. Right now my destination seems to be Ireland instead of the UK due to their new, conservative-lead immigration policy which makes it almost impossible for my Canadian companion to study in the country. Besides, we're both in love with Dublin. Sláinte!
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