Personal Essay: Home
I live in a time that offers me intersectionality, representation, and understanding of fluidity as core principles for everyday life. Yet here I am, the eternal immigrant, even in for us, by us spaces.
“Am I making a fuss over nothing?”
“Am I questioning something that doesn’t need questioning?”
As many of us, I carry with me the guilt and the shame of feeling heavy whenever I speak about this: I reread it; it feels, it sounds, like a complaint. But as usual, in these equations, nothing means everything.
Are you going home soon? You must for sure miss home, don’t you? (Every festivity, every summer.)
It must be tough to like Finland when your home is so different, right? (Every trivial conversation referring to the weather.)
And so you decided to stay here and not go back home?! (After finishing my studies, after finishing my marriage, after finishing every possible life stage that starts and ends eventually.)
Five, six, seven years after moving to Finland. Same words, different people.
Always the same questions inside my head afterwards. They get more and more intense as years go by.
”Who gets to decide how many homes I have?”
”When, and where, marks the starting point when Finland becomes my home in the eyes of others? Ten, twenty years from now, perhaps?”
And most importantly: ”What lies behind these questions? What silent assumptions and implications do they contain, and what do people understand by home when they refer to mine so often, as something so remote?”
”What constitutes identity and home for an adult immigrant, and who gets to decide on that?”
Understand that home can be
a word written in singular,
yet be plural in meaning.
I was born in Venezuela, to a Spanish mom and a Venezuelan dad. As I grew up, as she grew old, my mom missed her own mom. She missed the winter, she missed her region, called Galicia, far up north, close to Portugal. My mom missed the village where she had lived as a kid, an ocean village where the houses are so humid that laundry never dries during winter; walls sweat water.
She made us follow that longing, she made us want Europe as much as she did: we moved, and I became an immigrant at the age of fifteen. The books I shipped across the ocean were the only thing that remained constant in our migration journey: houses were not the same, foods and flavors were so different, people spoke with a complicated accent; they used strange words to describe basic things like bread, boy, school. There was even a new language to be learned, Galician language. My plot was only one: I would wake up every morning really early for a year, write a book, publish it, get money, and move back to Venezuela. But I didn’t. Galicia became my home.
I moved to Finland a decade later. I was twenty-five years old. I had two heavy suitcases, eighty kilos of books (again soon to be shipped), no idea about the language, no idea about the future. I have my journal of that summer, and I go back to it often. There were no preconceptions there, nothing except blank pages, waiting to be filled. A quiet girl, sitting at Copenhagen airport, waiting for the Finnair flight connecting to Helsinki, arriving late at night in warm July.
I often reflect (and complain) about strangers addressing me in English by default, yet here is the irony: assuming that my past is far from Finland is indeed right, but does that automatically assign me only one narrative, one home, one belonging? Yes, I did not go to koulu but to escuela, I do not have a mummo but an abuela. I did not have a talvitakki until I was twenty-five years old, and the fact that there is an Armas in my name is just a sweet coincidence. When somebody asks me where I’m from, there is a home behind, or, as a matter of fact, two. Both of them pierce me with saudade, which is the word in Galician language for the fierce nostalgia of the things that will never come back.
Six and a half years later, on my seventh winter starting, I go back to that first year in my mom’s village. So far from the Caribbean sea, so far from all I knew, so far from home. And it hits me. I go back to my past, I revise it: when did I embrace a second home, a new one? How did this happen? Why was it gradually so natural for everybody around me, back then and there, to understand that home can be a word written in singular, yet be plural in meaning?
In Helsinki I have gradually realized that the question is the opposite: why does it always seem so challenging to understand that home, to me, is also here? Why can we have more than one family, but home is solely represented by the color of my skin, by the passport I hold, by the accent I have when I speak this language?
As I have recognized the challenge of belonging without being questioned, I have stumbled around trying to find community, and the challenge has become bigger, because even within us, or what I feel is us, I am sometimes carelessly excluded.
I explain it as a thread that began to slowly unravel: at the beginning, white native Finns would be the ones who repeatedly brought up my home, the home they seemed to assign me; the place to go back to. As a curious fact, many of them spoke Spanish and had lived in South America. Their memories were not only composed of experiences, but they also included belonging: they repeated over and over how now they felt they had a home across the Atlantic. It was allowed for them to find home there, but my home, in turn, could only be one, the birth one. It was puzzling, but not surprising. With their questions came my confrontation, my complaints, and my progressive exasperation, followed by the “I’m sure they didn’t mean anything bad” or the “I’m sure their intention was good”. And that’s a community there: having each other’s backs, protecting each other from all the work needed but that hardly gets done.
As my interests became wider, as my networks became richer, I came across more diverse spaces. I started living in what I thought was a blooming time for what I had been pondering for years: the belonging of those who don’t conform to what the majority looks like. The voices heard, the spaces taken: a time that started offering me intersectionality, representation, and understanding of fluidity as core principles for everyday life. This wokeness entailed something fundamental that I embraced since the beginning: critical thinking. And as we are critical, we revise our thoughts, and we also revise our activism, the notions that have been forced upon us and that we try to push away and broaden.
In these new spaces, born of shared questions that were also mine, something was and is still missing: the understanding that when we say for us, by us, this us takes many forms, and is composed of more than a common past in the same country. The understanding that the notion of us needs to be broadened, addressed, and embraced. Again, here, my background isolated me: of all the intersections that united us, the one that seemed to matter was the one that separated me.
And so, years later, my questions live here, in the empty unattended hole that the intersections leave when they touch each other. The eternal immigrant, willingly, unwillingly, and proud of it, but nevertheless wondering on a loop: can I not have more than one home? Can my identity not be as fluid and messy as I want it to be?
Is coherence in identity a privilege
reserved only to those born here?
We think of first-generation immigrants, and we think about those who already went through this journey. We talk about them and we refer to a distant past: grandmothers, maybe mothers. Yet, I am one of them, and I am very much the present.
We think of what is Finnish, and we discuss representation. Yet being and feeling Finnish also touches us, those of us who don’t necessarily have a past here.
We think about belonging, and we discuss community, embracement. But can we understand more than one narrative, can we embrace the desire of having many homes? When and where you find community, there and then you find home, but where is the community that holds my back, embraces me, and makes my struggle theirs?
Because Finland is my home, my third home. I have earned it since I set foot here, and I am owning it everyday.
Being home in Finland might not mean being Finnish, but still, don’t I have the right of representation and inclusion? A right to be seen exactly the way I am?
I share this question with all kinds of friends, and many of them fire back: why does it matter so much to you to be seen? Do you mean you want to be Finnish, when you say you are at home here? Don’t you claim to be a proud immigrant?
I ask in return: is coherence in identity, the one I live versus the one they see, a privilege reserved only to those born here, those with a standard narrative, a linear past, a journey that doesn’t include books shipped all over?
I wanted this to be a good text. A clear, coherent, concise text, one that would offer questions, but answers as well. I started writing, and the more I wrote, the more questions I had, because everything got intersected. And to those questions there were no clear cut answers but quite the opposite: I feel that in the identity journey we can never find all answers, and every single one of the ones we do find, has a question mark attached.
Intersectionality is everything but tidy. Intersectionality is not a substantive, but a verb: it puts the action to my writing, to my resistance, to my spoken words, to my activism, to the creation and exhibition of my identity.
Moving to Finland as an adult brown woman, without the support network of friends and family, without the comfort of the known language, without the necessary background to navigate bureaucracy, habits, and even seasons, is a well known journey for many. Journey, adventure, challenge, nightmare, blessing, or a bit of everything, because even within us immigrants there are intersections. Even within us immigrants, there are scales of privilege.
As a brown immigrant girl, I am at the core of many intersections. Belonging, inclusion, and a match between what I am and what is seen becomes hard to achieve, if not impossible. The thoughts are almost riddle-like: even if I never “feel Finnish”, can this anyway be home? What if I ever “feel Finnish”, will I be allowed? And what would that mean for me, a first-generation immigrant? Will I ever be taken in as “one more”? And if so, on what basis and what price? And if not, will my hypothetical children be accepted?
Text: Lois Armas
Illustration: Caroline Suinner