Thursday, November 12, 2015

Loss of a Language

There's a special type of shame an immigrant feels as she returns to the homeland, attempts to speak, and sounds like a moron. Every time I go to Finland, my mouth is at first incredibly clumsy. I struggle piecing together a sentence of more than three words. Those four, five syllable words, that the Finnish language is so abundantly blessed with, get stuck in my throat and come out mangled and maimed. All the conjugating just kills me.
Humans have migrated since the dawn of time. There's nothing special about leaving one's country. But unlike most immigrants, I left alone, with no one to speak my language to where I went. It was the prehistoric times before smart phones and social media - I didn't even have a laptop! Without Skype or Facebook newsfeed, my exposure to Finnish was close to none. My brain deemed it a thing of the past, and began letting go. I'd once known this language inside and out, confident of comma rules like a little nerd. I'd enjoyed its nuances and quirks, expressed myself and identified with it. Now, fresh off the plane in Helsinki, I stutter at the train station ticket counter, and raise eyebrows buying a pre-paid SIM card. There's something wrong with her is written all over the faces of those I encounter.
To make matters worse, I don't always remember or know how things work. The conductor has to explain the transfer several times before I get it. I arrive at the supermarket cash register with my vegetables unweighed, and hold up the line. I'll never forget the time I was stuck at a train station without cash - they wouldn't accept my 200 Euro bill. My money was no good at a grocery store, nor at a bar. All it got me was suspicious looks and runaround. Finally a kind taxi driver took me to a big supermarket equipped with bill scanners. Feeling lost and humiliated, I promptly burst into tears on the backseat. There's no place like home.
Until it happened to me, I didn't think a few years abroad could have such an impact. Why would anyone believe I wasn't faking it, then? Ah, she moved to America, and now she thinks she's better than us, I imagined people imagining.
The scenario repeated itself throughout the years. I landed all embarrassed, then got cozy with the language, and even learned a new word or two. (Such as some, pronounced saw-meh. Get it? It's short for social media.) As soon as I gained some confidence, it was time to leave. I'd return in a year or two, back in square one.
Nearing the ten year mark of immigrant life, I was done with the shame. I decided my shaky Finnish was excused once and for all. Now, I stutter with my head high. What a relief.

This past summer, I visited Finland with my Swiss boo. We planned to spend a day in Helsinki, then visit my family in the East of the country. There, we'd rent a big-ass RV and drive up to Lapland, loop around the Atlantic coast of Norway, and return via Sweden. I'd never brought anyone to Finland, and I was excited to see the place through the eyes of a tourist. It had been two years since my last visit, and the thought of pronouncing those long words and filling in the clueless foreigner was enough to tire my tongue.
"I'm not going to be your damn translator", I told the boyfriend. "Speak for yourself."
And what do you know: we received excellent service in English everywhere we went. The level of skill was what I'd expected, but the willingness to engage was a pleasant surprise. Scandinavia switched to relaxed and friendly English without missing a beat.
"How long have you been abroad?" asked the RV rental guy.
"Twelve years."
"Wow. No wonder."
That bad?
Back in the hometown, a friend's uncle offered a blunt analysis of the state of my mouth.
"Oh yeah, you've got that Yankee accent. T's and D's blend into one. My daughter sounds just the same."

Three months later, I returned to Finland in an entirely different state of mind. I entered through the door of my childhood home, leaving it cracked open for Death. Graciously, she waited outside for some hours so I could spend a little time with the living. Then she quietly let herself in.
Since I hadn't been gone for long, getting my Finnish on was easier than ever. For what I lacked in fluency, I made up in not giving a fuck. If I could make myself understood, it was good enough for me. By now I knew returning my Finnish to its former glory would require months of constant exposure - and double that time for tactful writing, or reading anything beyond a magazine without constant retakes.
In my old bedroom, I dug into the closet for some vintage treasures. It turns out I was an avid writer around the age of seven. I authored several books, made out of scrap paper, with plot lines varying between remotely clever and downright bizarre. To boost my credibility, I'd thrown in some fancy grown-up words, the meaning of which I hadn't quite understood. From there the learning curve went up, and it went down. Now I'm back to not having the complete command of any language.
At the morgue, I placed two white roses inside the casket, on behalf of my sister and I. Rest in peace dear Dad said the little card. I'd written it in the language of my childhood, so my Dad would better understand.
"Could we have a moment", I asked the staff, so my mother wouldn't have to speak.
"Of course", they said, and stepped outside.
In this most surreal of situations, I felt a misplaced jolt of pride for having so eloquently cleared the room. I was quite the linguist.
One of those days, my sister had a strange outburst. She accused me of being rude and bossy. I was at a loss. She gave me an example.
"Can you see if Mom needs help outside, since you have shoes on?" I had said, in a totally unacceptable tone.
True, I hadn't said 'please', since such a frivolous word did not exist in Finnish. I shrugged the incident off as a bout of death induced stress.
On the train to Helsinki, I had what Oprah calls an Aha! moment. When asking my sister to step out I'd translated the request into Finnish word by word. CAN YOU SEE IF MOM NEEDS HELP. It didn't work that way. The result was too formal. To me it sounded polite and proper, to her it came across as demanding.
I thought I was all fluent and shit. In reality, I'm tone deaf.
A while back, a Finnish expat blogger was wondering if one's first language could ever be replaced by another. I thought of replying, but coining up a coherent response in Finnish felt too difficult. Doing it in English, I feared, would have seemed pretentious and self-serving. The answer as I know it is that without maintenance and effort, it can and it will. However, losing ground on language does not equal losing identity. The self is not married to a title, a profession, a nationality. I am my thoughts and my beliefs, but the language in which I dress them is irrelevant.

The edge of Finland is not the airport. Finnish chatter accompanies me all through the first flight, out the plane and into the terminal. There it disappears like ashes into the wind, eluding me until the next visit. Before that, a few words may tease my ear on a Manhattan street, or the tourist trail of Southeast Asia.
Finnish thoughts pop into my head, becoming less frequent by the hour. In two days, they're gone.