Monthly Archives: May 2013

How We Are Conditioned by Culture

Our family lived five years in Vietnam during the past decade. Our home was in a block of flats near the center of Hanoi. When we entered the building from the street, we first came to a spacious lobby, and then walked past the reception, where usually a young Vietnamese man or woman was standing. We would exchange greetings with the receptionist, often several times a day.

A shrine on a rocky hill in Vietnam. Photo: Maarit Suokas-Alanko

A shrine on a rocky hill in Vietnam. Photo: Maarit Suokas-Alanko

Once I walked again past the reception with my then teenage daughter. We smiled and greeted the smiling receptionist, and continued walking towards the lifts. Inside the lift we noticed how our grinning faces were looking back at us from the opposite mirror. My daughter glanced at me, and we burst out laughing. “Mom, if we continue smiling like this when we return to Finland, they will punch us in the face”, she said.

We are conditioned by culture. My daughter’s words capture something of the Finnish culture and social environment. It’s not appropriate to look too happy here. Too much smiling can be considered a sign of 1) that you are an idiot or crazy or, 2) that you think the other person is an idiot or crazy, and therefore you are laughing at them. – I am of course exaggerating a bit, but only to make the point clearer. This is a serious country, particularly in the wintertime. Try living one winter in Finland so you know what I mean.

Sitting alone in the bus

At this point I want to I emphasize – particularly to my countrymen who may be reading this and feel that I’m mocking my own country and culture – that I fully acknowledge the fact that I am writing from my very personal, unscientific, biased, and limited point of view. I also acknowledge that there are a lot of good aspects about our country, though just now I’m looking at points that are not so flattering.

Banana flowers are being sold on a street in Hanoi. Photo: Maarit Suokas-Alanko

Banana flowers are being sold on a street in Hanoi. Photo: Maarit Suokas-Alanko

Another story. One day my foreign friend living presently in Helsinki was asked to tell one thing that surprised her most when she first time came to our country.

She said: “It was the way people behave in buses, trams, and metro. Everyone avoids sitting next to another passenger as much as possible. So when you get on a bus, you may see a row of single persons sitting on window seats with empty seats next to them. It is only after all window seats are taken that people begin to sit beside someone else. In my country it is the opposite. Even if there is only one passenger traveling in the bus, you go and sit next to that person.”

This story demonstrates how we Finns show a lot of respect to the other person’s space. Everyone has their territory. Do not invade it if it is not really necessary.

Collective and personal tragedies

Most of us acknowledge that our childhood family plays a significant role in the development of our personality. However, what we often tend to forget is that we have not only been surrounded by a certain family, but also by a certain culture that has similarly shaped us, both in good and bad. Its influence is often subtler and harder to detect because it envelops us on every side, and its impact may also overlap with that of our psychological history.

Women on a motorbike near Hanoi. Photo: Maarit Suokas-Alanko

Women on a motorbike near Hanoi. Photo: Maarit Suokas-Alanko

I give you an example. I was once complaining about an unfair treatment I felt I had received in some bureau. My daughter interrupted me, saying: “Here we hear again the voice of the oppressed and shunned Sami people.” – I could not but laugh. She was right. Her humorous comment helped me to look deeper into those traces that my mother’s personal and cultural tragedy had left on my own behaviour and attitudes.

It was like my mother’s voice was speaking through my mouth. Not only her personal voice, but indeed the voice of a whole generation of Sami people who desperately had tried to integrate and assimilate – because they were not given other choice – into the Finnish society. The cost they paid was of course a lost contact to their own unique cultural heritage and roots. “You’re never really part of the pack, no matter how much you howl.” That was my mother’s story. Perhaps it is mine, too. (And by the way, that may actually explain why I write in English and not in Finnish, my first language!)

Dysfunctional strategies

In the above examples I have tried to look at cultural differences and their impact on people mainly from their humorous and relatively harmless point of view. Cultural diversity is a huge richness and a source of inspiration. But cultural practices, beliefs and attitudes can also be very limiting and downright harmful to individuals, and even to whole population groups. One needs but think of the position of women in many male-dominated cultures of the world.

I don’t pretend to be a cultural anthropologist, but perhaps you still allow me to make my own interpretations of culture’s influences on an individual, based on the observations that I have made during the fourteen years that I have lived in Africa and Asia.

I am inclined to think that some cultural practices and attitudes – like e.g. those towards women – are perhaps some kind of failed or not-very-functional attempts to fulfill the needs of societies or some population groups.

Morning exercise in Hanoi. Photo: Maarit Suokas-Alanko

Morning exercise in Hanoi. Photo: Maarit Suokas-Alanko

Our deeper needs

Let me explain what I mean by this: As I see it, on a very deep level we are all searching for similar things. We all share the same needs or longings that grow out from the depth of our hearts. We all have for example inside of us an idea of peace, love, harmony, and beauty. We all want to be accepted and respected as we are. We all want to be authentic human beings with integrity. We all have dreams and goals.

Within the framework of a certain culture, we then develop collective means to achieve and fulfill those needs. And as it can happen in the case of an individual, the solutions on a collective level may turn out to be very dysfunctional strategies.

Translated into the example of women’s position in many cultures, this might mean that certain cultural customs and practices have grown for example out of men’s need to protect the physically weaker sex. But unfortunately the intention that may have been good produces a practice that actually imprisons and humiliates women as autonomous human beings.

You may disagree with me on how I understand the deeper needs that are common to all human beings – our longings for peace, freedom, love etc. However, I think that it is more constructive and also more practical – for example from the point of conflict solution – to look at human beings through a definition that connects rather than divides us. I prefer not to see human beings within the paradigm of “good” or “bad”, “right” or “wrong”. It is our actions, our strategies – that we create to fulfill our needs or deeper longings – that sometimes fail or do not function.


The following books have given inspiration to my writing:
– A.H. Almaas, Elements of the Real in Man
– Marshall B. Rosenberg, Nonviolent Communication, A Language of Life

The Great Clock of Time

The winter is finally gone. In my country everything comes back to life again after winter – nature and people. And me. Not that I don’t live in the wintertime, but I hibernate. I don’t want to go out much. I need more sleep. I have less energy. I spend more time looking at things in the inner world – and at least for me that is the best state of mind for writing.


Winter is my survival camp. It starts around November… then comes the dark December… the cold January… and February, when everything is still covered by snow. It feels like I’m making an arduous climb over a high mountain – until I reach the top, the beginning of March, and I begin to see again the sunlit landscapes on the other side of the mountain: the long days, lingering evenings, and in the end the Midsummer’s endless white nights.

Apple tree

There is magic in this great cycle of nature, in this grand clock of time: There is a time for closing the doors and windows, and a time of opening them; there is a time for exploring the darkness, and a time for embracing the light.

Puita, valkovuokkoja

Seasons change people, just as they change the nature – at least here near the Arctic Circle. The spring has taken me away from my computer to the company of other people, to working in the garden in our summer place, to some projects that have been waiting for the energy of summer.

I haven’t been able to write recently as much as before. I will continue, but there may be some breaks. So please be patient.

See you again next weekend.

P.S. I show you some photos that I’ve taken on my daily walks – a swan couple on the lake, an old apple tree with a polypore on its trunk, wood anemones basking in the bright sunlight. Just snapshots taken by my iPhone, to give you an idea of how the nature here looks like just now, after all the snow is gone.

Reflections on Being And Transformation

There are some books, poems, and quotes that have traveled a long way with me. Today I want to share with you some of the words that have touched me, along with a few of my paintings. They are all called “Secret Writing”, and I made them when living in Mozambique.

Painting by Maarit Suokas-Alanko

Painting by Maarit Suokas-Alanko

“Self-knowing is wisdom. You may be ignorant of all the books in the world (and I hope you are), of all the latest theories, but that is not ignorance. Not knowing oneself deeply, profoundly, is ignorance; and you cannot know yourself if you cannot look at yourself, see yourself as you are, without distortion, without any wish to change. Then what you see is transformed because the distance between the observer and the observed is removed and hence there is no conflict.”

Painting by Maarit Suokas-Alanko

Painting by Maarit Suokas-Alanko

“People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an expression of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances within our innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive. That’s what it’s all finally about, and that’s what these clues help us to find within ourselves.”
Joseph Campbell

Painting by Maarit Suokas-Alanko

Painting by Maarit Suokas-Alanko

“If you begin to understand what you are without trying to change it, then what you are undergoes a transformation.”

Painting by Maarit Suokas-Alanko

Painting by Maarit Suokas-Alanko

“You need not do anything. Remain sitting at your table and listen. You need not even listen, just wait. You need not even wait, just learn to be quiet, still and solitary. And the world will freely offer itself to you unmasked. It has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.”
Franz Kafka

Painting by Maarit Suokas-Alanko

Painting by Maarit Suokas-Alanko

“Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.” Carl Jung

Painting by Maarit Suokas-Alanko

Painting by Maarit Suokas-Alanko

“You know quite well, deep within you, that there is only a single magic, a single power, a single salvation… and that is called loving. Well, then, love your suffering. Do not resist it, do not flee from it. It is your aversion that hurts, nothing else.” Hermann Hesse

Painting by Maarit Suokas-Alanko

Painting by Maarit Suokas-Alanko

“The whole idea of compassion is based on a keen awareness of the interdependence of all living beings, which are all part of one another, and all involved in one another.”
Thomas Merton

Painting by Maarit Suokas-Alanko

Painting by Maarit Suokas-Alanko

“Don’t stand by my grave and weep,
for I am not there, I do not sleep,
I am a thousand winds that blow,
I am the diamond’s glint on the snow,
I am sunlight on ripened grain,
I am the gentle autumn’s rain.
Don’t stand by my grave and cry,
I am not there, I did not die.”
Unknown Native American

Entering A Quiet Room

Writing is sometimes like entering a quiet room in the soft afternoon light: I sit down at the table, and on the other side of the table settles The Text That I Write. We talk together, and the conversation gives birth to ideas that are novel to both of us. There we sit, for hours on end, and the dusk begins to fall, and the conversation just goes on and on. And gradually the evening changes into night, and the silence around us grows so deep and intense that I no longer discern my own thoughts and ideas from The Text That I Write. Along with the falling night, I fade away, and I transform and get mingled into what I write. And at that very moment I understand: this is exactly what I have been aiming at; that I could dissolve into what I write, and that through my vanishing I could create Another, a completely new and separate being, who in the growing light of the next morning would be looking at the world with fresh new eyes.

lehtiä kellumassa

Even this writing here was born of a desire to go into a quiet room.

I started to write this text already several days ago. I started without any particular goal in mind, my only aim being to transfer into writing whatever happened to be moving inside my head; without choosing any particular direction; having curiosity as my mere guiding principle; keeping in my mind the question: what comes out of this freely undulating moment?

So I wrote for a while, and I was very pleased spending time in the quiet room with my companion, the Text That I Wrote. I felt that though I did not perhaps succeed in creating a whole being into existence, I was nevertheless creating something new; that at least I was very close to recreating myself.

But as it often happens, the real life, the external physical world forced me violently out of my quiet room, and the fruitful conversation with the Text That I Had Been Writing was abruptly ended.

When I finally returned to my room again, I realized that I had somehow closed the computer without saving my text.

Suddenly I was all alone.

I just had started to create something solid, concrete, something permanent, I thought. Or at least I had managed to get hold of the hem of the passing reality, of something absolutely new and important – and then it was gone!

I felt sad. I had lost a friend with whom I had been passing time. I was back in my own indefinite company, in my invariably changing moods, exposed to all kinds of external impulses; no more consistent with what I had called “myself”.

But today I came again into my quiet room. This time I have remembered to save diligently The Text That I Write.

The afternoon is cloudy, I have been following the course of my wandering thoughts, and I already wait for tomorrow; the moment when this particular form of existence carries me to some place I know nothing about today – perhaps to a story that is just about to begin.