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
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
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
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!)
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
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