Protected: My experiences as a tourist in Anxiety-Land

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Yleinen Kielitutkinto

The official Finnish language test (Yleinen Kielitutkinto or YKI) comes in three difficulty levels: basic (level 1-2), medium (level 3-4), and high (5-6). To give an idea of what the levels mean, level 3 is needed for a Finnish nationality and level 4 is needed to study in Finnish at a university level (at least in our faculty). I had postponed taking it because it’s not cheap (100€ for the medium level) and I haven’t needed an official evaluation of my Finnish.

Last year I thought it would be good to take the YKI just to see how I’m doing, but I had to wait over a year for the privilege. I quickly discovered that getting a spot is not easy. Many immigrants receive “integration” financial aid and need to prove they are learning Finnish. I strongly suspect that the applications from students belonging to certain full-time language schools are given priority. But in any case, this year I was ready to fight for my place, and I got in.

Even though test was the day *after* our housewarming party, I was there at 1, half an hour early. Unfortunately, the test was “delayed”. All 12 of us taking the test had to wait. We weren’t told for how long, so we couldn’t go have coffee or whatever. We couldn’t even study while we waited, either, because there was something wrong with the light switches. We had to sit in darkness for two hours, until finally at 3pm, we were allowed into the classroom. Then began the worst part.

There were around 12 of us, yet it took one hour for the tester to hand out the tests and explain the instructions, even though we had been mailed an instructions/example sheet in advance. That same instructions/example sheet was the first page of the actual test booklet, which confused some of the students. “This already has answers,” a woman said. “Yes, because it’s an example,” the tester explained, but the woman still looked doubtful. I was seething. If people can’t understand the instructions in a language test, then they have no business taking the language test, I thought. I was also angry at the tester, because he was this grandfather-type who went as far as to translate the instructions into English. His kindness meant we didn’t start answering the test until 4pm, and he didn’t even notice when the guy next to me blatantly asked me to give him the answers (obviously I didn’t).

But later, once the whole ordeal was over (at 7pm), I felt bad. Apparently the testers had been there since 9am, without any breaks to eat. “Usually we only test 2 groups per day, but we really wanted to give the chance to more immigrants to take the test, too, so we had this extra group. But we’re not really set up for so many.” I also realized that many of the people taking the YKI with me had probably never before taken a standardized test. I’ve been filling in bubbles for so long that it feels like an innate skill. It’s not. Knowing how to answer tests is as important as the content being tested. Most of us have been taught a lot of test-taking strategies throughout the years. But refugees or other people who haven’t been as lucky as to have the same opportunities? Well. You really have to wonder whether the test is a good enough measure of “integration”.

In short- I think I’ll do ok in the YKI. Who knows, if I do well enough, I’ll try for the next level. Maybe this experience was an exception, and usually it’s more professional and well-organized.

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Protected: Attributional Ambiguity, or Impostor’s Syndrome Pt. 2

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crashing

Last night I dreamt I was in a plane crash. It was a mixture of Lost and MH370 (I’ve flown Malaysian Airlines, by the way- one of my nicest flights). The door to the cockpit was flailing wildly, people were shouting, I was frantically tightening my seatbelt and, remembering all those safety instructions, getting into the brace position. In the dream we all made it, no one was hurt, and I assured the pilot he couldn’t have prevented the crash. But I still woke up with the taste of “I’m going to die” fresh in my mouth.

I came to work and read the news. First, an article about a man in Canada with an Ebola-like disease. Then one about a woman who got diagnosed with terminal breast cancer when she was 20, and now runs the “CoppaFeel” charity. Unwanted thoughts pop up in my head- my grandma had breast cancer, it runs in the family. Angelo Merendino’s photos. I fight the urge to cop a feel right there in the middle of the office. I’m going to die I’m going to die. Try to concentrate on work, but I can’t. And the house is a mess, and everything is in boxes, and we have guests over this weekend, and then there will be a party and what if people are noisy and the neighbors complain and then what if no one has fun and what if I don’t finish my article in time and what if I don’t go to any conferences or get any paper published again and what will I do when I graduate, if I graduate, and what if I can’t pay the mortgage.

When it becomes too much, I make an appointment with a nurse. I’ll try to convince her to give me a free mammography, so at least I can rule out breast cancer. Although of course, test results aren’t always reliable, and even if they are, there could be a whole bunch of other diseases I do have.

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love is an open door

121003045447-03-amityville-story-topAmityville Horror, Rosemary’s Baby, The Conjuring, Insidious, Paranormal Activity. These are but a few examples of horror movies with a similar pattern: a cutesy, loving couple are looking for a fresh start. They luck out, finding the deal of a lifetime. It looks too good to be true, and it is. The couple’s relationship quickly deteriorates as the supernatural activities increase in frequency and intensity. The woman is usually the first to admit their dream home is haunted, and has to endure accusations of paranoia and instability from her skeptical husband. By the time the guy finally agrees there’s something wrong, it’s too late. The situation is unescapable. In the old movies, they’re broke and can’t move again. In the new ones, even if they move, the evil latches on to them.

I’ve long been a fan of these movies, but it is only today, a few days from becoming a home owner myself, that I really understand them. Horror movies are a reflection of our deepest fears and anxieties. Haunted houses are scary because they remind you that you don’t know what you’re getting yourself into. What is the realtor not telling you? It could be related to Native American burial grounds or previous mass murders, but it could also be something like mold or faulty water pipes. What kind of weirdoes will you have as neighbors? It could be meddlesome members of a satanic cult, but it could also be loud fighters or partiers. If your house is too far, no one will hear you scream for help in the middle of a dark stormy night, but more importantly, your friends might not visit as often, and you’ll have a longer commute. Your wonderful relationship could deteriorate due to the pressure of dealing with a demonic presence, but it could also deteriorate due to the pressure of paying off a 25 year mortgage, or even for more mundane reasons that may creep up on you like the ghost of a child. At the end of the day, the TRULY TERRIFYING message of haunted house movies is: are you sure you are making the right choice?

In any case, T. and I are tremendously excited about our new flat. I can hardly think of anything else. No, I did not ask the realtor if it is haunted, but at least it doesn’t have a creepy basement or attic. In other words, it’s promising.

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let the storm rage on

I got a short short haircut back in December and it’s gotten to the stage in which I need to decide if I cut it again or endure the awkward growing out stage. After watching Frozen (and becoming slightly obsessed with it), I decided I will grow my hair out if only to try and recreate Elsa’s hairstyle. Upon hearing this, Anonymous Person laughed. The conversation that followed was a bit like this:

ImageAnonymous Person: But you’re not anything like Elsa or anyone else in that movie, except, maybe, Olaf.

Me: EXCUSE ME?

Anonymous Person: No, like, physically. Because you’re brown and all those princesses, they’re like, white.

Me: So is Olaf. Olaf is white. Whiter.

Anonymous Person: Err, well, but I meant like, personality.

Me: What?! You’re not helping.  [to be fair, Olaf does have the best personality ever]

Anonymous Person: Ok, well, no, you could also have the personality of the princesses. Just physically you’re more like Olaf.

Me: Just stop talking.

Anonymous Person: Or racially, rather.

Me: I said I wanted to do her hairstyle, that’s all, what does the race even matter?

ImageI still think Anonymous Person was suffering a lapse of temporary jerk-yness. But it brings us to an interesting dilemma. I’ve had long discussions with my kiwi friend M. about this before, because in the past, I’ve argued that goth Mexicans are often ridiculous. And he thinks that’s self-racism. My argument is that if you live in a place with 40 C scorching summers, it’s silly to dress in velvet and leather trenchcoats. I’m sorry, but that kind of outfit only works if it is a logical response to the weather, otherwise it’s just an uncomfortable costume. As a disclaimer, I must add that many of my friends in Mexico were goths, but they were NOT silly- they adapted the style and found fresh black clothes that worked in their climatic contexts. And I’ve argued that corpse paint for daily fashion wear, while not attractive ever, is even worse when you combine dark-skinned people, 40 C, and sweat. I didn’t think that was racist. I wasn’t saying that x-skinned people were in any way better or worse than people of other skin tonalities. I’m just saying that a stylistic choice that tries to go to the opposite end of your natural spectrum a little sad. Like fake orange tans. But after my conversation with Anonymous Person, I’m starting to wonder whether I owe Mexican goths (and fake-orange-tanned people) an apology.

The original conversation with M. was about cosplay, because I said I wouldn’t myself go for, say, Melissandre, if I was dressing up like a Game of Thrones character. It would make more sense to go as someone from Dorne. M. thinks that skin and eye color are not important for dressing up, what matters is that the character is still recognizable, and that for example a black girl could still be a recognizable Daenerys. So I asked him if he’d dress up as Martin Luther King and he admitted that doing it that way around might be a bit racist. Maybe I’m just not very bright, but I can’t make my mind about this matter. After Anonymous Person crushed my 31-year old self’s Disney princess dreams, though, I’m thinking maybe M. was right. Because so what if I want to dress up as Elsa from Frozen even though I’m not white and blonde? Even if my interpretation of Elsa isn’t 100% accurate, isn’t it about paying tribute to a character that resonated with you? So isn’t it the same for people who want to have a tan really really badly, or for those who dream about living in a less hot place?Shouldn’t we all have the right to dress up and pretend whatever the hell we want, Me-From-the-Past?

And maybe a more important question is- why are all the cool awesome characters I like white, and what does that say about our popular media (or about me)? Sure, there’s some cool non-white Disney princesses nowadays, but does that mean an Asian girl is only allowed to dress up like Mulan (who is awesome, don’t get me wrong)? Are only Native Americans allowed to be Pocahontas? It doesn’t get any better outside the Disney world. Daenerys, Elizabeth Bennet, Eowyn, Asuka Langley, Hermione, Violet Baudelaire, Saga Noren, Sarah Connor… why are all the awesome women, either in personality or in costume, white? There are some few exceptions, like Avatar’s Katara or Kora (and a costume of Joe Abercrombie’s Ishri would be pretty bad-ass), but… until media representations of other races is more inclusive, am I condemned to dress-up only as racially-neutral characters (zombie!) or Frida Kahlo and Dora the Explorer? Shudder.

In short. My research questions are, Should people try to stick to their own physical characteristics when dressing up as a favorite character? Are there more examples of awesome non-white females in popular media that I’m not remembering?

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cate de mi corazón

Agua pasa por mi casa, cate de mi corazón. Qué es? El aguacate!

Mexican riddle.

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Baby Avocado Sprout, February 2012

Two years ago, I planted an avocado seed from an avocado I bought at the S-market. To my surprise, it sprouted into a modest little tree.

My avocado is doomed to spend the rest of its life in a pot. It will probably never produce avocados, and if it does, they will most likely be unedible, yet just looking at my avocado makes me feel a little bit better. Maybe I identify with the stunted little thing. Like me, my avocado is from hot Mexico and clearly doesn’t belong here. It is so obviously out of its element, yet my avocado tree makes do with what little sunlight it can get and with the clumsy care I provide, and has defiantly set its roots.

During our 3 week trip, my friend T.T. very kindly accepted to come and take a look at it every now and then. This turned out to be a bit stressful for him because the leaves started to fall off, which of course wasn’t his fault; a Finnish winter is far from ideal avocado-growing weather, and this one has been particularly dark and cloudy.

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Avocado tree, 6 leaves less

I didn’t worry too much, because my avocado has survived Finnish winter and can do it again, but seeing its leaves fall is distressing. Like I have to be careful not to accidentally walk too fast past it, or another leaf might fall. So today I finally did it: I went to buy one of those phototherapy lights (kirkasvalolamppu).

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Product Placement

It was a little embarrassing, because the salesman looked at me with sympathy and understanding when I went to pay for the lamp. Like he was thinking, ”It finally became too much, huh? You poor foreigner?” I wanted to explain, ”Hey, it’s for my avocado, I’m totally not depressed. If I were depressed, do you think I’d have the energy to put on clothes and makeup and go to a shop?”

In any case, I hope this helps my avocado. Going by the picture in the box (just look at that woman, waving her arms all crazily in a white dress… I suspect this photo is also used for tampon and yogurt ads) it helps people, too, but I’m skeptical.

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Protected: two boxes, one nightmare

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THE quintessential regio experience: Border-crossing

Sometimes, when the Mexican community in Finland hears I haven’t introduced T. to certain aspects of Typical-and-Traditional-Mexico (for example, eating romeritos), I get looks of surprise. Our collective embarrassment increases when I explain that I myself have never in my entire life eaten “romeritos” and, to make my Mexican authenticity even more questionable, don’t even know what they are*. Mexico is such a large country that what constitutes “Typical-and-Traditional-Mexico” depends on who you ask. But in any case, T.’s 2nd visit to Mexico is a great opportunity to cross off more Typical-and-Traditional things from the list. For starters, I finally got to take him on THE quintessential regio** experience: crossing the border into Texas.

 Blah blah blah, I’m sure someone out there will argue that crossing the border isn’t THE quintessential regio experience, but whatever, go make your own blog and whine there about how Americanized and materialistic and non-cultural and not “tr00 Mexico” Monterrey is (Lies, LIES!). While the pilgrimage to Texas shopping malls is perhaps not as sacred to regios as the Hajji is to Muslims, it’s close enough. My family has gone to Texas at least once a year for as long as I can remember. The border is 2 ½ hours away, so we’d go on short trips for Back-to-School shopping and Christmas shopping, and longer trips for summer vacations; instead of  driving 12 hours to an undoubtedly glorious Mexican beach, we made do with nearby South Padre Island, a regio enclave as of yet not officially recognized by any government. I have crossed the border so many times that explaining the process is as strange to me as explaining how to take a shower, but I’ll give it a go.

People usually head towards Laredo or McAllen. McAllen is slightly further away but it’s nicer, because you get the feeling that it’s a real town where people actually live their lives, whereas there is nothing in little Laredo except the mall and shops. I guess there must be houses somewhere for the people who work in the malls and shops. I’ve been lucky enough to visit plenty of beautiful cities in the US, but Laredo isn’t one of them by a long shot (sorry Laredonians!). Shopping trips begin by waking up early (especially if you don’t plan on spending the night, although people don’t fancy driving on the highways at dark anymore and so usually spend the night) and loading an empty suitcase into the car. The empty suitcase is to store all the stuff you hope to buy. Nowadays you can bring up to 300 dollars of merchandise back into Mexico per person, and as many clothes and books as you want, but the tradition of taking off the tags of all your new things and trying to pass them off as “old” is a deeply engrained habit. Most people bring their own scissors along and do the de-tagging in the privacy of their own cars in the mall’s parking lot, but during this last visit, I saw a girl doing it right outside a shop. Anyhow, if you’re lucky and avoid being waylaid by bandits (seriously, this is a thing that happens, like in the middle-ages) the drive to Texas is mostly uneventful.

To legally enter the US through the Texas border, you cross a bridge over the Rio Grande/Bravo river. The lines on the bridge are awful, particularly around any holiday. My cousin claims that last week it took them 6 hours to cross the bridge, as despite the long queues only one toll-booth was open. In other words, crossing the bridge could be a hell of a lot more efficient and speedy, but I suspect they enjoy making us wait. It used to be painful especially as a child, fighting with my brother in the backseat of a cramped car at 40 C degrees. At least when you go to Laredo, it’s just the bridge you need to worry about. You show your passports and visas and that’s it. But this only works if you’re just going to the border towns for shopping for no more than a couple of days. If you’re going deeper into the USA, like San Antonio or South Padre Island, then you need to get out of the car and fill out an I-94 form. And the line is even longer and more terrible than for crossing the bridge, because at least for the bridge you’re in a car, with personal space, a seat, and maybe even air conditioning. I remember the line for the I-94, winding like a snake, surrounded by sweaty human beings who were as thirsty and tired as you were, to finally make it to the counter only to get the second degree about trying to give them your money. In any case, we had decided to go to a border town precisely to avoid that hassle.

We went to Laredo on Boxing Day with T., and were feeling very happy because it only took us one hour to cross the bridge. Then, to our huuuuge surprise, we were informed that as T. has a European passport, even though he had a visa-waiver privilege, he nevertheless needed to get out of the car and fill out the I-94 form. Yes, even if it was just for Laredo. We hadn’t been expecting this at all. Mom and I didn’t need to fill out the form, we were free to go to the shops already. I then had to make a very difficult decision, my very own Sophie’s choice: 1. to stay with T. or 2. To drive away with my mom, go get a hotel room or to the shops, and pick T. up in a couple of hours. I can’t say it was an easy decision and I can’t say I didn’t hesitate, but poor T. looked so miserable walking all alone to the end of that long line, that I went to suffer with him. “But what’s so bad about having to fill out a form?” you may ask. Oh, naïve and innocent reader, you needed to be there. I thought of taking a photo but was afraid my phone would get confiscated or something. It’s not just that the line was long (it took FOUR hours in total), it was also about as cold as it gets here, 8 C, and it was raining hard. The irony of coming from from a Finnish winter to freeze our toes off in Texas is not lost on me. While this winter has been a mild one in Finland, we are used to -20 C and snow and bitter winds. The difference is that in Finland we dress for the occasion and and usually don’t just stand there for hours without moving. T. at least had a jacket on, I was wearing nothing but a thin sweater my sister gave me for Christmas. And so our 4-hour-adventure began.

The line was long and misleadingly straight-looking. I quickly started missing the winding line of the past, because at least when people are stuffed like animals into a small area, they get warm. There were babies, kids wearing shorts, and old people in wheelchairs, all in line with us. It seriously felt like a WW2 movie. There weren’t any seats and while there was a roof, there were no walls to protect us from the rain and wind. There were no bathrooms, either, as the ones in the Homeland Office were “out of service”- a term which here means, “we don’t want you 5,000+ Mexicans peeing in our 2 toilets”. T. and I chatted amiably for the first two hours, then grew silent. There was no wi-fi and playing on our phones would have meant taking our hands out of our pockets. Mom came back after an hour or so. In the warmth of her hotel room, a friend she was chatting with warned mom that THEIR line for the I-94 took 6 hours, so mom came and gave us a key to our hotel room and told us to just take a taxi whenever we were done. She also gave me her coat. I was moved, but it turned out her coat is tissue-paper thin and mostly for decoration, and soon I was wishing she’d brought coffee or a blanket instead. When we had been waiting for 3 hours, mom came once again to ask if we wanted some food, but by then we were almost at the office- or so we foolishly thought. I was really freezing then, and I wouldn’t have been able to go into the office with T. anyway, so I went to wait in the car with mom. We thought T. would be done soon, but noooo. It turns out that after filling out the form, you need to get into a new line to PAY for the form, and no, you can’t pay for it online. It took another hour just for T. to go give a different person 6 dollars.

Mom got into an argument with one of her Republican friends from the US, who argued that this was all Obama’s fault, as he made staff cuts and blabla, but mom rightly pointed out that these lines have been there our entire lives. We’re very much used to them. They don’t faze us. The only thing that shocked us was that T. also had to go through this, and only to go to Laredo! He came from Finland, wasn’t there some red carpet for him, some ambassador to come shake his hand? At the very least a separate Europeans-only line. HE WAS TREATED LIKE HE WAS A MEXICAN!!! Seriously though, it was a pretty depressing spectacle, all in all. It was very cold and there were some very old and frail people out there- you’d think at the very least there would be a special line for the elderly or handicapped or pregnant women (maybe border control is afraid that if they did implement that, the next day everyone would show up in wheelchairs). When T. finally made it out, mom and I were afraid of saying anything to upset him more. But T. being the happy person he is, he was quickly able to put the trauma behind him.

The rest of the trip included other typical regio experiences, like eating at Red Lobster, and eating in Lubys and trying to carry a tray full of food while balancing all the shopping bags. The regio experience of buying nice things at ridiculously cheap prices (even though most of the clothes that remain are small and x-large). The regio experience of being exhausted and cranky towards your car companions on the trip back home. And the regio experience of showing off your booty after your sacking of Laredo. All in all, it was a very typical and traditional experience, one that might not make it into Lonely Planet or other official guides, but still cuts through the essence of what being a region means. I asked T. if the whole thing was worth it, and he said yes, definitely. On the queue-free way back to Mexico, though, we saw that the lines to get into the US and for the I-94 office were 5 times as long as ours had been. In any case- border-crossing, check, and tomorrow, cabrito!

 

*We finally had some romeritos at our Mexico City hotel’s breakfast buffet. Meh.

**Regio is a demonym for Monterrey, like muscovite for Moscow and madrileños for Madrid.

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mistaken for strangers

We left Turku at 2am on the 18th and arrived to Mexico City 25 hours later. T. was in a worse mood than I was, as he foolishly refused my generous offers of Tafil. I was happily knocked out for the long flight, while he felt every uncomfortable minute of it. I had very cleverly booked a hotel near the airport so we could get some sleep and try to look (and smell) human again before the last flight to Monterrey.

It’s been pretty crazy ever since we got here. This is really the first moment I’ve had to myself. It’s a little sad that the many reunions I’ve longed for and fantasized about (seriously) during tough lonely days have been sooooo rushed.Obviously everyone has plans for Christmas, everyone is busy, and many people are travelling at some point (including us), so I pretty much have had to see everyone within the first 3 days of arriving. I feel like I’ve run from one meeting to another, one place to another, one person to another. I feel that with each visit, that period of awkwardness when you meet an old friend again stretches on just a little bit longer. If you live away from home, you know what I’m talking about: that period of hesitation in which everyone is excited but no one really knows what to say, how to give the highlights of all the things the other person has missed, where to even begin. It takes time to relax a little and remember, “Yes, they are still themselves, and I am still myself, and we are still us”. This visit I’ve felt that by the time that back-to-normal feeling finally arrives and people finally losen up and start talking about the things that matter, I’m already having to say goodbye again. So it’s been a bit bittersweet for me. Maybe it’s because I cut my ‘trademark’ (M.’s words) long curls and now I look different, which increases the vibe of outsider. I kind of want to save time somehow, say, “Hey, I know I’ve been gone for 4 years, but I haven’t changed” and insert some witty little joke, but I can’t, somehow. It could also be that I’m so stressed about trying to meet everyone and spend time with everyone, that my unease is contagious. In any case, I feel like I’ve anticipated certain encounters for so long, and then I’ve gone and messed things up by not being fun or talkative enough. With many people I might not even get a second chance during this visit.

Anyway, this is coming out way more whiny than I intended. Maybe I just haven’t had time to be emo lately and have accumulated an extralarge load of drama I need to secrete, hence the extra-dose of existential ponderings. The trip’s mostly been super awesome. I’ve eaten wonderful food and had great laughs with some of the funniest human beings this world has to offer. I’ve met some people I hadn’t seen in ages and others with who it just feels like it’s been ages. The people I love are doing really great, and it’s super exciting to see how people have changed and all the new things they’re doing. The weather has been wonderful. T. involuntarily let out a hysterical little laugh of joy when we walked out of the plane in Monterrey and we felt the sun and the heat. It sounded something like this:

Christmas is coming up and I haven’t been this excited about it in ages. And I’m really really happy that T. is here with me. I’m a little worried about him as he’s never spent Christmas away from his family, but he seems fine. You could probably drop T. in the middle of a desert and he’d find his way to a local tribe and eat bugs and learn key phrases to make everyone melt. I love showing him off to my friends and family and viceversa. So yeah. I’m pretty happy. Merry Christmas, people.

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