It’s been ages since I’ve had to take a high-stakes test. But I’m thinking about applying for Finnish citizenship for a number of reasons, not least of all because of the chillier climate against foreigners right now. Finland has a language requirement for applicants, which is fulfilled by passing a test known as YKI at the intermediate level. I could easily do this in Swedish, but I want to do it in the majority language. For some reason it would feel like cheating otherwise.
A few days ago, I took that test, and it was a fascinating experience on many levels. To begin with, it was held in a very small town, Pieksämäki (population 19,000), not in my town, Joensuu (population 58,000). I had never visited that tiny town though I have changed trains there many, many times. Someone once told me that it had won the prize for being Finland’s most boring town, though perhaps the competition was fictitious. There was no morning train that would get me there in time, so I ended up spending the night in a quaint, nicely kept pension a few blocks from the school where the exam was held. The only other guest was a man from Afghanistan, also in town to take the test, who asked me to join him to take in the local sights after our common ordeal. I declined politely, but I felt bad – he seemed sane and said he was a photo journalist in his own country, so I'm sure it would have been interesting to talk to him, but I doubt he understood that I was probably 30 years older than he was.
I made sure I got to the exam early – way too early. It gave me time to inspect the fountain in front of the high school – two naked boys playing in the water, something you could never find in front of a school in the US – and a monument to those who had suffered loss and deprivation during WWII. (There was a plaque inside the building listing the names of the fallen soldiers from that school, and in the park across the way from the pension, there was a statue honoring those who disappeared and left families behind.)
|Monument to fathers missing in action and those they left behind|
There was a chilly wind and we early birds smiled tentatively and discussed the weather. A woman from Africa (I never did find out which country she was from) in rather summery clothes arrived and said ‘Not cold. Winter is cold!’ We all practiced our Finnish with each other, each with a different accent and at a different level of proficiency. I started to think that maybe I’d do OK on the test, since I was certainly not the weakest speaker. That honor went to a man from Ukraine, who had only been in Finland six months.
One man from Egypt asked, “You’ll help me, right?” I didn’t quite understand what he meant until later. But apparently he wanted me to show him my answers so that he could pass the test. He was unable to read Finnish letters. I wondered why he was there for the test at all but all he would say was, “I’ve been here 18 years and I haven’t passed this test and they won’t let me be a citizen! I have a crippled daughter who needs special care in another country!” He seemed angry, but I wondered why he hadn’t tried to find a tutor -- the test is expensive (100 euros, or over $100) and you’d think he would have tried to improve his score to save some money by this time.
Finally all 13 of us were ushered into the building and up the stairs. We were called one by one into the examination room and the names were mostly stumbled over. Unfortunately, one of the examiners was not Finnish, and her German accent made it very difficult to understand her. I thought to myself how it hadn’t occurred to anyone that this could make non-native test-takers more nervous, but perhaps it was just me. Our cell phones were collected and each one sealed in a paper envelope. The pile of envelopes was balanced precariously on a desk up at the front of the classroom – miraculously, they didn’t fall. (Or maybe they did – my phone sounds different now than it did before…)
I was surprised at how many examinees had not read the directions (or was their Finnish so poor that they couldn’t read them?) and had brought no pencil, eraser or application form. We spent an extra 10 minutes because of this, and I was impatient to start the test. Mr. Egypt was seated across the aisle from me and he borrowed my pencil sharpener. Unlike me, the teachers were very patient, considering how most of the students needed some kind of additional assistance. Finally we were let loose on the test.
The first section was reading comprehension, probably the easiest part of the test for me though I can’t remember any of it. In the second section, we had to write one e-mail message to a teacher explaining that we weren’t able to come to class, one complaint letter to the Department of Health regarding a bad meal experience at a restaurant, and one blog post on the benefits of second-hand shopping. Right up my alley!
We had a break after that. Mr. Egypt looked at me sternly and said, “You! Why didn’t you help me? You didn’t even look at me!” The woman from China was trying to tell him that this is a different culture – that people don’t cheat in Finland. He ignored her and said, “They wouldn't have noticed if you had just lifted up your paper a little so I could see it. Now I will never pass this test!” He went back into his rant. It occurred to me that he had probably been taking this test over and over hoping for a kind soul to help him out. Unbelievable! I hoped for his daughter’s sake that Daddy learns to read Finnish. The man from the Ukraine was smiling and understood very little – he had been in Finland only six months, and he couldn’t explain why he was taking the test. Maybe the Russian woman was able to get it out of him.
After our break it was time for the listening and speaking portions of the test in the language studio. I know that these are my weakest areas, and there were several places where I had to simply use common sense to answer questions, and one question I completely missed. When I had to talk, I became very conscious of how slowly I speak, how I overthink every sentence. I hope I can move on from that that stage eventually – to a place where I can speak without thinking about the syntax.
Finally, unbelievably, it was over. We lined up to get our cell phones and then we dispersed. The Iraqi woman’s husband (brother?) came to the front door to fetch her, and, because of her covered head, I wondered if she enjoyed being protected, or if she chafed because her freedom was restricted. And then I started to think about the other people there. Wouldn’t it have been interesting to stay and swap stories?
Or hideously painful. Most refugees I have met have been driven out of their homelands by violence and persecution. They haven’t left by choice. I was intensely aware of the looks I got when I pulled out my American passport. Why would you leave a country like the US? they were probably thinking. I’m here with a permanent job, by choice, no matter how little choice I felt I had when I came here. Few people look at me and think, “damned immigrant”. Neither my dress nor my skin color gives me away. Not one person in that group besides me could walk down the street in Pieksämäki and pass for a Finn.
I told the story of the Egyptian man to colleagues over coffee yesterday, and the fellow who teaches our Culture Colloquium said, “I’d never start a class with such a negative anecdote.” I argued that that was precisely why you should talk about it off the bat – that part of cultural competence is testing where we think universals lie. Is it universally bad to cheat? No. From the Egyptian man’s point of view, I was a cold, arrogant American who couldn’t be bothered to help him out, just like Americans never help anyone unless there's something in it for them (I imagined him thinking). I have no idea what he’s gone through in this country, because the stories I hear from other immigrants do not paint a rosy picture. It seems that foreigners are not given equal rights here, that city officials can intimidate and threaten to an extent that would make any Finn indignant. He could, of course, be a complete user and have no daughter, no family, and not have been in this country for more than a few years. But part of trying to understand people different than you are has to be considering all possible scenarios. And maybe that’s why it’s easier to slip into stereotypes and preconceived ideas – it’s a heck of a lot less work.
So now I'll wait for two months for the results of my test. Not much is hanging on it. But for my fellow test-takers, the stakes are higher. Citizenship can mean the difference between being able to travel to see loved ones or not, between having an EU passport or a 'stateless person' passport from Finland. It can mean better sleep at night knowing they will not be thrown out and forced to go back to a country where they may be slammed in jail upon arrival, or worse. Maybe I should think about this next time I get huffy about people not reading instructions...but it won't make me change my mind about helping people cheat on exams.
You may be left with the impression that Finland is a harsh place for foreigners. It can be in many ways, but there are many, many individual acts of kindness and helpfulness. After the test I ate lunch at the market square, where there was a family-operated Thai food truck. While waiting for my food, a Finnish man arrived to pick up a take-out platter for a party. As he paid, he told the young woman behind the counter, "My mother says to tell your mother hello!" The younger cook told her mother, who apparently didn't speak any Finnish. The older woman turned around and, smiling hugely, said something to the man which must have been similar greetings back, grasping and shaking his hand as she did so. I imagined the transactions and friendly words that must have occurred over weeks, months or years between this Thai family, living in Finland's 'most boring town', and this man and his mother. Those thoughts kept me nice and warm as I ate my pad thai in the white plastic tent nearby, the chilly wind whipping autumn leaves across the square.