Shawn L. Bird

Original poetry, commentary, and fiction. All copyrights reserved.

Becoming ‘puoli-Suomalainen’ June 2, 2010

I have 5 mothers, 5 fathers, 17 siblings and two nations.

I am a returned Rotary Exchange Student, and my experience living abroad changed my life. I was blessed to live for a year in Kotka, Finland (Suomi to the Finns) and now my world is paradoxically both larger and smaller.

My first involvement with Rotary was with at a Candy Striper conference the year I was in grade eleven. Katy Jensen, a Rotary Exchange student from New Zealand, was a delegate from a hospital in her exchange community. She described her adventures in Canada and a world of possibility opened up to me. I decided to find out about the program.

I knew my high school vice-principal, Bob Lemon, was a Rotarian, so I asked him about the exchange. He told me to watch for information about interviews the following September. I have noticed since that a lot of students miss out on the opportunity because the interviews happen so early in the school year. If you’re looking at exploring an exchange, be sure you’re hunting for the application details the first week back at school in the fall!

It was a thorough interview process. A short application to start. Next there were interviews at the club level. A longer form. An intensive panel interview at district level. Then thick application form package. By October I had been chosen to represent District 5060 in Finland. Wow. I didn’t know a thing about Finland, so I had a lot to learn to prepare for a year there!

Many people wonder how I ended up in Finland. Short answer: by mistake. On my application, my 3 choices were Belgium (the only French speaking country the district was exchanging with that year), Japan (obviously about to explode in economic activity with Canada), and then…. I had no real interest in anywhere else, so I chose Denmark because it was near Belgium, and I really wanted to see the Vimy Memorial.

The district committee lost some paperwork and they phoned to ask again what my country choices were. I was out as usual volunteering or something. My mom knew the first two, but couldn’t recall the third choice. I had a Finnish pen pal at the time, so she said, “I think the third was Finland?” The rest is history. No one ever asks to go to Finland. No one even knows where Finland is! They were so excited that someone asked for Finland that I was a shoe-in. They happily phoned to offer me an exchange in Finland. What was I going to say? I went.

I tried to learn Finnish before I left. I’m good at languages. It was something completely new. Finno-Ugaric languages have very little in common with Romance languages! When I stepped on the plane with Karyn Engler I could say a few things besides the basics of please and thank you, hello and good bye:

“I’m a Canadian exchange student.”
“I don’t speak Finnish.”
“I’m hungry.”
“I’m thirsty.”

“I’m lost.”

“Where’s the bathroom?”
“Get your hands off me.”

“ice cream” and “Help!”

You’d be surprised just how far those simple phrases can take you! (By my first month in Finland I’d used them all!)

Unlike most of the other outbound students, I had not heard from my host family before I’d left Canada. All I knew about them was from the letter I’d received from my club exchange officer: their professions and family composition. It was very scary going off to a new culture and language with so little information, but it was an adventure and I was ready for anything.

After a week of orientation in Karkku my host father and sister came to get me. We had a few hours to drive to get to Kotka where they lived. I liked them immediately. They were quiet, intellectual and kind. My sister had a shy smile that won me instantly. It was when I arrived at their home though, that my true transition began.

As I opened the front door, a warm bundle of love grabbed me in a crushing hug and weepily exclaimed, “Tervetuloa! Velcome!” As my host-mom beamed at me with excitement and affection, I knew I had a new home. I was on my way to becoming half-Finnish “puoli-Suomalainen” in my heart.

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PS.¬† Click on “Rotary” on the categories list to find my other blogs on being an exchange student.

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