Land of the barbarian's sword


Hello America,

My name is Olavi and I’m from Finland. I’m staying in the USA until October, travelling around the country and learning about the society.

It’s easy for me to be open-minded, because I already have a good feeling about you guys. That is because of one person.

No, I don’t mean Barack Obama.

Before my first visit to the USA in 2008, I had a negative emotional impression about the United States. Nothing serious, just a slight negative twist. It is always hard to trust a superpower, although Finland is maybe not a country you guys would be invading.

(You are not after us, right? We have no oil, just timber, and for that Canada is much closer to you. Go there. Shoo.)

I don't know why I felt that way, but U.S. society and mindset just seemed very alien to me, a Scandinavian-born social democrat. (You might call that socialist.)

Hellloooo how are you it’s soooooo good to see youuuuu, let's have a liter of Coca-Cola with everything, let’s attack Middle East and call that ”crusade”, hard work, short holidays, low taxes, bible is true, beggars fill the streets when the night falls.

Basically, my impression about the country was:

”USA is a war-going superpower, where rich are getting richer.”

In January 2008 I made my first business trip to United States. It was just a five-day visit to San Francisco and Seattle.

I covered the Macworld exhibition in San Francisco for our newspaper and watched Apple’s flamboyant CEO Steve Jobs preach to a hallful of journalists, who erupted oohh-aahh-noises in continuing outbursts of joy, as if they were getting a backrub. I also interviewed prime minister of Finland, Matti Vanhanen, who had a meeting with governor Arnold Schwartzenegger in California and was allowed to grasp the actual sword of Conan Barbarian in his office.

(That was propably too good PR for that Vanhanen guy, who is no barbarian after all.) 

Then I visited the headquarters of Microsoft in Seattle. Mr Vanhanen made an official visit there too, and he had a joint press conference with head of Microsoft, Bill Gates.

Me and other journalists - there were about 20 of us - waited in a meeting room for the conference to start.

Bill and Matti took their time, and we began chatting. A local newspaper writer asked who I was, where I came from and so forth. She was genuinely interested. After we had talked for a while, she said: I would love to do something with you tonight, but I have to go a to basketball game.

I thought: wow, that's kind of her even think of that.

(We Finns often think it’s unpolite to talk to strangers, because they might be disturbed. You guys are brought up to think it’s unpolite not to talk to strangers.)

Another journalist overheard our conversation. His name was Dai and he was living in Seattle uptown. He sat next to me and told he’s having a poker night with his friends, and asked if I want to join them. Of course I did.

In the evening he picked me up from my hotel. We stopped at gas station to get some beer. He gave me a short introductory tour of Seattle on our way to his friend’s place.

There were six of us. We drank beer and played some friendly Texas Hold’em poker with small bets. Dai told us how he cracked a joke with Bill Gates, whom he had met before. One of his friends talked about his dating problems. I said something about Finland.

In the end he gave me a lift back home. By the waterfront we stopped for a moment to admire Seattle skyline and reflections of skyscrapers.

His hospitality really changed my emotional impression about the USA almost overnight to this:

”USA is a place where strangers invite you to play poker.”

 What can we learn from this? Everyone can make a difference to other people by their everyday actions. With his gesture, Dai basicly changed the impression I have about 300 million people.

And what is also important, country is equal to its foreign policy, government nor placement in international happiness indicators. Country is equal to its people. And they rarely fit stereotypes.

During the next two months I expect many stereotypes and expectations to unravel.

But one stereotype has already proven to be true: everything here is large. Houses, icecream portions, your English accent. Suburbs stretch to horizon and my T-shirt size is one smaller here.

In Finland I’m large, but here I’m just a medium man.


Finnish but not Finished

 Olavi, I really enjoyed this piece.  Certainly you're familiar with the phrase, "Only in America."  Really, America is a lot like the Minnesota State Fair--some really good art in the art exhibition hall, some interesting crafts in the Creativity Hall, lots of gadgets being hawked here and there, pure-bred cattle and the biggest pigs you'll ever see, crazy amusement rides, LOTS of huge servings of "Australian Fries" and "Hot Dish on a Stick," Republican Booth colored red, white and blue, Democrat Booth colored in the rainbow spectrum, big trucks, big boats, big camper trailers and very loud music--and stroling through and around all of the foregoing are crowds representing a complete cross-section of society.  And here's the kicker: except for Native Americans, everyone in that crowd can trace their roots to somewhere else in the world.

I'll be interested in your perspective as it continues to unfold.


What if...

Well, I hope you consider the idea there could be a flip side to that coin, Olavi. What if Dai is just a regular, old-fashioned, professional journalist who is taking good care of his resources? :)

Nice story, mate! Although I believe that examples always build stereotypes (“stereotype” is not necessary a dirty word – this is how we cope with the world).