COMING HOME: Registered male
A former foreign correspondent sees things back home through new eyes
By Sami Sillanpää
After my return to Finland, one of the first things I had to do was to get a season ticket for the buses, trams, and Metro of Helsinki City Transport.
At the point of sale, the official behind the desk asked me my name. This seemed a bit odd, but I obliged.
The person behind the counter-window tapped a few keystrokes into her computer terminal and then looked up and said:
"And your official place of residence is still..."
I was gobsmacked.
Well, yes, it is. But why do you know that? You sell bus tickets!
More registers reared their heads when I went to renew my department store loyalty card.
The customer service clerk did a bit of tap-dancing on the keys and announced:
"Your credit details seem to be all in order."
Oh. Well, thank you for telling me. I don't have the faintest idea how I would go about getting my own credit rating details, but it is nice to know that it can be done quite so efficiently.
I got the card, and silently swore to myself that I would never use it.
I came back to Finland from China, a country that is described as authoritarian, bureaucratic, and "controlled".
it seems odd that only back here in Finland have I had the feeling that somebody wants to write down every move I make in some register or other.
Of course, this is not to say that the authorities in China did not show any interest in my doings there. In the archives of the Ministry of State Security in Beijing there is a file with my name on it that undoubtedly contains more information about me than I would care to divulge.
But one thing about China - you can buy a bus pass there without having to show a personal ID.
In Finland that ID has already been required in several everyday situations: borrowing books at the library, checking in to a hotel, or when I try to have a flutter at an online betting site.
It gives me the sensation that my entire life is in The System somewhere. In an instant, any and every official could whisk up out of the registers all the details of my life to date.
And hey, it doesn't have to be an "official" as such. A shop assistant will do just nicely.
"Have you got an S-bonus card?" It is such a common question in modern Finland - and not just in shops but also in bars - that it might well have been the first sentence in Finnish I ever learnt, if I didn't speak the language already.
I have not got myself into the bonus card thing. If I did, then The System would also know exactly what I have been buying, and where and when.
In China I used to lie quite a bit. I would never have dreamed of giving my correct personal details when asked.
If I was obliged to show my passport and at the same time fill in some form or other, I tried to fudge it by writing doctor-style so that my handwriting was almost illegible and indecipherable.
That was born out of a lack of confidence. As with many Chinese citizens, I believed that somebody would in any event be misusing my personal or contact details.
At the very least I would get a bunch of contact attempts from eager-beaver Chinese entrepreneurs suggesting some common business venture.
There is no fear of this in Finland.
And I suppose no other fear, really.
And that is a very nice thing. We all agree to feed our details into the gaping mouth of The System, because we trust it. We trust the State and above all we trust other people.
When buying my bus pass, in the end I did not put up any resistance - I'm a Finn, after all - but told the sales clerk everything she wanted to know.
All the same, I'm still not completely sure what purpose the information serves.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 16.8.2009
In this series of articles, two former Helsingin Sanomat foreign correspondents stationed abroad reflect on Finland as seen through new eyes on their return home. Sami Sillanpää moved back after five years covering news in China for the paper, while Jussi Konttinen spent six years in Russia. Both have observations on things they might once have taken for granted.
SAMI SILLANPÄÄ / Helsingin Sanomat