Many (not so) happy returns
A lot of Finns returning to the old country find it more difficult than heading abroad; those who look forward most also have the roughest landings
By Johanna Pohjola
Returning to Finland after time spent abroad is becoming a more and more challenging exercise.
The problems begin as the move “back home” approaches. The job market is already moving so fast these days that it is practically impossible to prepare for life after coming back until getting on for the last moment.
Even an employee who has been on a long-term assignment abroad for the company cannot know much about his or her future back in Finland, although the days to the flight home are ticking by relentlessly.
“It used to be that when one made a contract like that, there would be a clause written into it about the company guaranteeing a position of equivalent stature in the organisation on the employee’s return. Now it might as easily be that the guarantee has been replaced by the company’s assertion that it will attempt to provide such a position. I’ve seen such contracts”, says Marja Saviaro.
Saviaro briefs and trains people who are heading abroad on work assignments.
“Although other people would like to help, they are themselves in such a whirl that they really do not have the time or the energy. Companies’ personnel departments are also overstretched”, Saviaro notes.
The returnee sees old familiar things in extreme close-up.
The problem is, there may not be many of them.
The current pace of life in Finland comes as a shock, particularly to anyone who is coming back to these shores from a location outside what we traditionally refer to as the West, explains Marja-Liisa Laihia, a trainer of returnees and coordinator of the Church Council’s work among immigrants, on the national level.
“For many, the revisitation of the country they left behind is a sad experience. The pressure in modern-day Finland is tough and people are stressed and tetchy and exhuasted”, she says.
Finland is also forging ahead on the technology front at such a pace that the returnee can easily feel that he or she has dropped out of the loop in the meantime.
Laihia notes that the way increasing amounts of information have been concentrated in the Internet - and possibly only on the Net - can come as a rude awakening to returnees, particularly among the older generation.
“We are not always conscious of the sense of abject helplessness that can be engendered by a couple of years away. Technology advances can alienate and marginalise people in no time at all”, says Laihia.
“But it works both ways. If you know how to use the technology, it is a way of holding on to the friendships that were struck up abroad. This can be a great comfort when everything seems topsy-turvy back at home”, Laihia goes on.
The majority of those returning to Finland say that the process of re-acclimatisation is more difficult than the original going abroad, according to empirical studies.
The reason is straightforward enough. When going abroad the mind-set is prepared and tuned to changes and to cultural differences, whereas the home country - though it might be only a blue-remembered one - is expected by nature to offer simple solutions and no problems.
“The whole idea of the word ‘home’ is redolent with ‘the familiar’. The default expectation is that one is going back to where one started from. And the shock is all the greater when it is not only things that have changed, but also - perhaps unconsciously - the returnees themselves”, explains Saviaro.
Coming home is different for everyone. In addition to the individual’s personality, the smoothness or otherwise of the landing can be influenced by the degree of difference in the “from” and “to” cultures, by the amount of time spent away, and by the intensity of the experience of being abroad.
The greater the yen to go home, and the more the idea is excitedly fussed over beforehand, the bumpier the landing into reality can be.
Things that stink in the home country tend to be ignored or forgotten while living abroad, in favour of those pleasurable memories of home sweet home.
“If someone is pining to return for a long time and looking forward to the day they can get on the plane home, then the chances are it will all end in tears. The expectations are quite unrealistic and create fertile soil for disappointment. On the other hand, even a ‘good’ landing back home usually carries with it a certain sense of longing for what was left behind”, says Saviaro.
Finding one’s own place, one’s own page in the book, as it were, can take months, even years.
Some find themselves so frightened by the sense of alienation and rootlessness they feel that they flee back to the wider world again.
“We should have the courage to deal with these sort of feelings. Escape is never a good reason for leaving, but the leaver does not necessarily recognise the real reason”, advises Saviaro.
The basic rule is that it is a good idea to try to work through the experiences of returning with others who have undergone the same shocks.
Then it is possible to let off steam, to enjoy things from the past, and to criticise the present goings-on in the country without unduly offending or annoying anyone.
The returnee needs time and space and patience from family members and friends.
Even if the stories of life “out there” might become repetitive and boring, it is important for the returnee to be able to express the change he or she has undergone in words.
The wisdoms that returnees bring back with them often go to waste, in Laihia’s experience.
For instance, working-life, with its attendant values and its attitudes, is very Finnish-centred, and even rather blinkered.
“This upsets many, as they have picked up new values, new perspectives, and new experiences along the way. And they go unrecognised back home. Even the language skills that an employee may have picked up while working abroad might not be something that the employer has the wits to make good use of.”
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 7.4.2008
More on this subject:
A year in Paraguay and the changes it brought
"Fortunately we have a home country to come back to"
MAKING THINGS EASIER: Prepare well in advance
FACTFILE: The 1980s were the big decade for returnees