Sunday, August 15, 2010

On the importance of transferring cultural ethnicity to the next generation

Comments on ‘Finnishness’ as a cultural identity in transformation in multicultural society such as Australia

As a discussion on how we can best transfer our culture to our grandchildren in multicultural Australia (see my June blog posting on volunteering as grand parenting), I received a book from Finland. It is written by Laura Kolbe, a professor of European history at the University of Helsinki. The book is called IHANUUKSIEN IHMEMAA [roughly translated: The wondrous wonderland]. The book discusses the concept of the modern Finnishness in the global context by seeking insights through contemplating on the history of the construction of ‘Finnishness’ during the last two centuries. It is a good and easy read, well recommended for those who want to gain more understanding of the issues concerning transferring ethnicity and culture. It is a very personal contemplation on culture in relation to the author’s experiences as a much sought authority on Finland and Finnishness. As I am someone who has identified my ethnicity as Finnish in the Australian context, reading the book raised several interesting issues on how and what it is that is important to consider as transferable to the next generation.

To me one of the highlights of the book was the author’s discussion on culture as being “that what is left when everything else is taken away (Kolbe, 2010, my translation).” According to Laura Kolbe, a person who is ’cultured’ is someone who”knows his/her own culture, is interested in learning more and knows the proper etiquette. When necessary a cultured person also acts as a re-creator of traditions (Ibid, my translation).” In the context of the multicultural Australia, I would then ask what one would best choose as representing one’s ethnic culture to be transferrable to the next generation.

Another interesting issue Kolbe raises concerns branding of a country. How would one identify a country’s brand? How would a country sell itself in a global market? Laura Kolbe belongs to the Committee of Finland Brand development [Suomen brändivaltuuskunta], set to work by 2008 Foreign Minister Alexander Stubb. As members the Committee has a number of Finnish intellectuals and the deep discussion has been aided by Simon Anholt, who is considered a world’s leading political advisor on the Country branding concept(Ängeslevä, 2010). They have considered what would make a leading country in the world imagery. Their report is expected at the end of this year. As a Finn in multicultural Australia, holding a double citizenship, I see different motives in transferring one’s ethnicity to the next generation as part of creating culture of family life in Australia and finding a representing image of one’s ethnic country to ‘sell’ in a global context.

If I were to ‘sell’ Finland as a brand in Australia, I would probably agree with the panel of the 2009 Finnish TV series ‘Suomi myytävänä’ [Finland for sale] that the winners would be Kalevala, sauna and Joulupukki [Santa Claus]. Promoting them as uniquely Finnish would be something which defines my ethnic brand from others. This does not mean in any way that they would have been originally Finnish. Finnishness as Kolbe concludes is a ‘liberal-educated’ construction anyway. Their unique Finnish expression would be the selling point. I have sang Kalevala lyrics and Kanteletar inspired folk songs enough in the Folklore tent at the Woodford Folk Festival in Queensland and at the Canberra National Folk Festival to know that it is this unique way of singing that people stop to listen. It might be a re-creation but it sells the brand. Sauna might be historically only a survivor of the old Roman and European tradition in the Finnish environment (Korhonen, 1993), but it is a living tradition supported by etiquette and modern custom. I do not know a Finn in Australia, who would not have access to a sauna either at home or some other way. And the secular, but not utterly consumerism absorbed ‘Joulupukki’ [Santa] as a Finnish brand is very near to my heart as a person born in the Finnish Lapland.

On the other hand what I choose to work on transferring to my grandchildren as traits of uniquely Finnish ethnicity in multicultural Australia is defined by my personal experience as a Finn in the global context. This kind of experience I also try to share with for example my daughter’s and son’s in-laws as part of our mutual culture exchange. The general goal is to re-create our family culture to fit our life in Australia as an ethnic Finnish person and as an Australian. The most important aim is to celebrate the many shades of our heritage as natural parts of our everyday living experience. The winners there, as I see them, are:
• the Finnish language as an important communication tool,
• the sense of Swedish language as part of my bilingual Finnish experience
• the importance of ‘Suomi-koulu’ [the Finnish School] as a builder of one’s identity in multicultural society,
• the general experience of ethnicity as an accepted part of everyday life,
• traditional Finnish foods as part of general food culture,
• celebrating Christmas Eve and a real Joulupukki’s visit as the main event in the Christmas tradition
• Sauna as an experience
• Finnish music experience
• A double citizenship which assures access to Finland and Europe as a travel and work experience destinations

What I want to transfer to the next generation is the experience of openness, the sense of freedom as a global citizen. Personally most important to me as part of my Finnishness in multicultural Australia is my membership in the Ethnic Communities Council of Queensland (ECCQ) and in the QLD Health Multicultural Advisory Group, the sharing of my ethnicity with other people and my efforts in making sure that all those who define their ethnicity first as other than Australian are included as natural part of the Australian experience. In my work as a community development enthusiast I want to ensure that the Community Care Organisation I work for provides a platform and an equal opportunity for community participation for every member of the community.

In his book Finland, Cultural Lone Wolf, Richard D. Lewis descries culture as “the collective programming of the mind (Lewis, 2005).” He talks about the multicultural experience as a conscious effort of ‘broadening our horizons’. It includes taking in the other’s views, making them part of our own experience. According to him a multicultural person “seeks to strive towards “totality of experience”.” For a Finn, a sense of separateness is a cultural collective experience. Discussions on cultural relativism in arts and literature were an important part of the historical process of finding political independence for Finland as a nation (Ibid & Kolbe, 2010). Still, as I recently learned at a conference (see my previous posting on high ideals and community building basics), the sense of separateness is an illusion. “All is connected. It is a scientific fact”, said Dr P Krishna, an Indian Professor of Physics, in a recent talk.

I see it as an asset that in a multicultural society like Australia, we are able to ‘broaden our horizons’ by including great variety of cultural experiences in our daily life. It will hopefully give our grandchildren a more secure foundation to build their own identity.

Some of the things I have already done to ensure transferring and sharing this unique cultural heritage of Finnishness in the Australian context has been:

The familiarity of the landscape
I have consciously chosen to build a house (a Queenslander) next to a just completed lake.


I have shared my Christmas traditions with my daughter’s in-laws


I have moved some gnomes from Finland to my sauna and my granddaughter had her first sauna experience at the age of two months with me and her mother.


I have introduced my English daughter-in-law to baking ‘pulla &korvapuusti’ [Scandinavian sweetbread] in London on my recent visit there.

The Finnish social contacts

My granddaughter has been introduced to the Finnish community in Brisbane during 2010 European Summer solstice picnic [Juhannus-piknikki]

As a hint of where to start with the small children also read
Tatun ja Patun Suomi [This is Finland] (Havukainen and Toivonen, 2007)

I look forward to sharing and discovering many more cultural exchange moments with my family, friends and the environment


HAVUKAINEN, A. & TOIVONEN, S. 2007. Tatun ja Patun Suomi (This is Finland), Keuruu, Otava.
KOLBE, L. 2010. IHANUUKSIEN IHMEMAA Suomalaisen itseymmärryksen jäljillä, Helsinki, Kirjapaja.
KORHONEN, T. (ed.) 1993. Mitä on suomalaisuus, Helsinki: Suomen Antropologinen Seura.
LEWIS, R. D. 2005. Finland, Cultural Lone Wolf, London, Intercultural Press, A Nicholas Brealey Publishing Company.
ÄNGESLEVÄ, P. 2010. Mies Suomi-brändin takana. Suomen Kuvalehti,23/07


  1. This is a very interesting read, Elina. I think that book would teach younger generations to appreciate the culture of their elders. Kolbe definitely makes an interesting point about the transfer of culture. And yes, the sauna is one of the unique ethnic marks of the Finnish culture. I read somewhere that sauna is like air for Finnish people.


  2. Such an adorable idea to have fun with kids and to teach them how to grow! Amazing!