Dec 18, 2016

Where Swedish is being the wrong kind

I can’t really find a word for the feeling this weeks news from Finland is bringing me. Might it be fear?

Of the five Nordic countries, Sweden is the big brother. It has the largest area and a population of 9 million compared to Finland, Norway and Denmark 5-5,5 million people. And then there is Island of course, only about 320 000 inhabitants.

The countries share history and partly culture as well. We also share language community since one of the Nordic languages is spoken in each country. Swedish, Danish, Norwegian and Icelandic all have the same origin, the Old Norse. Finnish though, is a Finno-Ugric language, not at all relate to the Old Norse.

However, Finland is officially bilingual, Finnish and Swedish are both national languages. Finnish is the majority language and Swedish a minority language spoken by about 5 %, the Swedish speaking Finns.

Now, the status about Swedish in Finland is questioned by some, especially by Sannfinländarna (The True Finns), a nationalistic and right wing party. As in too many countries around the world, the protectionism is on the march and the tolerance for minorities, wether being there forever or new to the culture, is vanishing. 

What happened in Finland this week is a new healthcare reform decided on by the government. The reform means that emergency care won’t be available in Swedish at some hospitals in Finland, among them Vasa right across the Gulf of Bothnia from Umeå. Vasa is the county seat in the region Österbotten inhabited by a majority of Swedish speaking Finns.

The situation is of corse upsetting to the Swedish speaking Finns who argue this is a human rights issue. Being denied emergency care in their mother tongue is downgrading them to second category citizen.

Now, why is this stirring up uncomfortable feelings in me? A tiny cramp in my stomach. Besides that it’s a bad decision.

Sweden wasn’t always the politically neutral peace loving country we are perceived as. Breeding skilled diplomats sent to troublesome hot spots of the world. Sweden once was a violent European super power and this is something we are very quiet about these days. The Swedish Empire. It doesn’t fit our today self image. And the reason to why Swedish is a national language in Finland is that Finland once was a part of Sweden.

Sweden is the big brother. Not only by area and population, but by history. This is not something we are walking around thinking about. This is our natural DNA. I am a white woman living here, self-evident as someone who knows her family tree by names and dates seven generations back. Aware of the many generations even before that. Speaking the language that is my country.

I think, realizing my language, four hours from here by ferry, in one of our brother-countries, is considered unwanted and problematic, feels…unreal. I am reacting like the safe ignorant majority woman I am. How can my language be disturbing?

But that tiny cramp in my stomach. I vaguely recognize it. From where? Then it comes back. An emergency stop for gas in Oakland California. The off ramp from the freeway and the gas station in the shadows under the ramp. People with empty eyes and frightening body language hanging around the place.

For me, a white woman born to walk safely in this world, it takes a documented dangerous place like an off ramp gas station in Oakland to feel the scare of being the one that’s different and out of place. To be the wrong kind. This week I am getting to know someone four hours from here, speaking my language, is the wrong kind.

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