Sinikka's snippets

Finland and travelling, a woman's life, cultures, languages, photography plus family recipes

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‘On the road’ through culture shock

On Instagram, people post pictures on Thursdays with the hashtag #tbt, meaning ‘throw-back Thursday. As it’s Thursday today, instead of instagramming, I decided to post this close to 20-year-old memoir of my family’s unforgettable experience in the US here on my blog. I wrote this in 2002, having done the Fulbright teacher exchange in 1996-1997. All the sentiments and insights still ring very true today.

Back in those days, no knowledge of digital cameras, and as all our old-fashioned slide pictures are still waiting to be digitalised, after all these years – only one scanned print of us. Here we are, young and wild, at the White House for the annual kids’ Easter Egg Hunt. It was the Clinton era, and the President and the First Lady even came on the balcony to greet us.



Culture shock has been defined as ”the anxiety that results from losing all of our familiar signs and symbols of social intercourse” (Kalvero Oberg, “Cultural Shock: Adjustment to New Cultural Environment,” Practical Anthropology 7 (1960): 177.) As such, people setting off for any length of foreign sojourn are usually well counselled to deal with this challenge as easily as possible. As indeed, were my family and I.

We learnt all about the four basic stages: euphoria, hostility, gradual adjustment and finally – hopefully – adaptation. We thought we would have been well prepared and aware to avoid it, or at least be able to smoothly survive and get through any of the difficult stages…

Here are some brief thoughts on our year in America.


August 1996 – excitedly off the plane, to set foot on American soil for the first time ever in our lives and into dazzling, sticky-hot Virginia sunshine. Amidst all the immediate ”oohs” and ”aahs” and ”gees”, we enthusiastically started our year of exploration of a vast new continent.

Daily we came across phenomena so new and exhilarating: the sound of, what we thought were noisy telephone lines, but were told bemusedly later were cicadas, the incredibly abundant choice and supply of food at restaurants, the enthusiastic service everywhere (“Have a nice day!”), all those cute American expressions, never-ending TV entertainment, the ultimate ‘shop till you drop’ experiences (I still remember the first time at the cash register: ”Paper or plastic?” and me frantically wondering whether it meant ”cash or credit card”!), the first time driving on the buzzing beltway around DC with the car radio blasting genuine country ‘n western…

And yet, at other times so strangely familiar – after all, we’d seen much of it in the movies or on TV. But it is true what we were told – everything in America is BIGGER, and even then, I’d say magnified by thousands! From such mundane things as the fridge and the garbage can to stretch limos, everything seemed giant (even our new local supermarket was aptly called “Giant”, can you believe it?). Once driving in from New Jersey, catching the first glimpse of that stunning Manhattan skyline – well, even the blue sky seemed huger.

Diary entry during the first couple of weeks: ”Even the ants here are humonguous!”


Soon though, the little hitches began to appear in our consumer and tourist paradise.

For example, little did we guess that all our laboriously acquired medical certificates and child’s extra vaccinations meant diddly-squat in our new home country. Apparently, it was a pink form they needed (not the light blue one our Finnish doctor had provided). Another slight problem – you can’t enrol a child into school if her birth certificate doesn’t have a number and worse, doesn’t list her father’s name, let alone even the child’s!

Once that was all figured out, there was another line up around all different administrative offices in DC to straighten out a problem that, unknown to us, happened immediately we had arrived at the airport. The immigration official there had automatically assumed that the man would be the provider and the wife a mere dependant, and so, naturally, entered MY work permit in my husband’s passport. This now meant I didn’t have a social security number. As I later found out from my students, having this is the key to living the American life. Nothing can really start without it. I tell you, standing in line in an INS office in DC and eventually ending up at the ”deportation booth” is no fun!

Added to all this frustrating red tape, next the stress of actually starting a brand new style of work! My assignment in Falls Church Transitional ESL Center and my job in Finland were literally as different as day and night. Not only did I change from a regular day school into an evening program, for a teacher used to a national curriculum and set course books, it was a shock to end up being more like a freelance entertainer. Instead of having some time every day to team-plan with colleagues, I was literally locked into my classroom with my students for almost six full hours every night. Seeking help from my new colleagues in lost and lonely moments, I was told “just smile” and later hushed with ”we don’t talk shop during dinner breaks”.

Little by little, American peculiarities began to be less charming and started to irritate!

Even the cheerful greetings in shops – “How ya doin, you guys!” – soon sounded downright intrusive. ”Leave me alone, I don’t know you, please don’t say anything to me!!” Now why, oh why, wasn’t America more like good old silent and sensible Finland?! Even our little kindergartener daughter started to show symptoms. During the daily ’Pledge of Allegiance’ with the customary singing of ’God bless America’, she chose not to stand up with the reasoning “but it’s not my flag nor my country, teacher”.

Rock bottom came just two months in: the brakes in our borrowed car let us down one morning and resulted in a brush with law enforcement! What we saw as a really minor bump – just a common beltway fender bender – led to us naively using our European instinct to explain things to try and sort it out. WRONG!! Soon after we were advised: never admit anything, say nothing! We were just totally oblivious to the litigious US approach to any problem.

Already, it was all beginning to suck!

Diary entry: ”Love it, or leave it… Help, I want to go home!”


If it wasn’t for our lifeline network of wonderful Fulbright friends we’d made at the orientation (Hilkka, Terttu, Ismo and Anikka – thanks a whole bunch to all of you!) and especially Anneli, our dedicated motherly confidante at the Helsinki end, plus our own stubborn perseverance, we might have easily packed our bags there and then.

But we had our mission to accomplish – to complete the Fulbright assignment and exchange philosophy bestowed on us.

Settling in at work and interacting with my multicultural immigrant students steadily became more of a daily delight and an inexhaustible learning experience for me. Through discussions inspired by poetry, song lyrics, folktales, and legends, I learned such touching details about their lives, feelings, hopes, and fears. In fact, I began to realise that really we were rather like allies and friends, together adjusting to our new environment and gaining invaluable insights into diversity and tolerance and each other’s fascinating cultures.

Further, juggling the roles of a teacher in a challenging new job, being the wife of a Mr. Mom (or as he preferred to call himself, ”Survival Organiser” – to impress Americans incredulous at a man staying at home!), plus a parent of a just turned 6-year-old ”exchange student”, gradually got easier. We began to meet real neat people, routines were established, and we learned the ways to make life run smoothly (coupons really stretch a budget!). Even our daughter’s regular ”OH MANNN!” exclamations, started to sound cute, and reassuring.

America was beginning to reveal to us its fun side.

Diary entry: “Trick or Treat, Thanksgiving turkey and Happy Holidays! Yeah, we’re getting a handle on this now!”


America really is the ideal continent for travel and discovery.

The on the road culture of the States became so understandable. We decided the only way we could handle this was to “collect states”, and so we embarked on the road movie experience by travelling the 3,000 miles from Coast to Coast (and then back) plus a few more North and South. Well, we got to 40 states (out of 50! – that ain’t bad in a year!). Memorable experiences? Wow, countless.

Just a few of the amazing? Here goes… As well as all those famous places in New York … Grand Canyon (one day hike into, and still only got one third down!), desert to snow in one day (those Monuments and Arches up to the Rocky Mountains), San Francisco (Golden Gate Bridge – walked across 3 times), Graceland (plus Tupelo for the birthplace – ah huhhah), Las Vegas (no big bucks for us!), Route 66 (for the kicks!), Hollywood, Miami Beach, Disneyland, Niagara Falls, Kitty Hawk, Indian reservations, Amish folk, nearly everything in DC, like the White House (even the kiddies’ Easter egg hunt on the lawn!), and more…so much more…and all through it the ubiquitous motel stay (or even a tepee, one time).

To top that all we even got the year of a Presidential election. Wow indeed.

Diary entry: ”Been there, done that!”


Only with hindsight did we realise that not only had we not avoided it, but surprise, surprise we had actually been a textbook example of going through all the stages of culture shock.

So, is there any lesson here? Well, perhaps that no matter how well you prepare yourself and are prepared by others for ‘culture shock’, in reality there’s no avoiding it. Everybody just HAS to go through it personally, in their own individual way – it’s like any initiation ritual in life, one way or another you have to work your way through them.

I don’t think you can fully adapt to a new culture in just one year. Despite all our daily triumphs we still remained legal aliens, although possibly well functioning ones. And anyway, for us, the purpose was different. Interaction and enriching our lives through mutual learning and experience were more important. I must admit we left America wistfully. Just as we felt we’d got the hang of Stateside living and culture…it was all too soon suddenly finished. We sure would have loved to stay on for another year.

And no sooner had we arrived back in Finland than it was time for ”re-entry shock”, and that in itself is a whole new ballgame……

It is now close to 5 years since we returned.

The spirit of Senator Fulbright’s original inspiration was: ”promoting understanding between people and their cultures”. In this respect, for us the whole time was totally successful and deeply affecting. After all, put a Finn to teach English to Asians and Hispanics in the US, and you can hardly get closer to that ideal!. Any problems or difficulties we ever encountered pale alongside our experiences and recollections, which are all still so vivid and truly treasured; not only the sights, but also the few lasting and dear friends we met.

But of course, the experience also significantly impacted our professional lives. It became a catalyst that ignited unexpected shifts in our mindsets. In particular, the characteristic and inspirational American ‘can-do’ attitude really got to us. Since then, I have stepped onto the lifelong road to study and learn about intercultural communication and have also become the coordinator of several international projects in my school. My husband also finally got around to setting up his own company on return (based very much on intercultural experiences, too). Even for our daughter, interest in other lifestyles has led to her now having her own sponsored little god-daughter in India.

To wrap then: as well as allowing us to realise the American experience of travelling on the road, the Fulbright exchange and opportunity also set us on the road to become more enlightened citizens of the world. Quite simply, we feel privileged to have been part of Senator Fulbright’s vision.

Diary entry: ”Was it worth it? You betcha – it undoubtedly was REAL COOL MAN!”



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A grocery store to die for

I fell in love with ‘Whole Foods Market’ during our holiday in Hawaii. We first learned about this ingenious grocery store chain from our friends that we stayed with. As we were getting ready to go to Kailua beach on our second morning there, our friends told us not to miss a visit to ‘Whole Foods’ in the centre of the town. Thank you for the recommendation! It became one of our favourite hang-outs – after the breathtakingly beautiful beaches, of course. wholefoods1 Here is, in a nutshell, what the company is all about, from the company website.

Who are we? Well, we seek out the finest natural and organic foods available, maintain the strictest quality standards in the industry, and have an unshakeable commitment to sustainable agriculture. Add to that the excitement and fun we bring to shopping for groceries, and you start to get a sense of what we’re all about. Oh yeah, we’re a mission-driven company too.

Started in Austin, Texas, in 1980, this flagship of fresh, pure, organic, ecologically and ethically sound, and as far as possible local food and products has since spread, by acquisitions and mergers, all over the US, and also to Canada and  the London area in the UK, too. The company ethos is being “buying agents” for shoppers, to ensure that they can shop with a peace of mind that strict standards, and the store’s own “Responsibly grown ratings”, are always followed. There are several stories about farmer partners and suppliers on the company website, all testifying to the care and attention paid not only to the quality of the produce but also to sustainability, conserving the environment and animal welfare, for example. wholefoods4 I really can’t praise this store enough! Coming from winter in Finland, when fresh produce is always imported from thousands of miles away, and where the grocery selection, on the whole, is quite limited, this place was paradise. Everything was beautifully displayed, the selection was out of this world, and so much to choose from, I didn’t know where to start! In addition to all the mouthwatering food, there were also organically produced soaps and other cosmetics, as well as some lovely clothes. (Unfortunately, I didn’t dare to take photos inside the store. From our 1-year stay in the US in the 1990s, we remembered having been forbidden to take pictures inside stores so often that I didn’t even sneakily try!) wholefoods3Finally, the real icing on the cake, to make this shopping experience so convenient and “civilised”, if you like, was their prepared foods section. In fact, ‘Whole Foods Markets’ are also restaurants. You can select your food from their salad bar (all fresh and super tasty), or warm dishes section (lots of vegetarian dishes, too, and nice, surprisingly exotic ones), and to finish with a lovely selection of fruit and desserts, too. You either stack your choice on a plate or in a cardboard box, which are then weighed at the check out, to get the price. How delightfully easy and simple! There was also a bar, with a nice selection of wines and draught beers (hubby was very pleased!). And best of all, you can take all the food and drinks outside, and enjoy it on the terrace straight away! IMG_2324 The terrace in Kailua was great, with people of all ages mixing together quite happily – families with small children and pets, big groups of women, probably spending their lunch hour from work together, with glasses of wine and chirpy chat and laughter, couples for coffee and cakes, young people immersed in their smartphone worlds, and then tourists like us. We are missing so much in our country of strict regulations and closed and limited areas for different age groups and functions!

The only disadvantage, if you can call it that, were of course their high prices. But hey, it’s a choice, and if I can afford it, I gladly pay extra to enjoy the great tastes and healthy alternatives while being environmentally-friendly at the same time. Sadly, the consumer markets for anything here in Finland are very small, so I can’t see stores like this catching on here any time soon, especially in the present gloomy economic climate. Still, hopefully one day a Finn will come up with a similar business concept. Can’t wait! In the meantime, I will have to just be happy with our memories from Hawaii, and keep checking out the recipes of the ‘Whole Foods Market’ website. wholefoods5


Bussing Hawaii


“You must be joking!” That’s what we constantly heard when I and hubby told friends that we were going to spend two weeks on the island of Oahu in Hawaii, and not rent a car. It was actually by accident that we ended up carless. You see, we didn’t realise that, here in Finland, it now takes at least a week to get an international driver’s licence (a requirement, we were told, for renting a car in Hawaii) and we only started inquiring 3 days before departure. Oh well, we thought, we don’t mind public transport, we’d be alright.


And we were alright, regardless of our local friends’ doubts and reservations. They had been living on Oahu for 6 months, and never once ventured onto a bus. Yes, we knew what a must your own car normally is, anywhere in the States. After all, we had spent a whole year in Virginia back in the 90s. Yet, in hindsight, even there, in the Washington DC area, the metro trains ran frequently and reliably. But of course, when in the US, you do miss a lot, and life is a pain at times if you aren’t mobile with your own private car.

On the whole, I must say the Oahu buses exceeded our expectations. They were modern and clean, and took you practically all round the small island. Recorded announcements and led screens kept you informed about each approaching stop. NB. a bus stop is usually named after the two closest crossing streets (it took us a while to work this out!). And what an ingenious system they had for passengers to get their bicycles on as well!

bus2 bus6 bus13 bus14

On the drawback side, sometimes (especially coming home late at night) the AC was too efficiently cold but that’s easily solved with layered clothing. Also, if you were unlucky to just miss a connection, often the next bus wouldn’t come until  one hour’s time. Needless to say, we spent quite a lot of time hanging around bus stops! But hey, when you’re on holiday, you are not stressed with time, and those waiting times were excellent opportunities for people and local life watching.


For $2.50 a piece, a ticket gave you two transfers within a restricted time frame. For example, one day we travelled round the whole southern part of the island, from Kaneohe, through Honolulu to Hanauma Bay, and back round to the north through Kailua – and all this, for the two us only cost 10 bucks! Great value, I would say!


Finding your way (even without a proper map!) was no problem! On some evenings, we checked the routes on Google maps and timetables on TheBus website in advance for the next day but, mostly, we just played it by ear. The bus drivers were extremely helpful, and willingly shouted out for us to get off when we’d reached our desired destination. One useful piece of information we learned after a couple of days was that on Oahu, people look at direction based on the trade winds blowing across the island. Thus ‘windward’ buses go north of Honolulu (i.e. the side of the island where the predominant wind blows from the sea) and ‘leeward’ buses go south (i.e. the predominant wind blows from the interior of the island to the sea). Quite a few times, people would talk to us about ‘windward and leeward buses’, without us having the faintest idea what this meant. Talking about friendly and helpful people, though, they are the best thing, all over America! I’d totally forgotten this since our American year, but how lovely to be, once again, surrounded by talkative and sociable people who don’t ignore strangers amidst them. We only needed to look a little bit lost or bewildered, and soon enough there’d be a friendly face asking if we needed any help. This happened so many times, on every single day of our stay, that it truly filled us with great gratitude and warmth. Sure, there were times when we, more reserved Europeans, would have appreciated our own peace and quiet after the initial small talk and not hear the whole life stories of our fellow passengers but, positively thinking, never a dull moment at a bus stop or on the bus in Hawaii! You’d always have somebody to talk to if you so wished!


Oddly enough, perhaps, we didn’t miss having a rental car during our Hawaiian holiday. True, our friends, who hosted us, took us around in their car during the weekend but we did cover long distances on our own on the buses on weekdays. One more advantage for hubby was being able, for once, to sit back and take in and enjoy all the breathtaking scenery, instead of sweating away behind the wheel on busy roads. All in all, Hawaii on public transport is doable, affordable and even entertaining. Go for it, and travel greener!