M. Norbert Kilmer was a kid from an obscure corner of Los Angeles County. He now lives with his wife and two boys in Helsinki, Finland, where he teaches high school English and hangs around looking cool. He will be guest blogging for the next couple of weeks.
I left the United States in August 2001 because of a serious case of restlessness. I was 31 and single; I had just finished my MA and thrived as a high school English and Media Studies teacher … but the restlessness haunted me. I considered several options, all of which left me with a stupor of thought. Then I heard about international schools and off I went to Finland, never having been here before. After two happy years I married a Finnish Mormon and we moved to London, planning to globe hop until our feet itched no more. The birth of twins and the ensuing chaos cured us, and when I was offered a job back here, it smelled like a blessing. And, dear reader, so it has been.
I like being an expatriate. One of the things I like the best is the distance it gives me from culture. I can observe American culture from afar, with detached amusement or theoretical indignation, but not have to be up to my neck in it. On the other hand, I can pick and choose from Finnish culture, focusing on what I like most — sauna and a reverence for nature — without having to take responsibility for the less savory aspects, like rampant public drunkenness and a lack of experience with racial diversity.
Our family is in an interesting but not uncommon situation regarding culture. From the beginning we have overtly identified our differences in culture and the resulting attitudes and priorities. We started our married life by moving to London which was ‘neutral ground’ culturally: there was less chance of either of us being swallowed up into the dominant culture. And it encouraged us to develop a distinct family culture. A few weeks before we were married, Elder Oaks gave a talk in which he talked about the ‘culture of the gospel.’ That has become a key phrase in our lives. Decisions about, for instance, child rearing and the relationships we have with people in the church and outside are up for grabs because we don’t have a shared cultural answer. The concept of the culture of the gospel — what we embrace through a process of repentance and purification — is a good guide for us, although we don’t apply it as often as we could.
And while the culture of the gospel is central, cultural identity still matters. And I can see it will be struggle for one or both of us to communicate what we feel is essential about our own cultural identity. I want my kids to understand the ethos of the American West and embrace jazz and the blues as a cultural gift to the world, but I don’t want them to sneer at
football soccer or take the phrase ‘the home of the brave’ too literally. We don’t want them to be Finnish kids with an American dad, or American kids with a Finnish mom. And then there is pressure to declare the culture of our family one way or another. Acquaintances from the states are sometimes agog that we are not itching to make our way back, and some Finns sneer a bit at what they perceive as our American-ness, although more often than not they are reacting to those aspects of our family culture we have developed independently.
Overcoming specific cultural issues has challenged us (we had a major fight about whether peanut butter and jam sandwiches could be a meal), but I’ve always thought of the phrase from Vonnegut’s Mother Night: “a nation of two.” That’s how it felt in our tiny flat in London; and after the boys were born and we returned to Helsinki, we have continued that theme. But I am nagged by the awkwardness of being the token American in what local members sometimes resent as an American church; and we don’t have solid answers about how to negotiate the pressure, including from our church acquaintances and families, to settle on one culture or the other.