Culture and my family

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.


  1. Welcome, MNK.

    Any practical ideas as to what the “culture of the Gospel” actually is?

    the awkwardness of being the token American in what local members sometimes resent as an American church

    An American friend of mine in London has the same worry. I really don’t think it’s an issue, unless you preface every Gospel discussion with, “in the States…”!

  2. We’re still a long way from embracing diversity in the church. In HP quorum lessons, it seems conservative talk show hosts are quoted as often as the General Authorities.

  3. Norbert, I genuinely envy you. I realize that I am breaking a commandment, and hereby apologize to God. But I see such a wealth which expatriate families get to participate in. Families we met in China had amazing children, so tightly bonded and so solid in their identities (not that their ex-patriate status was the only reason for that), and the brief time I took my kids to live in Guatemala was extremely important in our coming together as a family and expanding our perception of the world. (Last night when I got mad at our poor little house because the toilet flooded, my daughter said calmly, “At least we have a house.” I wonder if she would have said that were it not for the things she saw in Guatemala.)
    Finland, I know, if much different, and I don’t say any of the above to minimize the genuine struggle in negotiating one’s cultural identity. But I still envy you. I spent a day in Finland. (And if you go the museum in Helsinki and see the linguistic exhibit, know that my dad had a major hand in setting it up.)
    Dad served his mission there, and called Danish Dessert “kiseli” (no idea how you spell that). We went to parties celebrating “Yolopuki” for Christmas, and Dad spoke Finnish about as easily as he spoke English, or so it seemed to me.
    As side note, Dad had wanted to go to Russia on his mission–not a possibility in 1950. In Finland, he’d look over the Baltic Sea at Estonia. 40+ years later, he was called to preside over the Baltic States Mission.
    So good luck negotiating the chasm between Santa Claus and Yolopuki–and everything that comes between. But I for one think you are very lucky.

  4. MR, I think that may be just were you live, not the Church generally. It definitely is not the case in the Stakes I’ve lived in for the last decade.

    Norbert, thanks for the write-up and perspective. I had a talk with an English professor friend a couple of years ago about the concept of “exile” (a la Said). This has stuck with me as I think there is something inherently Mormon (or as you say gospel culture) about the idea. We are exiled from general culture and in the best cases we learn to understand the culture because of it. Obviously, there has been established a solid “Mormon Culture” over time that you have an even deeper exile from.

  5. I want to make a clear distinction between the culture of the church and the culture of the gospel.

    For us, the culture off the gospel has been focusing on service and making our home open to others, trying to overcome the insularity that we both felt the family-centered church inadvertantly encouraged.

  6. Norbert – Like Margaret I am totally envious. I am an architect and of all the great architects, Alvar Aalto is the greatest. I’ve never been to Finland – I got close once in St. Petersburg, Russia – but I can only imagine the beautiful environment – which you acknowledge is a reverent subject there – and the reasonable temperatures. I live in Northern Virginia and the summers are sweltering. My wife’s little sister has lived abroad with her family for about 6 years and they have loved it – and we have enjoyed visiting them in places we might never have seen before. They are making plans to return to the states for good this summer and I know they have great misgivings about that decision.

    Best of luck in all that you do. I’m curious – did you ultimately decide that PBJs are a meal or not?

  7. Norbert that was great to read about. I grew up going to the International schools overseas (in Stavanger, Norway and Cobham, England) and I love hearing about other Expats experiences. It was such an awesome experience having the chance to go to those schools and all the educational/travel opportunities I got there were invaluable. Does your school particpate in ISTA?

    The truly hard part is ‘repatriating’ should you ever have to. Also, you have my dream job.

  8. Veritas,

    Did you see the article on Mormon expat families in the last issue of BYU Studies? The difficulty of repatriation was one of its major themes. I thought it was fascinating, and I’d love to hear about your experience some time.


  9. Margaret and lamonte: be envious now. In November and December its pretty bleak and cold. But I will look more carefully at the displays next time I’m on a field trip to the national museum.

    Stapley: I’m often surprised, as a reult, how few members seem aware of the nature of culture considering they often are somewhat marginalized by church membership, and so many missionaries serve in different cultures, even within the United States. Although at some point I realized the platitude ‘I just love the people’ was perhaps an expression of appreciation for the culture.

    Veritas: Stavanger is a beautiful city, and I know the Cobham school quite well. I’m taking a small group of students to an ISTA (International School Theatre Association) festival in Trieste at the end of the month. On the topic of PB&J, we had to agree to disagree. We have a don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy about what daddy gives as lunches when mommy isn’t home.

  10. Yep, I know it’s cold there. But just once, I would like to make a Christmas trip to the cemetery with a lighted candle in my hand. Did you participate in that?

  11. Norbert #9 – I grew up in the mountains of Idaho. I live for cold weather. My wife blames all of our cold weather on me because I can’t wait for winter to get here.

  12. Thanks, Norbert. My wife and I lived as expats for a brief period. It is a strange and engaging experience. Finland is beautiful.

    I still remember sitting in church and having the elderly Americans eager to have me translate their folkloric comments to the faithful but naively heterodox Russians. I generally (was this a sin?) deleted the ludicrous claims without comment, and I worried what the elderly Americans would do with questions about astral wandering and ESP, so I tried to explore those topics directly with the Russians.

    And we found repatriation difficult, struggled with variant affluenza for years.

    I found that the Russians seemed to enjoy having non-missionary Americans among them precisely because we weren’t invested in American cultural domination but were living among them as grateful guests.

  13. Steve Evans says:

    Norbert, great to read you, as always. I’d love to hear more about Finnish Mormons and your expat experience. My own expat life was only a few years in France, but I find the issues of cultural transplantation really fascinating. I’d like to get more colour from you about your cultural picking-and-choosing process — are you consistent? What’s your overall goal?

  14. Thats awesome that you are going to ISTA. Those ISTA trips are some of my best memories ever and we got to be such good friends with the teachers who took us. My school in Stavanger also hosted one year and that was a cool experience as well.

    Serenity – I have never read the BYU publication (I’m uh, not like everyone else around here… hehe). I unfortunatly had to move back to a small oil town in Oklahoma so, oh boy do I have stories. Ugh.

  15. Kevin Barney says:

    Wondeful essay, Norbert. (I share everyone else’s envy.)

    If it’s not too personal, what was it like being a single, “on the market” Mormon man from the US in Finland? How did the expat factor work in that context; did it make you more or less appealing as a prospect, or was it basically neutral?

  16. Margaret #10: The candles in the cemetery are one of my favorite views of Finland. We go to my wife’s grandfather’s grave at Christmas and drive past Helsinki’s giant cemetery on All Soul’s Day.

    Steve: I think the goal with the cultural issues to give my kids a sense of what it means to be American put in a way that it doesn’t openly conflict with their Finnish and Gospel identities. Let’s say we plan to be consistent. We will never bring back jumbo tubs of Ragu sauce from the US or stay up all night watching the Superbowl. We have adopted the more open Finnish attitude about the body. We have a goal of having someone in our home twice a week, ideally one member and one non-member; we do pretty well. Probably at this stage the most important element is bilingualism, and we are a committed and consistent One Parent One Language family. It’s really working: the boys can translate and switch languages like pros. And I am learning Finnish with the goal of keeping up with them.

  17. I grew up as an expat, being born in England and then moving constantly (Including 4 years in Turkey). I ended up graduating from London Central High School and then serving my mission in Coventry (having gone to the London MTC). The main result is a sense of restlessness that is slowly going away. As a youth it was expressed by constantly rearranging my furniture and now as an adult I am remodeling my house. The church (I joined at the age of 12) is the thing that held it all together. My close friends were not English or American, they were LDS. In a sense the LDS culture remains fairly constant where-ever I went, at least until I went to BYU and Utah for the first time and found out what a liberal Momon I am.

  18. So the big questions are:
    Do you take your saunas in the nude and do you jump into a very cold lake afterwards?

  19. Kevin:

    I was surprised to find that I was considered quite a catch when I arrived, but I think it was more that I was ‘new blood’ than that I was American. There are about 4500 members in Finland; there is no more than one degree of separation between any two reasonably active Finnish members. Helsinki Institute had, I would estimate, about twenty active members. Everyone had paired up with everyone else at some point, or had a good reason not to. Finns don’t date as Americans think of it; they hang out in groups, then drift off in pairs. But members believe American men will make the moves, so to speak. In addition, I was a single man over 30 with a solid job. With unemployment high and excellent unemployment benefits, older single men tend to be single because they have little to offer.

    Imagine my surprise to have members sidling up to me with phone numbers of lovely women for me to call. I did call one, and we went out a few times. But otherwise I found the situation distressing, and I had a more normal social life in the expat community and among some musician friends. In the end, I invited a woman I home taught to the symphony because I had free tickets, and ten weeks later we were engaged.


    Yes and yes. I am planning a post about body attitudes, and will tell more about sauna.

  20. With unemployment high and excellent unemployment benefits, older single men tend to be single because they have little to offer.

    That sounds worse than I intended it. My point is, on a single adult temple trip to Stockholm, there were 16 women and five men. I was the only one with a job.

  21. I have a special fondness in my heart for the Stockholm temple. Someday I would like to be able to travel back there.

    Tstevens – I would echo that having been an expat and moved my whole life, the biggest side effect is restlessness. I cannot seem to stay in one place for very long, and every year or so find myself looking for the next place to live. My sister had the opposite reaction however, and quickly found herself a ‘hometown’.

    Those of you who are jealous…you do realize what winters in Scandivia are like right? Its not just cold…there is the whole matter of NO SUN. There is a reason people drink alot :)

  22. Veritas–I went to ACS too (that was the 80s, maybe the name has changed?).

    I have been an ex-pat on several continents, and have enjoyed it.

    My husband and I are bi-cultural and bi-lingual and I really admire your bilingualism. We are also One parent One language, but it is very hard, because the language he is teaching the kids (most people in his cultural are at least tri-cultural) is simply not present elsewhere. There are no books, no videos, and no local ex-pats besides himself (it is an African language), so the kids only have him as a model. We have struggled, but hope to improve.

    I am also curious about your cultural choices. I find that my husband is somewhat resigned to do things my way, although I do what I can to include his culture (food, language, holidays, etc.) I think some of it is what he feels like assimilation is inevitable . Some of it is disenchantment with certain aspects of his culture. I wonder, though, if some of it is that I am the Mom and make so many household decisions? Do you think that plays a role in your household?

  23. Yes, I think my wife does have more cultural control in our house. A good example is what is considered healthy food. We have somewhat different views because of our cultures, but because she makes so many of the decisions about food, her views on health get more play. Your point about your husband’s disenchantment with his own culture is interesting, too. I’m probably more happy to be liberated from my culture than my wife is. You also remind me how lucky I am: to be teaching a language and representing a culture that gets enormous attention and for which there are myriad resources.

  24. I’m sorry to see that Steve Evans has caved, that the “true North” really isn’t strong and free anymore–at least in his mind.

    How else could he reduce his expat experience to a few years in Paris, ignoring many more years than that in the “lower 48”?

  25. Mark, I’m trying to fit in! That is one of the gifts of my People.

  26. John Mansfield says:

    Norbert, if you and your family ever think you want to try life in the United States, consider the Keweenaw Peninsula, which juts into Lake Superior. When I interviewed at a small company with about dozen people, I met: a woman with a Finnish surname and a local accent; an immigrant from Finland; and a man who had lived in Finland at some point and was married to a Finn.

  27. Wow, Norbert, what great job postings. And Veritas, I know both of your former schools! We’re always trying to get interviews with Stavanger!

    My husband and I have been on the international circuit for the past 15 years plus one more year prior to some time in the States. We have our two kids while living in Japan and now we’re in Malaysia, ready to make the move to Saudi. We’ve been in Turkey, Ecuador and (again) Saudi Arabia. Ex-pat life before kids and after kids is a big difference, but it’s interesting to experience family life without an extended family support system. It’s true that as a family we really form stronger bonds than what might be “usual.” I was just talking to a woman I met the other day who was a French-Canadian who had raised her son all over the world, and she brought this specific point up. Our kids are 6 & 7 and have never lived in the US, and they probably won’t until they’re much older. Much like you, we try to teach them bits and pieces about their American roots, and give them lessons in American history/geography or whatever, but it’s still very much a foreign country to them.

    Anyway. I’m also interested in hearing about your experience with body attitudes and culture; (ours is different because of our time in Japan. Those dang family baths and all).

    I think one reason I love the bloggernacle so much is because it connects me to my LDS culture when I’m so far away. The members around the world are incredible, but sometimes it’s hard to communicate (literally) and other times it’s just mentally exhausting. oh yeah, and oftentimes the women in RS will look over to me and say things like, “you’re the American. What’s the REAL answer?” Kind of weird.

  28. Meems, ISS was a crazy experience because it is so very small. My sister’s graduating class had 20 people. It has grown because there is a NATO base there now…but it is still very small. And evidently, you have my dream job too.

    What you are doing for your kids is awesome. My parents had all five of their children in five different places (and three different countries). My experience growing up overseas is something I would never trade for anything in the world. I worry about raising kids ‘in one place’ because so much of who I am came from moving around and living in other countries.

  29. Its interesting to read about all these “ex-pats” experiences. I grew up outside of the US and it is a totally different experience than marrying someone of a different country/culture and trying to navigate through that. In my house we were all American, no question.
    I went to ACS (American Community School) in Cobham, England. It had that name in the late 70s/early 80s and still had that name when I returned to it in the late 80s. I believe they had another campus in Wimbledon. And then there was also American School of London. Plenty of American schools.
    As for those of you who move often…..perhaps that explains my brother. He keeps moving and moving and moving on a yearly basis. We are starting to get concerned about all that moving.
    I noticed that after 5 years in one place I get really antsy. It doesn’t feel more and more like home….it feels less. The last time I started to fantasize about my husband getting a different job. Luckily, we decided we could afford to upgrade and it was time to upgrade from our starter fixer upper so I got to move to a new house a few blocks away….same ward, actually, but it hadn’t been intetional. As much as I loved my ward, I didn’t care whether I stayed in it or not.
    I’ve been here almost 3 years. What if in two years I go through the same thing again? What if I start feeling desperate to leave my house and find a new home?


  1. […] decided that BCC needs more sauna-talk, M. Norbert Kilmer, our resident Yank-in-Finland, has been […]

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