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International students learn American ways on NMU campus

Finland meets Michigan’s northland

December 19, 2012
By JACKIE STARK - Journal Staff Writer ( , The Mining Journal

MARQUETTE - As increasing the number of international students is a goal set by Northern Michigan University's administration, the university welcomed three Finnish students to its campus this year from Kajaani University of Applied Sciences.

Meri Mikkonen, Patricia Alakarppa and Esa Pietikainen said the most difficult thing about living in Marquette was learning how to deal with American small talk.

Alakarppa and Mikkonen said it's sometimes difficult to understand just what Americans mean when they talk around what they actually want.

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"When Americans are speaking, we have to maybe read their mind, from the sentences," Alakarppa said.

"Finnish people are very straight with what they are saying," Mikkonen said.

For Pietikainen, the small talk was simply hard to get used to. Saying hello to a passerby is not a common occurrence in Finland, he said.

"If you walk down the street and some strange people, like a stranger say, 'Hi, how are you?' in Finland, you say 'Who are you? Are you crazy, are you criminal, what are you going to do?'" Pietikainen said. "It's a strange situation, but here, if someone comes to say to me, 'How are you?' I say, 'Hi' ... In Finland, people are so stoneface, showing emotions and expressions are like taboo. I don't know where this comes from, but people in Finland ... they don't jump right away into a situation."

That's one thing Pietikainen said he wouldn't mind seeing a change in when he goes back home to a city that is much larger than Marquette.

Alakarppa also hails from a large city, but Mikkonen said she lives in the "countryside," coming from a town of roughly 14,000 people.

"When we heard how small city this is, like, how many people is living here, I think we thought 'This is small town,' but this really surprised us when we came, how big it actually is because in Finland, if there is some town and there is 20,000 people, it is nothing like this," Mikkonen said. "But I think this campus is the thing that keeps this city moving, businesses going."

Alakarppa said the population, compared with the shopping opportunities available, was a surprise.

"It is really small, but you still have so many stores over here and so many businesses. I was shocked about that," Alakarppa said. "I think downtown is very cute. That is so cute, I like it."

And though all three said life at Northern felt normal by the end of the fall semester, they agreed it was not always easy living in a culture that differed from their own.

"We had huge question marks all the time, up above our heads, like, what should we do next, where should we go?" Alakarppa said. "And I was always lost."

The language barrier was a concern for the three Finnish students, but they found it became more comical than nerve-wracking.

"My teammates call me 'Finny' because they think it's so hard to say my name," Mikkonen said, since her first name requires the speaker to roll the 'r.' "You guys, it is so hard for you to roll your 'r's."

"I had problems with my name too because when someone would ask me my name, I would say 'Uh, Patricia' ... so they know my name is 'Uhpatricia,' but I didn't even correct that because I didn't want to say mistake over again," Alakarppa said, laughing.

"But we do that in Finland," Mikkonen said. "We say, 'uh, er' and then start. But here, people, they get misunderstood because you say something like that. We have laughed so many times."

Pietikainen said he had a hard time finding the correct words when speaking English, since they didn't always translate well from one language to the next.

"You have your own way how to speak and express yourself in Finnish, but it was hard to me to express myself in English at first, because I didn't know," Pietikainen said. "Even though you are the same person, when you speak a different language, there is (your) own way to speak the language. I am still looking for my English myself."

All three are headed home for the winter break. Though Mikkonen and Pietikainen are planning to return to Marquette to finish out the school year at Northern, Alakarppa will not come back for another semester.

"I learned so much about myself, when I live so far away from home. It's just a huge wake up for me," Alakarppa said. "I learned to appreciate that I'm from Finland even more. I feel so that is really my home. Even though I like other countries, I know I'm still going to travel a lot, it's still so much fun and it's nice to get to know so many people. But, I feel very Finnish."

Jackie Stark can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 242.



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