REFLECTIONS ON FINNISH-AMERICANS

REPORTER: TOMI HINKKANEN DATE: April 8th, 2013

-From snowbirds to oddbirds, there’s a Finn for every occasion.

Finns gathered on the grounds of Hauli Huvila near Reedley, California in the early 1970's.

Finns gathered on the grounds of Hauli Huvila near Reedley, California in the early 1970’s.

There are approximately 750,000 Finns and people of Finnish heritage living in the United States today, according to official statistics. It is an understatement to say that it is a very heterogeneous group of people scattered across a vast geographical area. There are Finns living in every state of the union, as well as a handful of pockets with greater numbers, such as in Minnesota, Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Florida’s Lantana – Lake Worth and the Bay Area. Also big cities like Chicago, New York and Los Angeles – San Diego have sizable Finnish populations. 006 LA JUHANNUS 2012 In a totally unscientific way, I have identified the following six main groups of Finns in the U.S. and  given each group a nickname:

1) ORIGINAL FINNS: Those later generation Finns, whose ancestors immigrated to the U.S. between the late 1800’s and 1920’s.

2) POST-WAR FINNS:  Finns, who immigrated after WW2 in the 1940’s, ‘50’s and ‘60’s.

3) SNOWBIRDS: Florida Finns, who arrived between the 1960’s and ‘80’s.

4) ODD BIRDS: People like myself, who came to this country between the 1980’s and ‘90’s during low immigration years from Finland.

5) OFFICIAL FINNS: The staffs of the embassy in Washington DC and consulate generals in New York and LA plus other governmental agencies, such as Tekes, Finpro, etc.

6) COMPUTER NERDS: The latest crop to land into the country are the IT-people. They immigrated in the late 1990’s to present day. As you can surmise, these six groups of Finns are very different from one another. Each have some connecting characteristics.

The Simpsons producer Bonita Pietila hails from Minnesota. She grew up in a totally Finnish family but was never taught the language.

The Simpsons producer Bonita Pietila originally hails from U.P. Michigan. She grew up in a totally Finnish family but was never taught the language.

ORIGINAL FINNS:  As a rule, they don’t speak Finnish, even though I have run into such Finnish speaking Finns in the oddest of places – like in rural Montana and a mountain village in Utah. Amazingly, also many older U.P. Finns still speak it, though many of them have never even visited Finland. These Finns are as American as Apple Pie and you would never be able to distinguish them from the rest of the population.

Taisto Liski with his alter ego. Taisto immigrated to the U.S. in 1967, built a successful car mechanic business and retired after 30 years. He lives with his wife Helka in Signal Hill, California.

Taisto Liski with his alter ego. Taisto immigrated to the U.S. in 1967, built a successful car mechanic business and retired after 30 years. He lives with his wife Helka in Signal Hill, California.

POST-WAR FINNS: They not only speak Finnish but also retain many of their Finnish habits and traditions to date. I have friends who belong to this group. Visiting their house is like going back to Finland. This generation often worked in blue collar occupations, such as maids, mechanics and construction workers and earned their living the hard way. This aging group is disappearing fast. Their children and grandchildren are now adults and usually do not speak the language.

Finntimes publisher Tomi Hinkkanen with singer Eino Grön in Pasadena, California. Eikka has lived in Florida for over 30 years with his wife marjatta. He still entertains people on both sides of the Atlantic.

Finntimes publisher Tomi Hinkkanen with singer Eino Grön in Pasadena, California. Eikka has lived in Florida for over 30 years with his wife Marjatta. He still entertains people on both sides of the Atlantic.

SNOWBIRDS: They live in Florida and are mainly retirees, although there are also some entrepreneurs and a few very wealthy business people in this group. They of course speak Finnish but oftentimes the retirees’  English skills are poor. Therefore they tend to stick together and organize activities among themselves.

Jouni Passi's Burbank Spa & Garden is a luxurious massage parlor in Burbank, California, frequented by Hollywood stars.

Jouni Passi’s Burbank Spa & Garden is a luxurious massage parlor in Burbank, California, frequented by Hollywood stars.

ODD BIRDS:  This group speaks Finnish, although those of them who don’t practice it, lose it. Oftentimes they tend to be female and married to an American spouse or divorced from one. They can be found across the country in a variety of occupations from governmental positions to private entrepreneurs. They blend in the rest of the population. Many of them never attend any Finnish events.

Kirsti Westphalen is the current Consul General in Los Angeles.

Kirsti Westphalen is the current Consul General in Los Angeles.

OFFICIAL FINNS: These government officials rotate in and out of the country every four years. Their language skills are excellent in Finnish, English as well as Swedish, they retain all their Finnish habits, build connections with Americans, oftentimes socialize with one another and after their time is up, move to the next country.

Niko Ruokosuo, CEO of P2S Media Group Inc., a photo sharing business.

Niko Ruokosuo, CEO of P2S Media Group Inc., a photo sharing business.

COMPUTER NERDS: They are mainly men, who bring along their families, highly educated, speak fluent Finnish and English and are employed in the high tech sector in high paying positions. Sometimes they are on an assignment but oftentimes end up staying in the country. They frequently travel between the U.S. and Finland and maintain close ties with their friends and family in the old country. These Finns can be found in California’s Silicon Valley, Dallas – Fort Worth and San Diego areas. These people tend to have families in which the wife stays at home with small children.

The shoe manufacturing mogul Sari Ratsula with husband jussi and son Aku in Orange County, California.

The shoe manufacturing mogul Sari Ratsula with husband Jussi and son Aku in Orange County, California.

Epilogue: Finnish-Americans hail from different eras, experiences and socio-economic backgrounds. Like all people, they are a sum of their genes, environment and experiences. Against all odds, many second, third and later generation Finnish-Americans retain surprisingly strong ties to their heritage. For them being Finnish is an inner journey to one self. Understanding their background helps understand themselves – their stubbornness, their quiet ways, their fondness for coffee. The present day Republic of Finland is a totally foreign country to them and in their festivals and gatherings they rather wish to remember Finland as it was in the days of their forefathers.

Actress Lisa Niemi, neé Haapaniemi, was born to a Finnish immigrant family in Texas.

Actress Lisa Niemi, neé Haapaniemi, was born to a Finnish immigrant family in Texas.

But it would be a grave mistake to dismiss them as merely American. They are as Finnish as members of any other Finnish group. Environment affects political views. You will find that a Finn living in a small Texas town is likely to be more conservative than a Finn living in Hollywood. The whole immigrant experience varies greatly between generations and individuals. Those hard-working original and post-war Finns got the full experience of what it is like to start from scratch. The IT-engineer hired by a Silicon Valley company directly from Espoo, Finland, not so much. But whatever the background, place, experience or generation, all of the above are Finns in the true meaning of the word. It is the task of Finntimes to try to bring all these various Finns together to celebrate our rich history and heritage.

A Finnish gathering in North Hollywood, California.

A Finnish gathering in North Hollywood, California.

TAISTO LISKI: FROM WRECKS TO RICHES

REPORTER: TOMI HINKKANEN – LOS ANGELES
PHOTO CREDITS: JONNY KAHLEYN DIEB

Finnish-American Taisto Liski Taisto Liski, 72, epitomizes the term ‘American Dream’. A self-made man, who moved out of the economically uncertain Finland of  the 1960’s. It took a lot of guts, hard work, a bit of luck and a supportive wife, but Taisto succeeded in carving out a good living in the United States. He built a successful car mechanics business, raised two children with his wife Helka and was able to retire comfortably with plenty: a nice home in Signal Hill, California, a vacation house in the San Jacinto Mountains, a new car every year (usually a Mercedes or a BMW), and even a private plane which Taisto flies to the family’s mountain getaway.

It all began 44 years ago. Taisto Liski had been saving for a condo in Helsinki.

“Even back then it was difficult and expensive to get a home in Helsinki. The bank manager had said that if I could scrape together a third of the house payment (ten thousand Finnish markkaa), he would lend me the rest. Well, with the help of my father I was able to come up with the money, but then the Bank of Finland froze all new loans in fear of devaluation”, Taisto reminisces. He heard that ‘MS United States’ would be making its final voyage from Bremerhaven, Germany to New York that same Fall. So, Taisto along with wife Helka and children Marja and Mika boarded the ship on October 17th, 1967.

“It was a truly great experience for the children who were 2 and 4 years old at the time. The trip coincided with Halloween which was celebrated on board with parties and costumes. My daughter Marja even learned some English during the five-day crossing.”

They arrived inNew York, but did not stay long. “It was too cold, and the children were complaining. So we continued on to sunny California. Upon arriving here, the kids then complained that it was too hot!”, Taisto chuckles. “On Christmas Eve, we all went swimming in the Pacific Ocean. Funny that a year later when I brought the kids back to the very same beach, they said that it was awfully cold. I guess they had gotten acclimated to the California weather.”

In the beginning, he didn’t have a job or a green card.

“As soon as we got to California, I bought a car, drove to the state employment agency and registered as a job applicant.  On the opposite side of the street from the agency there was a car mechanic shop called

‘German Auto Parts’. I thought, what the hell, I’ll go in and ask for work. A burly man emerged from behind the counter. He asked me if I was a Finn. “Yep”, I replied, for I spoke hardly any English in those days. “How long does it take to fix a Volkswagen engine”, the man asked. “Five minutes”, I said. He looked at me and told me to report to work the next morning!”

A month later, the owner fired the two other mechanics at the shop. And after two years after that, the owner persuaded Taisto to buy the place for he was getting ready to retire.

“We negotiated the price and filled out the paperwork. Ever since that day, I made my money repairing cars in my own shop.”

Over the years German Auto Parts employed up to six men at a time. Helka handled the bookkeeping, billing and all other office work. As years went by, mechanic businesses were being taken over by big chains. However, Taisto remained in business by carving out a niche as a reputable mechanic.

“Finns are not as brand loyal as Americans. If an American buys a BMW, he wants to find a good mechanics shop, because to have the car serviced at a dealer’s is incredibly expensive and unreliable. For some reason I got a reputation as a trustworthy man,” he laughs.

Taisto with members of a film crew at Hemet-Ryan Airport, CA

“German Auto Parts fixed Mercedes, BMW’s, Volvos and Volkswagens. Every day 3 or 4 cars got repaired averaging a hundred a month. His clientele consisted mostly of wealthy businessmen, and many doctors and lawyers whose main concern was getting their vehicles back on time. Some would even leave blank checks in the glove compartment for Taisto to fill out.

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