Hey folks~~ Today, as part of The Hieno! “What is Finnish-ness” series celebrating Suomi 100 next year, we feature Carol Chen, who will be sharing with us her feelings and experiences staying in Finland! ^^
Carol is a professional geek and an amateur musician. She has been in the ICT industry for 14 years, with roles ranging from software development, community management to product marketing and communications. In her spare time she plays timpani in an orchestra and trots the globe. Having visited 30+ countries and lived in 4, she continues to explore strange new worlds to enhance her rojak [=Singlish for “mixed”] identity.
Enjoy the interview!
WW: Hi Carol! Can you tell us more about yourself?
Carol: Hi Wan Wei and everyone reading this, thanks for giving me a voice on The Hieno. I’m honoured!
So let’s start with something about me… I was born in Taiwan, and spent most of my formative years in Singapore.
Before coming to Finland, I studied and worked for a total of 11 years in Texas. Now coming up on 9 years in Finland, I can only say that I have a “rojak identiteetti”. I was working on my doctorate in Computer Science in UT Dallas when I landed an internship at Nokia some 14 years ago (wow, time flies). After being offered a full-time job, I packed up my ABD and started climbing the career ladder. I’ve entertained thoughts about going back to complete my Phd, but maybe I need to do more than just think about it😛
Nowadays I do Product Marketing / Community Development at Red Hat, and play the timpani / percussion in Tampere Academic Symphony Orchestra.
WW: Why did you initially choose to come to Finland?
Carol: Nokia🙂 Well ok it’s a bit more involved than that.
I’ve already been in Nokia US for about 5 years at that point, and sensing that Nokia wasn’t progressing as well as it should stateside. Thinking there might be more opportunities for me in Finland, and wishing to see more of Europe without the expensive flights and jet lag, I approached some colleagues in Finland. 3 interviews, 2 job offers and 1 decision later, I found myself having to eat my own words of “I wouldn’t want to live there” posted just a year earlier.
WW: What do you see as your “place” in Finland when you were staying here?
Carol: First of all, I thank Finland for having a place for me! In return, I do my best to be a productive member of the Finnish economy. “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country” should apply to adoptive countries too.
Whichever country I live in, I’m consuming their resources, receiving the benefits they provide to their citizens and residents, etc. So it’s only appropriate that I do my job well, pay my taxes, vote in the elections, volunteer and partake in local activities, and so on.
And it’s really not that difficult since Finland has so much to offer. When Finns ask me “Why are you in Finland/What brought you to Finland?”, I think some of them are pleasantly surprised to learn that I came (and stayed) here on my own accord rather than because of a Finnish partner, which is a reasonable assumption given that’s a perfectly sound and statistically significant reason.
WW: LOLOL!!! I love how you say “statistically significant reason”. That is really quite true! What was the most important and meaningful event or experience that happened in Finland?
Carol: Do I have to pick one? There are just so many… from my first white Christmas in Lapland in 2007, to being unemployed (twice), to getting new jobs and the support I had in the process, to buying an apartment here in Tampere 2 years ago.
Ok if I have to single out one event, it will be getting my Finnish permanent residency, which solidifies my place here.
Although is it really permanent? I have to renew it next year!
WW: What was the happiest moment in your life in Finland?
Carol: Again, really tough to pick just one.
I feel tremendous pride and joy every time I get to perform with my orchestra over the past 6 years; the exuberance of sailing in the Gulf of Bothnia with my dear friends Minna and Mika (doing that again next week, yay!!); and countless memorable moments/events with my friends here, Finns and foreigners alike.
Perhaps my family’s visit in 2009 top the charts for this one. I was going through a homesick phase and a heartbreak, so having them here really helped. Maybe not exactly the “happiest” moment, since it was bittersweet, but definitely filled with love and hope.
Speaking of family, spending time with my boyfriend’s family comes a close second. It’s really comforting to have a sense of belonging in a foreign land, and I love my adoptive family!
Me taking a pic of my sis taking a pic of my mom and my dad taking a pic of Savonlinna.
WW: Can you tell us what are the top 3 challenges you or foreigners you know have faced in Finland?
While I enjoy my life here in Finland, it is not without its challenges. These are some of mine:
(1) Suomen kieli – I’ve actually taken a basic Finnish course before even thinking about moving to Finland, from a Finnish lady who was living in Dallas. As I was working for Nokia, I thought it would be fun to learn a bit to eavesdrop on my Finnish colleagues in Dallas or on my trips to Finland😉 I was too optimistic.
Now after almost a decade since “apina laatikossa” (the two words my first course started with), I can maybe understand 75% of children’s cartoon show, 50% of a conversation if I know the topic and context (and if they’re not speaking too fast or with too much puhekieltä), and back to 75% in a bar after certain hours (with reduced vocabulary plus sometimes they’ll toss in a few english words at this foreigner).
Speaking the language? I can’t do much other than single word responses😛
(2) Making friends – Finns make great loyal friends, if you can manage to befriend them first. Coming from the states, where people in general tend to be more social and outgoing, I quickly learnt that in Finland I can’t just sit back and let people come to me, I have to make an effort to put myself out there to make friends. It may not be that much of a challenge for everyone, but I’m an introvert, so being social doesn’t come naturally to me.
But the friendships are worth the effort. I truly appreciate my friends here (both Finns and foreigners) for opening their hearts and sometimes even homes to me!
(3) Understanding why I’m here, a.k.a. convincing my family/friends that I’m not crazy – this was more acute of a challenge in the initial years.
People were constantly asking why I’m here and sometimes I wasn’t sure whether I was explaining to them my reasons or trying to convince myself that I made the right decision.
Why was I in a place that’s cold, where everyone spoke a weird language, without my family and friends (initially) close by, where I made 30% less for the same job level in the US, with Finnish guys breaking my heart left and right (well, only a couple of them, but each delivering me a KO blow to the ground)?
I had to repeatedly remind myself that I wanted a change, I was unhappy in the US, and while moving to Finland would not solve all problems, it was a decision I made and I should stick to it.
(4) Weather – ok, I know you asked for top 3, but this is one of those challenges that many people would bring up, and which I thought would be my biggest challenge before I moved here.
Remember that I grew up in Singapore (where 25°C is considered freezing) and was living in Dallas before the move (where the whole metroplex shuts down when it snows that one time – or two if you’re lucky – a year). Several months of below freezing temperatures and snow? How will I survive?
Surprisingly, with enough layers and glögi, my body adapted quite easily, and I actually enjoy winter more than I anticipated. Of course, I join the Finns in lamenting about long winters and short summers, but it’s more a part of life than a challenge.
Enjoy your hot drinks with Finnish Geisha chocolates!
WW: Do you think there are solutions or better alternatives to how we think about these three challenges?
(1) To the challenge of learning the language: If it’s within your control, come here when you’re young (defined as < 30 y.o.)!
Really, young brains are more malleable and pick up new knowledge, especially languages, faster. I think I also got complacent working in international companies, where English is the common working language, so I don’t have an immediate need to be fluent in Finnish.
Dating a Finn? Nah, their already decent English will only get better, but not my Finnish. Well, at least now I know enough so I don’t need to bring a dictionary to the supermarket, can read most menus and ask for what I want in broken Finnish, and know if someone is swearing at me.
Your motivation and circumstances will determine the command of Finnish language you’ll have. It’s a difficult, but not impossible language.
(2) To the challenge of making friends: Be sincere and persistent.
The stereotype of Finns being reserved around strangers is true for the most part, while exceptions always exist. They tend to have fewer acquaintances and a tight knit of friends. But once they consider you a friend, you’re probably gonna be friends for life.
Knowing this and understanding that they might be suspicious/hesitant at first, you’ll realise that it’s ok if they don’t warm up to you right away. Their melting point is just higher on average. Perhaps speaking fluent Finnish helps? Although mine is not at a level where I can verify that assumption.
(3) To the challenge of choosing Finland: No country is perfect, and I’m not perfect either.
But just as with finding a partner, it’s about recognising what works for you and how you complement each other. Knowing I’m here for the right reasons pulled me through the initial doubts. By about year 3, I was feeling more “at home” in Finland than I did in all my 11 year in the US (where I had a green card and bought a house as well). I’ve been referred to as a closet Finn, I guess it’s my poor command of the Finnish language that’s preventing me from coming out of the closet😛
(4) To the challenge of weather: wear enough layers and drink lots of hot glögi/chocolate/your beverage of choice.
Also a long harsh “proper” winter tends to be followed by a pleasantly warm and “proper” summer so hang in there!
WW: Do you think it is difficult to get a job in Finland? How did you manage to overcome the difficulties?
Carol: I pondered over whether to put this as one of the top challenges.
It certainly can be a challenge, depending on the circumstances. I arrived in Finland with a job contract, so I’m lucky in not having to deal with job search while settling in with the other challenges mentioned above.
Then again I’ve also been laid off twice and had to look for jobs in Finland and finding most of them requiring fluency in Finnish (except maybe in Helsinki). I dutifully went for Finnish classes, but was progressing at a pace that I felt would never be enough to do the kind of work I want to do.
When I was laid off from Nokia, I started getting involved and organising several major tech events locally on a voluntary basis. That probably played a part in me landing a job with Jolla, which, although a Finnish company, operates internationally with English as the lingua franca (and my knowledge of Chinese was an asset).
After leaving Jolla, I joined Red Hat, which is headquartered in the US, but I’m employed by Red Hat Finland and pay taxes to Suomen verohallinto. I worked hard, continued to do what I’m passionate about (unpaid for a while), with openness to different working arrangements (I work remotely and sometimes have meetings late into the evenings with my US colleagues) and a bit of luck I’ve managed quite ok.
This is certainly not the recipe for everyone, as your opportunities and challenges in getting a job in Finland will vary greatly on your interests, profession, work and educational experiences, family obligations etc. etc.
(representing Jolla at TalentIT Career Fair in 2013)
An introverted Finn looks at his shoes when talking to you; an extroverted Finn looks at your shoes… I’m looking at a bunch of shoes, what does that make me??
WW: What do you think are some of the popular misconceptions of Finland, Finns and foreigners in Finland? Can you share some of them with us?
Carol: It seems that I’ve rambled on for quite a bit, so I’ll try to be more succinct.
Stereotypes on Finland/Finns
(A) Place is cold (B) People are cold (C) Food is bad.
Well, to the stereotype of (A) “Place is cold”. This is not really a misconception, it does get freaking cold here. But it’s not as bad as you might think, plus there’s sauna! In a sauna, 75°C is not warm enough!
To the stereotype of (B) “People are cold”— as elaborated a bit earlier, the people are not cold, they might have a slightly hardened exterior (that looks like ice but it’s not) which you have to take some time to melt.
To the stereotype of (C) “Food is bad”–while there’s not as much variety of cuisines in Finland, the food is rather tasty – depending on the cook as well – and more importantly the produce fresh and high quality. And it’ll grow on you, I miss the bread here when I’m away for a period of time.
Stereotypes on Foreigners in Finland
(X) Foreigners are here to take jobs from the Finns (Y) Foreigners are here to sponge off the social benefits (Z) Foreigners are here to steal Finnish men/women.
Well, I think these are concerns/misconceptions not unique to Finland, but to many developed countries. While there are always some black sheep in any demographic, I think most people come here with good intentions.
Take a chance and talk to them and find out what their motivations are, you may be surprised. And if they did come here because of a Finnish partner/spouse, didn’t the Finns steal them from their home countries then?😉
I can’t speak for others, but for myself, I can say that to the stereotype of (X) “Foreigners are here to take jobs from Finns”–the jobs are not easy to take! You’ve gotta be properly qualified and/or have a solid command of Finnish, in which case, wouldn’t the person be a positive addition for Finland’s growth?
To the stereotype of (Y) “Foreigners are here to sponge off the social benefits”— I received some benefits from KELA when I was unemployed, but I’ve paid more in taxes!
To the stereotype of (Z) “Foreigners are here to steal Finnish men/women”… Actually, think of it as an exchange rather than steal. I mean, I’m in Finland, so the probability of me meeting and being with a Finnish guy is pretty high, even if that’s not one of my initial goals coming here.
And Finland gets me in return! Hope that’s a good thing…😀
WW: What are your dreams and visions for the future?
Carol: More understanding and acceptance all around.
A lot of the conflicts going on in the world today are due to misunderstanding and intolerance towards others of a different race, religious belief, gender role/identity/preference, generation/age, nationality, social class, and even place of birth. I think people in Finland are generally tolerant and accepting in most aspects.
Both sides (Finns and foreigners) have to do some work to bridge the last mile, and then we can set an example for the rest of the world. Ergo, achieving world peace🙂
WW: Finland would be celebrating its 100 years of independence next year. What are your dreams and visions for Finland’s next 100 years?
Carol: Finland as a nation and Finns as a race have pretty strong identity and culture, and I can empathise with their desire to guard and protect it from being diluted by foreigners and immigrants.
However, I think a happy medium can be reached by keeping the important and positive parts of your culture (like talkoot and sisu), while integrating new ones that make sense. There’ll be changes to the identity, but it’ll be for the better.
I’d still like the Finnish language to remain, difficult as it is, maybe one day I’ll have enough mastery of it to claim it as my superpower. Promote English as the second official language in the country and in workplaces, so Finland can have a firmer foothold in globalisation. Nothing against the Swedish language, but I haven’t met many Finns who claimed studying it made their lives better.
Finally I hope that (probably futilely) global warming will not mess with the climates too much. In recent years we’ve been getting more and more black (snowless) Christmases. This is not good.. part of Finland’s charm is the snow and skiing and Santa Claus and the cold that comes with it so you can appreciate sauna/hot spiked cocoa so much more.
Order a Santa from Finland!
WW: What are some of the advice you might have for aspiring foreigners who want to come to Finland?
Carol: If you’ve read thus far, congrats! (and thanks!) You have what it takes to persevere in Finland😉
If any of the above resonate with you, maybe you’re in a similar crossroads in your life as I was, or we share some backgrounds/characteristics, perhaps my experiences and suggestions will be helpful.
If not, just forget what I said.
Because you will have your own observations and set of challenges that will shape your experience in Finland. That’s not to say that you won’t be able to get support. I –and I believe many other foreigners in Finland– will be more than happy to lend a listening ear. Our set of problems may not coincide but will overlap to some extent.
Keep an open mind, and remember: layers. Layers of clothing, and layers you’ll have to work through to touch the people and learn the systems and language here. The rewards will be all the sweeter.
WW: On a parting note, do you have anything else to add?
Carol: LOL it looks like I’ve failed to be succinct. So I’ll just end off with an invitation to connect with me on Twitter or Facebook to continue the conversation if so desired. I’m interested to hear your thoughts and questions!
We hope you have enjoyed this interview! The Hieno! is the official partner of the Finland 100 independence programme: What is “Finnish-ness”? led by the Prime Minister’s Office. All photos courtesy of Carol.