Today, as part of The Hieno! “What is Finnish-ness” series, we feature Mika from Japan. Mika shares with us her life as a working mummy in Finland.
Enjoy the interview!~♡
TH: Hi Mika! Can you tell us more about yourself? How did you come to stay in Finland?
Mika: Hello, this is Mika.
Years ago, I came to study at Aalto University as an exchange student to study glass design. Thereafter after graduating from BA, I came back to the same university to do my master degree.
And then I fell in love and married a Finnish gentleman, so now I stay and work here!🙂 I have a two year old boy named N.
TH: What was the most important and meaningful event that happened in Finland?
Mika: I would say that the most meaningful and important experience is when I got my first full-time job.
You see, I tend to have the impression that one would be looked down upon if she is a housewife in Finland. The reason behind this is because there might be a tendency for the housewife to be perceived as “living off on the Finnish taxpayers’ money.”
This is in spite of the fact that it is not easy sometimes to be a housewife, or a mummy, or both.
Therefore, when I got my first full time job, I felt that I was finally accepted into Finnish society. Since I could contribute to Finnish society via the paying of taxes!
I recall one experience when I was at the police station when I picked up my passport and my residence permit. The Finnish police officer who handled my residence permit told me that I was “lucky” to have Finnish residence permit and enjoying welfare.
And I started thinking, “Actually I’m paying taxes…”
TH: What are the top 3 things you would associate with “Finnish-ness”?
Mika: The first thing I would associate with “Finnish-ness” is that Finns tend to think that they are straightforward in speech, but this is not necessarily so.
In the Japanese culture, even though we don’t say things in a direct manner, social cues are clearly defined. For example, there are standard Japanese phrases which roughly translate as :
– “Let’s talk about this another time”, which means “No”; or
– “The timing is a little…”, which means “No”; or
– “This is a little….”, which means “No”, too.
That is to say, everyone in the Japanese context knows what these standard phrases refer to, and everyone understands these polite statements as an unambiguous “no”.
However, there is not so much clearly defined language cues in the Finnish context. There are many types of Finns around—Finns coming from engineering background might behave differently from Finns who come from business background.
For example, what does hearing “we’d get back to you again” after an interview mean? Actually, nobody knows.
Some might say “Yes, the interviewer will get back to you again”, and some others might say “No, it’s a polite way to reject”. Nobody truly knows!
Another interesting issue would be that Finns might actually really tend to take certain polite phrases personally. For example, in France or Japan, it is polite to say “You look great today”—You know, these expressions have more of the function of being polite, and not so much that the speaker really deeply feel that way towards the listener.
However, in Finland, some Finns might really take these expressions literally and feel really happy about the compliment.
TH: Hahaha!~ I have had that sort of experience too. I am actually rather generous with compliments, and sometimes it surprises me to watch how truly happy a Finnish person might get when they receive one. ☺
Mika: Yes, desho-! Let me give you another example.
In Japan and perhaps some other countries, when you are a customer who’s really upset about something, you basically have to complain, make a big fuss and show that you are really angry before getting rectification.
If you start crying, or explaining about your sense of sadness and disappointment, no sales person would bother. They’d just think “Oh, she’s harmless and won’t escalate the matter, it’s okay, nothing needs to be done.”
However, in Finland, if you start to bang the table, the salesperson would simply tell you nonchalantly “Well it is just done this way, too bad.”
However, if you were to explain nicely and calmly how disappointed you are with the service or the product, and how sad you feel, the salesperson will feel great empathy towards you and sincerely want to help you make things better.
So this sense of empathy is probably something that is really valued in Finnish-context. Finnish people tend to do things because they want to, not because they are forced to or intimidated into.
TH: Oh gosh I can attest to that.
Mika: Yes! Okay, let me move on to the second thing.
The second thing I would associate with “Finnish-ness” is the great pride Finns feel for anything related to Finland.
Finns really do love Finland! ☺
For example, I find that Finns really love the idea of “made-in-Finland”. Usually, Finnish people tend to associate “made-in-Finland” with the world’s undisputed best quality, and this to me shows how proud they are of their country. This might applies to how some Finns view their national glassware, education system, nationally-produced vegetables, and so on.
I’m not sure whether the outsourcing of certain production processes to other countries would affect this perception of Finnish brands though, but it certainly might challenge the idea and quality control of a Finnish brand.
Sometimes national pride might also not be based on any facts. It can simply be based on a popular perception, which is what I find fascinating.
Take the PISA test for example. Asian countries like Japan, Korea and Singapore have in recent years ranked higher in PISA than Finland, and Finland’s ranking did drop.
Yet, why do Finns still have the perception that their education system is still the best in the world? What is this continuing belief based on…?
Hmm…and the third thing I would associate with “Finnish-ness” is the ability of Finns to get things done on time, as compared to say, some regions in Southern-Europe.
I really appreciate this a lot, because it shows that they at least follow some sort of time-line and adhere to being efficient.
TH: Can you tell us the top challenge you have faced in Finland as a Japanese expat/ mummy?
Mika: I think the biggest challenge I’d faced here in Finland as a Japanese mummy is making fellow mummy friends.
For example, I brought my son to baby swimming, baby singing and baby yoga classes. However, I find that the Finnish mothers would only talk to fellow Finnish mothers, or native English white mothers. Not with non-white mothers.
TH: What?! Haha, were you being too sensitive?
Mika: Haha, no I don’t think I was being too sensitive, because every time the instructor tells us to talk to the mummy next to us, the Finnish mummy next to me would be awkward and not wanting to talk more.
The same Finnish mummy isn’t like that if she were next to a fellow Finnish mummy, or a native English-speaking white mummy. But if I am placed next to a non-Finnish mummy, we could have at least a meaningful conversation.
And I noticed that there is such division in the class.
Later on, I was invited to visit mummy classes that were more international in nature, and I was also invited to some Swedish-speaking mummy classes too–and the atmosphere was quite different. They were really welcoming and we exchanged useful baby care information.
So there are truly times when challenges here are resolved due to simply being more open minded.
TH: Ah, so the idea is for non-Finnish mummies to switch to a more international environment when they feel that they cannot have heart-to-heart conversations…
Mika: Yes! Or, the non-Finnish mummies can learn to speak perfect Finnish. Speaking perfect Finnish might put the Finnish mummy at ease.
TH: HAHA~ Okay let’s move on to the next question. Can you tell us some things you appreciate most about Finland?
Mika: The first thing I appreciate a lot about Finland is that Finns do respect each other’s personal space.
In general, I get the impression that Finnish people don’t really care about what you wear or eat, for they respect your personal space. If you do not bother them, they do not bother you. This gives people a sense of freedom and people feel that they can whatever they want to do.
Actually, regarding appearances–one might realise that models of all shapes and sizes are used in advertisements at malls and on television, for instance. People here don’t judge so much on actual physical appearances but instead go more for inner substance.
Also, most Finns I know tend to be straightforward in thinking. Remember how I said just now that Finns are not so straightforward in speech?
Yes, so in spite of not being so straightforward in speech, Finnish thinking is rather straightforward. Most Finns have a good dose of common-sense. Bullying is bad, talking loudly on the trains is bad– this sort of manners are kept.
Let me give you an example. In Finland, if your child is slower than his/her classmates, he/she would be separated temporarily from the mainstream class and allocated to a special class with a lower teacher to student ratio. This is so that your child can be taught better with personalised attention on his/her learning process.
This separation is simply the learning process: If your child is slightly slower than his peers, basically teachers can help your child learn properly at his/her pace. Logically, personalised-attention is a really good thing for the child.
However, if this were done in Japan, the parents of the slower child would be really upset. They would complain to the school—“Are you saying that my child is stupid?” And the friends of the slower child would bully him and call him stupid.
So whenever I explain this phenomenon to Finns, the teachers would get truly puzzled. “But this is really the learning process, there is nothing shameful about it”–They would say– “And isn’t it good that a child gets one-to-one attention so that he can learn well and be happy?”
And really, it is! Sometimes Japanese people lack this sort of common sense.
TH: How do you feel about raising N in Finland–commonly seen by the world as the best place in the world to be a mother?
Let’s talk about one good and not-so-good thing.
Mika: The one good thing is that education comes at a rather reasonable price. If N does his best in universities in future, he may be able to choose his future profession.
This is as compared to Japan, where certain universities are not affordable even for normal middle-class families. For example, it might not be financially possible to be a doctor or lawyer for some children no matter how hard they work, if they are born into a family that is not so rich. Some families in Japan have to for example, sell a piece of land to fund their children through medical school, and this is not an overstatement.
So I do truly appreciate the affordability of Finnish education.
As for the one sad thing, I think my son will be more “Finnish” rather than “Japanese”. What I mean by this is that he might not be able to understand intuitively the Japanese context or concepts such as “wabi-sabi”.
I guess a lot of things come naturally to you when you grow up in the Japanese context, such as being able to understand how to intiuitively read the atmosphere without saying a word, or without others saying a word. But N would probably not grow up like his Japanese peers with this “sense”.
As a Japanese, it is therefore with a tinge of sadness and pity that I say this.
TH: What is the one misconception people in Japan tend to have of Finland?
Mika: I guess it is the notion that education is free, right down to pencils and socks? Actually, it is not completely free—students have to pay book fees and of course their living expenses when they are studying too.
There might be a tendency for Japanese people to think of Finland as a kind of “Nordic paradise” where things are “perfect and free”, but actually the reality here is not as rosy as painted.
But then again, perhaps it is not uncommon for people to think that the grass is greener on the other side.
TH: Haha, oh gosh—that’s a really true observation for sure! Can you now tell us more about your personal dreams and visions for the future?
Mika: Hummmm. I would actually want to get a job that I like to do. But I do not know what I can do. This is somewhat related to personal self-doubt.
I also know that I am not a perfect person, for I make mistakes sometimes. Therefore, as a mummy, I hope that I do manage to bring up N well to be a healthy, ethical person with a good and sound mind.
It certainly does seem daunting but I do my best! ☺
TH: Finland would be celebrating its 100 years of independence next year. What are your dreams and visions for Finland’s future?
Mika: To be honest, I kind of like the way things are now in Finland.🙂
Multiculturalism is undoubtedly a sensitive issue in the Nordic regions, and perhaps sometimes it is the pace of accepting migrants of multicultural backgrounds that we can take into consideration.
For integration into any given society is key, and sometimes integration takes a lot of time and effort to do. There is currently not too many people here in Finland of culturally-distant backgrounds, as compared to the situation in Denmark or Sweden.
In addition, I really appreciate Finland for the compact sizes. What I mean by this is the easy availability of space for everyone.
For example, when we go to the theme park Linnamaki, the maximum time we had to queue is just ten minutes usually! So kids are usually happy there. This is as compared to Tokyo Disneyland, where parents and kids usually have to queue for an average of one plus hours.
Another instance of compact sizes is the classroom size—the teacher to children ratio is rather healthy and kept low. As parents we can be assured that our child would get great quality of teaching and more individualized attention from the teachers.
I also do appreciate the deep forests here with fresh and clean air. These are the things I hope would be here for many, many years to come.
We hope you have enjoyed this interview! The Hieno! is the official partner of the Finland 100 independence programme: What is “Finnish-ness”? endorsed by the Prime Minister’s Office. Feature photo courtesy of Mika.