Today, as part of The Hieno! “What is Finnish-ness” series celebrating Suomi 100 in 2017, we feature Matti William Karinen.
Matti was born in the UK, grew up mostly in Southeast Asia and is currently working as a research assistant based at the Entrepreneurship unit of the Turku School of Economics. Currently, he is part of the Academy of Finland project SWiPE. In this interview, he speaks of life as an ex-Ulkosuomalainen, globalization, Finnish-ness and the future of work.
Enjoy the interview! ♡
TH: Hi Matti! Can you tell us more about yourself? What are you doing in Finland?
Matti: Hi there WW!
Sure thing; I’m a research assistant at the Entrepreneurship Unit of the Turku School of Economics, University of Turku. That’s what I do for work, and yes, it is a part of who I am, but of course not everything!
Unlike many of the people you’ve interviewed I’m not any great personality, and not (yet) a leader in any important field. But like them, I suppose I’ve also got my story to tell and this is a part.
I’m a Londoner by birth, from near Stockholm by the place I started day-care and at home in Jakarta where I started school. I used to be a permanent resident in Singapore – to the extent that I even got the initial call up notice for army conscription just before my residency expired. Oh, and my parents are both Finnish.
I’m also a Finn, now living in Finland and thus an ex-ulkosuomalainen; a paluumuuttaja if we want to be specific. A paluumuuttaja is loosely translated a “return mover”, an ulkosuomalainen that moves back to Finland, if you will.
I’ve been here for quite a while now – 11 years or so. I read, lots. And don’t let me spec a computer – it’ll be overkill.
TH: What does “ulko-suomalainen” mean? How is it different from “Suomalainen”? Can you explain the difference with one anecdote?
Matti: An Ulkosuomalainen, is not an “outdoor finn” as Google-translate would have us believe, but a Finnish national or person of Finnish decent who lives outside of Finland.
The distinction to Suomalainen is quite direct in many ways: when you move a Suomalainen out of Suomi with any degree of permanence, they become an Ulkosuomalainen.
An anecdote? Well to me, Finland was for a long time the “passport country” – Ask me where I’m from and if we’d not be in Finland my answer would be “Finland”, now that I’m here, the honest answer is “You know… I don’t really know”.
When pressed I’d mention the born in London part and see where the conversation goes from there.
TH: Can you tell us what are the top 3 challenges you have faced in Finland?
- The first is integration; Finland is a remarkably easy country to live in, but not an easy place to fit in.
Especially not for a teenager as I was when we moved here. We arrived in a countryside town where nearly everyone had known each other, often quite literally, since birth. In that town people were always known quantities, you knew their relatives, their family histories and what their families did. You could be categorised and put into the proper box.
It seemed to me, coming from abroad, with only the most tenuous connection to the area, that the only category that I fit in was that of “unknown”. Not a good place to be.
- Next comes Language; Finnish is a wonderful tongue that skilled users can twist and turn to make spellbinding sentences.
Even with Finnish parents, Aku Ankka, and Finnish supplementary school in Asia, it’s very hard to get right. For my part, I’ve given up hope of putting commas in the right place!
As for speaking, my accent’s off and I am routinely asked about it. Nowadays, that’s not a problem as I’m among adults in an open, accepting environment, but when I was younger it mattered.
- Third. And this is a bit abstract maybe, but bear with me: being Finnish. What I think I mean is having some hidden executable code that tells one when, where and how things are supposed to happen.
I don’t mean knowing, which one can manage with learning, I mean understanding. I suppose this what I should be calling culture. And since culture evolves over time… I don’t think I got all the updates.
Though occasionally some parts of the code still function, some weeks back I was on a forest trail and I think I may have got that Finnish appreciation for true, encompassing, environmental, quiet-thing figured out.
TH: Do you think there are solutions or better alternatives as to how we think about these three challenges?
Matti: Tough one WW. I suppose yes and no. I’ll take the above point by point and give it a go.
- Integration. My feeling is that integration is a two-way street where both sides need to learn to understand the other. To adjust points of view, and to take people as people and not as the “other from elsewhere”.
I suppose this calls for more openness regarding identities; if we were all to tell more about our views of self, then being and thinking different would perhaps not be quite so hard.
- Language. One area where we might move forward is in our thinking on what is enough regarding language. This in particular regarding persons from abroad who live in Finland, and in my view, especially students who’d like to work in the country after their studies. Perfect isn’t necessary. In Finnish or for that matter English.
As they can communicate well enough to get their message through, I don’t think it should matter if for example an automation engineer has a good grasp of the tenses.
- Culture. Immersion and ties to Finns – over time this will help. Some of the ways things are done here boggle the mind but ultimately work.
Some things of course could be different, but luckily societies evolve. Generally, for the better.
TH: How do you reconcile being “Finnish” and “foreign” at the same time?
Matti: Mostly by just being me instead of being either “Finnish” or “foreign”. So I suppose I’m both, either and neither.
Nowadays, don’t really define myself as being anything other than, well, me. And for as long as I can remember I’ve been bloody-mindedly myself and like any person I’ve learned and changed along the way.
Sorry WW, I don’t really have examples for you… Of course it has sometimes been difficult to be who I am – not being accepted because you’re different is hard – but I’ve never seen reason to conform to the expectations of any particular group.
Often this meant being good at withdrawing into books for example. Nowadays my feeling is that as long as I do my best to be a good person to those around me I’m satisfied.
TH: What are the three things you appreciate most about Finland?
- Trust. Trustworthiness is still assumed almost generally. We can largely trust our state to run things properly, we can mostly trust the people in our building (although we never see them).
This I feel is something we need to hold on to. It’s a rare place where automatic suspicion of the motives of others isn’t engraved into our spines.
- Peace and Stability. Goes together with the above. Finland is mostly the same year in and year out. This is both a blessing and problem. We may not be keeping up with the times as we ought to.
Then again, perhaps we should as, as we’ve often done, just go our own way. Evolution rather than revolution.
- Things just work. Minor issues aside, and unfortunately this applies mainly to people holding Finnish citizenship, systems exist that cover very nearly every potentiality and for the most part work properly.
We may still complain of bureaucracy, but here it is comparably painless. The only other country that I’ve lived in where this is the case is Singapore. It might sound boring, but it does help quality of life.
TH: What do you think are some of the popular misconceptions of Finland and Finns?
- That we don’t talk – we do actually, and are often happy to, sometimes at great length.
- That it’s dark and cold – only two thirds of the year, the other third is (well… can be) pretty bright and warm.
TH: What are the three things that are definitely “Finnish”?
- Asunto-osakeyhtiö – our peculiar building-cooperatives/condominiums where we don’t actually own our apartments, but rather own the shares that allow us to live in the particular apartment. Where even the toilet bowl is collective property and any changes beyond the most minor subject to approval by the board. And it works! Mostly!
- Planning your life months and years ahead and in great detail. I’m not one to make definite plans, other than for flights, more than a few weeks ahead whereas some Finns I know schedule meeting up with friends’ half a year into the future.
- Jokamiehen-oikeus – our everyman’s’ rights to move in nature and pick berries. This combined with mökki culture.
TH: With regards to integration, do you have some tips for ulko-suomalainen to integrate back into suomalainen, or is this a non-issue?
Matti: These are my personal pointers. And perhaps they won’t help or aren’t needed.
First off, come back when you’re very young (before school age) or when you’re about to go to university (when the people you meet are at their most open and are also entering a new environment).
If you fall into the first category or anywhere in between, it’s likely your parents reading this, and its mostly up to them to decide based on their views, values and situation. It’s not always possible to avoid coming.
But bear in mind that your child will need a lot of support – and would probably be best off in an international school.
Expat kids are mostly ok with changing international schools, after all most of their peers also move from place to place. Coming to the place that “should be” your home is the hard part.
If you’re older, and e.g. coming back for work, things will be more context sensitive. You might or might not be close with your relatives, your workplace may or may not be open. It depends. It can be hard to come back, but I can understand that it can also be a relief for some.
I suppose my final tip is be the person you are, and not to try and be something you expect others to expect you to be.
TH: The project you are in, SWiPE sounds super interesting! Can you tell us more about it and why you joined it?
Matti: Sure! SWiPE stands for Smart Work in Platform Economy and we study how work, entrepreneurship and education are changing as a part of societal change linked to globalisation, digitalisation and technological platforms.
Now what does that mean?
Take the smartphone; that’s a platform. And through it you can consume information and entertainment in addition to services. Your phone, and through it, algorithms residing in a server farm somewhere in Utah may also be your boss, deciding when you are paid and how much.
Now is that employment or is it entrepreneurship? Uber might say that it’s entrepreneurship – and defines its drivers thus as independent contractors; effectively entrepreneurs. Then again, Uber’s algorithms make decisions on their behalf as if they were employees. Both are forms of work but they fit into how our society is structured differently.
How should these relationships be treated in policymaking? How do we reconcile the flexibility and utility of some of these platforms, with the need to make sure that responsibility and accountability for and to customers, employees and contractors is safeguarded? And how about the people writing those algorithms? What happens when the workers themselves participate in changing their work?
Another aspect of societal change and technology relates to education – how might we prepare students for jobs that don’t exist yet? How do we educate students to innovate in work as well as outside normal employment? How do we prepare them for a time when they may be competing with AI for the same tasks? What skills do the workers of the future need? And how do we design systems that will help them acquire those skills?
This is where the entrepreneurial university comes in – which doesn’t just mean the university being a start-up generator, but rather is about contributing to and creating an atmosphere where people work openly together across disciplinary boundaries to address vexing problems and learn to prepare to meet problems that may lie around the corner. This is only part of what the University of Turku is aiming towards with its entrepreneurial university strategy.
For my part, I joined SWiPE through the Knowledge Governance project that is figuring out how we might measure the “entreprenuriality” of universities among a number of other topics that are now also part of the SWiPE project.
If you’re interested in following our work head to our website or look for @swipe_STN, #alustatalous and #Swipefi on Twitter.
TH: What do you think about the future of work? Would it mostly be remote?
Matti: I think there’ll still be a place for working together in offices.
But, agreed, a lot of the new forms of work look to being remote to some extent. Remote I’d say from the coordination of the work – not necessarily from where the work is being done. Consulting is one thing, though it seems most new jobs will be in service provision; be that in healthcare or through delivery services such as Foodora and Wolt.
There are legitimate worries that the job security – and thus income security – will become much more precarious in a number of fields. In a way this might be thought of as a return to the 19th century when a lot of work, especially in cities, was done on a piece by piece basis with little certainty that there would be work tomorrow.
Of course, because of digitalisation and globalisation the dynamics are different this time around. Also, this possible scenario is not limited to front-end services, but can also touch management tasks as they are devolved onto algorithms or more prosaically: flattened out of existence.
If I had to use two words to describe the future of work, I’d say: constant change. And to live with that one needs at least two things: constant learning and adaptability.
TH: What are your dreams and visions for the future?
Matti: A good family life. Also, I’d like to combine work in academia with entrepreneurship and work for a multinational organisation.
I intend to live by what I suggest: I will keep learning, and I will adapt myself to circumstances and the futures that I expect – indeed I would shape them for myself as much as I am able to.
TH: Finland would be celebrating its 100 years of independence next year. What are your dreams and visions for Finland’s future?
Matti: Finland has changed beyond all recognition in 100 years – I don’t expect that change to stop any time soon. Nor would I wish it to. We need to keep going forward and we need to keep learning and building our society for the better.
I’m not a great believer in tough choices – to have something is to cut from something else. I believe in making a bigger cake. To my reading, which is admittedly not as broad as I would like, we’ve done rather well in doing that over the past 100 years. And done that through much tougher times than the ones we as a society are going through now.
I believe that Finland will change for the better, and hope that as it changes, the essentials that make it a great place to live will remain the same. I believe that we will continue to have an equitable society where we are yet able to make the best ourselves that we can.
TH: On a parting note, do you have anything else to add?
Matti: I feel in my heart that Finland is my country, and as long as that is the case, I don’t think I’m any less Finnish than anyone else.
And to me, this is irrespective of whether I live here or not. Although I can’t describe it any better than that… that is what to me is to be Finnish.
We hope you have enjoyed this interview with Matti William Karinen. The Hieno! is the official partner of the Finland 100 independence programme.This series “What is Finnish-ness”? is endorsed by the Prime Minister’s Office. Feature photograph courtesy of Matti.