Before I left Helsinki to move to Kenya, I interviewed different classmates with whom I studied the Finnish language, as well as other foreign friends I made while living in Finland. I asked them to talk about three basic points: them, their culture shock experiences, and what they like and enjoy (or not) about Finland and/or the Finns.
Before I recorded the voices of the interviewees, we went through the points mentioned above but I also made clear that they could choose what to say and what to omit.
Most of the interviewees are men and women in their 30s and 40s. They’ve lived in Finland between 6 months and 19 years. They come from Argentina, Estonia, Iran, Singapore/China, the Philippines, Mexico, Bulgaria, Ghana and Spain.
By now some of you might be wondering why on earth I decided to write a post like this. Over a period of two and a half years I took several Finnish courses where I met interesting and completely different people from all the continents. We exchanged funny, serious and even disappointing stories about the places we all come from. We laughed, groaned and complain when we talked about the cultural differences between our homelands and Finland. Sometimes we loved learning Finnish; sometimes we couldn’t care less. We even swore at the cold weather and the dark November days. And we enjoyed so many lovely cultural immersion trips around the country.
One day not long ago I asked myself: “Why don’t I write about how we, the foreigners, feel in Finland and about what we’re up to in this country?” And since I decided to start talking about the issue with my fellow immigrant friends and asked them if they’d like to be the protagonists of my next blog post. Fortunately they were happy to participate. So I interviewed them.
If you’re a Finn and would like to know what some of us think, keep reading. If you’re not a Finn, keep reading too. 🙂
“I’m Argentinian but I also have an Italian citizenship so I’m able to live in Finland because I have a passport from the European Union.
Many foreigners seem to come to Finland with their spouses. Usually one of them is a Finn and the other one comes from another culture. Of course there are other cases as well. Mine, for example, is different.
When I was a teenager I used to listen to a Finnish rock band that I loved and that’s how I became interested in this country. By listening to the band I I wanted to know about Finland and learned all about its nature and forests, the excellent education system, etc. One day when I was already in university I saw a sign about Finnish courses for free. I enrolled and came to study the language for three months. Although I don’t think I learned very much.
A few years later I was in Spain and a close friend of mine proposed that we should come to live here. He died soon after so our plans didn’t develop. But Finland remained in my mind. The following year I was back in Argentina and I decided to take a Finnish weekly course as I wanted to come here to study a career. So I saved the money, I quit my job and I came to Finland. I’ve always had this kind of adventurous heart but now I realize that in Finland it’s not easy being adventurous. You don’t come all the way from the south to a country like Finland to try your luck like I did.
Even though I had previously visited this country on holidays and I studied a short language course, I still experienced a culture shock when I moved in. When I came on holidays I thought everyone was warm and welcoming but I felt different when I came to live. No matter how friendly people seemed to be they were friendly in a Finnish way. So I think there’s always a barrier and friendliness can be defined according to somebody’s culture. So that was an issue for me, that difference between their friendliness and mine.
Another thing that was really shocking was the environment at work. My boss would always say things in a short way and using imperative: ‘Do this, do that’. I once had to tell her: ‘I think you’re so rude and I don’t like your sarcasm’. And you know what she said? ‘Hey, you yourself speak too much and you seem to be always trying to explain yourself. And I can’t spend that energy on you. I don’t need to spend my energy in small discussions.’ Then I noticed that it was true. Neither my way nor her way was bad. It was just different. Then I learned that the Finns don’t say things just because. They try to say what they believe is necessary.
A hard issue for foreigners in Finland is that from the moment you enter into the system they try to allocate you somewhere. I mean, after you’ve spent a horribly long time learning the language, you have to do some sort of work training, usually in a kindergarden or at a supermarket and then the system expects you to move on from there. So if you’re lucky you’ll end up studying a career to look after children and the old people or you might get a job at a coffee place or at a supermarket. That for many of us is very static and nerve-wracking.
So what do I like about the Fins? They don’t talk just because they have nothing better to do. What they say is what they mean. And also they go really deep into things. They’re very good at focusing. When you talk to them or tell them something they’re really there with you. And if you tell them something, they don’t feel a pressure to react if they don’t feel like it.
About Finland and its geography, nature all around is fantastic. And things work. That’s amazing, especially for someone who comes from a place where things work if you’re lucky or where the environment is insecure or corrupt or where the country’s going through some sort of crisis.”
“I’m from Estonia and came to Finland just over two years ago. Back home I had a good life and enjoyed my career. I was involved in the real estate business, so for 10 years I did broking, appraisal and everything to do with properties.
I came to Finland because my partner, also from Estonia, was here. It was definitely a new beginning. I had to learn the language which was a real challenge. I first did a basic course, I then enrolled into a more intensive one. I had to study really hard everyday but I managed to speak Finnish well enough in about 7 or 8 months. Later on I enrolled into a course on real estate management. I was lucky to get in as they only took 15 out of 300 candidates. The course was of course in Finnish and everyone else was a Finn so again I struggled with the language as I had to learn many new terms which I only knew in Estonian.
After the course, I went on to do a 6-month work placement. Basically I had to answer the phone pretty much all day and sometimes people would speak too fast. But it was a good experience as after the 6-month placement I was employed by that company.
I’m not sure whether I had an actual culture shock but I’d say that I found it kind of hard to deal with paper work issues here. For example I had to go three times to the bank in order to open an account. It’s easier in Estonia, I think. Here things don’t go as smoothly in that sense.
In Finland if you’re a foreigner you’ll always be a foreigner. It doesn’t matter how well or hard you work or how much you try to be part of the community. You are a foreigner. My boyfriend’s been working and paying taxes in this country for over 10 years and he’s still the Estonian guy.
There’s quite a lot of Estonians working in Finland. They work a lot and they contribute to the growth of the Finnish economy but they’re still just the Estonians. So here you’re in one of two categories, the Finn or the foreigner. I don’t like that, especially if you work so much.
On the other hand you get all those people who come here and do nothing. They don’t even care about working. As they’re supported by the system, they don’t feel motivated to go out and find a job. That’s not fair.
Finland is not going through its best times, economically speaking, but they’re still giving so much money away by supporting people in such a way that they don’t want to get out of their houses, learn the language, find a job, etc. I myself like to be independent. I can’t stand being payed by the government. I like to make my own money through my own means so I don’t like that others get it so easily. Every month they just have to wait to be paid by Kela (The Social Insurance Institution of Finland). And of course they don’t want to get a job because sometimes they might get a better salary from the government and by doing nothing.
About the Finns, they’re friendly people. I like them. There’s nothing that I don’t like. Well, I actually don’t like to see the bars opened so early in the morning. Sometimes I go to work and I can see there’s people already drinking in the bars or puking outside. That’s disturbing.
Culture wise Finland and Estonia are not that far from each other so I guess that’s made things easier for me.”
“I come from Iran and I’m a refugee in Finland. I was given political asylum and landed here four years ago. I don’t really know if I will ever be able to return to my country. If on the plane they’d ask for my name and the system throws out information about me, they might send me straight to jail, from the moment I set foot on Iranian land. It’d be very risky, so I don’t even think about trying to go back home.
I haven’t seen my parents or relatives since I came to Finland. And of course I miss them. My parents are old now and my mother doesn’t have a strong heart. It’s tough to know that if anything happened to her or any of my family I couldn’t see them.
As for Finland, learning the language has not been easy. All the paper work I’ve had to do regarding my situation has had to be in Finnish. Imagine how it was at the beginning when I didn’t understand a single work. So I’ve found it difficult to explain myself. And I don’t speak English either. I’m more of a practical kind of guy, you see, so the language barrier has indeed been a major challenge for me.
But I like Finland and the Finnish culture. I don’t like sauna but that’s about it, really. I mean, if I’m honest with you there’s nothing negative I can think about. I am free here. In my country I’m not even allowed to wear shorts in the summer time. So how could I not be happy in Finland? I’m a free man and I live in a free land.
Regarding what I did in Iran, after my secondary school I went on to study a technical career. I’m a trained welder so working with metal is what I do best.
In Finland I work at the Vantaa International airport. I clean the floors and the tables. I work from 10 at night to 6 in the morning. It’s hard but working life is always hard, not just in Finland but everywhere in the world. Work is work.
Next week I will start studying a two-year technical career to become a machine and metal operator. I will keep cleaning the floors at the airport but I hope to find better work opportunities once I obtain my Finnish certificate.”
“I was born in Mexico, but basically grew up in the US. I graduated with a Computer Science degree. My career helped me land a job that allowed me to travel to some beautiful places like Jamaica, The Dominican Republic and El Salvador.
My story of how I ended up in Finland starts in El Salvador. I was working for an American branch of a Finnish company as an Executive Assistant. An Electrical plant was being built, and I lived in that beautiful country for one year. I met the man who became my husband there, and he happened to be from Finland. After a few months of dating, we decided to get married, and that’s how I found myself in Suomi.
The culture shock was worst than I could have ever imagined. People seemed so angry all the time. I moved to Finland 19 years ago, and there were not as many foreigners as there are now. People would stare at me, and were not very keen to speak English. I was not very happy.
There was not much variety of food in the supermarkets. The bread was not soft, I couldn’t find tortillas until I found a Mexican restaurant and they would sell them to me. I didn’t like the Finnish food, the lifestyle here or the people.
As time passed and I had my kids, I began to see the benefits of living in this country. The way they treat pregnant women, and the care they receive is first class, or it was when I had my kids. I was able to stay home with my kids, and even if I had never worked in Finland, I had a right to an allowance. My kids both received money until the age of 17. They were able to receive the best education in the world for free. Their teeth were fixed and cared for free…..
Now that the borders have been opened in this country, I must say that I find it much easier to live in it. As more and more foreigners choose to either come to study or work in Finland, the change in the capital can be seen. More people are dining out and shopping, and it’s not only during the summer anymore, but year round.
When people ask me if I like Finland I say no, but it has to do more with the weather, and my first experiences, but I can never, ever deny that I could not think of a better country to raise my children.”
“I come from Singapore but I have Chinese roots and I understand Japanese. I studied literature and worked as an English and Chinese teacher in Singapore.
I’d like to talk about the Finnish language first. For me it’s an amazing one, although it’s really difficult to learn. Sometimes while doing my homework I’ve even thought to myself, ‘Oh come on, this is ridiculous’. But one has to remember that there’s a beautiful history behind the Finnish language. And if you live in this country and never try to learn suomi you can feel alienated because the language and the country’s culture go hand by hand. But I have enjoyed learning Finnish. It has indeed some similarities to Japanese, grammar wise, I mean.
As for the culture, some people say that the Finns are not very good at communicating. They are. They just do it in a different way. For example, they may not be the chatty-chatty sort of people but they are good listeners and listening is also an important part of the communication process.
Somewhere I read that communicating with a Finn is like bowling. They wait for you to finish your move and then its their turn to throw the ball. And they obviously expect the same from you. Actually, I have found some similarities between the Finnish and the Japanese cultures. In both of them there’s a lot of listening going on in a conversation.
But as I said at the beginning I have a Chinese family and come from Singapore, a busy, crowded and multicultural part of the world. Yet it’s also a place where you have to hunt for your identity. Contrary to what happens to us there, I believe the Finns do have an identity and I believe that they’re really trying to preserve it. And I respect that. I wish that in my country we preserved our culture a bit more. We don’t seem to be neither creating nor keeping our culture.
Here I’ve noticed that the Finns do talk about how different they themselves are, for example, from those who come from Tampere, from Turku, from Helsinki, Rovaniemi, etc. They’re aware of the differences among themselves and of how they differ from everyone else in the world. And I think they kind of like that and want to keep those differences. So they are proud of their culture even though they don’t say it as such.
Another difference between Singapore and Finland is that in my homeland they like to keep building new things but in Finland they respect the old buildings. For me it would be nice to go back to my place and find the same buildings. So it’s also in this sense that I believe the Finns have a respectable interest to preserve their culture.
And of course you have the sauna, the weather and all those other things and even stereotypes that are an inherent part of the Finnish culture. And the Finns have sisu, that word that you find so difficult to translate into your language. I personally take it as a life skill as sisu could help you to overcome the terrible weather and to complain less about life.”
“I’m from the Philippines. I was a school teacher in my country.
When I first moved to Finland my spouse’s family organized a welcoming party for me. But to my surprise there was only coffee and all sorts of different cakes on the table. What was shocking was the fact that in the Philippines for the same sort of party the table would be full of so many different kinds of real food. And rice! You’d have all sorts of drinks as well and even karaoke. But here things were less noisier… But I’ve managed to change this in my surroundings as now I make sure to bring a taste of the Philippines into the Finnish table. So far the Finns have liked my food, or so they’ve said.
Another shock I experienced has to do with the sauna. When I first tried the sauna I found it too hot! No, no. Even though I come from a a tropical country where 35 degrees is a normal temperature, in the sauna I couldn’t breathe and I had to keep stepping in and out to get some fresh air. And then I thought to myself, ‘as if it were enough you also have to be naked’. I didn’t feel comfortable being naked. I noticed how natural it was for the Finns but for me and up to this day I don’t like being naked in front of other people. So the shocking experiences I recall as a newcomer are being naked in a very hot sauna and having coffee and cake instead of actual food with rice and entertainment on a party.
But before I finish I’d like to add something to what my friend from Singapore said of the buildings here. In Rautatieasema in Helsinki (the capital’s train station) they put up a new Burger King but the managers had to sign a contract in which they agreed to preserve the building and respect its infrastructure. So they would just decorate it ‘the Burger King style’ from the inside and put up the name of the business outside, of course. I admired that. In my country they could have done with the building what they wanted. Destroy it and build a new one, if they wanted to.”
“I come from Bulgaria and this is my 5th year in Finland.
Five years ago, I was studying a bachelor’s degree in Finance in my home country and then I decided to apply for an Erasmus exchange. The application process included making an English test, good grades and listing 10 countries where the students wished to be placed. The selected candidates would be informed as into which university they would be accepted. Finland was my 4th choice after the Netherlands, Belgium and Ireland. To my huge surprise I was offered a study placement for one year in the town of Seinäjoki. At that time I didn’t know anything about Finland so I was thrilled and a bit scared as to how I would survive in a totally unknown country.
When I arrived in Seinäjoki – a small town surrounded by forests and lakes – the university had organized for tutors to welcome us, introduce us into the city and help us adjust to living in Finland. Soon I met international students from around the world. The university was better than I expected. I started to study the Finnish language and immerse in the culture and I also travelled to different cities.
After realizing that I wasn’t really into Finances and as I felt good living in Finland, I decided to apply to the Seinäjoki University of Applied Sciences and study a bachelor’s in Business Administration.
During my degree studies I completed another study exchange in Belgium and an internship in Spain. After the internship I moved straight to Helsinki where I attended a Finnish course at Laajasalon Opisto and at the same time I was writing my final dissertation. The course in Laajasalo was intensive – 5 hours a day for 4 months. During that time I met amazing people and created long-term friendships and finally started to speak Finnish.
After I graduated, I applied for a master’s in Corporate Environmental Management in the city of Jyväskylä. Currently I’m in my 2nd year and I enjoy the university and the city.
I’m well-adjusted to the Finnish culture and I feel comfortable speaking the Finnish language. After graduating I hope to be able to find a job. That would be the next stage of my integration process.
While living in this country I have experienced both positive and negative issues. One of the negative things is that without the language it is not possible to find a job. Even if you speak Finnish well, it is difficult. On the other hand, there are many positive things related to living here. For example, everything is very well-organized, the crime levels are low, the education is of high quality and free of charge, the people are nice, the nature is beautiful and clean, you get long summer days and northern lights in the winter.
In the beginning the quietness of the Finns scared me, for example, during the conversations I used to think that something was not alright because of the long silences. But now, 5 years later, I appreciate such quietness. I have learnt that it is a sign that the people I talk with are comfortable in my company and enjoy our time together.
I have experienced also many personal changes thanks to the Finnish culture. For instance, since living here, I started to drink coffee and eat oat meal every morning.”
I’m from Ghana. As for many foreigners, the weather was a difficult thing to adjust to when I first came, especially because I’d been living in West Africa all my life. But I soon had to get used to the cold since I intended to stay in this country.
One thing that has been personally disturbing is to hear some Finns uttering insulting words when they’ve heard me speak in my local Ghanan dialect. They’ve assumed that me or my friends don’t understand Finnish. But yes! I understand what they are saying about us! Although it’s just not worth fighting back…
But the one thing I haven’t really been able to get accustomed to is the fact that, although we have access to free education and support, we are not allowed to work in our careers, no matter whether we have a good level of the Finnish language.
I have always felt a foreigner in this country. No matter how much I love Finland and how willing I’ve been to work here and do something in return for the free education I’ve been able to get. The question is: will they ever give me a chance?
I’m unemployed and at home. Yet I have two degrees in nursing, one from Ghana and the other one from Finland. And I have continuously studied the Finnish language to reach level C (Advanced).
I have sent many job applications but they are consistently being denied, even the ones I send to apply for work trainings. Yes, I will keep on pushing, but no, I will not take any undeserving job positions because I have worked my #€% off to be where I am, if I can be totally honest with you. I mean, it’s really terrible to see how people with Masters have to work as cleaners here.
But my final words are dedicated to those ungrateful presidents and political leaders in the African continent. It is because of them that many of us Africans have to struggle in a foreign land. They continue to perpetrate poverty and corruption in our countries.”
I’m Spanish, from Madrid. I’m married to a Finn. Back in Spain I worked as a secretary at a multinational company for many years. I also lived in China where I learned the language and taught Spanish.
As the economical situation in Spain is still unstable my husband and I thought it would be easier if we just moved to Finland rather than him trying to find a job there. So I ended up here a few months ago. But before moving permanently I’d visited Finland as a tourist a few times. And while in Madrid I took a weekly language course for about three years. Although it wasn’t until living here that I’ve got to really learn the language.
The first thing that shocked me about living here was the silence. In Spain you always hear some sort of background noise. You might not even notice it but if you stop for a second you’ll be be able to hear a song being played on the radio, a neighbor talking on the phone, two ladies chatting on the street, and so on. In Finland I felt a sensation of absolute silence to the point that it can freak you out. I mean, if you’re not used to the silence you can feel really lonely in this country.
And something that might relate to what I’ve just said is that I also noticed an absence of people. ‘Where is everyone?’ I thought when I came. There’s few people in the streets of Finland, even in Helsinki. In Madrid you find people anytime, anywhere. Not here. There’s less people. Pure and simply.
Another of my culture shocks had to do with the food. Don’t get me wrong, I always knew that the food in Finland would never be as the Spanish mediterranean one but I’m talking about the customer service when it comes to food. I mean, I was shocked when I’d go to a grocery or a butchery store and I noticed that everything was kind of impersonal besides the fact that it’s really expensive. In Madrid you’d talk to the butcher, you’d tell him what you want, what for, how much and he’d happily cut the meat and give you exactly what you asked for. From there you’re already starting to enjoy your meal, from that visit to the butchery. And of course there’s not a lot of charcutería here (cured meats) and if so, they come in small packages.
In general, a Finn would be polite and kind, but cold. People here don’t say ‘hello’ and that’s OK for them. In Spain you’d be considered antisocial if you didn’t greet people. And what I’m saying is not necessarily negative but it’s still shocking for the outsider. To be honest, I don’t like it when someone comes into the elevator and doesn’t say “ni pío” (nothing at all).
But what I like about this country and its people is the way in which everything is well-organized. Things are where and how they must be. And everything is well explained. The health service is good as well. I had some complications with my health and I was well assisted and treated with respect. But to my surprise most of the communication happened through letters. And it was through one of those letters that one day I found out that I had to be operated on. After receiving the news I had to wait for two weeks so I could speak with a doctor. And I do want to emphasize that the assistance I received was professional (but impersonal).
In general lines I haven’t had a necessarily bad or horrible experience living in Finland. There are of course many positive things about this country. The libraries in Finland are marvelous. And there’s also a lot of choice when it comes to buying clothes. For example, you can easily find high-quality second-hand clothing and you can find all sorts of people in the second-hand shops as well. There’s no social class differences in that sense.
About my future in Finland, my first priority is to obviously learn the language. I expect that when I speak Finnish very well things will run more smoothly. It’s not that everything is negative at the moment but if I spoke suomi very well I could choose to study from a varied list of interesting courses, for instance. So speaking the language is a fundamental step in the integration to this country and to be able to compete in the Finnish labor market, of course.”
So there you go! If you’ve managed to read the whole post you’ll hopefully have a better idea of what it feels to be an immigrant in Finland. At the end of the day we’re just people who had to move to this country either because we fell in love with a Finn, because we liked a Finnish rock band and became curious to know more about Finland, because we wanted to have a better education, because our spouse was sent to work here, or, as in the case of my Iranian friend, because we come from a land where basic human rights – such as freedom of expression – are being violated.
No matter why we’re here, it’s not easy being a foreigner. The vast majority of us are still trying to find our way in Suomi. Some of us have been lucky to find a permanent job position (for example, three out of all the interviewees here have a job at the moment ). Some of us are still learning the language, still studying, still trying to understand the culture. And we keep trying because we know we have the potential to succeed.
Many of us had successful careers in the past, hence we are ambitious and, as I hope you have gathered from what people have said on this post, we all want to find that great job we’re longing for. Our desire is also to be considered part of the new Finland. The multi-cultural Finland. We don’t want to be an impediment, we want, and can be, valuable assets that have the capacity to contribute to the growth of this country.
See you soon with another post, next time, on Africa.
Thank you for reading.
In Nairobi, 14 August 2015.