“My only understanding of Finland was through Aki Kaurismäki”

Ying-Chan, 39


I came here the first time in 2004 in the spring from Taiwan. It was +25 there and –15 here. It was a huge difference, but it was beautiful. My parents hoped I wouldn’t study abroad, but I insisted on going abroad to do my PhD. I got a research fellowship and came here to become a junior researcher. I studied at the chemistry department of the University of Helsinki. The first time I was here for 5 and a half years. I left to Norway in September 2009, the last day of September.

When I came I was excited in the sense that I was very curious about Finland, I knew nothing about it. My only understanding of Finland was through Aki Kaurismäki. I mean, I like films. Everyone was going on about Nokia and education and I was just like, “What?” For me Finland was Aki Kaurismäki. I went to film festivals and they always showed marginal directors, so that is how I came across him. The movies are very slow, but then you look at the humour. I like it. Of course, I was worried and my friend was making fun of me, like, “How can you survive there?”

We moved back to Finland again in 2015. It was different. It’s a different mindset to come as a student or as an immigrant. At the moment I don’t feel like an immigrant, maybe more like an expat. Or both in a way. I think the biggest problem for me is to not know Finnish. It wouldn’t have been a problem 10 years ago as a student, but now it’s a problem.

“Everyone was going on about Nokia and education and I was just like, “What?” For me Finland was Aki Kaurismäki”

I’ve tried to learn Finnish, and after trying three times I finally finished the Suomi 1 book. I don’t like speaking Finnish, but I like the grammar. It’s very structured. I know I can master it. But I don’t have the patience to speak or listen. I’m more impatient than most Finns. It’s not a problem, but people think sometimes that I’m too energetic. I have changed a bit since coming back here, I can handle the Finnish silence now. It was challenging in the beginning, like being silent at the dining table. I mean, you’ve got to have conversation. Like at work, they don’t talk at lunch, they eat. I was the one who kept on talking and could not finish my food.

I’m not doing my academic career anymore. I work for a small-medium sized company. It’s a very small Finnish technology company, working on data solutions. I started working as a consultant and research coordinator for them and then became CMO. They used to have product development with an EU project. So I was research coordinating it. Later on – because it’s a very small company – everybody had to take on other tasks too. The company is in Turku, but I can work remote. I’m the only woman currently. To them it does not matter, which is great. And also the fact that I don’t speak Finnish doesn’t matter. It only matters when we have Finnish customers who refuse to speak English and I have to tell them that my colleague will call them back. That feels bad. But they have been very supportive and kind. I like the working part in Finland, you know what you get. And an honest opinion. I like it and I can take it, I don’t have time for bullshit. I realise I’ve been very lucky with my work.

“I think the biggest problem for me is to not know Finnish. It wouldn’t have been a problem 10 years ago as a student, but now it’s a problem”

I try and teach Taiwanese culture and values to my children. It’s hard. But we try also to embrace the culture of every place we live in. I think it’s important that they feel comfortable being Taiwanese. They need to feel supported and be prepared for school life. I think I’m the only foreign parent in my daughter’s kindergarten at the moment. This is a very Finnish neighbourhood, an area with the least foreigners in the whole of Helsinki. I was very worried.

My daughter does say things like she is not Finnish and she tells her friends that mummy does not speak Finnish. I speak English or Taiwanese to her. Her friends say “hello” and “bye” to me in English. She interprets for me what her friends say, she’s used to that. You know, like, it’s time to eat or wash hands, or do they want to drink milk or juice. She has also learned how to use the languages against us. When she was younger she used to ask her dad in the morning if she could watch TV, and her dad would tell her to ask me. But to me she would say, “Dad said yes in Finnish,” so I wouldn’t know. She did the same to him when she spoke to me in Taiwanese.

I have three younger sisters and my dad. My mum passed away three years ago quite suddenly. You feel like you should go home, but I’m lucky to have my sisters to take care of my dad. We kind of have an agreement that we will be half a year in Taiwan and the other half here. I mean, winter in Taiwan is +20 and summer in Finland is great. It’s never too hot. We always planned that for when we retired, so we could be with family. But I think the best thing we can do, as my dad says, is to take care of ourselves. Of course my dad’s point is that he can also come here for, you know, three months. I mean, that’s why we have the house and a guest room. My dad has visited Finland, but my mum never did. That’s a tough part of being abroad.


More like this: 

Andrea, Italy: “Finland never pushed me to believe in something foreign to my heart”

Pradeep, India: “There is probably nothing similar between India and Finland”

Alexandra, Portugal: “When I go to Portugal I sometimes feel like a stranger”

Interview by Peter Seenan recorded in Helsinki, Finland in 2017. If you wish to support our work in sharing the reflections of immigrants please like our Facebook page and share Ying-Chan’s story. 

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