I may sort of be in a situation that’s different from a lot of the other people you interview. I’m an older person with a European-American background who has an established life back home. I still have my house in California so I can always go back. I guess that’s a little different than a lot of the other people you interview. I assume many are from the developing world and from countries which are less fortunate – and for many, this is their golden ticket to better themselves.
I came here out of choice because my kids are Finnish-American and their mother and I had always planned that when the children reached high school we would move here – so they could go through high school and do their army service. Their mother is from this region, which is why we settled here in Joensuu. Her parents live close and we used to come from the US during the summer when the kids were young, so I’ve always felt very at home here. But my work has taken me all over Finland and we’re planning to expand it throughout Europe once we start hooking up with the right people.
I can see myself not living in Joensuu permanently, but I think I want to have my base here. It’s a place I want to come back to. This is all a new adventure for me. I needed it and I guess you could say that through my kids I was offered this great opportunity because they’re Finnish-American. I’ve obtained permanent residency and I’ll flip it to citizenship once I take the language test. I plan to stick around.
“When you’re in LA with 10 million people you’re just another nobody on the street. Here I can really see myself making a big difference.”
We came back to Finland almost five years ago. At the time, my boys were 15, 14, and 10. I want my kids to do the military and one of my sons is in the US Navy. My brother-in-law back in the US is one of the top guys at the US Naval War College at Rhode Island, so my sons also have a lot of good connections there if they want to go. And if any of my children want to return to the US I don’t want to discourage them. But with all my kids I’ve told them I don’t care what you do, but do your Finnish army first. Get that out the way, then you’re free to do whatever else you want. At least you’ve had that experience, that connection, that bonding with friends. Then the whole world’s your oyster. Currently, two of my sons are in the military in Finland.
During the day, I often go to the local Science Park, where I’m a “sounding board” for others who have ideas and want some feedback. I also do this thing with startups, I’m working with students and even existing business. Sometimes I’m sitting in with businesses and they’re from two different cultures. It might be a foreign company with a Finnish company and they’re doing the kind of ‘cha cha cha’ and I’m the third wheel. Sometimes they need that third person – that neutral person – who doesn’t really have any interest one way or the other; just trying to look after the best interests of everybody. If you’re the dog in the fight you really can’t see. All you’re doing is attacking the jugular. I was an officer in the military and I use the sorts of skills I used there. We like to tell folks that sometimes we’re in the heat of battle, smoke is all around you and you don’t see clearly. Sometimes you have to pull yourself out and give yourself some time to digest what happened.
Currently, I have three jobs and some projects I am working on. I do some work back in California, work a bit for the US government, and my work in Finland consists of working for the cooperative PKO (Pohjois-Karjalan Osuuskauppa). In addition, I initiated an endeavor to get US entities in the areas of ‘R&D’ (Research and development) and investment to focus on building greater collaborative activities between themselves and their counterparts in the Nordics. I feel that there is much more potential if more of those activities occur here, with the preferred outcome of greater activity in the Nordics; instead of the Nordics losing its “best and brightest” to locations abroad. It excites me to think how much can be accomplished with relatively minimal input. I really feel that I can make a difference and impact.
“There are numerous foreigners in Finland who love this country and want to be spokespersons for it. I suggest Finns take advantage of this desire.”
My mother used to always say that it is ideal to be a big fish in a small pond, and I feel that for me in Finland, this is the case. I feel like I can really make a difference. When you’re in LA with 10 million people you’re just another nobody on the street, especially when you’re working 80 hours a week. You really can’t do anything extra. Here I can really see myself making a big difference. I’m an anxious person and I like to get things done. I like to make things better than how I found them. It’s not for personal gain. In most cases I don’t get anything out of it financially. It is good publicity and networking opportunities – you can’t discount that – and later some financial gain may come from it. But I just hate to see waste and missed opportunities. I don’t believe in free rides, I don’t believe in free money, I believe you’ve got to create. And this is another issue I have, people are always expecting something for nothing. I don’t come from that background.
In Finland you have smart people, and you have great infrastructure compared to most countries, there’s money here. I feel that Finns are 90% there, but they just need that extra 10% to bump them up. That 10% is just being more outgoing and confident. I mean, if they had that extra 10% they would be on top of the world. But I’m not here to tell Finns how to run their business because America is also fucked up. I just feel that it is easier for Finland to “get its act together”. And if they do a good job at it, they may be a positive influence on the rest of the world. I’m just a facilitator who hopes to make a positive influence.
When I introduce myself, I often say that “I am an everyday Joe who has been around the block a few times”. My knowledge and advice often come about through experiences and personal mistakes – knowledge I happily share. I sometimes butt heads with decision makers in this city because I have some ideas about how this place can really pimp itself out, such as rebrand as a university town, things like that, and it does frustrate me that people nod in understanding, but nothing really gets done. I also feel people are too often stuck in their ways of doing things and do not want to think out of the box. Everything often seems to need to be tied into a “project”, that looks good on paper, but does not result in any long term benefits. I hate to see waste, inefficiency, and lack of accountability. I tend to look at things based upon return on investment and value to the community. But since this is their country, all I can really do is suggest improvements with the best intentions.
One of the first things I told people that could be of value to Finland – and I think is under-utilised – is what I call Brand Finland. You’re certainly on top of the world, so at least geographically others can visualise “Oh Finland, they’re the top of the world.” Finns need to better take advantage of their assets and the built-in admiration that the rest of the world has for them. And then of course you think of Scandinavia, you think of Ikea, which is of course not Finland but everyone throws it all together, you think of Iittala, you think of reindeer and Santa Claus. I mean, it’s a fun place. There are numerous foreigners in Finland who love this country and want to be spokespersons for it given the opportunity and want to contribute to its wellbeing. I suggest Finns take advantage of this desire, as there is much value to Finland. If I stand up and tell people that America is great, they will say that of course you’re going to say that because you’re an American. If you’re a Finn who says the same thing about Finland, yeah of course you’re going to say that because you’re a Finn. But if an American says that about Finland and has passion, then it actually means something and the message has more value. As with everything, usually the simplest solution is the best solution.
“I’m not here to tell Finns how to run their business because America is also fucked up. I just feel that it is easier for Finland to get its act together.”
Really nothing sucks here, I feel like I’m on a vacation every day. I live in a building, which was actually an old hotel. So I tell people I live in a hotel. I usually go out to nice restaurant buffets, really good food for eight euros. I go swimming every day, even in winter when it’s ice swimming. My work hours are sporadic, that’s to do with helping with the California side. I sometimes like to do things in real time, so I might be working at 2 or 3 in the morning. Then I get up to go to the science park for a few hours. Have lunch, take a nap, go to the lake. My life is not 9-5.
I like the sauna. For me it’s part of my vacation, my daily vacation here in Joensuu. Going to the lake… I walk there, it’s a 45-minute walk, even in the winter when it’s -30°C. There’s ice swimming and sauna. I mean I could sit home in front of the computer or sit in a sauna with a bunch of half naked people. What would you rather do?!
Finns have a good life here, and I try to remind them to appreciate what they have. Most Finns I come across are motivated and want to change and better themselves. This is an environment I thrive in, because we all have plenty to learn from each other. But since ‘water tends to flow down the path of least resistance’, it is always good to have in your midst somebody who cares and wants to assist in taking things to the next level. One who reminds people of the wonderful assets that are here. I feel that this is my calling here.
Interview by Peter Seenan recorded in Joensuu, Finland in 2017. If you wish to support our work in projecting the voices and achievements of immigrants in Finland please like our Facebook page and share Ken’s story.