June Yeoh Karjalainen in Lahti. Photo by Finland My Home

“I studied Finnish for 2-3 years and then I applied to the Lahti tourist board”

June, Malaysia

I’m June, I’m Malaysian and I run the Malaysians in Finland page on Facebook. I started it because I wanted to tell people more positive things about Finland. So many foreigners living in Finland think so many bad things about Finland, but I’m happy and satisfied. I felt like it was important to show what’s possible. I moved to Lahti 7 years ago and to Finland in March 2011. The good thing here compared to Helsinki is that people don’t speak English. But now, even if I speak Finnish they speak English to me.

I moved to Finland from New Zealand and my husband and I are planning to stay in Finland now; we both have good jobs and we are thinking about our kids’ futures. We wanted safety for our children and knew we wanted to have a baby here. We were both living in Vietnam, but I said that before I moved to Finland I want 6 months for myself. That’s why I got a working visa for New Zealand. It was the place to see before moving and it was to test our relationship. I didn’t want to marry him and then regret it. In New Zealand I felt like I missed him and he missed me, so we went for the next step. I followed my heart. In Finland if you are a foreigner and not married it might be a problem, so I was a bit worried at first. I had everything in Malaysia and I felt I had to give up everything when I came.  

We have a really lovely big family here now. My mother-in-law has 7 sisters. Their family relations are very close in Lahti. When I moved here I was told that everyone is so individual and no one shares things together, but when I moved to Lahti I found that my mother-in-law and father-in-law are so close, even if some of the extended family live in the US and Germany. We speak Finnish and English together.

JUNE YEOH KARJALAINEN: I had everything in Malaysia and I felt I had to give up everything when I came.

At home, we speak Mandarin, Finnish and English and I want my daughter to understand all three. Now she speaks only Mandarin with me, but we have some Chinese friends in Lahti so we celebrate some of our holidays and I cook traditional foods and celebrate Chinese New Year. I tell her why we have these traditions. In Malaysia, we has this old tradition of the Lion Dance at New Year, that they don’t do it anymore in China. I think we keep the traditions better than in China. My husband really likes Asian culture and he wants to help keep the traditions.

My husband understands Mandarin now and he has learned a lot of basic Mandarin from our daughter, who is three. I cook only Asian food at home, not Finnish, and my husband eats everything I make. I have heard that in many families they have to make two foods because the partner complains about the spices and does not like something. My husband may complain a bit about the heat, but still eats it and if he doesn’t then I just tell him to go eat some bread.

During the first three months of our dating I didn’t know what he wanted from me. But we stuck together and so I asked what he wanted from me. Then he said he liked me… that was good to know. I think Finnish men take a long time to think about things. If you ask if they love you they need to think.

JUNE YEOH KARJALAINEN: To begin with, it was a 6-month job practice for Visit Lahti, then I started the Winter Know How project, which promotes winter sports and winter tourism.

He was a tourist on my home island in 2007. I was working as a tour guide there. It was a Tuesday night and nothing was happening, but we went with my friend to celebrate her birthday at a bar. My husband was the only western person there, hanging out with an Indian guy. He had a cognac and a cigar. I smiled at him and he ran to me and said hi. I had never met a Finn before but I knew about the auroras, midnight sun, the cold weather and Nokia. He was 24 and I was 27. I never thought I would marry anyone younger than me. It’s not really the done thing in Chinese tradition. Not long after, his parents came to Malaysia. He had told them he had met me, but I didn’t know anything about that – I just gave them a tour as a tourist guide. After that I began to wonder because they gave me a really nice gift, but I thought it was maybe Finnish culture. Only after the parents left did he start to say he liked me. In the start I was pushing him away a a bit because he was too young for me.

I work with tourism in Finland and I promote Finland. Finns are perhaps not so good at talking Finland up, so they need to borrow someone to do it. I’m a perfect match for this; I can talk and I live in Finland. I was in ammattikoulu [vocational college] in Finnish where I got the same degree as I had from Malaysia, but of course everything was different here. For my degree, I needed to know Finnish. I studied Finnish for 2-3 years and then I applied to the tourism board here in Lahti and promised to help them with the Chinese strategy and Asian culture.

To begin with, it was a 6-month job practice for Visit Lahti, then I started the Winter Know How project, which promotes winter sports and winter tourism. It’s a dream job, they pay me to go to China and promote Finland. The Chinese government is putting a lot of money into winter sports ahead of the Beijing Winter Olympics in 2022. This is why they are so interested in Finland and all the talent here. I’m coordinating all this. They ask me about ice hockey coaches and all sorts. I’m the ice breaker or the bridge. I understand both cultures and I can get people to trust each other. Finns don’t understand why Chinese people do things so fast. And also, after a negotiation you don’t just go “bye bye” – you talk, sit and talk more. It’s the same with a husband and wife, after a fight you still sit and talk about what went wrong.

JUNE YEOH KARJALAINEN: I still visit Tampere hospital every summer and bring chocolate to the staff who helped care for our daughter.

I have had people asking me in Finland if I have been in a war and whether I am a refugee. That’s sometimes strange. Drunk men can sometimes be rude and ask “how much”. I used to get more offended, but now I don’t have a problem being rude back. Sometimes I just tell them that they can’t afford to pay for me. Some people say I’m crazy saying these things back, but they’re drunk so it’s not serious. I have never felt scared in Finland, I trust the security and drunk people are not scary. These things have not upset my relationship, but the darkness and bad weather has.

I learned something very important when I had my baby here in 2014. She was premature and I needed a C-section. She was in Tampere hospital for three months and we stayed in a hotel near the hospital. We got free medical help, social workers helped us get the correct papers for Kela and so on. I understood then that the three things you need in life are safety, medical care and education. That’s all. At the same time, there was the aeroplane that went missing in Malaysia. Someone’s wife or husband, child… missing, gone forever. At that point I no longer felt depressed because of our daughter’s situation and the fear just went away. I realised that she was alive and I needed to support that. With my husband we hug every night and say that as long as we have each other and our daughter is alive, that’s all we need. My life has been more simple after that, I don’t have the energy to be upset and worry about the next day. I still visit Tampere hospital every summer and bring chocolate to the staff who helped care for our daughter. I send messages to the nurses to let them know how our daughter is doing.

The only thing I miss here is that I don’t see my family that often, but the internet has helped a lot. I call my mother almost every day – she thinks I’m very nosy! When I lived in Malaysia I didn’t call her nearly as much.

December 2018  Since this interview was recorded June has set up her own company called Nordiczone, which she will focus on full time from the end of 2018. Nordiczone is connecting Chinese and Finnish winter sports companies and June is using her connections in Finland and China to create opportunities for winter sports enthusiasts.  

Other eye-opening stories: 

Kamal, Lebanon: “I would be crying because of the snow and 2010 was the coldest winter, very cold”

Amjad, Pakistan: “I just strongly feel that people need to meet each other. That’s why I wanted to share my story”

Andruta, Romania: “Seeing other women were so comfortable with nudity in the sauna made me more willing to embrace my own body”

Interview by Peter Seenan recorded in Lahti, 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 June’s story. 

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