Finland: An Enduring Love Story
I left my heart in Finland when I moved back to Malaysia during Covid-19
It's been over a year since Covid-19 exploded. A year since I left Finland to return to Malaysia because even then, my gut sense told me: This isn't going to end anytime soon.
Coming home to Malaysia confirmed a few things I know to be true: That Malaysia is where many of my people are. I'm grateful for the friendships, shared meals, heart-to-heart conversations that are easy to find in a place where you spent most of your life growing up. It also reminded me that people play a big role in what feels like home.
A year into moving back, I've had plenty of time to grieve and process a lot of things: the end of a relationship, leaving my cats Rumi and Lira in a place where I know they will have a much better quality of life, the reverse culture shock of adjusting back home, the loss of normalcy.
As some chapters have ended, new ones have begun. New love, new cats, new houses, new friendships, new routines. But for the past few weeks, leading to this one year mark, I've been feeling a sense of unexplainable melancholy. It's only now that I'm beginning to realize that there is still something I'm not fully done grieving yet. Something I'm not sure I'll ever be able to let go of. Distance and time has brought clarity about one thing: My love for Finland runs deep.
Each time a human relationship ends, there's the comforting idea that there's plenty of fish in the sea. A couple billion of them, in fact. But there's only 195 countries in the world. At least around half of them are politically and economically unstable. Only two of them have topped the UN's annual World Happiness Report (which really measures contentment and life satisfaction more than typical happiness, per se) four times. And only one of the two have topped it for four consecutive years in a row - amid the pandemic.
When it comes to fish in this sea, there is really only one such fish.
There are so many reasons Finland has left such an indelible mark on me. It may be the first physical place on earth I really felt like I belonged. Since a very young age, I always felt like I belonged in a global environment. And while I had plenty of fond memories during my undergraduate days in Teesside (UK), when it was time to leave, I was ready to say goodbye. During my time in Teesside, I also faced plenty of discriminatory, racist remarks, including being yelled at by a drunk man on the street to "Go back home to China, Chinese whore!"
I spent a summer in New York a couple of years back to figure out if the epitome of bright lights, big city would be the place for me. While I loved the sense of promise and opportunity and pulsing energy the city held, it felt almost too energetic for me. Especially for the place I was at in my life.
I was recovering from a divorce, trying to make sense of it all - and trying to find what having a relationship with myself meant. I was trying to find fresh meaning in a career after becoming very jaded by everything about working in Malaysia - from our labor laws, to inefficient work cultures, and to low morale and low work ethic being a chronic issue - it all just led to feeling like a cog in a machine.
In the midst of that - I found Finland. I made two trips to Finland, one in the summer and one in the absolute dead of winter, when everything was dark and frozen solid - to be absolutely sure that I could see myself moving there. And both times, the certainty I felt that this was my place could not be more undeniable.
In Finland, I saw a reflection of myself. The phrase "still water runs deep" has been used to describe me by various people throughout my life. And that phrase is an apt one to describe how I feel about Finland. Understated and unassuming on the surface, if you look closer, the land of a thousand lakes is a country brimming and bubbling with life, innovation, ideas, opportunities, and countless quirky and uniquely Finnish nuances you probably couldn't find anywhere else.
In Finland, I found peace in the vast expanses of forest, land, and sea, and a silence so deafening that time slows down and the wind on your face and sounds of geese in the air drown out all the thoughts in your head about your mistakes, regrets, and fears. Standing before a frozen sea so still that all you see when you look ahead is the horizon, I felt small and humbled. It put all my problems into perspective and gave me hope for the future.
Even in my backyard, looking up into a clear winter sky at midnight, seeing a myriad of stars against a dark sky or a moon so full, round, and bright would give me goosebumps. I can't count the number of times I've felt a sense of awe and deep reverence being in nature this untouched, left wild, unfettered, free.
In Finland, I found the freedom that the wild part of my soul has always craved since I was a little girl. The sheer safety of walking around the city at any hour of the day and night meant I could go for a run or walk with Rumi in the dead of night. The first few times I did it, that familiar sense of Malaysian fear (Will I get mugged or raped?) crept in, but after awhile, I came to enjoy the sense of liberation it brought, just being alone in a dark, empty forest, enjoying the crisp, cool air on my face and the wind in my hair as I ran.
To get a sense of how vast nature is in Finland, watch this video:
Finland taught me how to survive -30 Celsius temperatures - and not just survive it - but thrive in it. There's a common saying in Finland that: "There's no such thing as bad weather - only bad clothing." And I've learned that nothing is impossible - including jumping into an icy sea with blocks of ice floating next to you - after you've experienced the healing powers of a steaming hot Finnish sauna.
In response to Finland's harsh weather, and its proximity to Mother Russia, the Finnish spirit of sisu was born. Finns are very proud that they have maintained over a 100 years of independence, despite sharing a border with Russia. The Finnish-Soviet Winter War, in which Finland was attacked by a disproportionately superior Soviet army and managed to maintain their independence, is an event that has been elevated in the Finnish consciousness to an almost legendary status, and it was the event that first made the word sisu mainstream in Finland.
What is sisu? Sisu is a word that means something like "grit" or "resilience", but it goes beyond just persistence in trying times. It's about keeping on even when your very last hope has faded, or in the words of Finnish positive psychology researcher, Emilia Lahti, sisu is what you are left with "when you don't see a silver lining, but you jump into the storm anyway." There are very few concepts in the world that I relate to as strongly as this concept of sisu - because I believe many of the truly transformative journeys we take in life are rarely polished or beautiful - they are messy and at times even bleak and hopeless, like the dead of winter, when everything is stiff and grey and it seems like spring will never come again. And in a wonderfully serendipitous coincidence, my birthday falls on the official Day of Sisu.
In Finland, I found the freedom to be myself - whoever that was. In a culture that so deeply values and upholds respect for human dignity, I have never once felt discriminated against. Not once did people asked me the typical questions minorities get asked everywhere in the world: "But where are you really originally from?" (Usually in a nosy, accusatory tone that implies you are not being truthful.) In fact, never once was I asked an intrusive question about anything in Finland. In Finland, people wait for you to share what you are comfortable sharing - and then, with great interest and a genuine curiosity, they ask more to understand better.
The freedom to be myself was something I felt not only as an individual interacting with other Finns. I felt the same way as an immigrant interacting with the Finnish government. I tell people all the time that the only rights that I don't have as a Finnish resident is voting in the national elections. (But I'm still allowed to vote for my municipal representative!) I have the same access to subsidized healthcare, government insurance, and if I had children, all the parental and childcare benefits (such as the famous baby box) as well. To get my work Visa, it took me a total of two days from the time I submitted my application online to the time I received an email that my application was approved. After being conditioned to believe I am a second-class citizen in my country of origin, it was a shock to be given all these privileges from day 1 in Finland.
"But do you have to speak Finnish?" is a common question I get. I'm not proud to admit it, but in the two years I lived there, I didn't really pick up more than simple greetings, thank yous, and (because I'm a foodie) how to read menu items and almost every label for common ingredients in the supermarket. Beyond that, every government department I interacted with were always understanding and spoke English to me. Even if the documents were in Finnish and Swedish, someone would explain them to me in English.
It's not just peace that came from being around nature in all its untamed beauty that I found in Finland. It's the peace of mind that comes from not having to constantly read between the lines and try to guess people's hidden motives in an extremely low-context communication culture. Finns are extremely modest, down-to-earth, and always sincere. What you see is what you get. You don't see people hiding behind fake smiles - you know if they are having a rough day. But you also know that when they are happy for you - it's a genuine happiness.
Coming from a high-context communication culture, and being by nature a low-context, direct communicator - I found myself able to breathe easier at work and outside of work by just not having to be doing mental gymnastics all the time when communicating with people.
In a country where the national identity is introverted, I found it was okay to be silent and observe. I felt very comfortable eating alone in restaurants, and even on weekends in busy cafes, the ambience never felt overwhelmingly chaotic and loud, as Finns generally speak in calm, mellow tones. As an introvert growing up in Southeast Asia my entire life, and being constantly socially exhausted, this was a haven. But being unassuming by no means equals being less than world-class. Finns lead the world not only on quality of life metrics, but on business innovation metrics as well.
Finland gave the world the first internet browser, SMS technology, ice skates, heart rate monitors, the sauna, Linux (named after Finnish inventor Linus Torvalds), Angry Birds, Clash Royale, and key contributions to 5G technology. And it continues to bring a disproportionate amount of firepower (for the size of its 5.5 million population) to the world stage. In the Global Startup Ecosystem Report 2020, the Greater Helsinki startup ecosystem is the fourth most attractive location among 100 emerging ecosystems worldwide, valued at USD 5.8 billion, which is significantly higher than the global average for emerging ecosystems.
To someone who has never lived in Finland, it might not seem like it has that much to offer, compared to the big cities of the world. But I'll happily trade all the skyscrapers, high streets, shopping malls, and freeways in the world to have the quality of life I had in Finland - built not on anything complicated, but just on getting the simple things right. Respect for human dignity. Not worrying about access to healthcare. Liveable wages for everyone. Safety and freedom. Fresh air and clean water. (I have never tasted water sweeter anywhere else than in Finland, straight from the tap. There have been many moments back here in Malaysia that I would have paid top dollar for a bottle of fresh Finnish water.)
I don't think I will ever let go of what Finland has done for me and to me. Because Finland has shown me that while this kind of quality of life may not be the norm in most parts of the world - it is possible.
Yes, the cynical side of me says well, that may be only because Finland is so small and homogenous, that's why it's possible to implement good policies. (Again, this is the Finnish influence - Being a 'black hat' thinker is something Finns also pride themselves on - almost as if it's only real optimism when you see the worst and are still able to find something worth celebrating.)
But the hopeful side of me believes that while there may be environmental, social, and cultural factors that led to Finland being the country it is today, she holds so many precious and valuable lessons for the world about what it means to be free, to be human, to be brave, to be gutsy, and to be unashamedly yourself, even if that self is not the loudest, the biggest, the shiniest, or the most polished. I will always hold the hope that I will be able to return to Finland again and again throughout my life, in whatever form that may take. But in the meantime, I know the lessons she has left me with are ones I will always carry with me - to shape the environments I am in, wherever I go, for the better - into environments where people, animals, and nature thrive and prosper.
For those who have never been to Finland or fell in love with it the way I have, one of the best ways I can summarize my experience with the country is through music and videos that epitomize Finland. As I did my research into Finland before I moved there, I came across a beautiful piece of music composed by Finnish composer Jean Sibelius in 1899. In his words, this is what inspired Finlandia:
"We fought 600 years for our freedom, and I am part of the generation which achieved it. Freedom! My Finlandia is the story of this fight. It is the song of our battle, our hymn of victory.”
There have been many covers of Finlandia with lyrics set to the music since then. This is one of my favorites:
And this is the full composition: