Dear “Insert Your Name”,
Once you have left home, nothing will ever be the same. You will experience many of your first times. You might be wide-eyed or excited, homesick or disappointed, but you will probably taste them all. It was three years ago when I first left home for Turku, Finland, for an exchange semester. It is a peaceful residential city of not many happenings – a comment, not a fact – as my view of the other land is always relative to my home, Hong Kong – The “City of Life”.
Dating back to New Year’s Eve 2013, my first cultural shock upon my arrival in Helsinki, arose from the no-diners-are-phubbers phenomenon. My heart danced a little at seeing almost everyone’s eyes focussed on either their food or the person with whom they shared the meal. Never a screen-obsessed, I was heartened to learn that my living preference, anachronistic and incomprehensible in the eyes of many Hongkongers, was nothing but a norm in another part of the world. What a lovely relief to have my firm yet unpopular “Live in the Moment” belief justified. Eureka!
“Aha” moments have come one after another since then. I remember: the maybe-honesty-is-not-merely-a-Finnish-stereotype suspicion I had studying the frowns and embarrassment of my Finnish mentor, Mila, while she was learning Cheat – a card game of deception – which she had never heard of, let alone played before. The generosity-improves-everyone’s-mental-health reawakening I experienced after some daily practice of bus-driver-and-rider greetings – a piece of Turkuan social etiquette. The why-hasn’t-there-been-a-global-Asian-lingua-franca question that popped up as I was communicating with a Korean in English, feeling ineffably strange. The “Why pass judgments? Speak and make mistakes!” learning mentality I acquired after my Finland-Swedish literature course began: instead of listening to the lecturer’s monologue, my outspoken international peers and I were asked to voice our thoughts and discuss for two and a half hours – yes, two and a half hours! I felt like a timid guest speaker of City Forum, yet I was proud, and am still, to have stepped out of my comfort zone.
Living in a white spacious room in a white spacious country was not always easy. In the cold, dark and snowy winter of five-hour sunlight, there were nights when my room was filled with the aroma of white rice; sometimes to avoid people, sometimes to avoid washing the shared kitchen’s utensils. Some nights were worse: two slices of Nutella-pasted toast or a bowl of sugary dried-fruit muesli. Only then did I realise that, on top of the distasteful Chinese herbal soups, the only kind my mother would make for its “healing power”, I have also taken for granted the ten-to-twelve-hour working sunlight at home. Do not even try to remind me of the laundry I had to do at 8am on my days off. However, kicking myself out of the thermally insulated bedroom was such a royal privilege on the days I had to struggle between spending the next day sockless or risking my public image for a vacant washing machine whose reservationist was late. I have never felt so strong an urge to take full responsibility for my life: trivial as doing laundry, big as shovelling my icy negativity.
In reminiscence, my stay in Finland was a life experiment and provided life-rewarding enlightenment. Very rarely in life have I been given conditions as such for my inner child to revive, and studying in a foreign land has provided me with all kinds of unfamiliarity, all at once, to retrieve my curiosity for exploring the world with wild eyes. I will never get over the aftertaste of some of the country’s favourite liquorice, salmiakki, nor will I forget the luscious summer strawberries sold at the Turku Market Square. The disorientation of cooking dinner in bright daylight has remained, so has the exuberance of witnessing the midnight sun. Slip resistant boots did not prevent me from stumbling on icy surfaces, but, all the same, I have survived ice swimming after a sauna. If only I could go back in time: I still regret choosing wintry inactivity over watching the ice hockey match.
If you are going to study abroad, Finland or not, keep your eyes, mind and heart open. Feel free to disagree with your international friends, but always respect the cultural differences. You will be amazed by how much you see, how little you know and how similar we all can be. And please do not repeat my mistake: “You will only regret the things you didn’t do.”
Chan Oi Ching Nicola
Nicola Chan Oi Ching is a BA graduate in Stylistics and Comparative Literature (Class of 2015). [Click here to read all entries by Nicola.]