Teenage years are filled with significant steps in a person’s life, including taking responsibility, caring about someone, making mistakes and dreaming about the future. More often than not, a young person has his or her plate full of new experiences to digest. Today’s youth may feel even more pressure in our interconnected and ever more complex world.
One teenager, however, decided to take a look at the other side of the coin and strive for the limitless opportunities the globalised world also offers. Hyeri Cho moved to Finland from South Korea in her teens for peace of mind and to enable her creativity and true potential to flourish. Seven years later, she’s about to get her Finnish citizenship, works in sales and strategy at a prominent IT company and has been accepted to a master’s degree programme at Aalto University.
So why Finland and especially why Lapland and Rovaniemi?
Well, I was 13 when dad and I started doing the research. We had Germany, Denmark and Sweden on our list, and Finland was on there somewhere as well. My father was very open-minded and helped me with the process from the start.
I’ve always thought that I have potential to succeed but began to feel crowded in South Korea. Like I might not reach my full potential in the competitive culture. I yearned for peace of mind and room to live and think what I wanted to do. At that age, one doesn’t even have to know specifically yet, but it was a strong feeling I had.
Finland was an intuitive choice for me. But I did ponder on whether life in the capital would be too hectic and whether a smaller town could better offer the peace and space I was looking for. I also thought Lapland looked beautiful after seeing pictures of Rovaniemi. It fit right in with the cosy small-town vibe I was looking for.
So where did you muster all the courage?
Well yeah, I was scared in the beginning and leaving all my friends behind was a tough choice. But I’ve also always wanted to study and work internationally. My father also encouraged me to keep my mind open about living abroad.
Describe the process, what was easy and what was challenging?
It was a tedious process, since there was little information about Finland in South Korea. My father, who speaks fluent Japanese, actually translated a Japanese book about Finland for me, from which I could read up on the basic things. I also quickly realised that the immigration services didn’t have an option for what I was about to do, so my dad and I actually kind of created the option and proposed the necessary paperwork.
We had to organise the host family and school stuff before I could apply for visa. We travelled to Finland a couple of times and actually put a small ad in the local paper to find a host family for me. It actually worked and was kind of easy!
At the Lyseonpuisto high school, my dad and I met the teachers and the principal. My dad did most of the talking, but I also explained my motivation through body language and in English, which was not that good at the time.
How did you settle into your daily routines, like at school?
It was quite hard in the beginning, because I had to work double or triple the amount of other students, because first I had to understand the language and then the actual subject. It took about a year for me to be able to rely primarily on Finnish instead of English. One day it just occurred to me that I was speaking Finnish with my host family – telling a joke or two and using the occasional curse word.
In settling in and building a life here, I’d say the people around me helped a great deal. People say Finns are introverts and, yeah, I did start all the conversations in the beginning, but once I got to know people they became lifelong friends.
Did you find the space and room you were looking for?
Yes, I’ve had more time for exercising and spending time with my friends, whereas in my past life I would’ve likely been sitting at the library or working at a café. But it’s also a mental thing, let me give an example.
One of the most beautiful moments I’ve had is going out for a bike ride around town with my friends on a late summer evening. It was still light and warm, with a gentle summer breeze blowing. At that time, I felt very much alive. It was a very strong feeling, a feeling of absolute freedom and happiness. It didn’t require much; it was just beautiful in its simplicity.
You’re starting your master’s degree at Aalto University and working at a prominent Oulu-based IT company. Tell us how that is working out.
I completed my bachelor’s degree at the University of Oulu and applied to Aalto just recently. I was fortunate to get in since there are a lot of applicants. I’ve been working at the company for over a year, on and off depending on my studies during the semester, managing our sales and marketing.
Recently, my tasks have tilted more towards sales and strategy. I’m fortunate to have a very good relationship with my boss, who understands my situation very well. Even though I’m in the middle of moving to Helsinki, I can work remotely. We have a very close and dialogical relationship – he’s kind of a mentor to me.
How’s working life in Finland, what would you point out to someone who’s thinking about moving to work here?
What I really appreciate about working here is that I’m allowed to be myself. All you have to do here is show you’re motivated. I think people are also very honest here and don’t judge others as much as elsewhere. I know this might sound pretty obvious, but I don’t think it is in all places.
Tell us about the master’s degree programme you’re starting at Aalto University.
It’s a programme in management and international business. I could’ve done it in Oulu, too, but there were more specialisation options at Aalto. I am really interested in learning more about strategy. I think strategy is my jam.
What are you going to be when you grow up?
I don’t know. Perhaps I’ll be some kind of an influential business lady-entrepreneur that rules the world! Naah, just kidding, don’t ask me yet.
You wrote your bachelor’s thesis about the hallyu megatrend, which means the K-pop-supported country brand that has helped South Korea to gain quite a bit of clout in recent years. How would you update the Finnish country brand and image?
Well, first you have to understand that the hallyu trend is based on the South Korean search for perfection. Take the K-pop stuff for example, they want to get everything 100 per cent right; nothing less will do. It doesn’t necessarily come through for everyone, but at a fundamental level perfection is what it’s based on.
So, the question to ask is, what is the Finnish brand based on? On a fundamental level?
To answer my own question, I think it’s honesty. Conceptualising it is extremely hard, and I don’t necessarily have a ready-made solution at hand. But building on that fundamental, I think, provides a good framework to work with. I somehow think the Finnish mindset could be trendy in this day and age.
What tangible Finnish things would you promote abroad?
If you’re looking for the more concrete stuff, I’d say education is an obvious but very true answer. And oh, if someone can capture Juhannus [the midsummer festival] – the calm, the authenticity, the nature aesthetics – then that!
And Moomins. Definitely Moomins.
What advice would you give a 15-year old Hyeri now, if you could?
Well, I think I’ve managed quite well, and I have a lot of loved ones and close friends to thank for it. Growing up in Korea in a very competitive and demanding culture that seeks perfection, I still haven’t been able to fully set myself free of the mindset. In Finland, it’s quite the opposite: the individual is accepted as they are. What is perfection anyway?
So, if I could’ve begun challenging the perfection-seeking mindset already then and been more merciful towards myself, that would be it. I still struggle with it today. I’m my worst critic.
Overcoming the challenges on your way from Korea to Rovaniemi, to Oulu and onwards to Helsinki and Aalto University, what would you consider your strengths?
I’d say it’s actually kind of the same thing, a perfection-seeking mindset. I’m very competitive. It’s a blessing and a bane, but I still would like to learn to be more forgiving to myself.
You can read more about Hyeri’s experiences and thoughts on her blog (in Finnish).