February 12, 2020

DO I KNOW YOU? Seoul-based celebrity Petri Kalliola: “I’m a pretty average Finnish guy”

man and collage of different elements
According to Petri Kalliola, Finland and South Korea could learn a great many things from each other.
Julia Bushueva

Although Petri Kalliola is not a particularly well-known character in his homeland Finland, he is treated as a superstar in Korea, likely being the most renowned Finn in the country right after Moomintroll and Santa Claus.

A prophet is not without honour, but in his own country.

This proverb accurately portrays the past couple of years in life of 33-year-old Petri Kalliola, who describes himself as an ordinary guy from the central Finnish city of Jyväskylä. Nevertheless, in South Korea, the face of this “ordinary guy” is widely recognised thanks to his various work on Korean television and lectures on Finnish culture, lifestyle and education.

Finland has a positive ring to it in South Korea. Finnish learning models and education, a fabled Xylitol ad, other Finnish healthy and natural products, and the South Korea-based Finnish TV-celebrity and entrepreneur Taru Salminen are fine examples of the great variety of phenomena and people that have recently increased public interest in Finland. With the help of Kalliola’s positive impact, the current boom for Finland is louder than ever.

For people who know Kalliola but are familiar only with the side of him that can be seen through TV screens, we have some great news. This Seoul-based celebrity, known from TV shows such as JTBC’s Abnormal Summit and MBCeveryone’s Welcome, First Time In Korea?, took some time out of his busy schedule to open up about his personal life, future plans, and how it feels to be regularly recognised on the streets.

What was your dream profession as a child?

When I was in elementary school, I dreamt of being an aeroplane pilot. I had a lot of posters and pictures of aeroplanes on my walls. When I got into my teens, my dream changed to being a rock star and so did the decoration of my room.

However, my first job was a summer job as a packer at Panda chocolate factory, at the age of 17, that later turned into almost 10 years in total of full and part-time work for Panda while studying. I guess I must have done a pretty good job!

You were involved in a lot of TV work and other activities before and during the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympic Games, where you participated as an official from the Embassy of Finland. What have you been up to since?

Since then, I’ve had a very busy life, as I went back to school to finish up my master’s degree in international politics in Yonsei University here in Seoul. I kept doing a lot of TV work and lectures on Finnish culture, lifestyle, education etc. But I guess the biggest news since the Pyeongchang Olympics is that I became a father in the summer of 2018, which really changed my life. It wasn’t easy to take care of a small child, write my thesis and work two jobs, but somehow I managed it.

Congratulations on your baby! It indeed sounds that the last couple of years have been a busy time for you. How do you relax?

Oh yes, you have no idea. Haha! I am a pretty average Finnish guy, I think. I play in an amateur heavy metal band here in Seoul. Moshing and screaming is a really good way to release stress, very therapeutic and I can recommend it! I also enjoy playing both video games and outside with my son. And probably the most Finnish way to relax that I get to do pretty much every week is to go to a Korean sauna and enjoy a beer (or two) after.

Furthermore, I am a fanatical supporter of Liverpool Football Club since the days of Sami Hyypiä, whom I actually met in Seoul in 2018. I won’t let the merciless time difference keep me from watching my team play in the late-night and early-morning hours on weekdays.

As you are participating in many kinds of activities, what’s an average day for you like at work?

Every day is very different when it comes to working in a small startup like ours [Fillland EDU]. Even though my official job title is business development manager, I get to do a lot of different things, which makes my job really interesting. One day, it is just working at the office looking a screen and having meetings the whole day, but on other days I get to go out on field trips with the children or prepare lectures on Finnish parenting and education to Korean parents. I also get to interact a lot with different people, which I enjoy. And of course, what makes my day always is to visit our Finnish kindergartens and see the smiles on the children’s faces. It is really what gives me a lot of positive energy and the feeling that what I do is indeed important.

The startup of yours, Fillland EDU, has been importing Finnish education to South Korea since the beginning of 2019. What has the response been like?

The response has been good. Finland has a really great reputation here in Korea. Especially young parents in Korea are waking up and realising the importance of holistic education that focuses not only on academic subjects, but also on the importance of critical thinking, creativity, social skills, self-confidence and the general wellbeing of children. One reason for this is obviously the rising awareness of parents that being successful in our rapidly changing society is going to require very different skills than the ones currently being taught here. And the Korean education system has been benchmarking Finnish education in its future-oriented approach of ranking competence higher than academic success recently. But another reason is that especially these young parents don’t want their children to go through the same merciless meat grinder of education they themselves were subjected to.

What is next on your to-do list?

Well, I hope to be able to help our company to grow even more and bring more Finnish education to Korean children and their parents. I also have plans to write a book here in Korean and hopefully get it published. Also, in a very masochistic manner as a recent master’s graduate and a family man, I am considering enrolling in an MBA course to improve my knowledge and skills in the field of business. Let’s see, I always just try to live day by day, making the most of the time in the moment.

Let’s talk a bit more about your relationship with South Korea. It is clear that you are passionate about the country, but what do you like most about it?

There are so many things to love about South Korea that it is really hard to choose. The people are super friendly and kind, there is always something fun to do, life here is very convenient. But as it often goes that the way to a man’s heart goes through his stomach, I have to say that Korean food is amazing and it has taken my heart.

Can you name the funniest moment in your TV career so far?

I think it was when we were in a seafood restaurant in Sokcho as a part of the show Welcome! First Time in Korea? with my friends, and we had ordered way too much to eat. We had bus tickets back to Seoul and the bus was almost leaving, but it was impossible to get my friend Vilppu to leave the restaurant because he was enjoying the food so much. He kept saying “just one more bite” and just kept eating and eating. We almost missed the bus because of his appetite.

The attention you have received came quite suddenly and in a big way. How does it feel to be regularly recognised on the streets?

For an ordinary guy from a small city in Finland, it is truly a surreal experience. I still haven’t quite gotten used to it. But people’s reactions are so positive and encouraging that it definitely gives me positive energy too.

You have clearly put down roots in Seoul, but what do you miss about Finland the most?

Well, of course I miss my family and friends the most but, as this is such a cliché, I’d say that I miss the Finnish nature and silence the most. Life in one of the largest metropolises in the world is very hectic, so sometimes I just want to escape into the Finnish wilderness and experience the silence and calm like nowhere else in the world.

What could the two countries learn from each other?

A great many things in my opinion. Koreans could learn from us how to slow down a bit, especially in the working life and how to manage the balance between family and work. We Finns could learn a bit of dynamism from Koreans and how to get things done a bit faster. I believe that balance is the most important thing, so we could find the equilibrium somewhere between these great cultures.

In the last couple of years, you have moved to South Korea and become a big-time celebrity, an entrepreneur, a father and got your master’s degree amongst other activities. Where do you see yourself in 10 years’ time?

This is by far the most difficult question in this interview! My life has taken many twists and turns in the last 10 years, and I could’ve never imagined living in Korea a decade ago. I should expect a few more twists and turns in the next 10 years so it is really hard to predict where I’ll be, but I’d like to have a safe and stable family life and a job that I enjoy doing and just live a happy life. For some it might sound boring, but my grandfather always said that true happiness lies in the small moments of everyday life. Wise words of a happy man. Also from my own personal experience, he was absolutely right and I want to have that for myself as well.

Finally, as you first went to South Korea as an exchange student and you have described it as a definitely life-changing decision, what advice would you give to young people planning to go to Korea on an exchange?

You should definitely come here to study. Korea is one of the best countries, if not the best country, to study as an exchange student. If you do come, remember to come with an open mind and open heart. That way you’ll get the most of your experience of studying abroad. And even though studying hard is very important, also remember that not all the knowledge in the world can be obtained from books. Go out and experience the country first-hand, meet new people and, most of all, have fun!

Interview and text: Tuomas Koivisto

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