Episode 6

Culture, PhD, Racism & Dating: Saswati's Story

Saswati is from New Delhi, India. She came to Finland three years ago, in August of 2017. In India, she worked as a teacher. The leadership team at the school where she worked visited schools in Finland, and came back very excited. She was at a place in my career where she wanted to get back to education, and wondered what she might learn from Finnish schools.

She had never lived outside of India before, and she found quite a difference in Finland’s culture and demography.

“I thought, ‘I am breathing fresh air a little bit too much! Where's the pollution?’” she says.

She found it strange to have a guaranteed seat on a bus, and felt anxiety about getting used to the Finnish language and people. She came one month early to take a summer course in Finnish language and culture, and found solace there. She found support in a strong international community, and decided to give back by becoming a tutor the following year.

Although she experienced some cultural differences, she found some of them to be beneficial. For example, she felt she had more autonomy in course selection at her university.

As for culture shock, Saswati was surprised to find that people are not used to hugging each other in Finland. She once gave a friend a warm hug on a bad day, and it was interpreted romantically.

“It got quite awkward,” she says.

Later, she reflected on how she might adapt to cultural differences, and realised that how people display friendship in Finland is different. She was also surprised to find that neighbours don’t communicate in Finland like they did back home. It may not at first seem like a community, because you can’t go knocking at neighbours doors, she warns. Later, she says she understood that this Finnish way of being is just a different sense of community: an understanding each person individually does their part to make the community work.

Saswati appreciates the Finnish family that she met through the university’s friendship program. They enjoyed cooking together, and their support made it easier for her to adjust to life in Finland.

“I think we are stuck forever,” she says. “We are at the hugging stage.”

She also appreciates the similarities she noticed across cultures. For example, she noticed that teenagers behave similarly across different cultures.

Saswati also appreciates that in Finland, you have the scope to be yourself. She found that the people in Finland are very accepting, and she does not feel pressure to live according to others' expectations.

“Colleagues and professors give you personal space to grow,” she says. “There is something about Finland, it has such calmness and serenity.”

Although she appreciates many aspects of Finnish life, Saswati occasionally gets unwanted attention as a foreigner. Even though her colleagues try to be accommodating, working at a University that operates mostly in Finnish can be difficult. She points out that the master's program was more catered to international students, but that in her PhD research, she has to work on her Finnish to integrate better and to not be unintentionally left out.

She has also unfortunately encountered racism in the general population.

“I was once out with another Indian friend going to the grocery store, when an old man sitting with beer shouted, ‘Hey you brown girls, get out of my country!’” she recalls. “I was scared, and didn’t know what action I could take as an outsider. I thought, ‘What if he gathers people and follows me?’”

Saswati believes that, although experiences like this can make you question your choices, it is important to talk about such occurrences to raise awareness.

The most meaningful parts of her life in Finland so far have been her relationship with her Finnish boyfriend and her PhD work in eye-tracking research. In both her personal and professional life, she took initiative to find opportunities that were right for her.

If Saswati could give some advice to her past self, she would encourage herself to be open to all sorts of experiences. She reflects that she got so much out of new experiences that she would have said no to before, and appreciates experiences like travelling abroad that might have seemed scary in the past.