Christine Chang, Helping Finland retain expat skills

Although she has recently dedicated her career to conducting policy research on the quality of life of the foreign community in the Central Baltic Sea Region (CBSR), these days, Christine Chang doesn’t feel that much of an expat here anymore.

CHRISTINE Chang is still undecided: the pink dress or the black dress? The first one is colourful and bright. Certainly it will stand out in the forest, where we have decided to carry out her photoshoot. However, the second one, ankle-long and plain, except for a couple of floral details popping out in salmon and green that add a touch of sophistication to this traditional Chinese garment, is more her. Both have been tailor-made in Taiwan. While the pink one was ordered when she was in her early 20s, the black number seems to be a more recent acquisition. Chang feels the latter represents reaching a stage of maturity in her life. In the end it is suggested she should try both, and let the camera decide – just to subsequently find out that, by the hand of fate, it will be her great sense of humour, moreso than the dresses, that captivates the lens.

The manager of the Expat-project, a two-year EU-funded initiative that seeks to retain foreign skills in Finland, Chang sits down with SixDegrees to share her thoughts on a wide range of topics, including the immigration policy in Finland and her own adaptation process to the country – a fascinating journey that ends with her surrounded by the Finnish wilderness, the place to which she now belongs.

When did you come to Finland?

I moved to Finland in 2006 for love. I met a gorgeous Finnish man. After two years of a long distance relationship, we realised that one of us had to move if we want to be together, and then here I am. It was a quite big cultural shock when I got here! [laughs] I come from a culture based on collectiveness: we spend a lot of time surrounded by friends and family. So just after moving to Finland everything was good and nice, it happened to be summertime and the world was fantastic. Of course, then the winter came and it also took me some time, nine months concretely, to find a job. It was a bit of a struggle the first couple of years until I settled down here.

What is your professional background and education?

I studied journalism for my bachelor’s, and I then changed to international politics for my master’s degree. My thesis was about Finland and the EU’s relationship in terms of how Finland has taken advantage of its leverage in the international arena. By the time I decided to focus my thesis on Finland I was already dating my partner. Also, my thesis advisor was a prestigious authority on small state diplomacy. He suggested that I should concentrate on Poland or Finland. I thought the latter was a better option given that I already had some personal connection with the country.

Date and place of birth: Born in Taiwan, and age is a woman’s secret..

Family: I have one beautiful two-year-old boy, a male golden retriever and a Finnish man at home.

Education: Master’s degree in international affairs.

When I was a small girl I… wished to become a president.

The best part of being an expat is… you can be who you are and ignore what other people think of you.

My breakfast consists of… coffee and rahka.

A book that I especially enjoyed recently is… The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho.

You know that you have become a Finn when… you can stay isolated in a cottage for three weeks in a row.

Do you see some similarities between Finland and Taiwan?

Yes, I do. Finland has been a quite popular case for Taiwan to look at the small state diplomacy, because we both have been occupied by strong states and have had to survive surrounded by big powers. Finland has had to struggle quite hard if you look at its history, such as when the country had to go through the Winter War and the Continuation War. And it succeeds through endurance of its people, strong leaderships and a flexible diplomatic approach.

How did your first years in Finland pass by? What did you miss the most from Chinese culture?

The change of life itself is not terrifying, but ignorance is. As I said, back home people normally spend a lot of time with friends, colleagues and family, so the social life was one of the things I really missed. Having said that, in the first couple of years, while I was still trying to establish myself here, I naively thought that friendship comes as a result of fate, as we Taoists believe. At that time I didn’t wonder how that would work when I basically have to start everything from scratch in a new country. Consequently I ended up feeling lonely and losing confidence in myself as I didn’t have any close friends. I was holding onto a life that was 8,000 kilometres away from Finland and forgot that my life is here.

How did you manage to land your first job here?

I was really lucky. I went to an international conference on the topic of globalisation in autumn 2006. And, guess what, I was the only participant from Asia in the room. During the event, a very interesting and wise man approached me and asked what I was doing there. He introduced himself – Jan-Henrik Johansson from Uudenmaanliitto (Uusimaa Regional Council) who later shed lights to me to land my first job in Finland and from there I became one of his colleagues in the Council. Jan-Henrik retired a couple of years ago but I have been very grateful for his kindness and mentorship which helped me to make up the gap of transition from Taiwan to Finland. If every foreigner could find a mentor like him – to generously teach a newcomer about the Finnish culture, system and profound professional knowledge – I am sure expats’ on-boarding experience will be much more efficient and easier.

Tell us about the Expat-project you have been involved with.

The issue of labour immigration is becoming a hot topic in Finland in recent times due to the increasing number of immigrants who come here to work and study. Our interest was to gain more knowledge on the issue from the expats’ perspective; how they perceive the quality of life in the region and which kind of services have been established for them. The Expat-project has conducted a lot of research. We have done case studies on the best examples of talent retention services, for instance from Holland, Sweden and Canada. We also have workshops to collect inputs for service development from internationals. Then, one of the things that has given a common and solid structure to the different investigative tools we have used is Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. We tried to catalogue the services available for the expat community according to their own needs – from the most basic physiological ones to the most sophisticated, such as self-esteem or self-actualisation. We were curious to see how far our society can go to guarantee the fulfilment of all of them.

The Expat-project also developed a survey to measure the degree of satisfaction expats have with the services available for them in the Central Baltic Sea Region (CBSR). It revealed that a majority of the foreign respondents feel like outsiders in Helsinki. What do you think about this?

Actually, it’s not just in Helsinki. When we take a close look at the results from all cities of different size and characteristics, there are a lot of similarities among the answers we collected. Whether in Stockholm or Tallinn, everybody is encountering the same problem. Comparing these results we realised that, when it comes to Maslow’s pyramid, the weakest part is always the level containing the social needs and belongings. Almost every single expat who responded to the survey doesn’t feel they are part of society.

How important is it for public authorities to help expats improve their feeling of social belonging?

Nowadays most of the countries that concentrate a higher population of immigrants have more advantages in economic development demography in comparison to those that present a homogeneous community. These countries achieve better with utilising international know-how on the grounds of an open-minded attitude to immigration through acceptance and tolerance. As a foreigner you can have a great job or a big house, but if you don’t see yourself actively contributing to the social arena in your country of residence, or feeling accepted by others for who you are, then as a whole, your quality of life won’t be good and you will remain an outsider. While examining current immigration policy in Finland, certainly language and employment are priorities as language is the key to a culture and employment generates economic benefits to the expats themselves and to the society. As for governmental intuitions, one should keep in mind that a better immigration policy is not only related to economic factors. Countries that succeed in attracting global talents embrace and celebrate the diversity of society and also support expats to build their social connections and networks in the local community with the immigration policy.

“As a foreigner you can have a great job or a big house, but if you don’t see yourself actively contributing to the social arena in your country of residence, then as a whole, your quality of life won’t be good and you will remain an outsider.”

Considering the knowledge of English being widely spread among the locals, to what extent would you say that learning Finnish is important for integration in the country?

Well, somehow this question brings to my mind the chicken-egg dilemma [laughs]. Actually, in our questionnaire outcome we have found correlations between the language abilities and the perception of life quality. Those foreigners who rated their language skills higher turned out to be happier. On the other hand, while we are talking about the internationalisation of companies or industries, I would encourage companies to hire internationals even though they cannot speak Finnish. The local language should not be a prerequisite for finding the right employee, it is compensated by their global – or local – know-how. However, when it comes to feeling more deeply connected to society, feeling you are actively contributing to the public sphere, then I personally believe that for expats, learning the language is a must. In my own case I am constantly struggling with Finnish, but I can see all the benefits coming from that struggle: little by little, I start to understand Finnish humour, and who said Finns don’t tell jokes? [laughs].

What would you say are the most interesting conclusions of the two-year research developed by the Expat-project?

In Finland, social integration hasn’t been one of the priorities in the political agenda so far. As a result of the project we have discovered weak communication and coordination among the actors contributing to the network of services and soft-landing services for foreigners. There is also a significant lack of connection among locals and internationals.

So, one of the things that I would like to see is the issue of talent retention being more and more present within the public sphere. Hopefully, the conclusions of the project will be taken into account by the political authorities and they will grant it the relevance that it deserves at the policy level too. We need to conceive a holistic approach to it: from the moment somebody decides to move to Finland, what kind of services he or she would need and how we should organise our services to support their long-term stay so they can live here happily ever after.

Immigration policy and integration services constitute a complex ecosystem. It’s not easy to coordinate a joint effort with all the government institutions, employers and the third sector, among others. But it needs to be done in order to facilitate the retention of foreign talent and expertise in the country. Finland has to be proud of those people who decide upon it as a life destination. In that sense, we need to think of how to provide a softer landing for them. In order to be more efficient, services should be customised depending on the reasons that the person has for moving. The world is constantly changing, and so is Finland. It’s time for us to catch up and react to it.

Excluding all these bureaucratic aspects, what part of the integration process relies solely on the attitude of the person and the welcoming capacity of the local community?

Of course, a positive personal attitude is fundamental in order to complete a successful integration process. The majority of foreigners I talk to really enjoy their Finnish friends. Maybe one of the first challenges you find when meeting new locals is that the way of understanding personal communication can vary a lot here. Finns are generally shy, less talkative and don’t perceive moments of silence as necessarily awkward. For them it is probably shocking when they see some foreigners talk a lot and in a much louder tone.

So I would say it’s a two-sided process. Foreigners need to make an effort to adapt, and Finns have to understand how enriching it is to have people with different cultures and backgrounds living in the same society. We need to learn to know each other and grow together.

You are a successful foreign professional with a consolidated life in Finland. How would you say you are perceived by Finnish society?

Well, I am not successful compared to many others. [laughs] Though I am very demanding of myself in the sense that, I am constantly questioning whether I am doing a good job and how I can do better. In Finland, sometimes it’s very difficult to get feedback for your work. I have to say that I have been quite lucky to have a superior who gives genuine feedbacks. With regards to the rest of society, I cannot say if my job is being highly considered or not, since the topic and the task involve multi-layers of interests and actors.

Do you think you have to work harder than locals do to achieve the same degree of success?

Even if you are a local and move from one city to another you need to gain recognition from your new neighbours, not to mention that foreigners come from a total different country and have to build social capital and networks from zero. There are moments I wish I could just be a native Finn who speaks perfect Finnish and understand how everything works in this country. But I am also grateful to my colleagues and to people I work with for accepting the fact that I am not a ‘normal’ Finn they are working with and for helping me out along the way.

So, can you imagine living the rest of your life in Finland?

I hope so. But never say never! [laughs].

Do you still miss the social life you had in Taiwan?

Certainly I miss my family and old friends back there. But life moves on and I started to settle down. After moving to Finland, my partner, his family and friends have been a blessing to me. In addition, a few years ago I was so lucky to meet a great group of international and local girls in Helsinki. We meet regularly and we have even started a choir. That’s when I started to settle and began to realise how important social networks are to help you feel socially integrated and connected.

When you go to Taiwan, what do you miss from Finland?

Probably the nature and the silence. In Taiwan you can hardly find a place where there are no people, and in Finland is quite the opposite, you can hardly find a place where there are people [laughs]. I miss the tranquillity and peace when I am out of the country.

Text Eva Blanco, images Thomas Poole