During one year you can learn quite a lot and make many observations of the different cultures that you live in. This post serves as kind of a retrospective look on the year, focusing mainly on life in general, experiences related to that, and some pondering on the relative merits of different countries. I will write Part II to discuss things related to work and sabbaticals in general.
So, what did I learn during the 6 months in Korea and 5 months in California? First, I had spent a fair amount of time in both places earlier, as a tourist in Korea and twice as a summer intern in the Bay Area (Menlo Park, Palo Alto area, though, not Berkeley) so a lot of things were pretty familiar. I’ve written a fair amount of my experiences with bureaucracy, whether immigration, banks, or other, and nothing really surprised me. Luckily there were no negative surprises, but I can’t really find any big positive surprises either, except getting the Korean residence permit and extending it, which were a lot easier than I had feared; then again I was on an E-1 visa (professor visa) and given how much professors are respected in Korea, this really shouldn’t have surprised me.
I have not written so much about the everyday life, mainly because it’s exactly the same as at home in Finland. You get up in the morning, take a shower, have breakfast, get kids to school/daycare, go to the office, work a bit, have lunch, work some more, have coffee, go home, make dinner, rest a bit, get kids to sleep, rest some more, go to sleep. Rinse and repeat. The routine is punctuated by exciting events, such as “go buy food”, and weekends, which give you a chance to do something else, but overall the daily routines are exactly as at home. One decision that I did early on was that during the sabbatical I would NOT work in the evenings or weekends (except for a few truly urgent matters). At home this happens (far too?) often and I wanted to be able to rest a bit as well. But more on that in Part II.
One thing obviously where you have to make tradeoffs are creature comforts. At home you have all kinds of things you have accumulated over the years to make your life easier or more interesting. If you happen to get an unfurnished place like we had in Korea, you will need to hunt for some things, but since you’re only staying a few months, it doesn’t make sense to invest a lot of money. If you have a furnished place, like we had in Berkeley, you might get certain comforts (like a TV) included, but still will need to buy stuff (like rice cooker). In your everyday routines, you pretty quickly adapt to whatever the situation is, but it’s still nice to return home where all the “familiar stuff” is waiting for you (in the same place where you left it, I might add :-)).
How’s life then in the different countries? Well, Finland is in some sense the easiest, but that’s because I’m Finnish by birth and have lived here about three quarters of my life. This ease does not directly translate to foreigners, but then again, that is the case every time you live in a foreign country. Korea, for me, is by far the most exciting, since there is much to learn about the country and culture, even after having been exposed to Korean language and culture a fair amount already. It is also the most challenging for me, mainly because of the exactly same reasons. US is, in my ever-so-humble opinion, probably the most comfortable of the three, in the sense that things generally work well, there are tons of services and things you can buy, and so on. To be honest, I think Korea does come very close, but in order to take advantage of all those things in Korea, you need to speak fluent Korean. Finland, and most of Europe to be honest, lacks clearly behind the US and Korea in many such aspects.
I suppose part of the reason is that being a single, large country, any new service or business idea has immediately access to over 350 million people, whereas Europe is still a collection of mostly disjoint little enclaves. Korea shows that even with “only” 50 million people, you actually have a large enough market for all kinds of innovations and services, but I fear the situation in Europe is that the countries that are large enough are not innovative enough and the countries that are innovative enough are not large enough. And as far as I’ve understood, smaller companies in Europe have absolutely no chance of coping with the myriad national legislations in different countries, so they tend to stay within a single country.
Of course this does not prevent the good, cultured European to look down on the Americans. In fact, you cannot expect yourself to be taken seriously as a cultured European if you don’t look down on the Americans (and pretty much the rest of the world as well…). Furthermore, the amount of “dissing” seems to be inversely proportional to the amount of time the said cultured European has spent in the US. (For the math nerds, this function seems to be also defined for the value of “no time spent in the US” where it yields its maximum value.) Sure, the cultured European will point out that there is more to life than just the material side and I certainly don’t dispute it. Life is certainly more than just material things, but I think it’s very foolish to pretend that they don’t factor in the quality of life at all, as our cultured European friend is wont to do.
When it comes to Asia, the same cultured European is strong in his 19th century mentality of Europe being the ruler of the planet, US being a interesting curiosity, and the rest of the world being essentially a colony of the mighty Europe. In my years of living in France and Germany, I’ve often seen first-hand a very common, pejorative regard towards Asians, which I fear will come bite our collective European a..es in the next 30 or so years, as Asia gets more developed. (No offense meant to any Asian readers by lumping all of you in one pot. I’m aware that Asia is big and the countries, even neighboring ones, are very different from each other, but I’m afraid our cultured European friend is not aware of these differences. He sees it all as an interesting curiosity.)
Several years ago I read the book “The European Dream” by Jeremy Rifkin which made an interesting comparison that the Americans live to work and the Europeans work to live. This observation hits surprisingly close to home and does capture the “philosophical” difference in the respective lifestyles very succinctly and accurately. The title of course is a pun on the well-known American Dream of “work hard and you can become rich” and on the non-existence of an equivalent summation of the “European Dream”. Although I’m quite certain the European Commission would be able to produce a document several hundred pages long, written in its usual “Commissionese” describing that dream… On second thought, they probably already have… Our tax money at work, yay!
But so much for philosophy, given the choice, where would I then live? That is actually a question that I have faced several times in my life and I’ve come to the conclusion that the answer is a multi-criteria optimization problem, with no globally optimal solution, at least not for me. Every country has its positives and negatives and it really depends on what you consider important. So why am I now living in Finland? What were the criteria that decided the move from Germany to Finland back in 2007? Mainly that was because I got a permanent job here, i.e., a variant of the old “I was young and I needed the money” excuse. Except for the climate which sucks big time, Finland is pretty ok place to live. Living in the US, comfortable as though it might be, I would probably worry about the children’s education, healthcare, etc., which generally are better here in Finland (although I’m slowly becoming less convinced about how good our public healthcare system actually is). Korea would be an interesting place to live, but I would worry about being able to adapt to the language and culture… Having lived in many countries is both a blessing in having seen and experienced many things, but also a curse because you always know that no matter where you live, some things would be better if you lived somewhere else (but some things would be worse).
So, am I going to stay in Finland for the rest of my life? For now we’re getting settled back in nicely, things are moving along splendidly, so the answer seems to tend towards a yes, but never say never. So maybe we should make that a “no plans to move anywhere any time soon”… Actually, if I manage to arrange things such that I’m able to take these kinds of long sabbaticals about once every 5-6 years, that’ll probably satisfy my urge to travel and live in different countries, so it’s looking pretty likely we’ll stay here. Don’t say you weren’t warned. 🙂