No boundaries (by Yen)

I always get extremely moody during this time of the year. It’s February, and in Vietnam people are celebrating Tết (Lunar New Year). And here I am, in Finland, with the snow falling down so passionately. This is my 6th year not celebrating Tết holiday with my family, and needless to say it puts me in a very emotional spot. I miss my mom. I miss my hometown. But it’s half the world away from me now.

Don’t get me wrong, I love being in Finland. Despite the fact that I was pretty much lost and disoriented throughout my first month arriving in Helsinki, this city finally gets to me. I’ve soon grown fond of it and of all the friends I’ve met in the REMs program. Such weirdos they are, but I’m sure my life here would just suck without them. And since we all come from different parts of the world, there will always be new things we can teach and learn from each other. I remember putting in the REMs application something like: “I want to study in an international environment,” and now looking around it’s just so clear to me that I’ve gotten what I asked for. I’m in it, always in it. When I went to Sweden last weekend, at one point I was stuffed in a cabin with 10 other people from all around this planet. Someone was trying to count how many nationalities we had there, and I swear I heard John Lennon singing “Imagine” in my head.

No boundaries.

However, just so you know, there’s also the downside of having only social scientist friends. They just never shut up about social sciences! I don’t think we have ever carried a conversation without mentioning a little bit of sociology and a little bit of psychology in it. Being a typical girl (and by the way, the fact that I’m saying this can lead me to another conversation about gender stereotypes), sometimes I just want girl talks. But it never happened to me here, not even once. We may talk about guys and then somehow it will shift to gender roles, inequality and whatnots. I think it’s true that once you’ve become a social scientist, you just can’t go back to being normal. There would always be things for you to be depressed about, concerned about, and hopeful about. The world to you is no different from a roller-coaster ride now.

I think I’m getting ahead of myself again.

To be honest, I have no clear agenda when writing this blog post. Emma booked me for February because she knew how depressed I would be during Tết (and she was right). But I don’t think nostalgia is the only thing in my head right now. Right at this moment, I’m actually happy. I’m happy that I flew to Finland after all. There are tons of things about the program that disappoint me, but there are also things that make me feel blessed and grateful. It’s a balance equation for now, though I must admit that my disappointment has to do with too much expectation from my part.

I graduated last year in May in California, USA. At that point I was accepted by 4 master programs: one in New York, one in Belgium and two in Finland. My initial decision was Belgium. I was so sure I’d be going to Leuven that I spent the whole summer taking French lessons. But then the visa paperwork for Belgium got all messy and they required some paper that took months to get, and in the blink of a moment I just made up my mind – “forget it, I’m going to Helsinki.” Everything went smoothly after that, and I got my residence permit just 6 weeks after. Totally meant to be.

But, you know, the thing about choice is that once you have too many of them, you may always look back and wonder if that’s the best choice you’ve made. That’s what happened to me during the whole first period studying in Helsinki. I wasn’t happy with how the program was structured. I was used to studying with tons of options for courses to choose from, as opposed to what I have here at the university, where most of the courses have only one specific lecture time. And if you cannot take that one class this study period, you may have to wait until the next academic year to do so. I think this problem persists only because these courses are taught entirely in English, and let’s not forget that this is Finland. There will always be more class options for you if you speak Finnish fluently, and until then, there are only a handful of classes you can take.

I wasn’t happy at first. And I was pretty annoyed when I had to take a couple of courses that I believe are quite pointless to my education at that moment. I think there will be a group of students that find those courses useful, but with a background in research and 5 years studying everything in English, I found those required courses a bit redundant to what I’ve already learned. There is also this thing – book exam – that I’m sure pretty much none of us would enjoy. Lucky me though, I’m a sociology major, so I don’t really have to take any book exam to graduate (as of now). But imagine yourself being stuck in a room for four hours trying to answer a bunch of questions about what you’ve read in two or three textbooks. At this point in my life when I already got my Bachelor Degree, I really want those exams to be a thing of the past. Needless to say, I was quite amazed that these book exams still exist on this level, and some are compulsory for certain majors.

Still, right now, I’m loving it here.

I have this professor in my old university who always gives me sound advice about graduate school. When I started applying for different graduate programs, she told me to take into consideration the environment just as much as the program itself. And she was right. I’m not exactly thrilled about REMS so far, but I’m very very happy with the university and Helsinki in general. And this alone makes me want to stay in Finland, and helps me become much more patient with the program. I’ve learned to lower my expectation, and when the third study period begins, everything starts to change, at least for me. I’ve found the courses I have this semester much more engaging, and many times I’m touched by the dedication of the instructors. I also have awesome nerdy friends (that I already mentioned above) who can discuss pretty much everything with me. I’m learning from them just as much as learning from these classes.

Being educated is not just about going to school and taking notes. It’s a way of living, I think. And Helsinki is one of the best environments to stay educated, in my opinion. You can tell from the way globalization and history blend into each other in the way the city looks, and from the fact that most Finns speak fluent English. Everything about this place just makes you yearn to keep on learning, and keepon  exploring the world to be amazed at how much it has to offer you.

Also, the whole rumor about Finnish people being cold and unfriendly is quite nonsensical. At least, based on what I’ve experienced so far, I have the sweetest Finnish friends here (or maybe I’m one of the few lucky ones?). I didn’t have a social life when I was living in California, but now I do. There are many nights I take a bus or a train home with my dearest Finnish siskoni here and I feel so belong, despite the fact that we’ve only known each other for 6 months.

And I remember telling her, one night, that I’m loving this place a little bit more everyday. It’s not perfect, and it’s not flawless, but I’ve learned to love its own flaws. Those flaws make it even more real and somehow, closer to your heart

Sorry, I’m talking too much, as usual. If you’re still following at this point, you probably still have a lot of interest for this REMS program. Come over here then, I’m sure Helsinki has more to offer you than you might think. And for those of you who decide that you do not want this program after all, move forward with what you believe is best for you. If it’s meant to be, it is. Just don’t look back. You never know what’s best for you until you hit the end of the road.

As for me, despite how much I’ve complained about the program so far, I know I’m meant to be here. And I’m happy that Helsinki happens to me.

Hopefully some of you will feel the same way!

Best of luck,

Yên Mai