Riho Suzuki: “Studying Abroad Has Taught Me Cultural Understanding and Tolerance.”

Meet Riho Suzuki, an exchange student who has come to Helsinki to study Sociology and Media all the way from Tokyo, Japan. Since her arrival in September, Riho has come to know what it’s like to study abroad. We sat down for a chat about her experience and her thoughts on differences between Finland and Japan.

Why did you choose to do exchange studies in Finland? How did your friends react when you told them?

Ever since I was in high school I was interested in the Nordic countries, because the working situation for women is very good as compared to Japan. According to Reporters Without Borders, Finland ranked first in the World Press Freedom Index – as a student of journalism, this was very attractive for me. So I really wanted to know what’s going on in Finland. I could study up on Finland, but since I heard only good things about the country, I was curious whether it was really that perfect. I wanted to see how people are actually living and working here.

My friends were surprised. Everyone asked “Why Finland?” or said “It’s such a cold country”. But I’m happy with my choice. Many of my friends are also studying abroad as it’s quite common in Japan, but they study in Canada or the US. Another reason was that I didn’t want to be normal, and by choosing Finland I got a very different experience.

You speak good English and are learning Finnish, but have language barriers been a problem?

Especially in Helsinki people speak English quite well, so language hasn’t been a big issue. But for example during my first month of stay, when I went to the supermarket, I couldn’t read anything! I had to guess, or use Google translate or a dictionary. It was pretty hard… Now it’s okay, though. And I can always ask for help from staff or other customers.

The University of Helsinki has lists of courses in English, but for some of the courses all the information is in Finnish, so I can’t know for sure whether the course is really in English or in Finnish. I have to e-mail and ask the teacher. The selection of courses in English is also more limited, so it’s a shame I can’t take courses in Finnish. Still, they do offer quite a lot of English courses.

As an international student, do you get to meet lots of local students?

Since I take courses in English, most of the other students are international students. There are some Finnish students, but since they speak Finnish it’s more difficult for me to talk to them… But I’m a course assistant in a Japanese language class where all the students are from Finland. I get to know people who are interested in Japan and I learn Finnish from them, which is good.

Have you experienced culture shocks?

I was recently surprised when I saw a mother leave a baby stroller on the outside of a café in Helsinki and no one stayed behind to look after the baby. I asked my Finnish teacher and she said it’s quite common. Japan is usually very safe as well and many Japanese think that other countries aren’t as safe. But I feel like Helsinki is very safe and people trust each other, so it’s quite different from my expectations.

Metro stations here don’t have ticket gates for entering the platforms. I’m used to every station having gates, so in the beginning I sometimes forgot that I had to pay. Now I’m used to it. When I first came here, smoking being allowed outdoors was also quite shocking since I had to feel smoke everywhere. But it’s good that you can’t smoke in buildings such as restaurants or bars. In Japan it’s the opposite, though: you can’t smoke on the road, but you can in restaurants.

What about the small population of Finland? How does it feel as compared to Japan?

When I go to the city center in Tokyo, I get pushed by people and it’s kind of noisy. There are of course quite a lot of people in Helsinki since it’s the capital, but for me it’s a comfortable amount of people. And everything is nearby – I live in Kamppi and it’s very convenient. I can go everywhere by foot.

When I took a course about welfare systems in the Nordic countries, I thought the reason the government can manage and the system works so well here might be because there are not so many people. Of course, there are problems as well, but if you applied the same system to Japan or to Tokyo, it wouldn’t work because the situation and population are so different.

Is studying in Japan different from studying in Finland? For example, in terms of workload or the relationship between students and teachers?

In Japan it’s really hard to enter a good university, but it’s not as tough once you’re in. So the workload there is more or less the same as here. In my university we have majors, but not as specific ones as in Finland. My university is a liberal arts college, so in the first year we have general education, in the second year it’s a little bit more specific, and the third a bit more, step by step. Here you have to choose before entering university, right? I feel like that’s a very difficult thing to do.

The course system is a bit different. In Japan I had four or five classes per day, so it was more about attending classes than assignments. Here I have two courses per day, but more reading assignments and independent studies. Maybe it’s because I was a freshman in Japan, but still, there are some differences. But both the University of Helsinki and my university in Japan have both big lectures and small seminars.

In Finland, the relationship with teachers can be closer than in Japan. For example, here we can greet teachers with “moi!”. When we write e-mails, there is no strict format and we don’t have to be as formal. I think it’s good, because it’s easier to ask questions.

How about student life? Have you experienced Finnish student culture?

It’s very different. Finnish students study a lot but have quite many parties as well. They dance and drink (not all the people, I know), and karaoke is in public. In Japan there are not as many parties. We drink, but it’s different and we don’t dance.

I really wanted to go to laskiainen, but I had class so I couldn’t! But I went to a sitsit, which I think is something only students in Finland do. It was very different in terms of culture, but it was interesting and I enjoyed it, it was fun. Although some of the lyrics were kind of shocking. 

What have you learned from your studies abroad?

Cultural understanding and tolerance is one thing. We can of course understand cultural differences. For example, we can think “oh, she’s not punctual, but it’s okay because it’s part of her culture”. For the first few months, I thought like that. But then I noticed I wasn’t being tolerant towards people from my own culture. I could be tolerant towards foreigners but not towards Japanese people: I expected them to be punctual because they’re from the same culture as me. It’s weird in hindsight, because now I’ve realized I have to be tolerant towards everyone.

Also, now I feel like making mistakes isn’t that embarrassing. When I came here I was really afraid of making mistakes, for example in supermarkets or in conversations in a foreign language. But since everything is so different here, I made a lot of mistakes and felt like a little child! Now I feel it’s not really that embarrassing. I can ask about things I don’t know without hurting my pride. It’s much better than just pretending to know everything.

Have you felt homesick? What do you miss?

Food, of course. My tastes are based on Japanese food, which is very different from the food here. Now I’ve found some Asian markets that sell Japanese ingredients, so I can cook Japanese food myself.

But most of all I miss my family and my language. Here I speak mostly English – or Finnish. During the first month I didn’t have any Japanese friends and I wasn’t a course assistant, so I didn’t get a chance to talk in Japanese. My English wasn’t that good yet and I couldn’t say everything I wanted to say, which annoyed me. After a while I found people who spoke Japanese, so now I can manage.

Before I came here, I thought I’d like to work abroad, but I didn’t have any experience of living in foreign countries. Because my family and friends are in Japan I sometimes miss them a lot. They cannot be compensated. Even though I have really good friends here, my roots are in Japan. I find it’s hard to live so far from my friends and family. I Skype them, but with the time difference (especially after summer time ended and it became one hour more), it’s sometimes difficult to make time with them.

Any other hardships you’ve encountered?

When I first came to study here, I had almost no friends – I didn’t know anyone and no one knew me. At first it was hard to find friends. I didn’t notice it at first because I was so used to having friends and family to support me, but I found the lack of friends affected my mental health. I had acquaintances, but no really close friends, so it was stressful for me – I couldn’t say everything I wanted to say and I couldn’t have deep conversations with anyone. I found out that it takes time: I had the same classes with a friend three or four times a week, so we met each other quite often. This was a natural growth. There were a lot of welcome parties and events during the first few weeks where everybody is like “let’s make friends!”, but it’s hard making friends like that, it’s not natural. I think meaningful relationships are based on how much time you spend together, not on something artificial, and I’ve noticed it's really great and important for me to have a deep connection with people.

What would you say to people wondering whether they should go on an exchange abroad?

It’s good experience. When I was in high school, I wanted to go abroad as well, but I didn’t have the courage and I was hesitant to go abroad alone. But I survived – even the cold winter! I feel like I’ve changed somehow, and I think it’s been a really good experience!


Photos supplied by Riho Suzuki.