Portraits of Vietnamese in 21C

better fail than sorry
Photo courtesy of Thanh Huỳnh

—– Đọc bài tiếng Việt —–

If you ask somebody from western Europe whether Finnish is an easy language to learn, they may shake their heads and stick their tongues out as an answer to you. Finnish is one of the most difficult languages on earth to learn. That should make one Vietnamese girl a very brave one to have taken on such a challenge.

That girl is Thanh Huỳnh. Her paternal hometown is Tiền Giang, maternal one Sài Gòn. After graduating from college, Thanh worked for three years at a British company. Realizing that she was not able to develop and grow in life as she wished, Thanh changed the career direction. She applied to an MBA program in Finland and got accepted to come and study there in 2007. In 2010, Thanh completed the degree program and came back to Việt Nam. Immediately on her return, Thanh felt for sure Finland was a better fit for her. She quickly made a decision to go back there to make a life out of it for herself.

This time, she was determined to study Finnish intensively. After one year of coping with the tough language by mentally forcing herself to forget all about English so she could concentrate on thinking and speaking Finnish entirely, Thanh succeeded. Her Finnish is now at intermediate level enabling her to get a job and to adapt to her new life with ease and joy.

Even though millions of Vietnamese have immigrated abroad since the twentieth century, for a young person like Thanh to take the matter into her hands and be determined to build a new life in a country so different and distant from Việt Nam, it is still a novelty, a dream even, that many young people don’t dare to dream. Not only is it wild beyond imagination but it also represents the ultimate fantasy desirable by those living within the constraints of limited individualism. For them, Thanh is a pang of envy and a flash of inspiration.

So here she is, in her new country, via Skype, Thanh talked to me about her new life. She showed me the typical log cabin in the woods where she lives with her boyfriend. On the screen, I saw snow covering the trees and the ground outside her windows. Thanh’s warm and enthusiastic voice, on the other hand, seemed to make the white blanket out there to recede to the background.

What was behind your decision to go to Finland and live?

It is actually a long process. From the time I went to Finland to study up to the moment I came back here for resettlement, I have been thinking hard about whether living in Finland was the best fit for me. I think I have to stay somewhere that says ‘yes’ to me and where there are opportunities. If at the time I went back to Finland, I had not seen the opportunities, neither had I had friends, relationships, nor jobs, then I would not have been able to stay – let’s face it, the living cost in Finland is very high. So I was lucky to have much support from my friends and benefited from a pretty good network that I built earlier when I studied here.

What are job opportunities in Finland like?

Honestly, it is difficult to get a job with a degree in business. People usually have to start their own firm. If I am lucky, I can get a job at an international organization. But even there, competition with the Finns is incredibly fierce because they speak English very well. So for a local organization to grant a foreigner a job knowing that their Finnish cannot be comparable to that of the natives and their English on a par at the most, it is your true talent that gets you the job.

It is difficult to describe this, but somehow I just feel very confident living here. I am more fortunate than many other Vietnamese immigrants who came before me as refugees. I have a good education and that makes it easier. Right now, I don’t have a full-time job, but I have confidence in the labor market here. I myself play a crucial role in that I studied marketing, if I see some unfulfilled need in the Finnish market, then I will find a way to fill it. Currently, the trend here is to branch out to countries other than China such as Việt Nam. There will be projects opening there and I have my eyes on them. This part I can be confident about, because Việt Nam is a country with lots of potentials.

thanh huynh
Photo courtesy of Thanh Huỳnh

How did you get that kind of confidence?

To go abroad to study is in itself a process of self improvement. I am quite independent since a kid. My parents would give me some guidance then let me fly. They don’t even know what I am doing right now. That is why I usually have my own ideas about things. What I learned most from the Finnish is their independence. I think the nice thing about living here is that if you have a good idea that can benefit many, the chance of getting it done or materializing it is pretty high. This gives me confidence. Whereas in Việt Nam, even if you have good ideas, there is nothing much you can do about them.

When you returned to Finland, did you jump into any job that came your way, or did you pick and choose?

When I was a student, I would work for money so I took whatever offers I had. Now I am more picky. I have to think twice if I get an offer whose salary is not worth the time spent. Besides, with the degree I have, it is not a wise thing to take odd jobs.

When not doing projects, I could just stay home and receive social benefits but I don’t. I take language classes or help some people I know. I think getting out of the house to meet people may lead to more opportunities than staying at home doing nothing.

Have you kept one foot there and one foot in Việt Nam, just in case things don’t work out in Finland?

I have to say I have met many Vietnamese who told me they now work in Finland and save money so they can retire in Việt Nam someday. I rid myself of that kind of thought. I do what I like and am passionate about. This keeps me focus. I consider Finland my home now and will deal with any consequences here.

I know that many Vietnamese live in Finland in misery because of cultural misfit. To them, Việt Nam is their savior. Others need to have relatives near by, or neighbors who they can talk to in Vietnamese, or Vietnamese food, to make them happy. Me, I can have bread. Or if I cannot go to Việt Nam for a vacation, I can go to Europe. That is all right.

How would you describe your life in Finland right now?

It is not rosy for sure, but full of promise. I see opportunities ahead. The Finns already accepted me. So it is not a negative picture over all.

How would you rate your happiness with your current life?

It is 6 or 7 out of 10 at the moment. That is mainly because of the unstable job situation. If I get a good job that suits my ability, I would be satisfied.

What do you like most about life in Finland?

In Việt Nam, it is difficult to do what you like. It is even difficult to talk about what you like, because your family would interfere. This is upsetting to me. If I tell people what I like, they think I am selfish. I have to be careful about saying the right thing. I feel lonely because I keep things for myself and do what I want. Over here, everybody is independent, and I love it that way.

What do you want to tell those in Việt Nam who try to be independent?

Fight. And be determined. If you have a dream, you have to do it. Doing it and fail is better than not doing it and regret it for the rest of your life.

What are your plans for the future?

I have many plans for the future. I want to start my own company or a business project between Finland and Việt Nam.


Political, social, cultural and demographic landscapes in Việt Nam have undergone dramatic changes in the past ten years as more and more Vietnamese go abroad and come back. Hopefully, one day, the Finnish elements will be a part of the picture.

Translation of the interview from Vietnamese by Anvi Hoàng. The Vietnamese version of this article has been published by the Vien Dong Daily News. Read the Vietnamese version here.

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