A Series of Small Hurdles
Once Aaron Yi Ding got settled in, he knew he would
want to finish his PhD here–despite the weather.
When Aaron Yi
to study Computer
at the University
did and did not
know what he was getting into.
Finland was a foreign country in all senses of the
word, but then again he did have some idea of what
the West could be like. The problem was that his preconceived
notion of open-minded, sociable people
was based mostly on Americans.
— That is totally different from the culture I saw
here. After I realized it, I thought 'okay,' but it confused
a lot of people, especially Asian people, Mr.
Ding now says.
That is not to say that his stay in Finland has not
been rewarding. Mr. Ding, who turns 30 this month,
came to Helsinki from Hunan, China, in 2006 to
study for a Master's Degree. He graduated with excellent
grades in 2009 and started immediately working
towards a PhD, which he hopes to finish by 2014.
But when he arrived here, he did need some time
to get accustomed to things, like the way people
did not hang around to talk after class, but headed
straight back home.
Breaking the ice took some effort, but he found
it rewarding. For Mr. Ding the way into Finnish society
was opened through work and hobbies. He participated
in basketball practice with several different
teams, thereby coming into contact with Finns, international
students and Chinese players.
Then there was the support from the faculty he
got as a student, and later on he took on various volunteer
positions, e.g. in the Finnish Union of University
Researchers and Teachers.
This meant he came into contact with different
kinds of people, not just his professors and other Chinese
— A thing I like about the teaching here is that
there are a lot of interactive exercise sessions. They
not only made me participate in the teaching, but I
got to know how people work together as a team, Mr.
He has also benefited from the mentoring system,
which has put him in contact with various senior professors
in several universities. His PhD supervisor is
there to talk with him about the research, but with
the mentors the subject is free.
Stuck for Six Months
Coming from outside the European Union, possibly
the biggest hurdle Mr. Ding has had to clear–repeatedly–
was the residence permit process. At first acquiring
the necessary paperwork in China required
a lot of back and forth between various governmental
agencies to get the proper documents properly
He has to renew his residence permit every year,
and even though the process is easier, it can still be
— Once I had to wait for almost six months. They
had my passport, so I could not make any travel plans
or visit home, he says.
In the nearly seven years Mr. Ding has spent here,
the culture shock has mellowed. He describes his department
as being 'quite international,' and has no
major complaints about the way things work from day
to day. Neither has he met people who would have a
hostile attitude towards foreigners.
The problems that persist are in some ways minor,
but also more difficult to mend.
— There might be something more subtle, alienation
and some problems with integration, he says.
Mr. Ding feels that the language barrier is 'a permanent
one' that can be hard to circumvent. Finnish
is still the primary language in many places, few foreigners
manage to learn it, and they might not have
other ways of communicating with the locals.
When we get deeper into the research path and
have to apply for grants or teach, most of the materials
are translated into English, but they might be outdated
or some parts might be missing a translation,
Mr. Ding says.
On the other hand, he feels that the constant influx
of tourists has improved the way the city of Helsinki
presents information in languages other than
At the time Mr. Ding got his Master's Degree, he was
working at the department and doing research. He
had a chance to leave the academia and join the industry,
but chose to stick with the former.
His decision was greatly influenced by the fact
that a very interesting research project was looming
large on the horizon at the university, and he could
use this research in his PhD.
Having gone through the wringer in the first few
months of his studies, what with all the new people,
customs, and bureaucracy, Mr. Ding knew he would
not want to switch universities at that time, as that
would have meant going through the same process all
Mr. Ding feels his years in Finland have helped
him gather academic capital and experience that will
help him in the future. He has already visited several
other universities and done research and development
work with companies like Deutsche Telekom,
Nokia, and TeliaSonera.
Now his plan is to graduate in two years and then
see what opportunities are available.
— My immediate goal is to become a member of
the research community and get my first position in
the academy. It could be here or somewhere else, I am
fine with both, he says.
Over the better half of a decade, Mr. Ding has
learned to understand the Finnish psyche, but there
is one thing that is still giving him trouble after all
Yes, it is the weather.
— When the weather was really bad, it was dark,
I was suffering of a lot of stress, I did not know that
many people and felt kind of left out… When all these
things got added up together, I thought 'okay, I am
going to leave next year.'
But he did not.
text Olli Sulopuisto
photograph Veikko Somerpuro
- Painetussa lehdessä sivu 16