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Finnish Internet Influencer Builds Bridges Between China and Finland

2024-03-04 10:49:00 Source:China Today Author:staff reporter ZACHARY G. LUNDQUIST
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The results of making a bet with her daughter on who would make the most popular online short videos opened up an online channel for a Finnish woman who speaks fluent Chinese to share her passion about China.  


While working at KINGOLD, Rebekka Mikkola takes part in holding a Happy Lantern Festival (one of many events) for their customers, giving her experience for organizing such events back in Finland. 

To pass the time amid the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic in Finland, specifically during lockdowns requiring people to stay at home, a young girl who had been making vidoes for some time made a bet with her mother who had never looked at social media in China before. The challenge was whose self-made videos — the daughter’s in English on one social media platform; her mother’s in Chinese on another social media platform — would score the most views. The loser’s penalty would be to do the family housework. The mother took her daughter up on this challenge. At first, it was the daughter’s videos that gained the most views. But her triumph was shortlived, as the fourth video her mother posted, asking the viewing audience what they did to pass the time during lockdown, went rapidly viral receiving over 9 million views.

From that point onwards, “Fenlan—Kajie” (芬兰卡姐, literally Finnish Sister Ka) as she is known to her Internet fans, embarked on her new role of Internet influencer. All, foreign and Chinese viewers alike, who see her short videos, are impressed by both her fluency in Chinese and passion for China and Chinese culture. Her name is Rebekka Mikkola.

Mikkola’s connection with China began due not to any lifelong interest in China, or going there to study Chinese and eventually deciding to stay. It actually goes back to 1965, long before she was born. That was the year her grandfather decided to go with his family to China’s Taiwan to help people in need there through his skills as a pharmacist. For the next 20 years they all lived in the Taiwan countryside, and the family forged ties there with China that could never be broken. Mikkola’s father returned to Finland in his teens to study, and later had his own family. But his many fond memories of growing up in China compelled him to return to there with his family when Mikkola was just four years old. She spent the next 10 years of her life in China. Mikkola hence inherited from both her grandparents and parents their passion for learning Chinese, and also their respect for cultural differences between Finland and China. This legacy shapes the open-minded perspective through which she views life and the world as a whole.

Knowledge of Chinese Opens up Career Opportunities 

Mikkola completed her high-school studies after returning to Finland at the age of 14. But in her “gap” year between high school and university she responded to an advertisement for a tour guide with Chinese language skills sufficient to lead Chinese tour groups in Finland. Telling herself, “I can do that,” she applied. One of the three shortlisted candidates, she was the only Finn. The other two were Chinese. This experience was integral to improving both her Chinese and her confidence in working with people; also to her dream of working in foreign affairs between Finland and China.

After graduating from university, Mikkola started work at Finnair, which sent her to Southern China’s Guangzhou where she worked as the regional general manager of the Guangzhou office. She relished being in Guangzhou, its food, climate, and people, and with her linguistic talent she soon picked up the Cantonese dialect of Chinese. A couple of years later her work took her from a foreign company in China to an uneqivocally Chinese company — Kingold Group.

Chinese Family Culture 

One thing that really brought her in touch with Chinese culture was marrying a Chinese man. While standing at a bus stop in Guangzhou one day, Mikkola met a young man whose accent distinguished him from that of local residents. “You don’t sound like a local, where are you from?” she said to him, trying to start up a conversation and make a new friend. “I’m from northeastern China. From your accent, you don’t sound like a local either.” Mikkola thought to herself, “From my appearance it’s obvious I’m not local. You could ask me, this friendly young lady, where she is from too.” But the first encounter ended as uniquely as it started, and the two of them went their separate ways. A couple months later she ran into this same young man again, or perhaps he seemed to be looking for her, because this time he had more to say, “I would like to take you out to eat.” “This guy seems a little direct,” ran through Mikkola’s mind, but in the end, she thought the young quiet guy was “ok” and accepted his offer. From that meeting, a relationship blossomed that eventually led to their marriage. This rendered her a Chinese “daughter-in-law,” an experience that embedded her deeper still into Chinese culture.

One of the dynamics that distinguishes Chinese families from their Finnish counterparts is that of Chinese grandparents’ desire to be involved in the care of their grandchildren. And since the age of retirement is earlier in China than western countries, Chinese grandparents have more time to be involved in the upbringing of their grandchildren.

Mikkola told China Today that, both of her mothers have done much to take care of her daughter since the day she was born. When she returned to China after giving birth to her daughter back in Finland, her mother-in-law expressed sincere desire to come directly to her side and help take care of her granddaughter, prompting Milkkola’s observation, “Wow, Chinese mother-in-laws are amazing!” This was just one aspect of Chinese family culture that she has experienced and treasured.

As northern Europeans, Finnish people tend to be somewhat reserved. Consequently, having lived so many years in China Mikkola often feels that the Chinese have had greater impact on her thinking and understanding of life than have Finns, in regard to diet and relationships, among others. But at the same time she retains certain aspects of her Finish heritage, all of which helps her to relate to the people of both cultures. This combination makes her a good candidate to act as a cultural bridge between the two countries.

Rebekka Mikkola together with two attendees show the red and yellow dumplings and Chinese flags made out of dough at the celebratory event for Mid-Autumn Festival and Chinese National Holiday which she helped organize with CFFA in Finland. 

Chinese Work Culture

It was while working at Kingold Group that Mikkola learned about the Chinese culture as regards how Chinese workers connect with their bosses, serve clients, and maintain working relationships, among others, from within a Chinese concern. There indeed exists in China an entire culture of how to relate to one’s superiors and bosses. In encompassing due respect for everyone’s age and rank, however, it entails far more than just sycophancy or trying to impress.

Another aspect of a typical Chinese company’s work culture is that of serving customers. The Chinese lay great store by nurturing relationships between individuals and companies. It was hence at Kingold Group that Mikkola began to plumb, firsthand, the depths of the Chinese concept of “guanxi”, so to discover that it entails far more than just its literal meaning of “relationship.” She learned that relationships in China consist of multifaceted connections between two parties that include connections, loyalty, friendship, and mutual benefits, among others.

When comparing experiences of working with Finnish colleagues, Mikkola told China Today about a Finnish co-worker who never spoke about his family or life outside work, either with her or any other coworkers. It was only when the company held an employee engagement activity that she discovered he was married with children. Such reserve may be a common character trait among northern Europeans, but it contrasts sharply with Chinese culture. “Chinese people are always curious about your life, and have no inhibitions about asking you everything about it. This gives a sense of belonging and closeness that is different from Western culture,” Mikkola said. Now working back in Finland, she misses the relationships she so enjoyed while in China.

In addition to learning about Chinese work culture, Mikkola had the honor of being assigned as overseer of the operation of the Imperial Springs Museum — the largest private museum in South China, built and opened in November 2011. The museum covers over 20,000 square meters of land, with 7,000 or more square meters of constructed floor area and around 4,000 square meters of exhibition space. The daunting task of managing and organizing museum tours pushed her Chinese to an even higher level. At the same time, the opportunity it gave her to study China’s rich history deepened her understanding of both Chinese culture and language.

Mikkola is having a group picture taken with attendees at the Spring Festival Gala that has been organized every year in Finland for more than a decade. 

Building Cultural Bridges between Finland and China 

The making of a bet with her daughter during the COVID-19 pandemic on who would make the most popular online short videos opened up for Mikkola a channel whereby to share her passion for China and her fascinating experiences of living there. The videos she uploads to her various media accounts and blogs include stories about her family, childhood, work, and reactions to recent events, as well as cultural contrasts between Finland and China. Her work as a “cultural ambassador,” moreover, extends beyond online videos.

In Finland, Mikkola offers advice to young Chinese people seeking to study in Finland. She has also helped to organize summer camps where Chinese children take part in culture dialogues with young Finnish people, and so experience Finnish culture.

For the last few years, Mikkola has been assistant director of the Chinese Finnish Friendship Association (CFFA). Although ethnically Finnish, her experience in China has transformed her into what some might call an “egg” — white on the outside but yellow in the inside. This makes her an eminently suitable candidate for serving the overseas Chinese community in Finland, and promoting business cooperation and cultural understanding between China and Finland.

Part of her responsibilities at CFFA include organizing programs during traditional Chinese festivals at libraries, public places as well as schools in Finland that inform local children about Chinese culture. During the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival, for example, she often organizes such activities for children as making moon cakes, and the telling of the story of Chang’e, wife of an ancient archer, who, having been forced to eat the magic pill originally destined for both her and her husband, flew to the moon and became an immortal. Thereafter she could only meet with her husband during the Mid-Autumn Festival. Through such activities, Mikkola enables Chinese children living in Finland to learn about and appreciate the beauty of their cultural roots, as well as to introduce local Finnish children to Chinese culture. She also helps organize Chinese New Year activities, such as traditional Chinese “lion” dances, and wearing hanfu — Chinese traditional clothing — among others. Such events help locals appreciate how Chinese value family and celebrate new years together.

This year as usual, Mikkola is working together with the team at CFFA to host a Chinese New Year’s celebration in Finland at a public place like a library so that Finnish families can take part and enjoy the charm and beauty of Chinese culture together with Chinese families.

Acting as a cultural bridge between China and Finland is not just a job or a subject for Mikkola to make videos about; it is her passion. Her daughter is also picking up her mother’s passion for Chinese culture and considering coming to China to pursue university after finishing high school in Finland. In Mikkola’s words, “Understanding a culture sets a foundation for friendship with people from that culture.” And through the broader acquaintance of the peoples of Finland and China, international friendships can continue to expand and be of benefit to them both.

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