Subway to Brooklyn

“Does this stop at Myrtle?”

I turned to my right where the voice came from then glanced across to check the board.

As an ethnic Chinese tourist in New York City, this unassuming question got me thinking. For all the times I’ve travelled, even in Asia, I have never once been identified as a local to get directions from. Yet here, halfway across the globe on a subway in Brooklyn, a caucasian woman felt confident enough to ask the Asian sitting next to her if the train she’d gotten on was a local or express. I belonged.

Split into five boroughs, New York City is arguably the most cosmopolitan area in the world - a melting pot of global cultures evident in the food options alone. Often romanticised in movies and on television shows such as Taxi Driver and Mad Men, it’s not hard to see why the metropolis is so attractive and so easy to become a citizen of.

With its population of 8.6 million, communities here have high amounts of differentiation that can cater to the multiplicity of identities, whether we ascribe to it ourselves or they are ascribed to us. Canadian-American journalist and activist Jane Jacob’s book The Life and Death of Great American Cities mentions that ‘cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody,’ and I think that’s one of the reasons why NYC is so distinctive. The reason assimilating into the culture here is effortless is down to the diversity on offer such that people can constantly opt in and out of whichever community they feel like they belong to, and no one will bat an eyelid. It’s almost innate.

“Yeah, it’s two stops away. This train’s a local,” I replied. I’d only been in New York for ten days, but it felt like I’d lived here before.

Postcards from Finland I - Watch this space

Last year, Heist lead design researcher Naima won a scholarship to do her Masters at the EIT Digital Academy in Finland. Immersing herself in this new culture, Naima been writing a series of posts about her life in Finland, from education to depressing winters. We’ll be sharing her experiences over the next few weeks. Here is Part I of Postcards from Finland.

Hello from snowy Helsinki

Hello from snowy Helsinki

I had high expectations when I chose Finland for my Master’s Degree - it has one of the world’s best education systems and it’s free! In fact, for Finns, it’s actually paid! Finns receive 500 Euros/month for studying. The experience here so far hasn’t disappointed me.

The education system in Finland aims to produce creative problem solvers. Assignments - mainly group assignments - leaves room for freedom so students can decide for themselves how to get to complete their task, how much work to put in, and what exactly they should deliver. Students make their own judgment calls with rational thinking and their decision-making skills. Courses are multidisciplinary and professors request students from the Engineering, Design and Business courses to form as diverse teams as possible.

Exams are very rare. Finnish education keeps students curious, active and with just enough free time to not forget the world of opportunities outside school. Most students get subject-related part-time or even full-time jobs, and student-organized events such as Slush - the world’s leading start-up event - and Junction - Europe’s biggest hackathon - are thriving. Specific student accelerator programs encourage and support students to launch their own start-ups.

Oh, and hierarchies are super flat. Professors are always addressed directly by their first name and students are encouraged to discuss and even question the professors' statements. And isn’t that what studying at university should be about - questioning the status quo, exploring oneself and breaking new ground?

Flat Hierarchies:    A much shared meme in Finland, and a true story. The man sitting on the stairs in the second row is the current Finnish president Sauli Niinistö

Flat Hierarchies: A much shared meme in Finland, and a true story. The man sitting on the stairs in the second row is the current Finnish president Sauli Niinistö

Finland is a country of trust, honesty, and directness. Bicycles do not really need to be locked. I have friend who wanted to get rid of his old bike and left it unlocked at the metro station - yet it was still there 6 months later! Another friend lost his phone on the way home, and once he noticed it, he remotely launched a message with his address on the phone. The finders returned the phone within 10 minutes. And there are several similar stories - it’s not just a single act of kindness or luck.

Conversations here also tend to be very direct, which may come as a culture shock to some. Small talk is considered a waste of time and people are encouraged to just go straight to the point. Getting listeners to read between the lines may also not work. It is also a norm to not “state the obvious” in conversations, so if you have nothing purposeful to say, just bear with it and enjoy the silence! Stressful at first, these moments of silence with Finns are great for personal development. Honesty plus trust, then, can go places.