Petri Kalliola is the third-best known Finn in Korea. Only Santa Claus and Moomintroll rank ahead of him. As a student at JYU, Kalliola went on exchange in South Korea, where he eventually encountered work that he could have hardly imagined in advance.

Petri Kalliola comes from Jyväskylä and graduated from the present Schildt General Upper Secondary School. Because he had no clear career plans in mind after school, he decided to take a sabbatical year and travelled to Australia to work on a strawberry farm. There he met some nice Koreans, which kickstarted his interest in Korea.

Although he could have continued working in Australia, Kalliola wanted to pursue a university degree and so he started studies in political science at the University of Jyväskylä. In 2012 he made a holiday trip to visit his Korean friends and got acquainted with Ewha University and its exceptionally beautiful campus. Kalliola had learned in Jyväskylä about a student exchange programme and decided to apply for it after his return.

“Usually an exchange period lasts only one term,” he explains, “but I got a whole year. I studied Korean and completed my minor in international relations.”

He fell in love with the country. So he was ready to pursue his master’s studies there as well, for which he could apply for a scholarship from the Korean state. He got a study place at Yonsei University, one of the best in Korea. His studies began with another year of learning Korean. The language studies went well and soon Kalliola was able to communicate fluently in Korean. “I was engaged in learning and studying every day, and with a Spartan spirit,” Petri says about the beginning of the studies.

“The study culture was very different from Finland. There are plenty of gifted students in Korea and competition is tough. People stay on campus 24/7. Their work morale is high, but critical thinking, for example, is not encouraged. I found this hard to adapt to.”

Petri feels that what he lacked in work morale compared to the Korean students, he compensated for with self-initiative, creativity, confidence in public, and rhetoric. “I often challenged my teachers and questioned some teaching materials. Especially some professors with qualifications from the United States liked it.”

The Winter Olympics were organised in Pyeongchang in 2018. The Finnish Embassy prepared for the Olympic year by hiring Kalliola to work as a project coordinator. The job proved quite diverse, as it also coincided with the celebrations of Finland’s 100th anniversary. “It was an unprecedented year at the embassy, with numerous state visits and cultural events,” he says. “I got to be involved in a variety of things.”

At the same time Petri was asked to participate in a Korean car driving programme, “Men in a black box”, where he then gave a demonstration of his driving skills in slippery conditions.

“The TV channel staff thought that in Finland even grannies know how to drive a rear-wheel-drive car with summer tires on mirror-smooth ice.”

The filming sessions went so well that Petri was next invited to a popular talk show called “Non Summit”, where he talked about Finnish culture and especially the Finnish school system.

The actual breakthrough, however, came with “Welcome – First time in Korea”, a reality TV programme with an audience of millions, where a foreigner living in Korea can invite three friends from abroad to visit Korea for the first time so as to learn about the country’s culture and customs. Kalliola was invited to participate, and he invited three of his childhood friends from Jyväskylä. The broadcasts with the Finns repeatedly broke the channel’s audience records, with between 2.5 and 3 million viewers. Petri and his friends became celebrities overnight, and now he cannot move around in Seoul without being recognised.

“People stop me and ask for my autograph and to take selfies with me. My Instagram account has nearly 50 000 followers.”

Kalliola is currently Finland’s face in the Korean media. He has also drawn on his experiences in his master’s thesis, which deals with country images created by foreign celebrities in Korea. Koreans are highly interested in other cultures and especially what others think about them. “Just like us Finns,” Petri says. “The picture of other countries is created based on known foreigners coming from these countries.”

Kalliola is currently importing Finnish education and expertise of early childhood education to Korea. He is working as a business manager in a Korean company, which has already established a few Finnish kindergartens in Korea. So the contacts to Finland are frequent even though Petri’s home is now in Korea.



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