I met Gulja in person exactly once. During a hot summer day in June 2021, when we agreed to meet to record the interview for this article. Before that, we had met only online. Despite meeting just once, I have this pleasant feeling, that I have known her for a much longer time than we actually know each other. In the last 2 years, we have cooperated on different projects together and I know I can totally rely on and trust her. We have very similar ways of doing things, which makes our cooperation efficient and productive. Besides being multitalented and curious, Giulnara Chinakaeva is also a nice person to just hang out and chat with. About anything… studying, reasons to come to Finland, sustainable development or just about how funny some features of our cultures are…
Different people have very different reasons to move from one country to another, but there is still one common indicator: the call or the urgency to do it. Gulja is from St. Petersburg and, based on her experience, many areas of one’s life in Russia can be somewhat predictable. There are certain steps you are expected to take. Having your higher education degree, getting a job, starting a family. The social pressure of living life according to this scheme might be rather intense. Having supportive parents, Gulja made her choices differently. She left her career in Russia and became a student again in Finland. Why?
“Probably one of the main reasons was trying to find my way, my own path. To be inspired by what I do… Because back then there were things in my life that I wasn’t completely satisfied with. I guess I felt this urge to look for answers to my questions, to look for new experiences and perspectives. Further education was, therefore, a natural choice for me. Maybe somewhere deep inside I wanted to also build something of my own…”
Gulja had studied crisis management in St. Petersburg, and in her final year of studies, she completed an internship in an advertising production company. After graduation, she was employed by the company as a customer service employee, coordinating customer projects, working with designers and manufacturers. During that time, she got in contact with The New Stage of Alexandrinsky Theatre and cooperated on several projects with them.
“I was really inspired to be behind the scenes, to see how different processes in a cultural institution work, and to help theatre employees with creating visual materials for performances and other occasions. That was truly motivating! And I started thinking that maybe the cultural sphere could be the one where I could develop myself. Moreover, I’ve always enjoyed participating in cultural activities, and I graduated from a music school when I was a teenager…”
Gulja was admitted to the Master’s Programme, and later on, she completed her degree in Cultural Policy at the University of Jyväskylä. Finland was a natural choice. It’s close enough to be able to visit relatives and friends as often as possible, and it wasn’t an unknown place for her. Gulja had visited Finland many times before and really enjoyed the Finnish lifestyle. She was also looking for more practical education, where students cooperate on real-life projects together with companies. Gulja values effective co-creation and continuous self-development, and it was something missing in her job before relocating to Finland.
“I was looking for this kind of understandable and transparent way of doing things. And I think that when I moved to Finland, it felt like there was a match. I have really appreciated the orderly manner in which many processes are accomplished here, and this equally positive and polite attitude to everyone. Also, any opinion has the right to exist and is treated with respect, and many people take into consideration how their actions can affect others and the environment. I was very impressed by the general feeling of trust everywhere: among classmates, teachers, colleagues, and even strangers; and when approaching different private and public organizations. There are always exceptions, of course, but here I’m talking about the majority, the common way of how everything functions.”
Lifelong learning is very present in the Finnish culture. Even from a small age, children are not memorizing facts, instead, they are being taught to discuss, express their opinions and think critically. This type of approach develops skills that you can use in very different environments. Adjusting to new technologies, to new scientific information or simply to new ways of doing things has become, thanks to such an environment, more natural. And Gulja seems to be enjoying it all. Working on very diverse tasks, using different working tools and aiming to never stop learning is her way to go.
“I think I was looking for purpose and meaning. Though I’d had a strong foundation from my home country, I wasn’t sure how I could apply all that. I wanted to act not just because someone told me to, or because it was good for my resume but because I really believed in what I was doing… I often told myself that I was somewhere at the intersection of everything. I couldn’t tell whether I had a mainly technical or humanistic mindset. I was somewhere in between… I remember that I’ve always liked to organize things, for example, when participating in school activities or organizing parties for family members. And that’s this kind of coordination is what I really like to do. A bit of this and that: working with design software, developing materials for social media, communicating with people, working with spreadsheets on my laptop, etc. It is important that my job is not monotonous and involves various tasks. I’ve been thinking that, most likely, I will never have a lack of new things to learn. The world is changing so fast, and when coordinating different projects, it is important to stay up to date. Anyways, it is super exciting when you finally catch this thought that “I think I know what I really like to do!” But to be honest, it has been a long journey of discovering myself…”
Realizing what we like to do and how we like to do it might be indeed a long process. I believe, Gulja is right to admit that things happen for a reason: “If we meet some people, or if some events happen in our life, that might be because we are ready for it now. Or because we really need it at the moment. And I think embracing this new experience is a better choice than resisting it or complaining about it. It is not a new idea that overcoming your fears and internal barriers can open up new incredible opportunities. It is important, of course, to use common sense and to listen to yourself and not to do things that feel completely unnatural.”
Same as in her home city previously, Giulnara continued to actively monitor various activities in Jyväskylä and Helsinki (workshops, meetups, networking events, etc.). Through volunteering for such NGOs as International Professionals in Finland ONNIVATORS and Nicehearts (Neighbourhood Mothers project), Gulja has become more and more initiative. She states that when encountering a project that is interesting for her, she grabs the opportunity that life presents. She currently works as a project coordinator, and she would like to develop herself there.
The group Gulja works in conducts research connected with circular economy and sustainable development, which are topics of particular interest and concern for her. Gulja acknowledges that Finland is much further than her home country when it comes to taking care of the environment. She feels motivated to change her habits too.
“In Russia, I would probably buy new clothes every season because appearances mean a lot. Maybe I wouldn’t go out in the centre of St. Petersburg in some of the casual outfits that I’ve been wearing in Finland. Here I’ve been really enjoying that I can just be relaxed about looks. I mostly buy things that are necessary and comfortable or those that I really really like. Though I still appreciate dressing up from time to time, and I’m really fond of buying some nice things to decorate my home. In general, recently I’ve been paying much more attention to organic and biodegradable products, as well as recycling.”
Expat life might be an intense learning process if one wants to see and understand things. As described above, living abroad can motivate you to change your behaviour, and being exposed to new situations could be an eye-opening experience. What does Gulja appreciate the most?
“I think that moving to another country has made me more tolerant. I’ve met lots of wonderful people with absolutely different backgrounds. From different countries. With different life experiences… I mean that in my home country, I had this feeling as if there was the right way of living one’s life: when living in one place, we might become strongly influenced by one system of attitudes and beliefs. Relocating has definitely allowed me to broaden my perspective on life and to get to know myself better. I’ve realized that there can be different ways of moving forward in life. Unless you are doing anything harmful to other people, animals, or the environment, you can live your life how you want. You can explore and experiment… I think I have become much more relaxed and tolerant of different opinions and actions of other people… and more focused on myself than on others.”
Giulnara believes that if we want to make a difference, we need to start from ourselves. It is not possible to change other people, but our experience might be motivating and encourage them to transform their habits and actions.
“I think there is no ideal place, each country has its own standards, behaviours, and attitudes which to some people might seem reasonable, while others wouldn’t be able to fully accept them. And nowadays we have this great opportunity to move around, try to live in different places, learn about other cultures, share knowledge, and choose a place that feels the best at this particular moment or for a longer period. I do really like the phrase “no matter where you go, you take yourself with you”. And no matter where we are, what we can do is to stay human, respect each other, and be better versions of ourselves.”
Who is Giulnara Chinakaeva?
Giulnara is a project coordinator at Aalto University working as part of the Multifunctional Materials Design research group.
She moved to Finland in 2015 on the basis of studies and later graduated from the Master’s Degree Programme in Cultural Policy at the University of Jyväskylä.
Her background also includes a Specialist Degree in Crisis Management in her home city St. Petersburg (Russia) and almost six years of working for an advertising production company.