Ken from Singapore: Japanese Are a Bit Estonian

Three years ago, Saburi Ken had two final study choices on the table: one from Finland and another one from the University of Tartu in Estonia. Although Estonians are known to be slow, they still replied faster than the Finns and got this Singaporean on board.

As soon as the confirmation email landed in Ken’s inbox, he bought a plane ticket. Only then did he go and tell his father: “Here’s my ticket to Estonia”. His Dad replied: “Um, okay.” Ken smiles: “My Dad is Japanese. So in certain ways he is a bit Estonian. He is a man of few words”.

Saburi Ken

Saburi Ken in the role of international student ambassador at UT. Photo by Andres Tennus.

Why choose such a little-known and far-away country to study business administration when you live in Singapore, a country with one of the freest, most innovative, most competitive, and most business-friendly economies? All of this was undermined by Ken’s desire to start an independent life off the beaten track (Now he has even forgotten how many kilometers he is away from home: 10,000 or 20,000. Ken, it’s 9243 km).

He also wanted a change after three years of stressful work in the sports industry. In Singapore, it is quite common to work 10–12 hours a day and only get 14–16 days of vacation per year. Ken knows that time is a big asset in Singapore, that everything is very systematic and even, as he puts it, robotic.

When Ken arrived to Estonia in mid-August three years ago, everything felt like eternity — so quiet, so slow. Later, he fell in love with the calmness that Estonia had instilled in him.

The work culture in Singapore is quite different from what he finds here in Estonia. Ken works part-time as a market researcher in Funderbeam, an Estonian startup that helps angel investors and entrepreneurs discover, benchmark, and analyse startups. Here people take time to discuss things in a more relaxed and open way, whereas Singaporean business culture puts efficiency and effectiveness above deep discussion.

“One thing that I love is the low power distance between employers and employees. Receiving hugs and talking casually with each other is quite a norm here”.

This difference in culture also applies to the university’s evaluation system. Namely, Ken points out that in Estonia lecturers have a lot of freedom in how they choose to evaluate students. Different lecturers apply different evaluation frameworks, which is sometimes confusing to students and seems subjective. In Singapore, evaluation is more standardised to ensure clarity. Ken would also prefer a more problem-based approach to learning, more groupwork and less lectures.

Ken with his Mexican friends

Ken (on the left) “with the Mexican mafia”. Photo from a personal archive.

Nevertheless, “One of the highlights of being an international student at the University of Tartu is an opportunity to meet so many different people”, and he goes on for a while listing all the different countries that his fellow students come from.

When asked about where he would take his friends if they flew to Tartu, Ken knew the answer with certainty. Nothing on the usual sightseeing list would impress his Singaporean friends as much as the Tartu Market. The selection of meat and cheese would blow their mind. Well, maybe not the seafood — obviously, nothing compares to what you can find in South-East Asia. When Ken saw local fish for the first time, he thought: “What the hell is this?! Is this some mutated fish? What has the Soviet Union done to it?” But no, it’s what the Baltic Sea fish looks like.

If there is anything else that Ken misses apart from his friends and seafood, then it is the ability to read people’s minds. Are they angry, happy, uncomfortable? Ken admits that sometimes he is really not sure if a local is angry or just excited, which makes it challenging to communicate.

Ken’s tongue-in-cheek advice to international students sounds straightforward: “Learn to drink like a real man. Locals become socially normal only after consuming alcohol, also known as the country’s social lubricant”. How much do you have to drink? Ken estimates that 2–3 beers help to loosen up an Estonian. If we count in vodka, then 2–3 shots, or 4–5 — it depends. He suggests that Estonians could start wearing T-shirts with a chart showing how much beer will get them talking.

Anyway, here is Ken’s best tip: “If you really want to talk to an Estonian, go ahead and ask him or her for a drink” (By the way, his favourite place to have a drink is Illegaard).

Ken on stage

“Love from 4 continents”. Photo from a personal archive.

Ken seems to be good at implementing this tip himself, as he boasts of having the most Estonian friends among his international fellows. How many? Maybe five or seven, but these are ‘quality friends’. What helps them to connect is music – Ken loves rock and metal music, and plays bass guitar (see his review of Estonian rock and metal music). He is surprised at some of his friends’ ability to enjoy both mainstream pop like Põhja-Tallinn and folk metal like Metsatöll — something unthinkable among his Singaporean pals. His Estonian friends, on the other hand, tease him when he tries to pronounce some Estonian words with vowels that sound “totally alien to him”.

Truth be told, Ken was good at socialising with Estonians from the very beginning. A night during his first week in Estonia in August 2012 when he visited two metal bars, two apartments, and met some Estonians still remains one of the most epic nights in his memory.

Last Friday Ken successfully passed his final examination and received his bachelor’s diploma on 19 June. More good news is that he plans to stay in Estonia.

Listen to the best bits of the podcast interview with Saburi Ken:

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