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China’s Introverts Find a Kindred Spirit: A Stick Figure From Finland

HONG KONG — People who live in China’s crowded cities are used to having their personal space invaded — in schools, malls, restaurants, bus stations, dormitories and even bathrooms. But that doesn’t mean they like it.

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Mike Ives
Zoe Mou, New York Times

HONG KONG — People who live in China’s crowded cities are used to having their personal space invaded — in schools, malls, restaurants, bus stations, dormitories and even bathrooms. But that doesn’t mean they like it.

Now a growing number of them identity with a Finnish cartoon character who channels their urban anxieties, albeit in a different cultural context.

The “Finnish Nightmares” comic series documents the social challenges faced by Matti, a mild-mannered stick figure who abhors small talk. The series has been trending on Chinese social media, and it even spawned a new word for social awkwardness in Mandarin: jingfen, or “spiritually Finnish.”

“As an anthropophobic, I love this series so much,” Li Xin, a college student in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen, wrote recently on Sina Weibo, one of China’s most popular social media sites, where a “Finnish Nightmares” hashtag has gotten about 240,000 clicks.

“China has a huge population, and Chinese people usually congregate in large groups, but there are still a lot of introverts, like me,” Li, 22, said in an interview conducted via Weibo messages. “In a society like China’s, we are considered hard to deal with and thought of as weirdos. But the truth is we just don’t enjoy unnecessary socializing that much. It’s too tiring.”

Matti, the cartoon’s exceedingly humble protagonist, constantly faces decisions that test his social awkwardness — whether to sing his own praises in a job interview, say, or take a free food sample if it means having to talk with a salesperson. He blushes easily.

Matti fears drawing attention to himself, but also the mere possibility that he might offend someone, even a stranger. He feels obliged to board a bus that he flagged by accident, for example, and is reluctant to ask a person standing in his way to move.

Matti is a “stereotypical Finn” who “tries his best to do unto others as he wishes to be done unto him: to give space, be polite and not bother with unnecessary chitchat,” according to a description on the official website of “Finnish Nightmares.”

“As you might’ve guessed,” the description adds, “it can’t always go that way.”

Karoliina Korhonen, the graphic designer who created the series in 2015, said that she drew the first scenes as a joke for her non-Finnish friends. Two books later, “Finnish Nightmares” has nearly 181,000 Facebook followers and 34,000 more on Instagram. Korhonen said the series had fan bases in the United States, Germany, Britain and beyond.

Korhonen, 28, who lives in the central Finnish city of Oulu, said in an email that she was surprised by the cartoon’s popularity in general, and in China in particular. “This makes me think I should take Chinese classes or something so I could understand better what’s happening, haha!” she wrote.

News of the cartoon’s Chinese fan base was first reported in English by the news site Sixth Tone.

In some ways, Matti’s gently caricatured Finnish environment is the antithesis of China’s acquisitive, in-your-face public life — and that may explain why “Finnish Nightmares” has touched a nerve among some Chinese readers.

Yang Yixin, a professor of Finnish language and culture at Beijing Foreign Studies University, said the series resonates in China “because essentially Chinese people do have a shy, introverted and bashful side, like the Finnish.”

“Moreover, modern technology has changed our way of communication,” Yang added. “It estranges us from each other, especially young people. They might become a little anthropophobic, just like Matti.”

Song Zhengyao, a student in the university’s Finnish program, said that Chinese fans like the series because it presents an “authenticity” that is lacking in their day-to-day lives.

“People have to meet their clients and their superiors for work, they have to be hypocritical even though they don’t want to be,” he said of life in China. “When they read ‘Finnish Nightmares’ they see the frank and sincere life they want to live.”

David Wu, director of the China office for Visit Finland, a tourism-promotion outfit that is funded by the Finnish government, said that he was working on a marketing campaign based on “Finnish Nightmares,” the details of which were still a secret.

China ranks fifth among countries sending tourists for overnight stays in Finland, and the 362,100 Chinese travelers who stayed there last year represented a 33 percent increase over 2016, official data show.

Wu said Finland’s top attractions for Chinese travelers include reindeer safaris and an area near the Arctic Circle that is promoted as the home of Santa Claus (and which Xi Jinping visited a few years before he became president of China).

Li, the college student in Shenzhen, a subtropical megacity near Hong Kong, said that she would consider moving to Finland, with one caveat.

“I am not sure whether I can deal with the cold weather,” she said.

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