Every month on WOMENCANFLY.CO’s blog series, The Way, we introduce inspirational women who live around the world.
This time we meet Mari Widetoft who lives in a small town called Habo located in south-central Sweden. She is a photographer and also publishes a free magazine called ‘MAGAZINE195’ which is loved by locals in Habo. Her husband Robert is Swedish and she went to Sweden where she did not understand the language or culture, after the birth of their first daughter. She is now a mother of three girls.
Mari originally worked as a Japanese language teacher in China and found her job rewarding but decided to move to Sweden when she had a baby. We asked her about the challenges she experienced in starting a business in a foreign country and raising children in a country with gender equality that boasts the 5th place ranking on the gender gap index.
A series of miracles that guided Mari to China
Mari's interest in China began in primary school when she had a Taiwanese classmate in her class. For some reason, when Mari talked with Chinese people, energy came out of her and she felt joyful. Her interest in China has remained somewhere in her heart ever since and she majored in Chinese culture at university. In her sophomore year, she studied abroad in China for a short period of time. Looking back on Mari's career, she once worked for a Japanese company as a new graduate but was then led to change jobs in China.
“After returning from a short-term study abroad program, I was speaking Chinese on the train when a Japanese woman sitting next to me suddenly spoke to me. She was a business owner in China and introduced me to a job. I was very interested but I was still a student at the time, so I passed on it.”
Although she was unable to take advantage of the opportunity that presented itself at that time, Mari had not lost her interest in China and went there on her own for her graduation trip while her friends went to Europe and the United States. Perhaps because it was unusual for a young woman to travel alone in China, a Japanese man spoke to her there as well.
In fact, this man was the one who inspired Mari to work in China. At the time, she only received a business card from him but she kept it with her, with the name "Japan-China Friendship Association" written on it.
After graduating from university, Mari worked in human resources for an education-related company but couldn't stop thinking about going to China. She suddenly remembered the business card she received during her trip to China. She made an appointment with the man and when she arrived at the Yokohama branch on his business card, she found the woman who had approached her on the train after her short-term study abroad. To her surprise, they had met separately and were both involved in the same business in China!
They were in the business of teaching Japanese in China and were in need of Japanese language teachers. Mari had passed on the opportunity once before but this was the only time she raised her hand without hesitation and she finally found a job in China.
“I was surprised that such a coincidence could happen. It was a moment when the "dots" of various experiences and encounters were connected by a line. We should not look at everything only in terms of dots but rather connect them and see them as lines.”
Living in China
In China, Mari taught Japanese to about 50 students per class in a small town called Jikei in Ningbo. Having studied Chinese herself, she believed that the most important job of a Japanese language teacher is to promote interest in the Japanese language and convey the joy of learning it. Mari felt like representing the Japanese people to the children of Jikei who told her, "The only Japanese person I know is Mari-san.”
“I wanted to be a bridge of friendship between Japan and China. That was my sole intention.”
At that time, the average monthly income in local China was 20,000 to 30,000 yen and Mari was no exception. The starting salary at the Japanese company she joined as a new graduate must have been six to seven times that amount. The fact that a young woman gave up her starting salary and career to come to China alone for the sake of developing Sino-Japanese friendships attracted enough attention locally to be featured in the documentary program "A Day in the Life of Mari".
“Yes, the pay was lower but I wanted the experience more than the money. I had a house and food so I didn't have to worry about making a living. I spent my days off with my students and I think I was more like a big sister to them than a teacher.”
Mari was able to find a job that allowed her to fully pursue her passion and she reflects on the reasons why.
“Encounters and opportunities can come unexpectedly but in order to capture the good fortune, I think it’s important to keep your radar on at all times. I used to say, “I want to go to China someday”, and, “Real international exchange should start internally.” When that passion is conveyed to the right people, and the timing is right, I believe that the dots will become lines and connect.”
Manifesting is a way to make your dreams come true!
Why is it easier to raise children in Sweden?
There is one person who was indispensable to Mari's life in China: her partner, Robert. The two met at a Halloween party in Ningbo, China. While all the other participants were dressed up in costumes, they were the only ones in plain clothes and clicked. After dating, they decided to get married.
They then had their first daughter in Japan. They thought about continuing to raise their child in China but when they held their newborn child in their arms, they naturally decided that they wanted to raise their child in the country where one of them was born and raised. After some discussion, they decided to move to Sweden.
Sweden is known for its pervasive sense of gender equality and is considered as one of the easiest countries in the world to raise children. For example, when a child is born, parents are entitled to 480 days of leave per child which is the total number of days that both the father and mother can take with the breakdown being up to them. The company cannot deny the request as long as the request is made at least two months in advance.
It is common for both men and women to work and it’s normal for couples to share housework and cleaning as well as childcare. In Mari's household, housework is done by whoever is available at the time.
“Just like mums, I have many dad friends. I often see fathers pushing strollers on weekdays and many fathers on parental leave come to baby classes in town. I think it’s very healthy that childcare is not just a ‘woman's responsibility.’”
Since working is the norm even with children, school events are scheduled on the assumption that both parents are working. Bringing children to work is also common. The cost of daycare is also subsidised so the burden is small and many families start working with their children in daycare from around the age of one. A ham sandwich is sufficient for the child's occasional lunch.
When balancing child-rearing and work becomes the ‘norm’ for everyone, work and household chores are inevitably designed to build on that balance. A society in which both women and men as parents, raise children and work equally is the reason why it is easy to raise children in Sweden.
A place of one's own and ‘MAGAZINE195’ created in Sweden
After giving birth to her second and third children in Sweden, Mari began her new career eight years after immigrating there. It was when her third child had turned one.
“I had been offered a job as a Japanese language teacher but teaching Japanese was only a means of promoting friendship between Japan and China so I didn’t have the option of continuing in Sweden. When I thought about what I wanted to do, I naturally decided to work with a camera which I had always loved.”
Looking back, Mari has been carrying a camera with her since she was in elementary school and while she changed various part-time jobs during her school years, the only part-time job she kept was at a photo shop. Photography has always been something she’s loved.
Mari immediately worked as an assistant and later became independent and set up a small studio. At the same time, she established a company that published a free newspaper and named it ‘MAGAZINE195’, named after a highway she often travels on.
The sub-title of ‘MAGAZINE195’ is "Närhet på djupet," meaning, "digging deep into the region." As the name implies, the magazine spotlights the stories of local Habo residents and businesses. The articles are carefully researched and written with an eye towards creating a positive feeling after reading them and making locals proud of Habo.
“Swedes are often referred to as 'blue-eyed Japanese' and many of them are very disciplined and shy so it’s quite difficult to enter a community unless we make a move. In my case, I was able to look into Swedish culture and lifestyle through the lens of my camera. I met a lot of people through my work."
Mari has established her life in a small town in Sweden along with the heartfelt ‘MAGAZINE195’ on her own.
Turning being a foreigner from a negative into a positive experience
Mari is now one of Habo's leading photographers and ‘MAGAZINE195’ has become a popular magazine with deep roots in the community in Sweden. It now publishes 12,000 copies for each issue. Of course, it did not start out well and she started with a circulation of 6,000, half of what she has now.
When Mari first started publishing ‘MAGAZINE195’, the most difficult thing she had to do was sell the advertisements that would be her source of income. She called and asked around to advertise but people would not take her requests, saying they were "too busy." After many visits, she finally managed to secure contracts with only five companies.
To add insult to injury, a mistake was discovered by the posting company that had been hired. In order to meet the deadline, Mari had to post all 6,000 copies herself. She drove her car a few meters, got out, dropped the mail and drove again until her car broke down. She once looked up at the heavens with tears in my eyes and thought, "What am I doing?”
Nevertheless, Mari had been able to continue because she decided to do it by herself. She also wanted to live up to the expectations of the companies that believed in her and advertise for her and she was grateful to the people of the town who supported her. “In the end, it came down to willpower," laughs Mari.
“I believe that wherever I am, those who complain will complain and those who can, will." I want to take responsibility for the path I have chosen for myself so I always try to smile, stay positive, and never complain."
When ‘MAGAZINE195’ was first published, few people were willing to listen to advertising sales pitches. Mari recalls that the reason for this was probably because she was not fluent in Swedish and people were hesitant to advertise in print media in the Internet age. However, as she continued to produce the magazine with sincerity, people gradually became interested in the magazine as "a foreigner doing something interesting," and companies that understood the quality of the magazine started paying attention. Nowadays, more and more companies are daring to advertise in print media to create their own originality outside of the internet. Mari has proved that you can turn being a foreigner from a negative to a positive.
Six years have passed since the magazine was first published, and Mari has had about fifty companies advertise in the magazine. To Mari’s delight, five of the companies that advertised in the first issue still continue to do so.
Standards of happiness are defined by what you decide for yourself
Mari is the publisher of the magazine and also an active photographer. When she takes on a job as a photographer, she values not only the quality of the photos but even more importantly, the experience of the photo shoot. This is because she wants her clients to be able to look back on the photos and remember the time spent shooting them. When clients look back on their photos years or decades from now, she wants them to be able to look back on the happy memories of the day of the shoot and say, "I had a very interesting Japanese photographer take those pictures for me.”
As a result of her persistence in her work, a virtuous cycle began to develop: companies that requested her photography work as a photographer would advertise in the magazine and startups that featured her in their magazines would offer her photography work. Today, most of the marketing photos used in the City of Habo are taken by Mari. Furthermore, since 2017, Mari has also been assigned to take the official Instagram photos for the City of Habo every year, and she feels happy every day that her favourite thing has become her job.
“Swedes always have their own standards of happiness. I think the reason why they do not compare themselves with others has to do with their education from childhood. For example, when a child does something well, not only do they praise him or her for doing it well, but they also ask afterwards, "Are you satisfied? Are you happy? I ask myself, "Are you happy? In this way, I think I am nurturing my own standards, not those of others.”
Unlike when Mari moved to China, where he had longed for a change of career, she was in a difficult state when she moved to Sweden. During the first three years, she spent many nights crying because she wanted to go back to China. Even so, Mari never blamed anyone and told herself, "I was the one who chose this path.”
"No matter which path you choose, paths will open up depending on your actions and awareness," Mari says emphatically. As a result of running with passion, looking back, many people have come to support me.
“I hope to be able to give back in many ways to those who have supported me throughout my life."
Mari says that as she gets older, she has begun to focus not only on what is in front of her but also on how to make her life more fulfilling in the future. She would like to take on the challenge of a new career.
Mari is always honest about her feelings and we wonder what kind of challenges she will take on in the future. If you have the strength to determine your own values of success and happiness, you will be able to take on any challenge in a positive manner. Together with the people of Habo, we would like to wholeheartedly support Mari's endeavours.
Thank you for reading and we are always here for you!
Women can fly.
Much love, xxx
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