Interview with Manuel R., expat spouse in Dalian

JM: Hi, Manuel.

MR: Hi, Julie.

JM: I am so happy that I get to speak to you about this China expat spouse project, and I’m very glad that you agreed to be one of my interview partners. Because you have a very different path to becoming an expat spouse in China.

MR: I guess I do. Yes.

JM: You don’t fit the classic definition of a relocating partner. So, can you tell us a little bit more about how you came to be in China? And how you came to be an expat in China?

MR: Sure. Um, let me start at the beginning. And I’m trying to keep it short, right, because obviously, I can go on for hours, if you let me. It all started when I was 17, and I was an exchange student. I was in school at 16 years old, and I did not know what to do with my life. Did I want to find a job, go to university, I had no clue. So, I decided on very short notice to be an exchange student. I enrolled in program called AFS, American field service. And I was lucky enough to be the last one admitted and so I went to America.

I spent the whole year in America with a host family in Lakeville, Minnesota. And this changed my life completely. Before I went, I was a total introvert. I kept to myself, I was a computer nerd. I was not very talkative, socially awkward even to a degree. I came back and my family, especially my mom, didn’t recognize me anymore. I was completely different. I was an extravert, I was completely americanized. So, needless to say, I had a hard time adapting into Swiss society again.

This basically laid the cornerstone for everything else that happened in my life. I think once you catch the bug of experiencing a different culture, this amazing experience changes you on a very fundamental level. I went to college, I became a librarian – that was already set in motion before I went to America – so I did that. And then I decided in 2007 that I had enough of this and wanted to go abroad again.

Okay, so I went to Scotland to work for IBM. And I had an amazing time there. And IBM, they send you all over the place, and I was no exception. So, I was able to actually travel quite a bit. I went to places like the Philippines, India, Hungary, Bulgaria, back to Scotland, lived in Switzerland for a bit. And then obviously, they also sent me to China.

And I guess that’s where this whole thing kicks in. So, in 2012, I was sent on a project to China just for a couple of weeks. And that’s when I started to have this first exposure to China, which, for me, was really foreign. I had a lot of biases, a lot of stereotypes, and I had no clue what I’m doing. And obviously, I got to get to see a little bit of China and get to know a few of the people at this project.

Then, this project ended. And my boss said: “Manuel, we don’t know what to do with you. Well, I don’t want to fire you. How about you go to China and lead a team there?”

When he offered me that job, I jumped at this opportunity. I had very few roots in Switzerland and felt I had nothing to lose. So, I packed my bags, and I went to China for what was supposed to be six months.

During those six months, I met a Chinese lady and we fell in love. It got quite serious, pretty fast. Unfortunately, IBM decided to sell the branch that I was working for, and I didn’t really want to go to the new company. So, I found myself out of a job. My girlfriend and I decided it was best for me to go back to Switzerland to what turned out to be a little bit more than a year, trying to find a job. Because, obviously, I wanted to go back to China to be able to live with my girlfriend.

JM: She is from Dalian, I believe?

MR: My then-girlfriend, now wife, is from a “small” Chinese city called Yanji, which is in Jilin Province, not far from the North Korean border. Bitterly cold in winter, and actually quite nice in summer. It’s a known and liked hiking destination with lots of beautiful forests. The proximity to Korea gives the city an interesting mix of Chinese and Korean influences – one can hear Korean spoken there quite a bit. It’s very beautiful up there. She came to Dalian for her studies and then found a job there. For the same company I worked for, actually. That’s how we met.

JM: So you were stuck back in Switzerland? Trying to find a job to be able to rejoin her in Dalian? How did that go?

MR: It was quite difficult. Because obviously, I was looking for a job in China from Switzerland. You know, finding a job in China is an extremely dynamic thing to do. I mean, I’m Swiss, I’m used to having a very organized life. Everything has compartments, everything has a process, and everybody agrees to the process, things just don’t move that quickly. China is different. If somebody wants to give you a job, or wants to offer you a job, this can happen within a day. They can call you and say to be in the office the next day, which was not possible for me. The biggest problem was actually to find interviews with companies that would have a need for a Swiss guy with a degree in library sciences. I mean, China wasn’t experiencing a shortage of librarians, and I was just what they’ve been waiting for. I obviously have experience in IT and Project Management and so forth. While I was working for IBM, I learned so many useful things. But needless to say, it was difficult. In the end, I have to thank my wife, because she did a lot of the legwork. And through a very lucky coincidence, she was actually able to find a suitable position.

She forwarded the job description to me and I said: “Well, I’ve already applied for many jobs, so, why not?” The job was in no way related to what I was doing. It was an industrial construction company that was looking for a foreign business developer who could speak German. So, obviously I ticked those boxes.

And again, lucky coincidences: The person who was printing off my CV at that company basically went to the printer, printed out the CV and the Big Boss of that company just passed this guy on the way and he said:” What have you got there?” He’s like: “Ah, there’s a CV of this guy, he’s applying for this job.” The Big Boss looked at the CV and he said: “Oh, okay, he worked for IBM. That’s a good company. Maybe we should interview him.” That was in early 2015, and I was scheduled to go to China to visit my girlfriend and spend Chinese New Year with her family. We scheduled the interview for after Chinese New Year, which worked out swimmingly.

So, I went there and I had my interview. After that things went extremely fast. I had my interview in February, then I had March back in Switzerland to prepare and pack my things. And by late April, I was already in China. I arrived on the 23rd, and I was going to start working on the 24th.

JM: That sounds about right. Welcome to China!

MR: They threw me into the deep end. They actually had a client dinner on that very first day. And they wanted me to talk to this very important client that I had no clue about. I did not even know which company he worked for. But they said: “You are the business developer, you go talk to this guy and entertain him and make sure he likes our company.” Something like that. So, that was my introduction to working for a Chinese company.

JM: Nice. So, a lot of our readers here follow a more traditional path to becoming an expat spouse. Their partner comes home and says: “Honey, for the career, the company is sending me to China. So how about coming with me?” Now for you was a little bit different, because you made the active choice that you needed to go back so that you could be with your now wife. Right? Do you think that having this very defined goal made it easier to give up your life in Switzerland?

MR: Well, if I am being brutally honest, I didn’t have much of a life back in Switzerland. I didn’t have a job and I didn’t really want to reintegrate, because I saw my future in China. I was working odd jobs to keep afloat money-wise, keep myself occupied, and not feel too lonely.

JM: Okay, so what happened when you arrived in China? What do you think being a foreigner in China or being an expat spouse or whatever we want to call you, has enabled you to do? What is something that you got to do there, which you wouldn’t have gotten to do in Switzerland?

MR: Oh, wow. That’s a very difficult question. Um, I guess I always knew that I did not fit in, that I could not really make a difference in a country as organized and settled as Switzerland. Whereas in China, I was able to find a job in a huge construction company that was doing super exciting projects for super exciting companies that I wouldn’t even have dreamt of doing when I was in Switzerland. In China, people are just extremely agile in that sense. You know, they just give you opportunities. And if you are successful, they respect that.

In Switzerland, people like certificates, they like the fact that you can show that you’ve studied this, that you have the theoretics down to a tee.

Another thing I would never have been able to experience in the same way is Chinese culture. Living in China, being around Chinese people, having Chinese coworkers, having a Chinese family, this is an experience I could have never made in Switzerland, even if I wanted to. Traveling someplace as opposed to living there is never the same. It’s really immersing yourself in the culture. And in all aspects of the culture, of course. That is something that will always stay with me, and it’s such an eye-opener. I guess it has changed me in certain ways. I have become a little bit Chinese, I guess.

JM: What would you say is Chinese about you? That was different before?

MR: The way I eat. I really prefer Chinese food now. A lot of traditional Swiss dishes that are very heavy on cream and have a lot of meat and potatoes, these types of foods don’t really agree with me anymore. I prefer Chinese cuisine. And thank God, I can cook a little bit. Not as good as my wife, obviously. But then, she likes to cook and sometimes we also cook together. And then we get to enjoy Chinese cuisine even though we’re now living in Switzerland.

JM: One more question: if someone came up to you and said: “My partner’s about to relocate to China, and I am going to be following him/her.” What would be your advice for them?

MR: Step one, have a plan. Make sure you know what you want to do in China. If you want to go along, your partner will be working a lot. Most of the time, expats have very challenging jobs, meaning they’ll be gone for sometimes 12 to 15 hours a day, you need to have a plan to keep yourself occupied. Or maybe even think about working yourself if you feel like doing that. Immerse yourself in the Chinese language, as that could knock off 10 years of your stint already, you know, learning it properly. I mean, obviously, if they’re not as smart as you Julie, I guess you’ve been learning it much quicker.

JM: I started in 2003. I had a head start.

MR: Well, I heard you speak Chinese, and you sound like a native. To me, Mandarin is the Mount Everest of languages.

But yes, I guess my advice would be: have a plan. Make sure that you have something to do while you are in China. That can be a lot of things, but don’t go there without a plan in place.

Secondly, be ready for an emotional roller coaster. Not every day is going to be hunky dory. You’ll have days, sometimes even weeks, where you’ll feel very lonely and homesick. You got to keep yourself occupied with something that gives meaning to your time in China.

JM: It’s important that you mention this, because you were obviously very enthusiastic about going. But for everyone, when you’re not in your country, there are days when you just feel like “Why is everything so hard?” Everything takes more effort. So, having a plan and being prepared for an emotional rollercoaster would be helpful?

MR: Oh, very much. One example: I can still not get my head around Chinese banks, I avoid them whenever I can, because it takes so much time to get anything done. Luckily, I was able to delegate the banking chores to my wife – bless her heart.

JM: You’re so lucky because, in my relationship, the bank stuff is my job. My husband is a Westerner, too, and I’m the one who speaks Chinese, he doesn’t. So, I’ve spent many a day trying to figure things out and get our banking business taken care of.

MR: Yeah. So that’s one aspect. I mean, there’s a ton of stuff that is a lot easier in China than back home. Ordering food (or anything else for that matter), going shopping whenever you want. In Switzerland, on Sundays, everything’s closed. And during the week, if you want to go shopping after eight, forget it. So, there are quite a lot of things in China that are much more convenient than back home. That should also be mentioned.

JM: I think I’m hearing you say to embrace the good stuff. And brace for the not so good stuff?

MR: The not so good stuff will happen anyway, if you like it or not, so might as well just focus on the positive. The good stuff is what stays with you. Now I’ve been back in Switzerland for almost one and a half years. And what I remember mostly is the good stuff: My good friends, my family there, some of the amazing trips, exciting things I was able to do at work. I did it for the experience and I guess that was part of it. So – the good stuff. Absolutely. Keep that in mind and the rest…well…don’t forget it completely. But you know, put it aside.

JM: What a beautiful note to end this interview. Thank you very much!

As a coach serving relocating partners in China, I connect with many amazing spouses who find their place, purpose, and passion in the Middle Kingdom. If you are moving to China soon to follow your partner in their expat assignment and would like some support, contact me:

-with a LinkedIn message

-on WeChat (julie_marx)

-through the Facebook page @ChinaExpatSpouse

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