Interview with Bettina K., expat spouse in Shenyang

JM: Hi Bettina, nice to have you here. I’m really happy that you agreed to do this interview with me, because your name was one of the first ones that popped into my head when I wanted to do this project. But for those who don’t know you as well as I do, could you explain how you came to be an expat spouse in China?

BK: Hi Julie, thanks for inviting me. It’s a pleasure to be here. I came to China in 2014, when my husband had the chance to start working there. I never thought I would go to China, but with this offer, we thought of it as being a great adventure. I talked to our three kids (17, 15, and 10 at the time), and they all were 100% for it. So I, who had been a housewife for the last 17 years, never considered staying in Germany and just letting my husband go. I wanted to have the same experience he had. I think it’s important for a family to share this very interesting time. It has a huge impact on your whole life, your personality, and your family life. So, I think it’s important to do it together. And I’m obviously happy that my kids were all for this adventure, which is crucial to make the expatriation successful. My oldest one started learning Chinese and then started and successfully finished his bachelor in software engineering in Shenyang. My daughter went to the International School and finished with a high school diploma, and my youngest one visited the German school. It was not always the easiest solution, but looking back, I think none of us regretted the decision or the choices we made. 

JM: You’ve mentioned to me before that the education choices were limited?

BK: Yes, of course. Shenyang is not Beijing or Shanghai, so you don’t really have a very good education system for foreign kids that age. So, school was definitely different, and might lack in some ways, but actually, none of them really suffered any deficiencies. My daughter’s high school diploma was a challenge because no one could really tell us what to expect, or what to provide. But we managed to get it accepted as the equivalent of a German Abitur (secondary school leaving certificate) and she was accepted into a good German university. And for me, school is not just about the academics, but it is about social skills as well. And being in this international environment was a win for our daughter. Just like going to a Chinese university was a great adventure for our oldest. Afterwards he was quite happy to go back to Germany and doing the master there, because it’s a different way of studying, and he has peers it’s easier connect with. But studying in Shenyang enabled him to become fluent in Chinese, he can write it, he can read it. And I think he has probably a better view on Chinese culture because he has Chinese friends. What a great advantage for a future career that could be. So, to me, that is something he probably will benefit from for the rest of his life. Some might say a German university is better than a Chinese one, but it’s the overall context that is important in my eyes.

JM: We all know that what you study in university is not necessarily what is most useful when you start working.

BK: Yes, and I think it’s not the content, it’s the way you learn and the way you approach problems and challenges that will define your future life.

JM: I couldn’t agree more. You’ve been telling us a lot about the advantages and challenges that your kids had. What were things that you were able to do as an expat spouse in China, that you wouldn’t have been able to do elsewhere?

BK: Well, the first thing that comes to mind is that being an expat is like being on a holiday, but for a much longer time. I’ve been a stay at home mom all my kids’ life, so I could do whatever I liked anywhere. But in China, I was able to do things, I wouldn’t have dared do back home. So, I studied Chinese. That helped me do a lot, even though I was not fluent. I could shop. I could start conversations, but they were still limited. But those conversations opened up communication with the Chinese, so I got in contact with the local people better and more easily. And I just got braver at doing something which I wouldn’t have done at home because of huge expectations. This typical German thing of “Oh no, we don’t do this here.” Whereas in China, every idea I had, and I just dropped somewhere, was taken up and was suddenly possible. This is something that I love – the way the Chinese approach everything new. Especially the younger generation was so keen on learning our way of thinking and our way of putting things to life. So, this is what I loved and where I got better and braver the longer I stayed there. And it was a challenge to overcome my typical German 100% way of thinking. My punctuality, and all these German virtues. Whenever an event was coming up, I thought “Oh, this is not going to happen.” And then, two days before the event, everything is settled, and it’s perfect. It’s better than what we would do.

JM: Speaking of events: There’s one project in particular that I would love for you to share with the readers. I’m talking of course about the Fotomarathon. Can you tell us about that?

BK: The Fotomarathon is a photography competition for everybody, it’s not just for photographers. Just for all interested in photography and exploring a city. The objective is to take photos according to topics within a day. You have to be creative, try to go different ways than you normally do. It’s a day of fun with a lot of people. The Fotomarathon is a worldwide project – a lot of countries and cities have it. I love to take photos especially in cities. So this event is right up my alley and before coming to China I was part of the Berlin Fotomarathon Organisation team. This is why I thought of, you know, doing something similar in Shenyang. I realized this was a little bit tricky, but I met a Chinese lady, and together, we created the Fotomarathon Shenyang. I never expected it but already for our first event, we had 400 participants and then it grew, because the Chinese loved it. The next year we had 700. In the 3rd year, we had a thousand people in Shenyang, and we were in Xi’an and Beijing. And then the last year, our final year, we did a special one. Just for 100 people, that was our farewell event. These years have been special for me because of all the lovely feedback from the participants, namely “thanks for bringing something so meaningful to Shenyang”. And it was special for my Chinese friend, because with a team of young and enthusiastic people she was able to put such a huge event into action in her hometown, contributing to the creative scene in Shenyang.

JM: I was a volunteer obviously for two of them. And then we also did a very small version of this once you’d already left China, one more Fotomarathon. And there, I was one of the organizers as well. For me, it’s the spirit of togetherness, it’s seeing the city with a different set of eyes, through the lens. It’s about friendship and exploration and discovery. So, I’m a huge fan of the concept. But I think what you and Molly have done is nothing short of amazing, because you, by bringing the idea and making sure that the spirit of the event was kept, and her by organizing everything, getting government approval, organizing sponsors, making sure that enough people knew about it and got excited about it, raising awareness and finding volunteers. So, there were a lot of moving parts in this. And to me, it’s amazing that you did this, and the time and energy you put into it. What would you say is the most that you get out of it, what was in it for you?

BK: First of all, thank you for saying that. It means a lot because, yes, it’s a lot of work. But realizing how many people, like you, appreciated it and how you saw all the effort that went into it really means a lot. For me personally, I think where I benefited most was in how much I learned about Chinese culture. First of all, because I realized how things are done in China. And also because I met so many Chinese people and each year I was more and more able to talk to them. And learned more about their way of thinking. I see a difference between the country and its people. Some people might say: “I don’t go to China because I don’t like the politics there.” But I always thought it’s important to know something truly, before you can start criticizing it. So, for me, going there was an eye opener. And the Chinese you make friends with are so loyal to you. When you make friends, they’ll be friends for life.

JM: I’m getting chills, because I feel exactly the same. Once you are part of the group, you are taken care of. And that is something that’s very comforting. Now, you’ve already been back in your home country for quite some time. What is a piece of advice that you would give someone who is just starting out on their journey of being an expat spouse in China or who’s preparing to go to China, following their partner?

BK: My advice would be: always be open and take every opportunity. Be brave to try something new. Be aware that life is different, and just go with the flow. That makes you able to learn and experience more. If you want to stick to the things you know from home, then you will miss out on what’s available there. Starting with the food. Yes, you can get food from your home country, but you should eat more local food. The Chinese food is really good. Just try things. Travel. Learn Chinese, at least so much that you are able to be independent. That helps you be more happy, because you don’t always have to rely on someone. I personally think that helps a lot. And my advice is to be part of the expat community. Because, especially in Shenyang, that is a very diverse group. For big events, they will all come together. But for the daily life you will always find people and activities that meet your personal expectations. There are groups for art, handicrafts, language learning, playing games, going out, going to the spa together. There are always people who will come with you. And it’s not as if you relocate, you’re not going to live there for the next 20 years and you don’t have to “turn Chinese”. It’s just a certain time. And it’s important to have this little bit of home, an environment that is more familiar. Because life abroad can be demanding. It’s so foreign. And so, getting together with a group of people who can speak a language that you are familiar with makes life easier for a certain amount of time. So that, when you are by yourself again, and you go to the market and everybody stares, or you cannot find what you are looking for, you are a bit comforted.

JM: You mean having a certain balance? Being able to switch between different worlds, so that you can have your more restful environment and then be full of energy to tackle life in China?

BK: Yes exactly. Now regarding my preparations before we arrived in Shenyang, though – I didn’t prepare. I was just keen on going. To me, that attitude is the biggest step. I don’t know whether it was especially easy for me because I didn’t plan to work. But even if you want to work there. Find someone who you can talk to, with whom you can connect, before you leave your home country. The community is very open, they are very helpful, you will always find someone who knows someone who can help you. Make use of this. Getting in contact with the people who have their ear on the ground will give you so many opportunities. Actually, I would say go for the spouses to get information. They have a better network. The husbands are neck-deep in work. They’re all taken care of. But the ladies have a huge network, and they are very active.

JM: I would have to agree, I’ve experienced this firsthand.

BK: So, yes, connect with people who are familiar to you but at the same time stay open and gather your energy so that you can experience this country to the fullest. And one more thing, even though you might have been 100% for going to China, there might be days you are down and you don’t like it. And that is okay, too. Again, the other spouses experience the same and it is helpful to talk about it.

JM: I love this piece of advice. Thank you very much for being here today and for sharing your experiences. Thank you.

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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