< SWITCH ME >

After seven years studying and working in Europe, Carmen Zech thought of herself as a European. Then she got the chance to move to China, together with her German husband. It was a huge change, and three months on, she still often feels as if she's moved to a different planet.

carmen_beer
Photo: Carmen Zech (all rights reserved)
Every now and then, Carmen drinks a nostalgic glass of German beer. 

Ten hours. What difference can ten hours make?

Ten hours on the plane meant a new life for me; goodbye Europe and hello (again?!) Asia: after seven years of living in Europe, out of which I spent a year and a half as an editor of E&M, I thought I was a European.

I lived in Berlin, one of the most diverse European cities in the world. I spoke English to my husband, who is actually German; I spoke German to my Polish neighbour although both of us were struggling to find the perfect words at times, and the only way to communicate with the local Brazilian beautician was Spanish. Yet I did feel joyful when I could speak Cantonese with restaurant owners.

"When can you move to Beijing?" my then-future boss said.

Bei-what?

Okay, okay. I was born Chinese. My family still lives in Hong Kong, where I spent the first 17 years of my life. But seven years ago, I made a choice to leave for Europe, a place where I wasn't born, but which I chose to call home. At the beginning, I missed the Asian colourfulness, the noise and the amazing food (Wales was the first place where I lived in Europe, so you can't blame me. Apologies to all the Welsh readers out there!) And I screamed: never again Europe.

But after seven years, while Asia is the place where my family is and where my childhood memories are, Europe has become the place where my best friends live, where I built my new family and where my professional career was supposed to start.

But Beijing?! I am always a bit fascinated by China: a place where "my people" are. Due to historical reasons and Hong Kong's colonial history, we are like siblings who lost each other at birth. On top of that, my job description also looks absolutely amazing and challenging, so YES I said and then I found myself packing again, flying to the North Capital three months ago.

People in Beijing look like me, but in so many ways they can tell I am not one of them.

And man, was I shocked! Beijing is different; it's nothing like what I have experienced before. It is nothing like Hong Kong and seems to exist in a different galaxy than Europe. It's loud; everything is kind of smoggy and the food is spicy!

People in Beijing look like me, but in so many ways they can tell I am not one of them. The vibe here is familiar yet so distant. From the way I talk (yelling is a must here on many occasions, which wasn't seen as the nicest thing even in Berlin!), the way I dress and the way I work, I am an alien to my colleagues and newly made friends even though we speak the same language and eat the same food. I enjoy being the alien; I bargain hard but I am also proud of the difference in my accent. I am not trying to assimilate because I want to be here to observe and soak up how Chinese people live their lives; there is a lot that Europeans can learn. Yet at times, my husband and I find ourselves yearning for a cup of good coffee; a well-made pizza and, of course, give us some German beer to stay sane! I remember once we sat in a German brewery in Beijing, and we almost cried when the entrée came: it was Leberwurst, or liverwurst, on bread!

beijing
Photo: Carmen Zech (all rights reserved)
Christmas comes to Beijing.

A few days ago, Beijing was hit by the first snow; everything was covered in white and for a split second, when I looked outside of my windows, I thought I was back in Europe as Christmas songs were played in the neighbourhood. The only difference is that "Christ" and "Christmas" were left out of the lyrics and instead of "we wish you a Merry Christmas", it is already "we wish you a happy new year!"

In Beijing there are a lot of Hutongs, where European expats create a European-style haven for those who are suffering from homesickness. Although I insist on living as locally as possible, these small cafes in the courtyards, where my expat friends from all across Europe gather to joke bilingually and discuss European politics, bring me a bit closer to Europe.

One of my favourite places in Beijing is an Italian restaurant called "La Pizza" in the Soho district of Beijing called Sanlitun. Whenever we go there for a Friday night pizza feast, we feel like we are in Europe again. We often hear German, British and Italian families joking about their lives, sports and politics. The atmosphere is relaxing and once we get to start a conversation, we almost immediately create this "European bond."

I love my life here, and especially my job: I'm working at a start-up called PaiShouBa, means Let's Clap in Chinese, that has created a mobile app to provide a legal entertainment content downloading platform in China. It is the only legal platform in the Middle Kingdom that sells Western music - can you believe it? Respect for creative property has not been high in the past, but it's changing. The younger generation have started to search for their purpose in life and begun to say no to many of the bad habits the country has picked up. It's a great opportunity to be witnessing this first hand. My colleagues are all local Chinese people but the working atmosphere is very European. We all gather for a morning coffee before the weekly meeting in our kitchen, and we just had our office Christmas party last week. Instead of a Christmas tree and mulled wine, we went for spicy YunNan food and Karaoke!

The more time I spend "back" in China, the more I learn about how European I am.

The more time I spend "back" in China, the more I learn about how European I am. Maybe that's the price to pay for being an international traveller: you always feel like there's another "home" you will go back to and you can never settle for long.

More often than not, I think to myself: I miss Europe!

The good thing is though, I know I will always go back to Europe. And if no immigration rules change, Europe might still be opening its arms to me in the near future.

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