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China… Much of what we know about this country comes from hearsay, the Internet and other media. A lot of this knowledge is based on facts, some of it probably consists of clichés, and some of it originates in the teller’s fantasy. I lived and worked in China for seven years.
The right moment for a hamster
At certain points in your life, you might be stuck in a daily grind in your professional and/or private life. Everything has turned into a routine. You look at your hamster running around on his exercise wheel and you think, “Buddy, it’s the same for me.” That’s the situation I was in at the end of 2010. I had the feeling I had to change something basic in my life! Imagine standing at the edge of a cliff and knowing that you have to jump into the cold water, you’re going to jump, and above all, you want to jump. The only thing that’s stopping you at that point is the need to wait for the right moment!
One day as I was browsing through a list of job openings, I noticed something unusual: BBAC. Who or what is BBAC? Back then, my Nokia 6210 cell phone couldn’t “Google,” but my computer could. BBAC stands for Beijing Benz Automotive Company. It’s a joint venture between Daimler and BAIC, which stands for Beijing Automotive Industry Company.
Application for the restart at Daimler in China
Well, the job offer was written in English. And as a passionate Harry Potter fan (no, I’m not embarrassed), I had always read the original versions in English. I had also made a couple of business trips to Tuscaloosa. So theoretically I knew a bit of English.
At that time, I didn’t think I really matched the job requirements 100 percent, but I didn’t care! That was the moment that gave me the impulse to jump into the cold water! Job application — check! Job interview — check! Job offer — check!
On your mark, get set, go! Leaving my country, family, and friends behind
I packed my things and flew to China. On November 30, 2011 my new Chinese team leader and another colleague from my new team met me at the airport in Beijing. My team colleague, whose name transliterated into English is Ted, will be mentioned again later on in my story. Because my children’s school situation, I spent the first two years in Beijing alone. After that, my family was able to join me.
Every beginning is difficult. My team consisted of a Chinese team leader, 20 Chinese colleagues, and me. I was the only German in the team. But my initial worries were completely unjustified. The other members of my team were friendly, polite, and respectful. One of my colleagues had translated my name, Ibrahim, into Chinese: Yi bu la xin, pronounced “i boo la shin.”
Over the years, my Chinese colleagues would call me Yi bu la xin (if they didn’t know me very well), Yi bu (if they were friends, the way people shorten Michael into Mike), Yi gong (Engineer Yi, after I had been accepted) and after five years, Lao Yi (wise Yi, a well-integrated member of the team). That’s the highest level of recognition you can reach with your colleagues.
I got along well with Ted from the very start. He became my mentor and my best friend. Our friendship became so close that he asked me to be the best man at his wedding and also the godfather of his daughter Eva. For a foreigner, this is the ultimate gesture of friendship.
The best or nothing — Working at Daimler in China
You don’t have to be a German in order to build a Mercedes-Benz. A typical workday in China is different from its counterpart in Germany. But as soon as you decide to go with the flow, it becomes much easier to get used to the new situation. Going with the flow also means understanding the processes and customs of your new workplace. I’ve concluded that if people are adaptable and they want to have a good cooperative atmosphere, they can work together to produce perfect vehicles.
At BBAC I was employed in the development department (BBAC R&D). My job was only partly similar to the traditional development activities we’re familiar with at the Sindelfingen plant, for example. My work was more like that of a development liaison office with many additional functions. My tasks included change management, coordination with sister plants all over the world, the coordination of constructive changes, cause analysis regarding problems in the production process, process and complaint audits at suppliers (in China), start-up support, and much more. In my daily work the focus was always on cars and people.
I have to confess that my perspective and my sensitivity to the meanings conveyed by body language (nonverbal communication) changed over the years. In Germany it’s helpful and advantageous to be able to perceive and understand the signals sent by a person’s body language. By contrast, in Asia (not only in China) this ability is a basic requirement for good and successful cooperation, in private as well as professional life.
Craving for asian food
Did you know that there are about 900 different kinds of tofu in China? Welcome to the club! I didn’t know that either. Ever since returning to Germany, I’ve been missing Chinese food more and more.
The population of China consists of many different ethnic groups, and if you multiply that by 5,000 years of history, you arrive at an almost endlessly diverse cuisine. The Chinese restaurants I know here in the Böblingen district can’t measure up to even the noodle soup you can buy as street food on a sidewalk in China. If anyone knows a good and authentic Chinese restaurant in the area, I’ll be grateful if you send me the address.
A newcomer in the ant colony? It’s all a question of adaptation
People everywhere — the city is just huge! The official population of Beijing is approximately 21 million. In daily life, on escalators, on sidewalks — everywhere you go, there are bustling, teeming crowds. It takes a while to get used to that. After some time, I started to move the same way and swim along with the human current. It’s all a question of adaptation.
The most important parts of my blog post are actually the tourist attractions and vacation options (see the photos). Please excuse me for writing about so many random details.
One thing I did often was to hop on my bike and ride away from the city center of Beijing without using a map, or into the hutongs (the residential districts in which the old one-story houses are concentrated). The city is more diverse, and has more extreme contrasts, than any other city I know. Never before had I seen so many contrasts in one place. On the one hand, you seem to see a Bentley, Rolls-Royce or Jaguar on practically every corner, and on the other you can see extremely old men wielding shovels on construction sites.
On the weekends I made lots of short trips to various places in China via plane, train, car, and bus. The beauty of China is indescribably varied and breathtaking. This gigantic country offers you everything you can imagine, from cold Siberian landscapes to tropical rain forests, and from barren deserts to endless forests similar to Germany’s Black Forest region. Incidentally, I grew up in the town known as “the pearl of the Black Forest.” Greetings to my readers from the beautiful town of Altensteig!
These seven years in China were the best and most beautiful experience of my whole life. As I look back, I’m glad and grateful that my company enabled my family and me to have this change of perspective and these wonderful experiences.
My family and I remember this lovely time very often, and we miss specific things we loved about China.