Stepping out…

Ulrike von Faber, HR Marketing Manager Grenzach, reports about her time-out in China.

Deciding to spend a year in the “Land of the Rising Sun”

“Whaaat? We’re supposed to go to Shanghai for a year? Now of all times?” I thought to myself, since I had just changed jobs 6 months previously and moved from Roche Diagnostics to Roche Pharma AG in Grenzach as the HR Marketing Manager. And tearing our 15-year-old daughter, Rebecca, out of her familiar surroundings? No. We reasoned that the twelve months would pass quickly. With my husband flying home and holidays in China, we would also be able to manage it. But it turned out differently: My husband received an offer to extend his assignment after only 6 months. That made everything clear: An extension would only be possible if we again lived together as a family. That meant for my daughter and me: Off to Shanghai!

Expectations of the year’s time-out: I will try everything!

I considered long and hard as to whether I should work during my nine months in China, or not. It would have been possible, but then I decided that I would like to do something for myself for once. After 25 years at Roche, in various HR functions, reducing my working hours to a minimum would do me good. A contract in Shanghai would have taken up a large proportion of my time, since not only would the tasks change, but also the work in another structure would, initially, be very time-consuming. So I worked for Roche from the “China Home Office” for 8 hours a week and was available as a contact for my deputy. It all started in November 2014. I planned the following for myself: relaxing, travelling, learning Chinese, being there for my family – and, of course, experiencing Shanghai. My credo: “Be open to everything and try everything out.”

The adventure begins

My entry into Shanghai was special – as my husband was in Europe at the time. My daughter and I had chosen the date so that she would be able to join her new class for a 1-week tour of China. But that left me just sitting there, in a 3-room apartment on the 11th floor with a view of Century Park, our suitcases and a Buick with a driver. In our apartment hotel, everyone spoke English. But elsewhere? Even taking a taxi requires the address in Chinese characters.

View from our apartment of Century Park and the skyline - Pudong side

And then the traffic! And the noise – and the air from time to time. Besides, the Chinese have a few traits, which I could never get used to: Spitting on the street, constantly jumping the queue and the volume. When you hear the Chinese talking to one another, you could think they were arguing. It was essential for me to get in touch with other as quickly as possible. To that end, I immediately signed up for the event team of the parents’ council of the German School and became a member of the German Club Shanghai. Within a short time, a good network was created with other women and their families in similar situations. It was important, not only for joint activities, but also to share experience about more mundane topics, such as “Can anyone recommend a hairdresser?” or “Where’s the best place to buy groceries”? The biggest challenge for us as a family was the “cramped” quarters. We had a very nice apartment with a fantastic view, a completely equipped kitchen, two bathrooms – including cleaning services. But we still missed the accustomed possibility to retreat and the balcony or garden. So you don’t get the wrong impression: Roche is very generous regarding the “care” of expats and their families.

Home Office in Shanghai for Germany

I could organize my working hours flexibly. At the beginning of my stay, I worked more than 8 hours, because questions kept popping up – the actually agreed tasks would have been easy to manage in this time. At the end, I worked less, so the workload balanced in the end. During our trips, I only answered e-mails in an emergency. On the whole, I considered the “arrangement” as a “giving and taking”.

On the Roche Campus on Family Day in May 2015

The time difference was, of course, also a challenge – and on some days also the poor WLAN. The record to start up my computer was 1.5 hours (but I was able to use this time to iron my husband’s shirts …), but other than that it was no problem to stay in touch with those we left behind thanks to e-mail, FaceTime, Skype, WhatsApp, and privately also via Facebook.

School in Shanghai – learning shock or easy going?

Rebecca was our biggest surprise, in a positive way. At the time of the decision to follow my husband to Shanghai, she was angry and sad and didn’t want to be separated from her friends in Germany. But when she back from the class trip in the first school week, she was aflame with enthusiasm. The classes in the German School were small: in total only 15 students. The teachers are very dedicated and go to great lengths to support the students individually. In addition, there are also special courses the students can participate in. However, the expectations were high as was the amount of homework – after all, school didn’t let out until 3:30 pm – which also took hours on the weekends. Rebecca was picked up every morning at 7:00 am directly in front of our apartment building, taken to school by bus and brought back in the afternoon. The curriculum was based on the one in Thüringen, so our daughter was already familiar with some of the content, but the class was further advanced in math. Since Rebecca has Italian as a subject in school in Germany, we had to ensure that she wouldn’t fall behind and hired a private teacher – a genuine Roman; Rebecca’s pronunciation is now music to my ears.

Top and Flop

There were many highlights for me during the 9 months in Asia. In Shanghai, these were:

  • Drinking cappuccino with a friend on the patio of a bar on the Bund under the blue sky and shopping with my new, spirited friend for souvenirs and silk scarves until the cows come home in a Chinese department store – naturally after haggling over the prices, which we should really be ashamed of 

View of the skyline from the Bund

  • Watching retirees play games or do gymnastics in a Chinese park on nice days while reading a book
  • Visiting Painter Street and discovering new pictures to purchase again and again – our apartment was transformed into a gallery in the course of our time there
  • The Shanghai walks with a great tour guide, who provided us with an understanding of the city of Shanghai, Chinese history and art.

Plus I travelled a lot with my family, but also alone with Rebecca: Thailand, Singapore, Vietnam, Bali and Beijing were marveled at and enjoyed. So this section doesn’t become too long, only two more comments: Bali fascinated me with its nature and people and standing on the Great Wall of China was uplifting.

I’m sorry to say that when it came to “learning Chinese”, it is unrealistic to learn enough of the language in such a short time to have a conversation. My knowledge was limited to a few standard sentences and vocabulary from everyday life. I found studying difficult and sometimes frustrating. But there’s one sentence I will never forget “Duo shao qian” (How much is it?) and then quickly activating the calculator on my Smartphone ….

What I miss the most are my friends in Shanghai, not only Rebecca suffered from the pain of saying farewell. And Chinese food! Especially “burst fish”.

And a little something to the landscape, culture and way of life

For me, Shanghai is a city of opposites. Coming from the airport, ugly concrete blocks and construction sites line the streets – no matter how bad the air is – it cannot really get worse. On the other hand, there are numerous parks in Shanghai. And in only one or two hours you can be in one of the waterfront cities, which are picturesque and reminiscent of Venice. Or the Jin An Temple in the city center, surrounded by modern skyscrapers.

Yu Garden - an oasis in the middle of the city

The French Quarter with its avenues and villas next to Chinese residential areas (lilongs), which are soon to be demolished. The glittering banking area on one side of the Huangpu River and the marriage market on weekends on the other. High-priced brand boutiques in the main, animal and plant bazaars in the side streets.

Back to Germany: I have become more relaxed

In the middle of July, we returned to home to Germany. And despite all of the pain of parting – there were many things to enjoy at home: a lot more room, a garden, the cuisine of Baden, delicious wine and above all the good air. I remember my first car drive clearly (oh yes – even driving myself was an occasion) through the vineyards with the top down and loud music in my little Jeep. Wonderful! I could now work off the hours I had worked in Shanghai until the end of the school vacation in the middle of September. And this agreement was the crowning glory. In this way we were able to come home in peace and quiet.

Back in Grenzach, I had no problem getting started. Even though the team had completely changed through internal developments and maternity leave, my new/old colleagues welcomed me back with open arms. I remember, at the end of my first day, how my boss said: “You’re already back in full swing, aren’t you?” Yes – I was and I am. But compared to other time-outs, like holidays, the effects of the sabbatical months will be felt significantly longer. I’ve become more relaxed and I would do it again. South America or Scandinavia would be nice …

Tags: Career Blog, Germany