Christina and I haven’t had the smoothest of relationships, her relentless positivity and optimism not meshing with my sardonic, reclusive personality. But when I think of Christina, I always remind myself how much respect I have for her willingness to give so much, yet ask for so little.
I recently sat down with Christina on a Monday evening, during a one hour block we always share but never spend together. She isn’t caressing the mug of coffee she usually does, the one that gives her the required jolt to get through the rest of the night. The air circulating above our heads can’t decide which season it is, so I’m a bit chilly as I sit down with a woman I’m admittedly a bit intimidated by because of how well traveled she is. Born to Irish and Chinese parents, she has been to many places, many of which I will likely never visit.
“How did they meet?” I ask of her parents, finding the genetic combination of Ireland and China to be quite fascinating.
“I like this story,” she begins, a glow radiating as she prepares to give insight. “My mom did management in one the very few places that took foreigners at the time,” highlighting a period in China that was not as advanced as it is now. “My dad would have been working in China for 2 or 3 years before meeting her.”
“She was management. That’s why she was able to speak a little bit of English. And I think it was a case of my dad’s friend was hitting on my mom’s friend and they were all out at this bar,” describing a time in her parent’s lives that eventually led to marriage and the building of a family.
Earlier this month Christina visited her native homeland of Ireland to catch up with people she has been out of touch with as she spends some of her formative years in China.
“It was really good. I had twelve days off,” she says, the vacation still not long enough to give all her stops an appropriate amount of her attention. “It’s been a year since I was in the U.K. I wanted to see everyone. I had family in Copenhagen, so I went to see them and ended up running around a bit more than I expected.”
Christina’s background is unique because despite having family halfway across the world, she actually grew up right here in Beijing.
“We lived in Guangzhou, which is down south ’til I was about three and then we moved here. I grew up in the same house. I’m still in the same house,” she says with a laugh, noting the tight bond she still shares with her parents.
“Then for university when I was eighteen I went to England, the University of Exeter,” a school located in the southern part of England. “If you ask a lot of people from the U.K. they always say that’s where their grandma lives. So it’s a very peaceful, beautiful place.”
“I think it was always expected,” she says of her decision to go to university in England and forgo an education in a Chinese university. “Partially because of costs because if I went to America it would be just too expensive. I think it was also to touch base with that side of my heritage. Growing up here we have a rudimentary and sweeping impression of the British side of our family. I was able to build a better relationship with my family there.”
There were also more pragmatic reasons for her decision. “England has a good reputation for education, also to get on the tax program for pension reasons. It was meant to be a very productive choice but I somewhat regret it because the tuition fees rose and now I’m paying the price, literally,” acknowledging a reality so many people face.
“While I was there I realized that mainland Europe has reputable and challenging enough universities which I could have gone to. But actually it was my degree program because I did a flexible, combined honors so I was able to major in three faculties, and not a lot of universities were flexible enough for that.”
It speaks to the dedication Christina has that she chose three different programs of study. Many students don’t use their time at university as productively as they can, seeing it more as an obstacle in life than the huge opportunity for growth that it is. Christina’s dosage of economics, art history, and focus on Mandarin and Turkish gives her a wide view of how the world works, the three of them not directly tied together.
Many people often ask how a major directly translates to gainful employment. It’s a fair question, but one that also needs to be contextualized through a broader lens. Not everyone goes to university to transition into the real world. Some people take it as an opportunity to devote a few years to finding out their true passions.
Christina is not currently in the finance industry, a reality the stereotypical annoying uncle might harp on at the next family event, not that Christina has an annoying uncle. But she did take her knowledge of the Turkish language and spent a year in Istanbul, a city with 15 million people that straddles parts of both Europe and Asia.
“No one really spoke English, which was good. And of course there are no Chinese people,” reflecting on a reality that forced her to immediately refine her skills in the language. “I can drink with a Turkish person,” her self-assessment of just how adept she is.
I often dream of what my life would be like if I were a capable Chinese speaker. I certainly would have saved some money while buying bedspread and renting an apartment, but I imagine there is something more. Part of me thinks interacting with Chinese people everyday would be a great experience, that by not I’m missing out on a whole other experience that can’t be found in a nightclub or on Tinder.
“As a foreigner, I think there are situations where if you play your cards right, it sounds terrible, but you get away with some stuff. Sometimes you meet police or they’re asking you a question. Just to avoid any issues on my part I might play dumb, fully knowing what they want from me. I just kind of get away with stuff,” she says transparently. “Different things, like bargaining. You don’t get to bargain that much anymore, but before bargaining you hear them talk amongst themselves, between the shop managers, and then you can place your bets on what they say and try and get a cheaper price,” a tactic that would help save some of us a lot of money in stores that don’t have predetermined prices or when dealing with street vendors.
Christina says that another benefit of knowing Mandarin is being able to see things from the perspective of the PAs, a part of our team that often gets overlooked. “I think we’ve all been in those positions where something is too complicated to translate, so you just gloss over it. It’s really nice to hear how PAs get through their day and how they rationalize their side of the job. It’s nice because we both have objectives and sometimes they’re not the same,” which is inevitable when there are two groups of people trying to make money and get through their day, albeit under different pretenses.
“It’s really interesting to see how they see our jobs,” and I have one of those fleeting moments where I realize there are two sides to every story. “It’s so much about communication. It’s how they can justify our actions, for better and for worse. Maybe we’re trying something different in class, it wouldn’t always meld well with them. For example, there was one time where I did the iPad test,” much to the chagrin of her PA, who preferred to have paper copies. And then Christina goes on to explain the moment where she and her PA went through the process of explaining each other’s respective actions, and being able to come out of it with a better understanding.
It’s another reminder that we are all in this together. And this extends beyond the office. Everyone has people they lean on for support. And with that camaraderie comes moments of contention, opportunities where you discover who someone really is, and if you can persevere through turbulence.
I was checking the exchange rates between USD and RMB one morning when suddenly an older gentleman walked into the office. I didn’t know who he was until I saw a beaming Christina right behind him, and then she made the rounds of introducing him to various impactful people in her professional life.
“How are you doing, sir?” the sagacious Tom said with a smile usually reserved for Christina. At one point Beth got out of the chair situated next to me and gave him a big hug. It was clear that people invested in Christina had a deep appreciation for the man who was so influential in her life.
When she was fifteen, Christina traveled to Africa to meet up with her father, who at the time was going through what she termed a “half mid-life crisis” after the company he worked for dissolved. Together they would climb Mount Kilimanjaro.
“I don’t think I really knew what I was up against,” she recalls of a time ten years ago. “You get up there. You’re dealing with so much altitude. You’re dealing with the fact that everyone’s like you’re really young, you don’t know your body. My dad was very aware of altitude because he’s been in the Andes, so he knew the signs to look out for.”
A lot of concern came from other people who assumed she was too young to be climbing, constantly checking on her state of health. “I think I’m fine. I don’t know,” she remembers telling people, instead more focused on embracing such a meaningful experience with her father.
“The day of the summit was really tough because there were glaciers and it’s really steep. They get you up at two in the morning,” she says of the guides. “It’s dark and it’s pitch black when you hike up there. They don’t want you to see how steep it is, and they want you to get up for sunrise. You have your head torch and your water is frozen solid.”
I’m taken back to a moment of my own, during spring break 2015 when a friend and I were riding our bikes from the northern United States into Canada. We stopped at one point, me gasping for air and hydration. When I reached down for a swig, I too encountered the problem of frozen water. It struck fear into my whole body, and I’m imagining Christina’s feelings as she recounts her experience.
“You have to smash it against the rock and then start sipping the chips. All you saw the other side down was really freaked out people,” she says of a group that wasn’t embracing the adversity with arms as open as hers. “Eventually I got up there, saw the sunrise, just trekking through snow. I realized I wasn’t even lifting my feet I was so fatigued. That’s where I realized determination is something I can do quite well.”
Determination, coupled with humor and an open mind, can be a powerful tool. “Istanbul would have been the time I was putting myself out of my comfort zone. A really good friend of mine, from Beijing actually, finished her year in the army and so she was just getting on her feet. We drove all around Israel for close to two weeks. Israel’s not a big country, so two weeks driving around and you’d see the whole thing.”
“It’s really interesting now when you think of national security,” she notes when we broach what’s special about Turkey. “They felt safe with so much military presence. That made me feel like something was wrong.”
In that way, China and Israel are not alike. China is a very safe place to live, something Christina was quick to mention. Here, most police don’t carry firearms and people don’t walk around with holsters strapped to their belts. It’s a far cry from where I grew up, gun control currently a divisive topic. Yet even with her safety never threatened, Christina is torn on China.
“It will always be a part of me. I could get stuck here very easily because it’s everything I know. But the way I was brought up in the expat community, a lot of my friends were diplomats and people relocating into China, and my dad obviously left his home, and my mom left her home to be in a completely new home, so I don’t think it ever occurred to me that people seem to stay in the same place. When I went back to Ireland when I was older I realized that people are here for generations as opposed to thirty years,” a shock to someone whose parents were willing to leave what they knew in search of something different. “That was something I remember learning as I grew up, that it’s okay to stay in the same country because for a while I assumed I had to find a new home.”
If you didn’t stay in China, then you’d have to go somewhere, and when that contract inevitably comes to an end, a decision needs to be made. I dream of living in Italy one day, perhaps when I’m retired and my belly hangs out of my shirt, and I can coast to the finish line. For Christina, it’s not the same.
“I really like being in a developing country. I like that a lot of stuff is changing. Belfast and London is exciting, but they’ve done their growing. A lot of stuff was changing in Turkey. And China is all about change. If Rio has a huge growth spurt, I’ll go there,” referring to the bustling city in Brazil.
Once you arrive at your ideal destination, you’ll have to enlist in a vocation. “Helping the less fortunate, so that’s why I do want to be a teacher.” She wants to be part of an NGO (non-government organization), living an altruistic type of life where she gets paid to give back and help the world.
“Recently I’ve been reading a lot about agriculture. The majority of the world’s poor are farmers, so if you make the agriculture industry in developing countries more efficient, then people will get stable,” and as I close with Christina I wonder if her and stability will ever be synonymous. I wouldn’t be shocked if I heard that she never settled down, instead moving from place to place and positively impacting mass amounts of people, an accomplishment her father would surely appreciate.
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