BIRGIT & AONGHUS, Shanghai, China

Birgit and Aonghus, can you tell us something about you ?

A: The story of how we met is definitely worth telling. I was 25 years old and travelling around South East Asia with my best friend. Darren had played pool with Birgit the night before and introduced us when we bumped into each other at a bus stop on the way out of Da Lat in the Vietnamese central highlands. Birgit was travelling solo through the region and we made casual plans to meet at a bar in Na Trang at 8pm on a given day, and so we did. I had already committed to go on a beach trip with another friend the following day. By sheer luck, that girl felt unwell, so it is Birgit that jumped on the back of my moped instead. That was what I call the beginning of the intrigue. I had never met someone like Birgit before, she was so different, from the way she looks, to the way she thinks and her world view.

B: Aonghus was on his way to Australia for a one year work visa, and Australia was one of short leg of my round-the-world trip. I had planned to stay 3 weeks, and ended staying 7 years - got married, bought a house, had a kid and we all became Australian citizens in the process.

A: We then moved to Basel, Switzerland for work and to get closer to family, so our son could spend time with his grandparents. The transition from a Sydney summer to a cold Germanic Swiss winter was a real shock.  We quickly made a decision to move across the border to Colmar in France, where we felt much more at home, no least thanks to the language. Australia had felt very familiar to me, but I had a real culture shock living in France, when Birgit had been on the opposite journey. I made a point of learning French quickly to integrate.  We then moved to a small rural village closer to the border, Even though it looked just like a postcard Alsace village, the proximity to the border and to Basel made it really international, the home of many bi-cultural families. From school drop off, where you could hear a dozen different languages spoken at the village school gates, to our bicycle journey into work across the border, our experience felt quite surreal yet very comfortable, with a great quality of life.

So what made you decide to up sticks and move to Shanghai ?

B: We both have had a lifelong love affair with Asia, which mirrored our own. I was not so happy with my job at the time and applied on a whim for a job in China, without even discussing with Aonghus. Against all my expectations, I was offered the job, which ended up not materialising, Aonghus had negotiated his transfer to Shanghai through his own job, and suddenly we were moving to China with our son and our cat! Shanghai surprised us. We had a romantic and somewhat old-fashioned view of China and found a super modern city instead. We have been here almost 3 years now and are in the process of moving back to Basel in the coming weeks,

A: It has been such an amazing experience living here. I will never look at China the same way again, you just realise the sheer might, speed and creativity of this country, in a few way you cannot comprehend from the outside.

Can you share with me more about your upbringing and childhood, what are some of the steps that have lead you to where you are today ?

B: It has been a personal journey for me, as I have realised how much I was influenced by Asian culture. My grandparents are Vietnamese and came to France in the late 1950s with their 8 (soon 10) grandchildren. My mother was their youngest. I did not know who my father was for a long time. I never knew I was half Portuguese until I was 18 and went to Portugal on holidays with a friend, and felt a weird connection. This prompted me to ask about my dad and that's when I found out. I was raised by my grandparents until I was 5 in a very Vietnamese culture. We spoke Vietnamese at home, celebrated all the Buddhist ceremonies, I still have memories of my grandmother cooking the traditional way, sitting on a tiny stool just off the floor in the kitchen, The focus was very much on hard work and deference to the elders. So when I landed in China (which is culturally closer to Vietnam than the South East Asia I knew), i realised just how much these formative years have left an imprint on me. Somehow, it is much easier for me to decode behaviours and attitudes here than for Aonghus, who comes from a traditional Irish background. I just seem to get the Chinese.

A: What Birgit does not say, and what i find amazing, is just how close she is as well to her Portuguese father. Although they only met into adulthood, they share the same traits - both are dreamers, travellers, entrepreneurs. Today Fernando is retired and travelling the world in a kombi van with his wife. They have just bought a piece of land in Chile and are planning to build chalets. So underlying blood ties have left a deep imprint too.

B: I still did not start travelling until much later. I grew up in a modest environment, and travelling seemed the prerogative of the elites. It is a chance encounter with a girl at a party who had just come back from India that made me realise that travelling was attainable, that by simply sub-letting your apartment and saving a bit of money, you could travel for less than my day-to-day cost of living in Paris. That was a revelation to me, to think of the utter chance we have as a generation to do this, when costs would have been prohibitive for our parents, and travel as mere dream without grounding.

What about you, Aonghus,, any pivotal moment that shaped your identity ?

A: I am the complete opposite, My dad can trace our family roots back multiple generations to a village not far from where I grew up in Ireland, in County Laois. However, he married a lady from County Kerry and that made the local newspaper news at the time ! Local culture was super strong in my upbringing. I went to the US for a summer job when I was 21 years old, which is a rite of passage for Irish students, but I decided to do something a little different and went, far away from the Irish contingent, to Colorado and travelled extensively around the American West. That gave me a sense of how big the world is, and that was the spark that made me decide to travel. I haven't really stopped travelling ever since, and specially since I met Birgit.  We have travelled extensively around Australia, China and back to South East Asia. Japan has been a real revelation, we have been 4 times in total and every time has been an eye opener, because it is just so different from anywhere else we have experienced.

 What is your parenting philosophy and what is the impact of a multicultural environment ?

A: I am quite conscious of making sure that our son Marvin has a connection to his Irish roots and we are considering whether to get a holiday home in Ireland, now that we are moving back to Europe for a while. The only thing we have been strong on is to maintain two languages at home, Specially when we lived in France, I really ensured I spoke English with him to help nurture his identity.

B: We see our son growing up with a deep awareness of his surroundings, and a very relative, rather than absolute, world view. His most common answer is 'It depends". We have a taken a lot of care to not impose beliefs on him, but rather to help him find his own answers. Marvin has travelled extensively with us and actually got his own backpack recently, now that he is 7 and a half. It is going to be fascinating to see him grow up, he has a strong sense that the world is his oyster. We just tell him we will follow him wherever he goes and decides to settle !

Thanks Birgit and Aonghus for sharing your stories so openly.

Birgit is a career and life coach, specialised in expatriation. You can find her work here (In French)