Mosaic of China Season 03 Episode 04 — The Barre Star (Siri NORDHEJM, Z&B Fitness and MYbarre Fitness)
What is it about fitness establishments that gets you coming back? That's the point of today's episode with Siri Nordhejm, Co-Founder of Z&B Fitness and MYbarre Fitness.
SN: I mean, I've definitely seen people lift weights, where they're not lifting weights.
OF: Welcome to Mosaic of China, a podcast about people who are making their mark in China. I’m your host, Oscar Fuchs.
So today’s episode is about fitness. And if you’re like me and you’re the kind of person whose first instinct when walking up to the reception area of a gym or a fitness studio is to turn around and walk away again, then please don’t do so now. I promise that today’s show will be fun both for fitness freaks and couch potatoes alike.
My guest today is Siri Nordhejm - or ‘Siri Nordhejm’ if I’m pronouncing it correctly - from Z&B Fitness and MyBarre Fitness. I mention that right up front in the intro for two reasons. Firstly to apologise that I’m saying ‘Zed’ & B, because it does sound better as ‘Zee’ & B, but as a Brit I just can’t say it that way. And secondly, to let you know that there’s a big announcement about Siri and her status at Z&B, so please listen out for that at the end of today’s episode.
You will also hear, there is a part of the recording near the beginning of the interview where we switch from audio to video. So as ever, check out the YouTube version of the show if you want to see the videos and graphics that I’ve included alongside the audio, and you also have the option there to switch on the captions to follow along with the conversation.
I’m going to end the intro here. We have a slightly longer episode today, because there’s not one but two catch-up recordings from previous guests at the end of today’s show. So let’s get started. (And 1, and 2, and 1 and 2…)
OF: Hello Siri.
OF: I always feel self-conscious when I say “Hello” to you. Because the obvious thing is, you have a name which has now been usurped by a certain artificial intelligence programme, which is something which you must hear all the time.
SN: All the time.
OF: I’m gonna say “Hey,” and then I'm gonna just say something in between, and then I'm gonna say “Siri.” Because if I say it in one phrase, then people who are listening, their phones are gonna react, aren't they?
SN: Exactly. I had to turn it off on my phone, for that exact reason.
SN: Yes. I mean, I have heard so many jokes about my name, it’s insane. But it's funny because when I was growing up, nobody knew my name. Like, nobody has this name in Denmark. There’s another one which is ‘Sigrid’…
SN: … Which is similar: S I G R I D. So whenever I would say “My name is Siri,” people would go like “What?” Like, “Say it again? What? What's your name?” They didn't get it, right. I always had to spell it, even though its so simple. So growing up, I was always like “Mom, why didn't you just name me ‘Katherine’ or ‘Anna’ or something everybody knows”? I was so annoyed. And then once I got older, I was actually appreciating having a special name. And then one day my uncle sent me an article, he was like “Siri, you're going to be famous. Your name has been taken over by Apple". And I was like “What?”
OF: How funny.
SN: So yeah, it's quite funny.
OF: Do you judge people if they make a joke about it too early?
SN: Well, everybody makes a joke about it right away.
OF: Yeah! See… OK, this is where I can actually empathise with you. Because I've got a strange name, right? ‘Oscar’ for a start…
OF: It’s the same story, my family just picked up ‘Oscar’. And in the UK, no-one was called ‘Oscar’.
OF: And then I've got a stupid last name, ‘Fuchs’ which is very similar to a swear word in English.
OF: And then I kind of owned it. But yours has sort of been taken away from you now. You can't really own it in the same way, because now it has this other meaning.
SN: Yeah. No but most people, they always go like “Really?” And they are so confused. And they don't believe it. And some Chinese people are like “You chose it?” I’m like “No, I did not!” OF: Right, because here they choose their English names.
SN: Exactly. Some people have even asked if I've become a millionaire. “Have they paid you?”
OF: You should’ve trademarked it before they did.
SN: I know.
OF: Oh man. Well, I had to get that out of the way. Because I am sure it's the least original thing that anyone's asked you. This is just for the benefit of the listeners, because they would be kicking me if I didn't ask you.
OF: Well, what is it that you do here in China?
SN: I am a fitness instructor. I co-founded Z&B Fitness and MYbarre Fitness. So I teach and work out for a living.
OF: Very succinct, I always appreciate that. And what object did you bring that in some way represents your life?
SN: It's in my bag, I’ll get it for you.
OF: OK. Here we go.
SN: Are you ready? 1, 2, 3…
OF: Are those socks?
SN: They are grip socks.
OF: Grip socks.
SN: I use them for my class every single day.
OF: OK, explain.
SN: I actually produced them myself. So I went to the factory to find the perfect grip, and the size and everything. So basically, I have worn similar socks for the last ten years. Because I teach barre classes, so I wear grip socks in my class.
OF: And everyone has to wear these socks in the class?
SN: No. We recommend it, but you can do my class barefoot.
SN: But I always wear grip socks. It's like a part of my outfit.
OF: Absolutely. And it just so happens that they're on sale there at the studio, no doubt.
SN: For sure.
OF: Well, you've already said a word that I'm not entirely sure of the meaning. You said it was in what class?
SN: Barre: B A R R E. Not the drinking bar, but like a ballet barre.
OF: Oh like the ballet barre.
SN: Yeah, yeah, like the ballet barre. We use that in class, right. So we hold on to it, and then we do all our pliés and second position. The difference is that it's not a ballet class. It's more like a fitness cardio kind of class. We start with a warm-up for about five minutes. And we move on to upper body - where we use some small dumbbells to get sculpted and toned arms - for ten minutes. And then we move on to the barre for all the ballet movements. But we also do squats and lunges and stuff like that. And then we finish on the floor with push-ups, and planks, and core, and a nice stretch at the end.
OF: I’m tempted to ask you to show me. So why don't you take off your headphones.
SN: Oh yeah.
OF: And why don’t you hold on to that as your barre.
SN: So you can you can go from second to first. Like these movements. Or you can have second up to a passé. Or second position, hold it here. We do relevés, where we lift. And we also do squat movements, which we also do with dumbbells, like these movements. And we do lunges. All kinds of movements.
OF: Very nice.
SN: No problem. Well, from what I could see, a ballet person would look at that and go “Hang on, hang on. She's not pointing her feet, she’s doing it all wrong”. Like, surely you must get that kind of feedback.
SN: Actually, not really.
SN: Like, the people who have ballet experience, as an adult they love to come to this class. Because they remind themselves of when they were young, like a little child, dancing ballet. And now it's like you want a different meaning with your body, and a different meaning with your workout, right?
SN: So yeah, there are people who want to do classical ballet, but that's a different workout. Our workout focuses on toning your body, giving you cardio, a sweat. Like, you can burn, I would say, an average of between 400-600 calories in one hour.
OF: Well that might be why you look like you look, if you're doing that every day. How many classes do you do every day?
SN: In a week I do about 10-12.
SN: It’s OK.
OF: Yeah. How did you get into it? Like, were you a ballet dancer originally?
SN: But I have a lot of dancing experience. So I'm just easy to adapt to a different style. And I have a lot of fitness background. I've always been super active growing up. My background is actually, I was a merchandiser when I was in Denmark. So I came to Shanghai as a merchandiser. And then I wanted to work out, right? I’d always been working out in Denmark, and I’d always been staying active. So I joined a gym at that time. It was called California Fitness.
OF: Oh yes, I know it well.
SN: Do you remember it?
OF: Well I was in Singapore probably, at the time that you're talking about. And they were also in Singapore.
SN: Yes, exactly.
OF: And they were in Hong Kong as well, right?
SN: Yeah. So it happened that that instructor was saying to me “Hey you're a good dancer, you should join me, you should dance Zumba on the stage”. And I was like “No I'm fine. I just want to be one of the students”.
SN: And he spent about a month to convince me, and finally I was like “OK sure, let’s give it a chance”. So I started to practice and learn the choreography. I flew to Hong Kong to do the training.
OF: This is in Zumba, you said.
SN: In Zumba. Yeah, I started with Zumba. That was 2011.
OF: Zumba itself is a dance-based exercise programme, right?
SN: Exactly. It's like salsa, reggaeton, like Latin dance but with fitness. So I was in Hong Kong, I would say June 2011. And I did my training, I came back, and I started to teach classes. Just like…
OF: This was still as a hobby, right?
OF: You still got your merchandiser job.
SN: Yeah, yeah. But then one day in July, I came into the office to find an email that the company that I was working for had gone bankrupt. They were being bought by another company. But in the meantime, we couldn't work. We didn't know how long it was gonna take. So at that moment, I was just like “Hey, I'm available! I want to teach more, let's do this”. So we founded Z&B that summer, and we just started to teach a lot more classes.
OF: When you say “We,” who do you mean?
SN: So, my partner. We both still had our main jobs, right? So we just started this on the side. We went from four classes a week to - like, two weeks later - it was ten, to - one month later - it was 15. Like, it just expanded, right? Because also at that moment, fitness in Shanghai, there was nobody speaking English, there was not a lot of Zumba, there were not a lot of options, right. So quickly, we had so many foreigners. They just talk among themselves very fast. And then boom!
OF: This sounds so familiar to me, because we had - in the first season - Vy Vu, who was one of the founders of FitFam...
SN: Oh yeah.
OF: …Talk about how she started that movement. And it was just the same. People would see what you were doing, and then they joined you, and then suddenly it's so many different FitFams around China.
OF: What about with your story? If you fast forward to today, what is the scale of Z&B.
SN: So in the last ten years, we have opened up four studios and four gyms. We have done it completely organically. So we have no outside investments or anything. Like basically one studio got full and we were like “OK, it's time to open up a new one”.
SN: So we expanded from the studio side to the gym side, and we expanded our programmes a lot more. So going from just having Zumba and Barre… So Z&B stands for Zumba and Barre.
OF: Oh there you go.
SN: There you go. Nobody knows, actually. And nobody questions it, it’s really funny. But also in British English you say ‘Zed’, and in America you say ‘Zee’ right?
SN: So people are a bit confused sometimes, but…
OF: What do you say?
SN: It depends who I’m speaking with. If people don't catch it - when I can see they’re confused - I change it from ‘Zee’ to ‘Zed’, or ‘Zed’ to ‘Zee’.
OF: Yeah, I get it.
SN: Yeah, so going from there to now having more than 30 different programmes. And then we're opening two more gyms and studios very soon.
OF: Oh gosh. I mean, this is always what I think. When I look at people who are in the fitness realm, like how do you scale up? Because a lot of it is to do with being one-on-one with your client, right? I myself work with our mutual friend, Tennessee.
SN: Oh right, right, right.
OF: Hello, Tennessee. And you have shown how that's possible. I mean, what are the difficulties of scaling in this environment?
SN: At the end of the day, it's a service business, right? So you have to find people who are good with people. So your team is super important. The people who work for you are really important. And like - as you say, somebody like Tennessee - you want to come back again and again. Like, you want more, you want more. That's how we scaled, right? Like, we were really lucky to meet amazing instructors who have the passion for it. Like, they love their job, they love what they're doing. We don't want people who are just like “Oh it's a job.” Like, go teach a class, leave again. You know, you want the ones who show up ten minutes early to speak with the client, have a little chat, stay longer. Like, you build up a community. Now it's so big, so this feeling is a little bit different nowadays.
SN: But if you go to the same location, it will often be the same receptionist, who will say your name. And the same trainer, and so on, right? But back in the day, it was tiny. We were like a family.
OF: Well, we're talking about clients. So why don't I play you the audio of one of your clients.
OF: It was Jo McFarland, who recommended you from last season.
SN: Oh right.
OF: So let's hear what she had to say.
[Start of Audio Clip]
JM: Well I spend a lot of time in various fitness establishments. But there's one that I really love the most. And Oscar, I think I've seen you in there too. It's called Z&B. And it's very inclusive, because it is for locals and for foreigners as well. And it was set up by a Danish lady called Siri. She is a very impressive lady, and I think you'll enjoy talking to her a lot.
[End of Audio Clip]
SN: Oh that’s so sweet.
OF: How do you know Jo?
SN: Yeah, she's a member. But I always see her in the changing room, and she's so lovely and smiling and happy. And yeah, one day she was like “Hey, I did this podcast. I recommended you, is that cool?” So sweet.
OF: Well you said that you meet her in the changing rooms. It makes me think about the design of gyms, and changing rooms being one part of the design. What goes into it?
SN: Oh, a lot of things. So if I scroll back to 2011, we were always renting a studio. And it was horrible. Like, when I think back I’m like “What were we doing?” But we had no choice, right? We were just renting studios. We were literally transporting the equipment in a suitcase, moving from one to another. Most of the students had no aircon. But we found a way to make it work. So what happened is that the company I worked for, when I had to start working again I was like “No, I cannot do this anymore. I cannot sit down on my ass the whole day looking at a computer”. I was like “I want to do something else”. And I just wanted to give it a chance. So that same year, we found a studio then we took over, and we did the renovation. We did the whole construction ourselves. But we learned a lot for sure. Like, sometimes you're limited because of columns and pipes. The water is here and can only be here. So you can’t do a classroom where the water is, you have to do a bathroom there, right? So we spent quite a lot of time - I've become really good at making straight lines - drawing, like “Where's the studio? Where’s the room?” Like, we have classes which are like yoga, which is more calm. We have classes with high energy like Zumba, with a lot of sound, a lot of music. So these two classrooms, you don't want them too close, we discovered. Later on, we were like “Oh gosh, we shouldn't have put these two classrooms next to each other.”
OF: Oh, you made that mistake the first time round, right.
OF: Oh, interesting.
SN: So you learn. Like, as we go, we learn. And we learn like, what happens when people have been in the shower, where do they walk to afterwards?
SN: Foreigners walk straight to their lockers, and change their clothes. Chinese walk straight to the hairdryer, for example.
SN: Yeah. Queuing for toilets, we need a lot more space. Or even in the gym. Nowadays, people want a lot more free space for their own HIIT cardio classes in the gym.
SN: Some of the machines that we bought originally - like six, seven years ago - people don't want to use them anymore. So we have less equipment now. We also started to have smaller lockers next to the reception for those who don't want to go into the changing room.
OF: At all, yeah.
SN: They just want a quick drop-off, into class, out of class. We don't want people to stay too long - like, to chill and hang out - so all our reception areas are quite small. It's check-in, do your workout, chat with your friends, go again.
OF: That's true. In fact, when people do congregate in that area - especially in the one that I go to - you do feel like “Wait, it wasn't designed for that”.
OF: Come in, and then get out.
SN: You’re here for a workout.
OF: Right. That's so funny that you say that. Because, you know, there are always these people, they’re kind of sitting on the equipment, but they're doing their phone. And everyone else is waiting. Eugh.
OF: What are the things that make you crazy when you see it at a gym?
SN: Well, sometimes the way people use the equipment. Or maybe they don't use it, but pretend.
OF: Go on.
SN: I mean, I've definitely seen people lift weights where they're not lifting weights.
SN: Oh, just for photos, or videos, or whatever.
OF: Oh god, really.
SN: Or chatting with friends. We have also had situations where people haven't been dressed in an appropriate way. I would say.
OF: Oh, how do you mean?
SN: Like, for example, wearing denim skirt, or denim pants, or high heels, or whatever.
OF: Oh that’s a good one. Seriously, high heels?
SN: Yes. Just walking around in the gym. And it just makes other people feel uncomfortable. Like, what is that person doing here? Like, why?
OF: I’m sorry, I won’t do it again.
SN: So yeah. But we have clothes available to purchase. So if they really want to stay, they can do that.
SN: But it's just… Funny moments, sometimes.
OF: Yes. What about then, when it comes to fitness fads? Because, you know, I've heard of all these other fads around the world. Why is barre not one of those?
SN: Well, there's been quite a lot, come in and out. I remember last year there was this kind of like… imagine a trampoline shoe.
OF: A trampoline shoe.
SN: Yeah. So you put on a shoe that bounces.
OF: Oh I've seen it, I’ve seen it.
OF: Yeah, it's really big. It's like a massive clown shoe.
SN: Yeah, yeah. So you can jump around. So I was approached by this company asking if I want to start this class. And I looked at this and I went “No, no, no.” Like, sanitising those shoes, cleaning them, the storage you need for a class of 20 people, and the different sizes, and oh my god, I was just like "No way, no way”. So there have definitely been some funny, funny trends. There was also one a few years ago where you were drumming. Yeah, maybe it would be fun for a period. But long lasting, maybe not.
OF: I've seen a bungee one as well.
SN: A bungee one, yeah yeah. But the bungee one gives you marks, apparently. I haven't tried it yet, but I know lots of people who have gone. Like I think it's fun to try. But in the long term, I don't know how addicted people can be to it.
OF: This is why I'm confused by the whole notion of doing what you're doing. Because we're sitting here laughing at these other trends, right? But barre you think has more longevity.
SN: So barre actually was invented 20 or 30 years ago in the U.S. So it's not a new thing. But the way that we do it is different. So I have done four different barre programmes. I loved parts of each of them, and combined what I loved with what I have learned before - from my different kinds of training in Zumba, pilates, all the different kinds of classes that I've taken - and took the best of it all, and created MYbarre. What makes it interesting still is that every class you go to is different. The movements you do, and the routine, challenge you every time. Nobody wants to go and do the same class again and again, it gets super boring. But you go to barre, and one day you do this, another day you do that, but it's all in the same…
OF: Mmm. The big fad that has been popular around the world the last five years is CrossFit. And I'm surprised you haven't mentioned CrossFit. You're staying away from them?
SN: Totally. No, it's a totally different vibe. Yeah, CrossFit is quite hardcore. And you have to kind of do a little test before you even can join the class. And I wouldn't mix it, we’re very different. Most of our classes are any level. You can walk into a barre class and I'll give you options. If you have just had a baby, or you're pregnant, or you're older, it doesn't matter. It’s for anybody, it’s any level. CrossFit is a different ballgame.
OF: Yeah, people get injured, don't they?
SN: Yes. Did I say that out loud?
OF: Well I mean, that's the trope, right? You see someone who says “Oh, I've just started CrossFit”.
OF: And then two months later, they’re hobbling down the street.
OF: And yet, for me, it's the one that I've heard of the most, right?
OF: CrossFit, everyone talks about CrossFit.
SN: I mean, yeah. I feel like, not so much any more. Like, it had its hype a few years ago, and it was super popular. People still do it, of course. But yeah, it's not my vibe.
OF: Yeah. Yours is more low-impact, right?
SN: Totally. Long-lasting, low-impact.
OF: Yeah, I'm with you. Because I've always done functional training, which is what I would just call using your body and then using small weights. And then now I'm using a few more machines. But there’s something which is stopping me from doing that kind of class environment. I've always done it one-on-one with a trainer.
OF: I’ve never done a class.
SN: Maybe you would love it.
OF: Maybe I would, right? I need someone to literally walk me.
SN: Right, right.
OF: Like, hold my hand, walk me in… Put me in a trolley, and then just wheel me inside. Then dump the trolley and be like “Right, you have to do it now.” Then I'm going to do it. But unless I'm really forced to do it, I'm that kind of lazy person.
SN: Oh you totally can. At least once. Then you have tried it, you’ve done it.
SN: And then you know if you like it or not.
OF: Agreed. I am going to have to, at one point, go to one of these classes now.
SN: I'm going to drag your ass.
OF: You are, you are! I’m saying it now on mic, so I have to do it. I mean, what you're saying is nothing that I didn't expect to come out of your mouth. You know “Try it, you'll love it, blah, blah, blah”. What about sometimes where it hasn't worked out? Have you had stories where actually it hasn't been as positive?
SN: Oh, of course, of course.
OF: What happens then?
SN: I try to convince them to try another class. If someone comes out, I can immediately see if they liked it or not. And they might be like “You know what, yeah, I sweated, but it wasn't really my vibe”. I'm like “What are you into? What do you like?” First of all, I need to know if they’ve ever worked out, right? So if they have worked out, that's easier. Because then they already have a feeling of “Oh, I'm not into that, yoga is way too slow.” Or “I want more movement, I like dance,” like…
OF: They already know what they want.
SN: Yeah, exactly. It's the ones who have never worked out, who are kind of like walking through the door looking around, like "Where am I going? What am I doing? This is new. I don't like this, I want to go away.” You want to find a way to make them comfortable. And be like “It's totally fine, just tell the instructor it’s your first time, do the smaller movements this time, take it easy, just get a vibe of the class”. They're a little bit harder because you want to get it right the first time.
SN: Otherwise, you might lose them.
OF: I mean, do you even want those people. Because the ones who know what they want, they’re the ones who are likely to already have the kind of self-discipline to come back. And obviously that's what you want, you want people who are going to have membership and come back. The ones who are on the fence, you have to put a lot of work into them, and then it might not pay off right in terms of the investment.
SN: It’s true, it’s true. But I want everybody to work out.
SN: I want to spread the love for fitness and working out. It's healthy, it’s not just a business, it’s literally for your own sake. right? And that's the most important thing to me. But also, another thing is that the government does really support it now. So we have seen so many more Chinese people working out now. Some of my classes are all Chinese.
OF: And we talked about differences in the changing rooms between Chinese people and non-Chinese people, that was quite a funny one. What about in terms of how they accept training, in terms of how they motivate themselves, do you see any big differences between Chinese and non-Chinese?
SN: I think for foreigners, most of them have come from their countries where they have already been working out. So when I say “Squats”, they know it. When I say “Lunge”, they know it. Whereas Chinese, they don't know it.
OF: This is just because they don't know the English vocabulary.
SN: Er, no. Because I do it myself, they can see my body. So they visually can see me, but they don't do it right. So you have to educate them. But they learn really fast. And after a few classes, they catch it, they get it. I do still see that some Chinese don't really like to sweat a lot.
SN: Yeah. Whereas foreigners are just like “Let's go! The more sweat the better!” They want to leave the class with their hair wet.
SN: Whereas Chinese are still always like, wipe wipe wipe constantly. And a little sweat is like “Argh!”
OF: Really? Isn't that funny, so the appearance actually is quite important still?
SN: I think so. And also with air conditioning, foreigners are like “Can you make it colder?” They want an ice cold room because they're gonna sweat. Chinese are like “I don't want to stand under an air conditioner”. They space themselves out, so as to not stand under an air conditioner.
OF: Because it's too cold, right?
SN: I don't know. I always assume it's kind of like how they don't like to drink cold water.
OF: Yes, yes.
SN: They don't want the cold.
OF: That's what I was thinking actually, that’s exactly the analogy. That’s a good one.
SN: I actually drink warm water myself now.
OF: Me too. I know, we’ve changed.
SN: I know, totally. When somebody serves me ice, I'm like “Can you please remove that?”
OF: Yeah. And it's true, because it's a shock to the body, right?
SN: Totally, totally.
SN: It makes sense.
OF: Well, you're doing instruction yourself, you’re running this business. You have other commitments to juggle, for example a family, right?
SN: I do have a family, three children.
OF: Oh. Right, so you're juggling how many gyms and how many children? Which ones take up more of your headspace?
SN: Oh, that's difficult. Actually no, my kids are really independent, all of them. So they are really, really good. And everything flows very well. Like, it's all about balance. Obviously, most of the day, they’re in kindergarten and school, right? So I can focus on my work. And then once they're home at night, I try not to work. So I try to balance around that. Because otherwise, they're just going to have a frustrated mom, who can’t be on both sides, right? Z&B is open seven days a week. You never stop working, you never finish things. There will always be something.
SN: So you just have to stop time a little bit, and focus on the kids. When they are there, and when they need you.
OF: Do you have any time for yourself actually?
SN: Yeah, I mean, I find time for sure.
OF: I’ve seen you out and about. So I know the answer already. And you always look very glamorous.
SN: Thank you.
OF: What do you do?
SN: And that's a good question. I do enjoy massage. I don't know, I'm very simple and easy. I like my sleep. So for me, 8-10 hours. I don't know, I just roll with it. Like for me, the seven days a week is… Everyday is kind of the same. I don't really see the difference between Monday and Sunday.
OF: Yeah. I like seeing it. Because I ran my own business for ten years. And by the end of it, I was burned out really. So seeing you - and you've been doing it for ten years - and you're radiating energy still. I mean, you're gonna do it for ten more years, right?
SN: Maybe more.
OF: Oh, wow. You really seem to live in the now, right?
SN: Yes, very much. So I don't really think too far ahead. I just do feel that I will definitely still be working out when I'm 70 years old, I'm positive of that.
OF: Oh, I am too.
SN: Yeah, yeah.
OF: No doubt.
SN: I will definitely do that. But I don't know, in the next ten years my focus is definitely barre. I want to do trainings outside of Shanghai, and do more in that kind of line, yeah.
OF: Thank you so much Siri.
SN: You’re welcome.
OF: We are now going to go on to Part 2.
SN: Go for it!
OF: Alright, did you have fun so far?
SN: So much.
OF: Ah. You see, now I'm the instructor, and this is the class. This is the Mosaic of China class. It's a bit less energetic than your usual classes.
SN: Still fun. That's the most important.
OF: Question 1, which comes from Shanghai Daily: What is your favourite China-related fact?
SN: It’s actually related to fitness. Fitness in Shanghai, in 2011, 1% were working out. Now, 3%. That's really impressive, I think. Like it's very low compared with the rest of the world. But I do find it fascinating that in just ten years it's increased so much.
OF: Yes. And yet has so much further to go.
SN: I know.
OF: This is why you're in the right business.
SN: I know.
OF: What are you doing wasting time sitting here with me? Go out there, open more gyms! Next question comes from Rosetta Stone: Do you have a favourite word or phrase in Chinese?
SN: I do. 你很厉害 [Nǐ hěn lìhài].
OF: 你很厉害 [Nǐ hěn lìhài].
SN: Yeah, yeah. I like that one, it’s very positive, it’s like you're doing good. Like “Good job”.
OF: Right. It's actually a phrase that somebody from Season 02 also chose.
SN: Oh yeah?
OF: It was Murray King, who works for Disney.
OF: And he liked 厉害 [lìhài]. But actually, he liked it because it has two meanings. So you see the positive in everything.
OF: But 厉害 [lìhài] actually can be ‘strict’. It can be something negative, in different contexts.
SN: Oh really?
OF: Yeah. So if someone in work is 厉害 [lìhài], they can be sort of 太厉害 [tài lìhài],
OF: And then it's like someone who is too full-on.
OF: But of course, you wouldn't know that, because you just always think about the positives in life.
OF: Question 3, which comes from naked Retreats: What's your favourite destination within China?
SN: Oh, am I supposed to say naked Retreats?
OF: Have you been to them?
SN: Yeah, it’s lovely, I went to one in 莫干山 [Mògànshān], it’s super lovely.
OF: Very good.
SN: Very nice, very nice. But I recently went to ‘Mingxi’.
SN: Yeah. Which is right by the border of Vietnam. And we actually went on the river. And I was joking, I was like “If I jump in the water and swim ten metres that way, I am standing in Vietnam”. You could see the roads on the other side, with the signs and the people there. It’s Vietnam.
OF: That’s the border.
SN: So that was super cool. Yeah, yeah, there’s like rice fields, small mountains, it’s super warm, nice people. Yeah, I would definitely go back there.
OF: I feel like you’re talking about something I've never even heard of.
SN: I know.
OF: I’m actually surprised, because normally it's a place I haven't been to but I’m like “Oh yeah, I've heard it that, I want to go.” But I've never heard of ‘Mingxi’. I am going to ask you for photos, I really want to see it.
SN: Yeah, it's gorgeous.
OF: If you left China, what would you miss the most, and what would you miss the least?
SN: What I would miss the most, I do think the people here are super, super helpful. Not that they're not in Denmark, but I just saw the difference. Like, it's just so different. When you're here, there's always somebody around you who can help you. Or, like, people are super kind to children. When I bring my kids out. I have 500 阿姨s [āyís] around me, right?
OF: Yes. They don't really care about privacy, they just see a cute kid and they will just dive right in, right?
SN: Right, right. Why does one have dark hair, and one have light hair and green eyes? How is this possible? No, the question I get the most is “Are those yours?” I don't feel like I look like a person who has three kids.
SN: The other day I was out with my 阿姨 [āyí] and my kids. And they went to my 阿姨 [āyí] and said “Are those your kids?” And she laughed so much. She was like “No! That girl there! They’re hers!” And they both were like “What? How is that possible?”
OF: Should I ask you? How old are you?
SN: You can, I'm 33.
OF: Right? You’ve got three kids at 33. Yeah.
OF: And then what would you miss the least?
SN: I think one of the things I would miss the least is the high school fees.
SN: Those are insane.
OF: Yes. It's because you want to go to the international school.
SN: You have to.
OF: You have to?
SN: With a foreign passport, you can't go to a local school. But no matter what, they are international kids, right? I want them in international school.
OF: There you go. So you won't miss paying the fees. And that's only one so far. Or are you already paying for all three?
SN: Well, the first one is in school, the second one is in kindergarten, and the last one, he's starting next year.
OF: This is why you have to open two more gyms.
OF: Is there anything that still surprises you about life in China?
SN: Within fitness, 6-7 years ago, my class was 99% foreigners. Now it's 99% Chinese. They are developing constantly with fitness, and are much more into it. And they're trying different classes, trying different things. They do barre one week, and then they do another class the following week. And I see the changes in their bodies. And some of them don't even speak English. And they're coming up to me and they are translating on their phone and they go like “Thank you, teacher. I love you”.
SN: And stuff like that, right? Or they come up and they're like “Can I have your WeChat?” And they will send me a message, and I will translate it, and they go like “I'm sorry, my English is so bad, but I want to say thank you for class,” and stuff like that.
OF: That's really sweet.
SN: It’s very very sweet. I think people here are very open-minded, interested in trying new things.
OF: Well said. Next question, which comes from SmartShanghai: Where is your favourite place to go out, to eat, or drink, or to hang out?
SN: I am actually really flexible. I love hanging out with my friends, so wherever they go, I go. But there are definitely a few pieces we often come back to, like Italo Trattoria, Funkadeli. Recently we've gone a lot to Bonica.
OF: That’s where I saw you last year, yeah.
SN: Yeah, a super nice vibe, super cool environment. Yeah, we just see what's new, what's happening, and sometimes go back to the good old ones. You know what you're getting.
SN: You know the vibe when you get there.
OF: Yeah. Next, what is the best or worst purchase you've made in China?
SN: So I think the best is probably my investment into Z&B and MyBarre, which happened ten years ago. I designed our MYbarre balls and stretch bands. So I'm very proud of that. And I'm very happy that we have this. And it's produced by me, and for this class. So that's definitely one of the things that I'm like “Yeah, it works. It really works”. We use it for the workout, right?
OF: Got it. What is your favourite WeChat sticker?
SN: Did you see it?
OF: OK, well which one did you want to start with?
SN: So I love anything with animals. So my first one - how many monkeys? Like four or five monkeys?
SN: Sitting on the back of a yellow car, with their hands up in the air going “Woohoo!”
OF: Yes. That's one of my favourites.
SN: Yeah, that one is just so high energy and it just makes me laugh when I see it.
SN: What’s my second one? Oh, OK, so this is a dog. Like a big wolf dog jumping on the floor. Like goofy, happy.
OF: It's almost like how a horse would walk.
OF: But it’s this dog.
SN: But it’s a dog.
OF: When do you use that? In what context?
SN: Like “Oh, see you later”. Or like “Good job today in the class.”
OF: Right. Or “I'm on my way”.
SN: “Yay, see you soon!”
OF: Beautiful. Thank you, I’m gonna steal that dog one, yeah. What is your go-to song to sing at KTV?
SN: You know what, the funny thing is, I only have been to KTV like five times.
OF: In ten years.
SN: Yeah. But I've enjoyed it every time, it's really fun. Something 90s, something from when I was a little girl. It could be Britney, Beyoncé... Wannabe is always a classic.
SN: Like, The Spice Girls.
OK. Yeah, OK. And when was the last time you went, actually?
SN: That was actually not long ago. I was at a friend's birthday, and that was at a KTV. A few months ago.
OF: Very good.
SN: Yeah, yeah.
OF: Yeah, it’s one of those things where you didn't think about it these days, but when you go it’s still good, right?
OF: Nice. And the last question, which comes from JustPod, which is the studio we're sitting in now: What or who is your biggest source of inspiration in China?
SN: It's the people around me. It's my friends. I have such a diverse, inspiring group of women. And I find a lot of motivation in people around me. It could be a girlfriend, she recently started her own business. It's totally different from my business. Because nowadays it’s harder to start a business here.
SN: And I think the market is much more developed. So she's always trying to find new ways. She doesn't stop, she doesn't give up. Or it could be another mom, with her family, with her kids, hearing how their life is, or something happened, or whatever. Like, how she's dealing with that. It could be another instructor who is struggling with class. Or even just somebody who is super positive. I have a girlfriend who is so happy - you think I'm happy, she's more happy - and she just makes me feel like how she gives her positive vibes to me, I want to give that to other people.
OF: Well, you've succeeded today. I'm floating, thanks to being in this room with you. Thank you very much, Siri.
SN: You're welcome.
OF: And if you had one person who you'd recommend that I interview in the next season of Mosaic of China, who would you recommend?
SN: So I have chosen Raphael, because he's very successful in bringing in brands from outside of China. And specifically, he brought in fast food - a fast food brand - and then he's grown it in China, I won’t mention the brand.
SN: You’ll probably find out soon. But yeah, he's been very critical in making this happen. And I want to get into his brain, I want to hear his opinions and ideas and I want to hear his podcast.
OF: Well, if there's something which is almost the opposite of what you're doing…
OF: …It's someone who is working in fast food, right? And if there was one thing that you would ask him, what would you ask Raphael?
SN: But the thing is, when I'm with him, I just fire questions. You know, I don't really think about it.
OF: I know, it's a tricky one, because it's the one that's going to be in the podcast.
SN: I know, I know. It's like “You have one shot, Siri, let's go!” Can I ask, “Why fast food?” With a guy like him, who is into fitness and a healthy lifestyle, works out every single day at five in the morning, why fast food?
OF: Mmm, yeah that's a good one. Well, thanks again Siri.
OF: I already mentioned during the interview with Siri that there’s a nice overlap with a previous episode of the show, namely with Vy Vu from FitFam in Season 01 Episode 08. The other episode I would recommend as an accompaniment to today’s is with the ultramarathon athlete Greg Nance from Season 01 Episode 23, that one is definitely not to be missed. And Siri is only the second Scandinavian in the show so far, the first was the Swedish clown, Björn Dahlman from Season 02 Episode 17.
I said at the beginning of today’s show that there was an update about Siri’s status at Z&B Fitness. And that is that after 10 years, she has parted ways with the Z&B brand and - exactly as she mentioned in the recording - she wants to focus just on the ‘B’ part: Barre, and the brand MYbarre. She and her MYbarre partner Ann are busy designing and building their new studios which will be opening by the end of the year. So we can all in our minds imagine Siri right now going back to drawing those straight lines again, and planning how far to place the hairdryers from the showers in the changing rooms. In the meantime they are also creating a mini-programme for online classes, so watch out for that in the near future. Good luck Siri, it’s really nice that this episode can exist as a way to honour your last 10 years, and to plant a flag for the next phase in your life.
Before we wrap up today’s show, just two reminders. The first is to check out all the extra images on social media for today’s episode, including her object, her favourite WeChat stickers, photos from her favourite destination (which is pronounced 明仕 [Míngshì], it’s down in 广西 [Guǎngxī] Province), photos with her kids, etc. etc. On the topic of kids, Siri was worried that she came across as a little conceited in the episode for saying that people are surprised she has three kids. No it’s not conceited, I myself couldn’t believe it when I first met her, so I can attest that this is just a fact. Anyway as an extra bonus on social media, I’ve included a video of myself at Z&B. In case any of you were under the illusion from today’s episode that I’m some kind of gym rat, this video will set the record straight. Find me on @oscology on Instagram, or Mosaicofchina on Facebook and WeChat. And the second reminder is of course to head to the Mosaic of China website to learn how you can subscribe to the PREMIUM version of the show, where you will find around 15 minutes of extra content per episode. Here are some clips from today’s extended interview:
OF: Is it a Danish name?
SN: No, it’s Norwegian, actually.
OF: Oh, so you're Norwegian?
SN: No, I'm Danish.
OF: Was that before WeChat?
SN: There was no WeChat.
SN: I don't even remember what we used.
SN: How can you be there for 200 people, or 500 people, or 1000 people, right?
SN: I mean, everybody's different, everybody has a different background.
OF: Body positivity, right?
SN: If you make them too small, too big, too high, too narrow… Now we found a standard that seems to make everybody happy.
SN: Nobody uses them anymore. So we don't even purchase them now for the gyms.
SN: And then I went to Denmark for nine months.
OF: Oh, you were one of those people who were out for nine months.
SN: They have major investment, they want to expand in five minutes, it’s just not possible.
OF: Checking out other people at the gym, that’s a thing right?
SN: Oh my god, totally.
[End of Audio Clips]
Mosaic of China is me, Oscar Fuchs, with artwork by Denny Newell. Coming up next we have two really great catch-ups. The first is with the person who referred Siri to the mosaic: Jo McFarland, the product sourcer for Sainsbury's and Argos from Season 02 Episode 18. And then after that there’s a second catch-up, with Jorge Luzio, the marketing leader for Coca-Cola from all the way back in Season 01 Episode 05. And we’ll be back with Season 03 Episode 05 next time.
[Catch-Up Interview 1]
OF: Oh hello. Good to see you.
JM: You too.
OF: So obviously, we are doing this remotely. So where do I find you today, Jo?
JM: I'm in St. Albans, a small city just north of London. Which it is very pretty.
OF: Well I know it well, my hometown is not far from there, in northwest London. You managed to hop out of Shanghai while it was quite tough over here. What was your story back then?
JM: Well, like everybody else I was locked down in my apartment. You know, they said “Three days”, which turned into two and a bit months. But actually I'm glad I didn't know it was gonna be that long. But then I had already planned a trip to the UK. So I engineered ‘the great escape.’
OF: In fact, I was just thinking, the last time you and I saw each other in the flesh was very interesting.
JM: That was two nights before we went into lockdown.
OF: That's right. And it was all like “What the hell's going on?” You were one of the last people that I saw before lockdown.
JM: Yeah, yeah.
OF: Well, let me jump in and just explain to anyone listening - for those who did not hear our original episode in Season 02 - you are in charge of sourcing goods from China for Sainsbury's, which includes the Sainsbury's supermarket chain, but also Argos, which is another massive High Street retail brand in the UK, selling general merchandise. And for those who are not from the UK, you might not know those brand names, but a massive amount that comes from China to the UK would be basically under your purview. So if you haven't listened to Joe's original episode, then definitely go back and do so right now. Let me continue though, because I want to talk about what's happened since that time. We talk about ‘supply and demand’ here, so let's start with demand. What would you say things like now things generally normalised?
JM: Being here, I can tell you, it's expensive now in the UK. People are paying almost double for some of their utility bills like gas, electricity, etc.
JM: You know, food is phenomenally expensive here. So the whole cost of living here has gone up exponentially. So people are spending a lot less money on non-essential items. Also, people bought everything in sight during COVID. So all those people who bought new TVs, new washing machines, whatever, they don't need them. And the third thing is that people were locked in their houses for almost two years, so rather than spend the money that they do have on consumer goods, people want to spend it on experiences. People want to go on holiday, they want to go outside, they want to do different stuff. All those three things added together has made business pretty tough globally.
JM: So it will have a big effect on China, because the factories are seeing orders being cancelled, right, left and centre. Now, I have been in this business a long time, Oscar. So these things are cyclical. So whilst it is very challenging at the moment, it will come back at some point. I’m being extreme, because of course we do still sell lots and lots of stuff. And people are buying luggage.
OF: Oh! Right!
JM: So… Of course, we didn't sell any luggage during lockdown. But of course people now… We’re selling lots of luggage.
OF: Interesting. Thank you for that update. On the supply side, it hasn't been all roses either. Let's switch to China. Since our recording, there was that incident with that ship crashing into the Suez Canal.
JM: Oh yeah.
OF: But there seems to be continued issues when it comes to logistics, and costs, and COVID-19 restrictions in China. What are the issues that you are contending with from the supply side right now?
JM: As we know, China is very much about…
OF: Yes, I knew you'd say that.
JM: So you're not getting those meetings face-to-face. And that's the stuff that gives creativity, that creates new ideas, that pushes things forward. And because we're now getting close to three years of not having that, I think it's a real hindrance to the movement forward of the things that we want to do.
OF: I can imagine. When things go wrong - which often happens, of course, in manufacturing - you're slightly less patient. You're more likely to say “Eurgh, what are those guys doing?” You don't even know who they are these days. People who were doing that job maybe have moved on to other jobs, so people have never even met these suppliers, I can just imagine the cascading effect.
JM: Well that’s a good point, Oscar. Because the other thing that did happened, we had a vast amount of people deciding to change jobs.
JM: And I don't just mean in our business. I mean, right across the UK.
JM: So consequently, we did haven't big churn of colleagues, as did everyone. So we do have - to your point - a lot of new colleagues. Which in a way is great, because it gives freshness to the business. But where it's not so good is you do lose a lot of the expertise. And, you know, factories like long-standing relationships with people.
OF: The world that you're describing is one that is held together with a massive stretched BAND-AID. And it's now coming up to three years, as you say. And it's like "How long can this BAND-AID continue to stretch”, right?
OD: We’re all feeling it, but you are giving a different angle to it, from that business perspective.
JM: That's the bit that's difficult for all of us our here - yourself included - is the unknown. And people have decided that they just can't do it anymore.
OF: Yeah. So we will be releasing this catch-up at the same time as the episode of Siri. So when was the last time you saw Siri?
JM: I haven't seen her for ages. Because I've been here, and because of lockdown.
JM: This year has been a bit of a write-off.
OF: Yeah. Which is funny, because even though you are about 20 kilometres from my hometown in the UK, it feels like I'm on Earth 1 and you're on Earth 2, right?
JM: Yeah, yeah.
OF: Well, it's great to see you, Jo. You're always cheerful, even though times are tough. Let it be not too long before we are having another drink back here in China.
JM: I hope so, Oscar.
OF: Thank you, darling.
JM: You’re welcome. Anytime.
[Catch-Up Interview 2]
OF: Hey, Jorge!
JL: How are you, my friend?
OF: All the better to see you, you’re looking great.
JL: It's just a little tan. It's starting my day. 8:30, coffee's ready, and from now on non-stop calls until seven.
OF: Oh god. All right, well I won't keep you very long. And already it'll be clear to people listening that we are not in the same place. Where the hell are you?
JL: I’m in Atlanta, Georgia. United States.
OF: Which happens to be the headquarters of which company?
JL: The Coca-Cola company.
OF: And for people who didn't hear your original episode back in Season 01, at that point you were the head of marketing for Sprite and Fanta in China, correct?
JL: That’s correct, yes.
OF: We had a catch-up recording in the last season - which was Season 02 - you were still in Shanghai. But at that point, you were working on ‘Emerging Categories’, right, which were the alcoholic drinks Coca-Cola were developing at that point. So what is your role now that you are in the headquarters?
JL: Well I’m the Lead of the juice portfolio. The flagship brand is Minute Maid. So I lead that brand for North America: the U.S. and Canada.
OF: Well there you go. So it's totally different to your life back here. You would have left China, what, about a year ago at the time of this recording?
JL: Yes, so it's been a year. Yeah, it's completely different. Coming to the headquarter you would tend to think that “This is it,” right? This is like the epitome of everything that Coca-Cola is about. But my biggest realisation was that… I'm working in a different company.
JL: Completely different. And it comes from the fact that it's the biggest, so it has a lot of power. So the way that we've been doing things historically has been quite different to Coca-Cola way of doing things in the rest of the world.
OF: It's been allowed to get away with things that other markets can't.
JL: Correct. I think that it's about being consumer-centric, versus customer-centric.
OF: “Consumer versus customer”? What's the difference?
JL: ‘Consumer’ is like the end-user of your product, versus the concentration of trade in five players. So the Walmarts, the McDonald's of the world. So the push for innovation comes from them.
JL: And it’s about “Hey, I need to fill out these aisles, and I need to refresh these categories”. Corporations are the one driving the innovation.
OF: Yes, I can see exactly what you mean. Because your customers are actually a barrier in between you and the consumer. That’s very interesting, I would never have even realised that, but of course it makes sense. Listen, you've got a big day, which you're about to start. So let me ask you the final question, which is… You know, when people leave China, it's always good to cross-check on what they originally said they would miss the most, and miss the least, if they left China. So now that this is a reality for you, let me remind you what you said in your original episode. And you said that the thing that you would miss the most was ‘WeChat stickers’. And the thing that you would miss the least was ‘people burping in public’. So what is the real answer, now that you have been out of China for a year?
JL: The speed. Future thinking, I miss that a lot. The way that we question things, and we see problems, develop solutions. It’s quite impressive, and I miss that.
OF: What is the thing that you miss the least?
JL: I don't know, being too far away from people. Because you tend to get a bit isolated. And…
OF: Totally. Oh my God, that's how I feel right now.
JL: Yes, we spent five years there. And you tend to be so overwhelmed by everything while you're living there. Because it's fantastic, it’s an amazing life. But still, every time that you want to see someone, it's like a 20-hours flight.
OF: You are from Venezuela, so I can see why that would be your answer. Because now that you are based in the States, it's a much shorter flight. It's also the reason why I have never been to South America, because it's always been 30 hours away. So at some point - when I do leave - it'll be great to travel to Latin America with you. But at the very least, I hope that I can see you in person before too long. Jorge, thank you so much for being part of this project. I know that we are in contact outside of these recordings, but it's always good to get you on record. It's a nice way for us to at least to track your career every year or so. So I look forward to continuing to do this. Thanks so much, man.
JL: Thanks a lot. I miss you guys. And I love this project. You know, I've been there since day one. Thank you for making me part of it.