Alex from Belgium hates Shanghai's winter, but loves everything else
Alex must have grown up in a well-educated family, because his manners are the most impressive trait this Belgian gentleman showed me during the three times we met.
He was frank and cultivated in replying to each question I asked and answered with a sincere smile on his face. At the same time, I discovered some interesting paradoxes in his behavior and thoughts.
Alex said he “truly, thoroughly hated” Shanghai's winter — a type of cold that gets to your bones — even though he just wore a shirt and a formal suit when held our interview at the start of Shanghai's winter, when temperatures were already below 10 degrees.
The Belgian is fond of extreme sports such as paragliding, bungee jumping and sky diving, and he is pretty satisfied with his life and work within a "premium multi-purpose complex downtown." Wow, he is really a good marketer!
After you finish reading Alex’s story, you will definitely agree with me that this curly haired, blue eyed European is amazingly loyal to his job and work place, which is quite rare nowadays.
Name: Alex De Ceuster
Job: Marketing Director for Shanghai Centre
Years in Shanghai: 15 (17 years in China)
Holin: Do you still remember your first time in Shanghai?
Alex: When I came for the first time to China it was actually for a visit. When I was in my second year of university in Belgium, me and two colleagues decided to do a bit of a China tour. We studied Chinese at university and wanted to find out if we ever wanted to live there, because studying a language is only the start of the whole journey.
Holin: So before you came, you had already studied Chinese?
Alex: Yeah in 1995, I started studying Chinese at university in Belgium, and then in '98 we went on a tour, like a four or five week trip to China.
Holin: Was the trip a part of your Chinese classes or you just came yourselves?
Alex: Just ourselves. We decided, me and two friends, to just go around and visit all the famous places like Xi'an, Beijing, Leshan in Sichuan, Yunnan, Dali, Lijiang… those places. So we really wanted to go to different parts of China just to experience it.
The last stop before we flew back home was Shanghai, and I remember it was early August and it was ridiculously hot. I remember walking on People's Square, and the heat was like opening an oven, going around your legs. In Belgium it never gets that hot, I mean it's warm but it's not hot. Then we went to the Bund, because after going to all those nice places, you don't get to see anything like the Bund, so we ended up at the Bund. It was a nice way to close off our few weeks of China.
Holin: Why did you choose to live in Shanghai?
Alex: Firstly, because I studied Chinese, I managed to get a scholarship for two years in Anhui Normal University. It's Anhui in 2000, so it wasn't exactly the most developed place on the planet, but we had a great time. Some of the friends I made then are still some of my best friends. It was such a small community, there were about 40 foreigners in the entire city. Can you imagine 800,000 people in the city and there's only 40 foreigners?
After two years there, I didn't want to go home yet, I enjoyed being in China and I studied Chinese, so I thought "Why not try to find something long term?"
So I got a summer job at the Shanghai Centre running the summer camps for the kids who were living here, and I did that for a couple of months.
The lady who was in charge of marketing at that time was also on the board of a company called “Active Kidz Shanghai” — they do sports activities for the expat children in Shanghai. So the last day I was here, I did the interview with the board for a position with “Active Kidz.” Then on the Monday, I got a call saying I got the job. I did that for about six years.
After that I got a call from Mr. Kan, the current GM of Shanghai Centre, who remembered me from my previous job in the complex. He was looking for somebody to head the marketing department. I was thrilled to get back to my "roots" and nine years later, I'm still here!
Also I have a Chinese wife and two kids so, that helps to keep me here too! But as a family you can live anywhere, but the opportunities and the environment... Shanghai is just so exciting, there are so many things happening. It's a great place to be for young people who want to do something different.
Holin: So directly after the internship, you lived in Shanghai?
Alex: After that, I went back for a month. And then in October of 2002, I came back and then I never left. I've been here for 16 years.
Holin: Can you speak Shanghainese?
Alex: No, I can't! I guess, after all these years, you sort of know when they make the switch between Shanghainese and Mandarin, so I can pick it up. I can understand some of it, but I will never be able to speak it. If you're not born in Shanghai, then you can never get the right tone and everything.
Holin: Can your kids speak Shanghainese?
Alex: Speaking? No. We never speak with the kids in the dialect, we try to speak Mandarin, English and Dutch.
Holin: You must have many interesting or impressive Shanghai stories, right? Share one or two.
Alex: After so many years here, a lot of exciting things happened but it's really hard to pinpoint. I like tennis, so I got to see Sharapova when she was here in 2002, I think when she was still not well known. I knew she was a rising star and I saw her practicing. Now we have the Rolex Masters and everything. I got to see Andre Agassi too.
Another thing, I'm a big musical fan, so I really like musicals like Les Misérables, Phantom of the Opera… those kinds of things.
In 2002, I got a chance to take the kids from the summer camp that I was doing for a backstage tour at Les Misérables here. Afterwards, when I went back to give the director a little gift as a thank-you, he invited me to be backstage during an entire show. I got to see people going off the stage. I got to help change some stage pieces. For me, as a musical fan, that's like a dream come true. You never get to experience something like this on your own.
Things have also changed so much, taking the subway for example. When I just arrived it was like two lines. Now there's like a subway at every corner. There are so many places to eat, so many different types of food, theme parks, activities for people to go to… all these things are happening.
In any other country, this development in the past 15 years would take 30, 40 years? Only China can do this because of the way they plan and structure things. That's not a personal thing, but it's a very impressive part about living in this city.
Holin: How do you spend your weekends in Shanghai?
Alex: There's a lot of activities that I do as Marketing Director for Shanghai Centre. There's a lot of stuff that we do here, so there are days that I help out with the activities or have to attend.
In the early years when I had just arrived in Shanghai, I went paragliding for a couple of years. I went on the weekends, leaving on Friday evening or Saturday morning and coming back on Sunday evening. It was great because you had fresh air.
Holin: How long do people need to train before they can go paragliding?
Alex: It depends. The basics you can probably learn in like three or four weekends, but then it's all about practice. You have to learn about how to go over hills, and feel the wind and how to stay up longer. So I did that for a while, and then of course the kids came, and my wife was like, "you're not going to be spending every Saturday and Sunday that you can away!"
So now that we have kids, I spend pretty much all my spare time with them, going to activities, going to gymnastics, going to the ballet classes, going to birthday parties, picking them up from sleepovers, whatever. Just do stuff with the kids.
On the other hand, if I have a chance to do something for myself, I'm also the chair of VLIS, an organization for Flemish people in Shanghai. So we organize activities for them as well and do things together.
If I really have some "me" time, then I try to train for some races like the Spartan races.
Holin: Which place in Shanghai do you like best?
Alex: Honestly, it's Shanghai Centre, and not just because I work here! I live and work here, and I go to the gym here, and everything is here, it's so convenient! My kids' favorite restaurants are all here, and we have our big playground outside where they can just be on their own and you don't need to look after them, it's really safe. They went to preschool here, it's all here and I get to meet all the parents from the building. Everybody always meets outside with the kids, so you can mingle together and share experiences. There's a community here. You don't need to leave the building!
Now if you want me to pick a place outside of Shanghai Centre, which I will because I know you're going to ask me, then I would say probably Culture Square, when they have a musical. That's my other favorite place, because I can really enjoy going to see a show, most of which are held there.
Holin: Smart guy. Another question: which road is your favorite road in Shanghai?
Alex: Actually it's Tianping Road, because my first place that I lived in Shanghai was there, in a really small apartment. I lived there for about four years. The street is so nice with all the green, all the trees. It's walking distance to Xujiahui which is very close.
I've been back and it's not the same anymore, but in the early days, I really liked it. We moved out of there because we needed more space when the first child was born.
Holin: What elements of Shanghai make you love it?
Alex: This is something I say to everybody: basically it's the energy, the drive… it's a positive drive. Every time something new wants to come or something new is getting built, new exciting activities are arriving. So many exciting things are happening all the time. It's going forward. It’s moving forward. If you go back to Europe, nothing moves. Everything is the same. I can go back after five years and it's the same.
Holin: Do you still have something in Shanghai that you think could improve?
Alex: Obviously the traffic.
Holin: But you don't need to leave the building!
Alex: No, I don't! But when I do, it's very, very busy on the roads. That still bothers me a little bit, so nowadays I try to take the subway wherever I can, because you know that will definitely get you there by a certain time. But sometimes you can't just take the subway, sometimes you have to take a taxi or something.
Another thing — but there's not much we can do about this — I hate winter! Shanghai winter, I truly, thoroughly hate. It's not that it gets that cold, it's the type of cold. It's that cold that gets to your bones, you know? For me it's just, you can never really warm up, you get cold hands. It's like wet-cold, humid-cold. You can go somewhere where it's -15 or -20, you bundle up and you're still comfortable. Here it can be 5 degrees and you're still cold.
Holin: Compared to your country, are there any shortages in Shanghai?
Alex: Well, Belgium has like 10 million people in the entire country, while Shanghai has like 25 million. So, obviously Shanghai has everything bigger and better than Belgium has. You can eat anything you want here, you can buy anything you want if you're willing to pay for it. So, I'm very satisfied with Shanghai living. Everything I need is pretty much here. Obviously the family and everybody is happy, I like it here.
Belgium is great, if you want to retire and if you want to be in a quiet environment. Then there's good health care and everything else, but it's just not what's happening. So, Shanghai is the opposite: moving, changing, energy.
For me, I don't see any shortages, but if they could fix the traffic issue that would help. But I know it's a big city so you can't fix things 100 percent. It's gotten a lot better though, the rules have got more strict, so people are following the rules better. Shanghai is great!
Holin: Do you have any impressive memories from your whole life, until now?
Alex: That's tough, but of course having kids is something every parent will say. Having kids is something very, very special, for sure. You can't really describe what it is to have a child, it's something you made yourself. This is something very special, and then anything you do after that, it's not about you anymore, it's all about them, because you have to make sure they have what they need and they come first, most of the time.
But, having said that, I like adventure, so also my first skydive when I was 18 was amazing. First time bungee jumping, then first time diving with sharks. All that kind of stuff was amazing! The kick you get from doing that, you don’t forget that stuff!
What does Alex want to say to himself in the future? Have a look! Alex is sending a message to himself 10 years from now!