Article by Christina R. Roca

Moving to China is a big deal. Even for those who have studied the language, or felt drawn to the culture, or had travelled here before, living in China can be a challenge! Surely, your friends and family back home have asked you: “Why China?” Or, in my case, starting my third year here in Xian: “Why are you still living there?” They see China as being the most far-fetched choice we could have made to start a new life and career!

My answer to this question has always been that China is the future; that China has so much potential! But why is that? And why are people from around the world coming here, breaking the mould, pushing boundaries and choosing to get working experience, pursue their dream career or change jobs completely?
Or in other words, why are we so attracted to the Celestial Empire to build up a career and live another type of human experience?

Steeve Gerotto works for the Kempinski hotel as a Management Trainee in the Food and Beverage department. He has been chosen to help bring a western touch to the Paulaner restaurant, a German micro-brewery. Steeve was gracious enough to tell me about his bold move from Switzerland to Xi’an.

CHR: First things first: tell us about you! What is your educational and professional background?

Steeve: I have graduated from L’Ecole Hôtellerie de Lausanne (EHL) in Switzerland. I have always loved the hotel and food service industry. I think it is mainly due to my love for travelling and gastronomy at a very young age. My university combined the knowledge I needed to be able to work in a hotel, and specifically in the food and beverage area that I preferred and the management skills to run such an establishment.
I was able to learn the job through various internships and part-time jobs in this sector during my curriculum, which strengthened my choice: working in a five-star restaurant was definitely for me!

CHR: After graduating from this prestigious Hotel Management School, where did that take you?

Steeve: I was offered a great opportunity to work for a new five-star hotel in Africa. This opportunity fell through due to the project never materializing…but having kept good contacts in the company, I was quickly referred to another hotel, the Kempinski in Xi’an. It was really unexpected!

CHR: So from Africa, you were offered to go to China, two totally different countries. When you were given this new opportunity, how did you react?
Steeve: Well, I was just glad to have something else handed over to me, to be honest! (laughs) But seriously, I was really enthusiastic! My contact at the Kempinski knew I wanted to go abroad and live something different. He saw I was willing to challenge myself. Africa did not seem to be such a big challenge, in a way, having been colonized by Europeans in the past; whereas China, it was the other side of the world to me! When someone with such influence tells you that you have what it takes to go to China, you cannot refuse!

CHR: How about your family and friends? How did they react?

Steeve: It all went really fast! I was offered this opportunity and six weeks later, I was here. It did not really sink in until I was on the plane! But from my family and friends, I got different reactions. I am lucky to have supportive parents, who were like “Why not?”. My best friend was pretty much the same, encouraging me. However, my other best fiend, she did not see going to China as an opportunity, but more as an unnecessary challenge. She got more supportive as time past, seeing how determined I was. So blind support, but also undisclosed confusion and doubts. I don’t think a lot of them really saw my next move as being the obvious choice because a lot of people, including myself at the time, do not know what China has become!

CHR: Clearly. Now let’s go back to your current position. You were offered a Management Trainee position to come here; however, you were offered an Assistant Manager position in Africa. Why did you agree to be “downgraded,” in a way?

Steeve: I did not really know the difference at the time, having just graduated. I just assumed it was the kind of contract that I could get in China due to my actual experience. It seems to be the kind of contract they give to foreigners who do not speak Chinese or have little experience in the industry. A one-year management trainee contract gives you the credibility you need to evolve fast in this sector. And you know, if you start thinking about the long term and saving money when you pounder on your next career move, you are just putting unnecessary boundaries and miss out on life.

CHR: So when you started looking into your next destination, you realized China was a great opportunity for your career?

Steeve: Not really. Not at first. I saw it as an opportunity and a challenge, but not because it was China, but because I was going to work for a renown international brand, a five-star hotel and for a General Manager who believed in me and who would push me forward. I knew I was in good hands. The destination was unreal to me, having no reference to compare it to. I was definitely stepping into the unknown. It was exciting! Like an adventure!

CHR: Would you describe yourself as being an adventurer?

Steeve: (laughs) I did not know before I left that this opportunity was huge. So, yeah, that was a real bold move and adventurous! I wanted to put on my resume the cultural adaptation I was going to be facing, as well as the human experience I was longing for. But little did I know it would be so much more! Staying another year to consolidate my professional experience and learn more about this captivating country and the language seems to be an obvious next step.

CHR: Interesting evolution after only six months here. From not being totally aware to wanting to stay longer…

Steeve: If I remember correctly what I read a few days ago, 600,000 Chinese tourists came to Switzerland in 2012. And that number represented a 25% increase on the previous year (Switzerland Tourism, 2013).
In ten years, the number of Chinese tourists is said to quadruple, according to that same article. It’s impressive and that definitely shows that whatever experiences you get in China, your next employers will value that. You are facing the guest and greatly learn from that experience. You will bring back more than just reading trends and surveys about how Chinese consumers and tourists behave.

CHR: Can you give us a concrete example of what you have learnt so far, serving Chinese guests in a Western restaurant?

Steeve: We had an event last month, on a Friday night. More than 50 people, quite a big deal. We prepared so many things for them, even gifts to hand out after the dinner. After a six-course dinner, we did not expect all the guest to leave all of a sudden, as if in a hurry…In Europe, such a dinner lasts around 4 to 5 hours, with guests still remaining at their seats after the dessert. In China, at 9:30pm, it’s time to leave and go home. In the end, we did not give them their presents!

CHR: (laughs) Yes that is typical!

Steeve: Okay, but then, if it is something that people know once living here, it is another thing to know how to bypass that, or transmit another way of dining to them. And being creative is my job!

I believe China is at a turning point when it comes to their behaviour towards food and service standards, and especially now that China is more and more open to other flavours and other cultures, due to the middle- and upper-classes emerging. It is fascinating and now I see China as a challenge I want to take on!

The views or opinions presented in this article are solely those of Steeve Gerotto, and do not necessarily represent those of Kempinski