The story of The Little Mermaid in Chinese

The population that now occupies the remains of the 13th century city centre of Elsinore, Denmark and its two coastal suburbs adds up to around 46,000 people. Apart from the majority ethnic Danish community, the town gives home to the region’s biggest Roma community as well as other migrants – many of them Muslim – who have settled here since the 1980s. A smaller number of Eastern-Europeans and even fewer people coming from Asia come to work in the town which is only 40 minutes drive from Copenhagen.

Qin Dency Yao works for a renowned Danish company in this area. The company made an international career from a small Danish family business within less than a half century and worked itself up among the market leaders of its field. Dency holds an important position there, blending managerial confidence with a natural cheerfulness. The reader of the interview below might imagine her smiling even when she is telling the most sober details about her childhood. When we meet in a small corner café in Elsinore’s downtown area, the Chinese New Year is approaching and she is preparing to go home for the first time since she started  living and working here.

We agreed that you would bring two objects: one related to China and one related to Denmark. But it seems it is really hard to distinguish them. Can I ask for a little explanation?

This clutch is made of Chinese silk: an old, traditional fabric, probably it was once some elegant mantle. And the embroideries echo the Christmas symbols – we do like Christian feasts as well, so I cannot see why we should keep distance.

And the other one is a book of fairy-tales.

It is the tales of H. C. Andersen in Chinese, my childhood’s favourites. I liked the story of The Little Mermaid most and I dreamt of getting once to Denmark to see where this story was written. When I was born, in the seventies, this was not a realistic aim at all. Wuhan, the city I come from, is a big one, but in the middle of China, very slowly developing and not offering too many opportunities. On the top of that, I am the eldest of three children in a poor farmers’ family. Just to give you an example: this candle here on the table – we could afford to light one only on exceptional days of celebration. Otherwise we would pour oil into a cup, put a thread into it and lit that. The smell was awful. And the way to get out of that was to learn.

We have this preconception that In Asian countries it is much harder to enter the university or have a professional career if you are a woman.

It used to be like that, but for my generation onwards it is not true anymore; I had more female classmates than male ones. It was all about passing very hard exams from early childhood and working your way up to get more and more education. The population is vast; there is a fierce competition for each and every threshold. I recall my student life as being horrible. Chinese students learn fifteen-sixteen hours a day. Children from the kindergarten are taken to several extra classes of dance, Maths, English, piano, and all possible extra lessons – at a very young age, that is exhausting.

Qin Dency Yao, photograph by Rita Sebestyén

Qin Dency Yao, photograph by Rita Sebestyén

Did you go through the same experience?

No, my family could not afford any extra classes, we were focussing on school. My mother would follow all my results and if I was not the best in all of the subjects she got really angry with me.  I am the eldest child in the family, so the pressure was especially high on me. Six years of elementary school, three years of middle-school, another three in high-school and then came the most severe examination for the university. I passed it, so I did four more years to take a Bachelor degree in Mechanic Engineering and after that I was offered to continue the Master degree without any examination.

If you were the eminent student why didn’t you pursue a career as a scholar?

Actually, lots of my female classmates started their PhD programme, and I was also about to do the same thing, but I had mixed feelings about it as I was calculating that I had spent nineteen years studying, and if I had continued it would have been half of my life spent in schools. So I just tried my chances when one of my favourite teachers told me that in Zhuhai – a small, but very emerging coastal town where this Danish company has a plant – was recruiting engineers.

So this was your first workplace?

The very first one, in 2003; I went through a series of interviews and then employed and I have been working with the same company since then.

We can say that you actually socialized as a Danish workforce. Have you realized any difference between the requirements of your Danish employer and the training you received in the Chinese education system?

Not at all. The company lays emphasis on practical issues, so once my work experience was accumulated here, I have never had problems with overcoming different terms and conditions or gaps in knowledge.

I suppose there is quite a big difference between Chinese and Western companies.

In China there are national and private companies as well. The salaries might be higher there than at a Western company…

You mean that one can earn more at a Chinese company than at a Western company?

Well, rules are not so strict, especially in the case of private Chinese companies, and yes, you can easily work day and night and get a high salary for that. Stress level is also very high. On the other hand, really good and reliable working conditions and transparent relationships are what a Western company can offer.

What was most astonishing for you when you first came to Denmark?

Only a year after I was employed I had to come here for a fifteen-days training. That was the first time I have travelled by plane and the first time I have been abroad, too. The cold and the snow was the most astonishing. I was freezing and I was amazed that I could not buy seafood nearby the sea. In Zhuhai one can eat crabs, fish, mussels, whatever caught in the sea on every corner, but here this is not possible due to some very strict fishing regulations, as I was explained. Also, I amazed people by ordering hot water in the restaurant. Not coffee or tea, only hot water. We usually drink hot water when it is freezing out, so I did not have given up this habit since then and keep people getting amazed when I have my cup of hot water. I also brought a huge amount of Chinese fast food – noodle soup, for example – and I preferred to eat that.

When did you decide that you want to continue work and life here?

Last year there was a three-month long project here I took part in. The work went really well, and there was a vacancy exactly that time at the department, so I was asked by the Danish boss if I wanted to apply for that. I went home, discussed it with my family, who were very supportive, and I came back and got the job.

What did you miss the most during the last eight month since you have been here?

Actually, I am a very optimistic and easy-going person, so I think that generally I fit in here and I feel really good about it. All the weekdays are all right. Sometimes at weekends I go out with one of my Chinese friends and I socialize with other expats, too. I feel that people are nice here with strangers. But during big Chinese feasts – there was an almost one month long autumn festival, for example, since I was here – I miss my family very much, and sometimes my friends, too. Now I go back for four weeks for the New Year’s celebrations and I can hardly wait to be with them.

How long are you planning to stay in Denmark?

Definitely for a few years at least, and then I will see. Coming here was a big decision, anyway. In spite of the fact that my husband is a highly educated academic scholar in an acclaimed field, he could not take on the same wave of change so now I go back to sign for the divorce papers, too. But it is all fine. We keep our fingers crossed for each other.

How do you imagine your future here?

I prefer not to plan too much ahead. Work is safe, enjoyable and I get on well with my colleagues. This is very important. Besides that, after being part of crowd – so much crowd – I just enjoy being on my own.

One comment

  1. I like my story. Thanks Rita. 🙂


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