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A Voyage of Discovery
By Aly Thabet Aly Mohamed Farag | NO. 25 June 23, 2016


Aly Thabet Aly Mohamed Farag (right) at a medical expo in China (COURTESY PHOTO) 

I have spent the golden years of my life and career in China, having come to Beijing from Cairo as a 22-year-old. That was in 2008 and this is 2016, so you could call it a life-time experience.

But if I had got one mark more in my French exam in school I would not have been in Beijing. I would also not have married the love of my life and had my little daughter. I would probably be working as a taxi driver or dish washer in some Western restaurant and not have had the opportunities China gave me. I would also not have discovered the thing about Chinese that many foreigners do not know.

To go back to where it started, that was in my college days in Cairo when I wanted to learn Italian at the renowned Ain Shams University's school of languages, Al-Alsun, but could not get a seat because I had scored 48 out of 50 in my school French and I needed 49. So it was a toss-up between Chinese and Japanese. It was 2003 and in Egypt we had already started to hear about the "upcoming dragon" and the growing Chinese economy. I thought it would be a good career move to learn Chinese. Initially, there were 70 students in the class but during the four-year degree course, many dropped out, opting to study another language. There were just 50 students left. Today, I am told the same class has about 400 students.

I got my first job as a tour guide with an Egyptian-American company in Cairo. Initially, they were focusing on Western tourists but with China's economy growing, they began to look at Chinese tourists. Few Egyptians spoke Chinese then and so, when a group of Chinese tourists visited Cairo, I was asked to handle them. Just one month into the job I knew nothing about guided tours but still, there was immediate chemistry between me and a young woman from Beijing who was in the group. After they returned to China, we kept in touch by e-mail, but nothing more might have come out of it had not my company decided to send me to Beijing to open a branch there.

I came to Beijing, renewed our acquaintance and soon, we were married and our daughter was born.

Then the political crisis began in Egypt. My company went bankrupt and I found myself jobless in Beijing. It was a frustrating time. It seemed no one wanted to hire me even though I knew Chinese and Arabic, so I decided to go back to school. I enrolled at the University of International Business and Economics in Beijing and after I had obtained a degree in business administration, I got my break.

I was hired by a German-Chinese joint venture in the medical sector, and that changed all my ideas about the Chinese and Chinese work culture. That was where I learned about the real China.

In this manufacturing sector, I found another level of professionalism of the Chinese people. My colleagues were very well educated, very creative and wanted to do something. Nearly 25 of the 30 people in the office had a Master's or PhD degree and spoke several languages. Nearly 10 languages were spoken in that office, including Dutch. They were people who could work anywhere in the world. That opened my eyes to a new China.

China really gave me a lot of opportunities. In my job, I traveled around the world, to a new place almost every month. If I had not learned Chinese and been sent to China, I could have never had the life I have. Egypt's economy has been going through a bad phase and people are going abroad in search of jobs. But here, I have been given a decent opportunity and a decent career. And to crown it all, I have my wife as well as my daughter, who will turn three in July.

The author is an Egyptian currently working in Beijing

Copyedited by Sudeshna Sarkar

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