Blending over backwards

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 29 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 29 July, 2012, 12:00am

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Taiwanese illustrator Jimmy Liao's graphic novel A Chance of Sunshine occupies a special place in Stefan Harfich's collection of books. Sunshine, which was adapted into the 2003 Hong Kong movie Turn Left, Turn Right, touched the hearts of many with its tale of a couple leading parallel lives who become attracted to each other after a chance meeting but are constantly kept apart by odd twists of fate. But for Harfich, the story holds exceptional meaning because it reminds him very much of his own.

The regional treasurer for a multinational company, Harfich relocated from Germany a decade ago and soon afterwards met his wife, Li Ching, on a tram. Li was feeling ill and came close to fainting, so he offered his seat.

'I was quite upset as many passengers saw me but didn't help. He was reading the newspaper and noticed my pale face as he turned the page. He didn't think twice before giving me his seat. He's pretty kind-hearted,' Li says.

Harfich doesn't remember the date, but Li does, as she marked the incident in her diary: January 7, 2002. Both lived in Happy Valley at the time and ran into each other three months later at a tram stop. They struck up a pleasant conversation, exchanged e-mail addresses and kept in touch.

Then abruptly, his messages to her work and personal e-mail addresses met with complete silence.

'I also didn't meet her any more on the tram,' Harfich recalls. 'I was quite sad about that. I'd given up, thinking it happens in life sometimes. I was under the assumption that she didn't want to reply any more.'

As it turned out, Li had moved to another flat and changed jobs at about the same time, and even closed her personal e-mail account.

A year later, while meeting a friend at her former workplace, Li stopped by a workstation and found her old e-mail address was still working. Among the messages in her inbox were several from Harfich.

She contacted him, and they met for dinner. It was a memorable first date: the city was in the grip of the Sars outbreak, and both turned up in surgical masks.

They married a year later, in December 2004, and Harfich says their life together requires plenty of adjustments.

'Would I tell you it's always been happiness and a honeymoon in the past seven years? No. The cultural difference is actually quite important in such a relationship,' he says.

Given the German reputation for forthrightness, interpreting social signals was a challenge. 'I think it's true that Germans say right out what we think,' Harfich says. 'But that isn't how Chinese or East Asians communicate. Southeast Asians won't say anything, and just smile. East Asians will just say something very indirectly. You have to struggle sometimes to get what they really mean.'

But he also shattered Li's stereotypical views of Western men.

'My impression of gweilos was that they're not very serious about relationships, but he's such a family man. He pays more attention to our children than I do,' Li says. Usually dads leave most of the child-rearing to the wife and focus on being a provider, 'but he's so child-oriented, we plan everything, including our holidays, around our children.

'And although there're lots of trivial things that we disagree on, we have similar mindsets on most matters. Family happiness is more important than earning loads of money.'

In fact, Harfich has turned down attractive offers to transfer abroad and even asked for a switch in his contract so that he could be based locally: he wanted a stable environment where their children - Luisa, six, and Lukas, four - can strengthen their language skills.

'We share a lot of common values in education. The German family type and Chinese caring type make us quite close to each other,' he says.

The couple are greatly influenced by Raising Multilingual Children, Tracey Tokuhama-Espinosa's book on how parents can enhance their children's language learning, which Harfich consulted before Luisa was born. So to avoid confusion, they have adopted the one-parent, one-language approach at home - Harfich talks to the children in German and Li in Putonghua - and it has worked well so far.

Luisa and Lukas have attended Rosaryhill School's kindergarten, where they also learned English and Cantonese. But when the new academic year starts in September, Luisa will enter a local primary school.

'We've deliberately avoided international schools; we chose a local school [Po Leung Kuk Cam?es Tan Siu Lin Primary School] so that they can grow up in a more down-to-earth environment,' Harfich says.

'We want them to know that life from the beginning is in economy class and not necessarily business class. Maybe it's a stereotype, but we get the impression that kids from international schools tend to be a bit more away from reality.'

The decision is partly driven by a hope to equip Luisa and Lukas with better Chinese-language skills, which Harfich describes as 'a big asset for the future'. But ultimately, Li says, all she and her husband want is to raise independent children who pursue what they enjoy instead of being forced into doing what their parents want.