Cosmopolitan Ephs bid the U.S. farewell

Leaving the Purple Valley is hard enough, but some brave Ephs dive into the outside world by settling overseas. These alums have left their homes for new lives abroad in such international hotspots as Shanghai, Beijing, Paris and London. As Daniel Elsea ’02 said, “Living overseas – especially as a young, independent adult – adds a cosmopolitan dimension to your life that alters you in a very deep and personal way. Sure, it can be a bit unsettling, but as my grandmother says – ‘we’re young and beautiful, we can take it.’”

Beijing

As the capital of China, a cultural hub and host to the upcoming 2008 Summer Olympics, it’s no surprise alums are flocking to Beijing. Jennifer Lee ’02 spent eight months studying and working in Beijing and Hong Kong, only to return after graduation to work for the U.S. Department of Commerce, Foreign Commercial Service, based at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing.

While she visited bars and clubs more frequently during her time at Williams, these days Lee prefers to stay low-key.

“[The] work-life balance in China is much worse than in the States, perhaps due to the pace of change and development in this country,” she said. “As a working professional, I prefer coffee houses, good restaurants, just having people over for dinner . . . Rather than hit bars, I often choose to [get] foot massages. But, when I have time, I enjoy going out to the countryside to enjoy nature, hiking or camping on the Great Wall.”

Lee “absolutely” recommends moving to Beijing, for individual and professional reasons. “Beijing is a fascinating city that truly feels like the ‘center of the world’ given the amount of attention from the world and the pace of changes and breadth of opportunities,” she said. “For those who leverage these opportunities and growth, it can be a tremendous place of personal and professional growth . . . The challenge, of course, is often not getting the structure and ‘training/support’ at headquarters or in the States, but it has all been worth it for me.”

Elsea agrees, and highly recommends moving to Asia after graduation.

“As a Westerner with an education from a top notch school, you are instantly a big fish in a smaller pond,” he said. “I would think fresh Williams grads of all people are the best type of people to go out and experience that world firsthand, enjoy the personal and career rewards from it and bring the crucial knowledge or experience back to America to make sure our country is better positioned in the future.”

However, Elsea did experience some frustration in Bejing while working for famed architect Tao Ho ’60, who now lives in Hong Kong. “My relationship with Beijing is complex,” he said. “On the one hand, living there was transformative. By being there and say, not in Boston or Manhattan, I immediately advanced my career by ten years . . . On the other hand, Beijing was a challenge. The city is incredibly polluted and one has to adapt to a different way of doing things. You have to train yourself to be open-minded enough to laugh things off, to be able to laugh at bizarreness of contemporary China.”

Nevertheless, to Elsea, these cultural hurdles were less like barriers than “challenges that were a delight to meet.” After all, where else but Beijing could he hang out in Starbucks in his spare time – a Starbucks in the Forbidden city, that is. “I enjoyed going to the Forbidden City on Sundays, bringing a book, getting a latte from the Starbucks there – yes, there is one – and finding a little corner and reading throughout the day,” Elsea said.

But Scott Moskowitz ’05, a writer and editor for Asia-Weekly magazine in Beijing, has a slightly less rosy take on the culture.

“Cultural barriers are manifold, and that’s perhaps one of the most frustrating things about this place,” he said. “Society is still incredibly insular, and the rampant government-endorsed nationalism of the rising middle classes can be really straining on a friendship where you might want to talk about any significant social or political issue affecting the world. Or possibly complain about China.”

Though he finds the city “fascinating,” Moskowitz lists several negativities that come with living in Beijing.

“To summarize, Beijing is loud, incredibly polluted – the sky is very rarely blue – hot and humid in the summer, cold and dry in the winter; it smells like a combination of cigarette smoke and body odor,” he said. “Corruption is endemic and you have to fight with absolutely everyone about every small purchase or business decision because 99 percent of the time people will take every opportunity to try and rip you off. That being said, it is incredibly fascinating to live here right now. The city and the whole country is changing so fast. I doubt I will ever get to see anything like this again.”

On a day to day basis, Moskowitz enjoys spending his free time watching DVDs, going to bars with friends and studying Chinese-style wrestling.

Shanghai

Southeast of Beijing lies Shanghai, China’s commercial center. Ephs in Shanghai are exposed to a fast-paced and modern city. Richard Zhang ’07, a real estate investment analyst at Morgan Stanley, said Shanghai is “a very dynamic city that serves as China’s financial center,” with people from all over the world visiting and working there. “Things are consistently changing, which is exciting, but makes you unsettled at times,” Zhang said.

Shanghai’s westernization is apparent in its entertainment options, and in his time off, Zhang likes to take advantage of what the city has to offer. “There are always big sporting events or concerts taking place in Shanghai,” Zhang said. “For example, Shanghai has a relatively new F1 course and Tiger Woods comes to Shanghai to play in the HSBC cup . . . They showed Broadway shows such as 42nd Street and Mamma Mia. Black Eye Peas and Beyoncé are coming to Shanghai in the coming weeks, while Christina Aguilera has already performed this year. I also get massages and check-ups on sleep since it is relatively much cheaper. Golf is also relaxing for me, but it’s not like [in Williamstown] where I can just go from Spring Street to Taconic to play.”

Zhang also enjoys the wide selection of restaurants in town. His favorite spots include People’s Seven, Bar Rouge, Jade 36 and Ding Tai Fung. As for clubs, he enjoys going to Volar, Bar Rouge, Attica and Guan Di.

Like Zhang, Joe Bergeron ’01, a software developer who moved to Shanghai in 2004, appreciates the international atmosphere of the city. “Shanghai is a city with the history of Paris and the marble of New York,” he said. “It’s the most international city in China, probably the most cutthroat and to some extent a country of its own. Using it as a base and then traveling out from here has been good for me so far.”

Bergeron cites some key differences between life in the U.S. and in Shanghai. “The number of people and crowds are quite different from any place in the States,” he said. “And the side-by-side nature of poverty and wealth is also a big difference . . . But all of that is rapidly changing. China’s really doing a century of development in only a couple decades.”

The underground clubs on Hua Hai road that host international DJs and have “old-world decorated interiors that make for a great clash between the ultra-new and wicked old” are a favorite for Bergeron. In addition, he recommends the French Concession, where there are bars “created out of old estates with gorgeously manicured grounds and winding, warm interiors.” But when it comes to restaurants, Bergeron sticks to the traditional Jia Jia Tang Bao, a “tiny joint” serving xiao long bao – Chinese soup dumplings.

Bergeron encourages moving to China after graduation, for the work prospects and the culture. “Life here is always interesting and fresh and the learning opportunities are tremendous – from language, to culture, to the way business is done,” he said. “It’s one of the epicenters of global change . . . And the history of the country spans thousands of years. There’s so much to absorb!”

Paris

Rather than hit the French Concession, some Ephs choose to move to the French capital. Isaac Foster ’05 is working part time for Kaplan as a teacher and tutor. Foster chose to move to Paris after working for two years teaching middle school in New York City in Harlem. He describes life in Paris as “awesome” and spends his free time exploring the city. “I walk the whole vertical distance of Paris and then have five éclairs as a reward,” Foster said. His favorite restaurant in Paris is Fernand, at 13 rue Guisarde, near St. Germain des Pres, and jokingly said that he “will continue to go there once a week until the hostess agrees to marry me.”

The only cultural barrier Foster has encountered is the language difference and fully supports Ephs that are interested moving to Paris. “All you need is a job and an apartment,” Foster said. “Everything else will fall into place to suit your personality.”

According to Payson Cushman ’05, a lack of job was no deterrent from moving to Paris. After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America, Cushman moved to Paris a couple weeks ago to gain experience.

“As of right now I’m just kind of hanging out, trying to find a job ‘stage’ – loosely translated ‘work for free’ in French – at some restaurants in Paris just to gain some international kitchen experience,” he said. “A lot of people in the industry like to see it on your résumé, plus it’s a good reason to take off and live outside the U.S., which I’ve always believed one should try to do especially when they’re young.”

Cushman’s main troubles have been communicating in French and obtaining working papers. “It’s hard because I don’t have working papers so I either have to work under the table or work for free,” he said. “The EU and especially France are super strict about papers . . . I don’t know much French so it’s difficult to communicate with Parisians without getting some attitude. That’s really the only thing I miss about the States. That is, being able to communicate with others without any kind of language barrier.”

His advice to Ephs interested in moving abroad is to avoid his mistakes. “Using myself as an example, the best advice I can give to any future alum is to approach living abroad in the exact opposite way and actually learn the language, obtain working papers and get your shit together,” he said. “I think it would have helped ease [my] transition.”

London

Like many Ephs who are abroad, Vladimir Andonov ’05 returned to the city where he studied abroad during his junior year. Andonov used to work at the investment banking division of JP Morgan for two years in New York City and moved to the London branch three months ago. While he spends much of his time working, Andonov tries to study Mandarin and watch British comedy shows. He has also found two restaurants that he has “grown rather fond of” – La Porchetta and Masala Zone. For dessert, Andonov prefers Ben’s cookies, which he claims are worth the steep one pound per cookie price.

Andonov said he has not encountered any major social difficulties. However, he has noticed the difference in immigrant life in London as compared to the U.S. “There are a ton of Europeans hailing from all parts of the continent,” he said. “As is well known, there are big communities of Indians – many of whom are second and third generation British citizens – Pakistanis, Turks and North Africans. There are also East and South-East Asians.”

“You probably ask ‘But don’t we have all that in the U.S. as well?’” Andonov said. “The answer is – and I have found many people to agree with my assessment – that many people keep their national and cultural baggage with them as they come to London and uphold their differences, while respecting and learning from others, unlike in the U.S. where my view is that people gradually lose their firm grip on their national and cultural background – the concept of the melting pot, as it’s known.”

Andonov recommends Ephs move to London, if they can handle the steep prices. “It’s a very expensive place to live in, even by New York City standards, [especially] given the current strength of the British Pound,” he said. “But if you can flat-share or don’t mind living further away from central London, it certainly is a place I would recommend to future alums. There are plenty of job and leisure/entertainment opportunities and . . . the city is an excellent launching pad for trips across all of Europe.”

Anna Gunning ’06, a native of Chicago, is currently living in Oxford with her husband and working in London for The PBN Company as a manager.

Like Andonov, Gunning has not observed many distinctions between American and British culture. “There are differences in office and business etiquette but they are relatively minor,” she said. “There are small things. For example, I am always conscious of when I have to complain about bad customer service, as there is a tendency of being seen as a ‘pushy American,’ even if it is a situation in which an English person would complain.”

Gunning also agrees with Andonov about the living costs of staying in the London/Oxford area. “It’s very expensive to live here. In the beginning you multiply all the prices by two,” she said. “Still, they’re both really fun places to live. If you’re looking to move oversees and for a place that speaks English, then London and Oxford are great.”

As for the city of Oxford, Gunning describes it as a “cultured university town” but without the orientation around the campus. She describes it as more like NYU but older. “You can feel the history seeping through you,” Gunning said.

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