The story of Liu Lingshan and Benjamin van Well starts in a provincial city in the state of Lower Saxony. It was August 2003 when Liu, a Beijing native, decided to move to Germany. She had just finished a degree program in graphic design in China, but the prospect of working at an agency there did not appeal to her. She wanted to study German language and literature in Germany.
Liu applied and was offered a spot at the University of Braunschweig. She had never heard of the small city in Lower Saxony before, and when she arrived, the culture shock was tremendous. The shift from the megacity of 20 million to Braunschweig, which barely has a population of 250,000, was tough for her. After she arrived, she realized she definitely needed to get out and find a bigger city.
In the spring of 2004, Liu moved to Berlin and transferred to Freie Universität. Benjamin van Well had already been enrolled in a program in German language and literature toward a teaching credential for some time. The two of them first encountered each other in a seminar on Lessing’s dramas and got to know each other better on a trip to the theater with their fellow students. Not long afterward, they were a couple.
Liu and van Well finished their studies in 2008, and van Well went on to do his student teaching at a school in Berlin while Liu worked for a consulting firm. After completing his student teaching, in 2011, van Well started looking for jobs in both Germany and China. He had first visited the “Middle Kingdom” in 2006, and was fascinated right away: “I really liked China, especially Beijing. There’s a very special atmosphere there.”
Off to a good start in Beijing
The job search was successful right away, not just once, but twice over: He received one offer to teach German as a foreign language at an institute in Beijing, and another from a private school in Berlin. “It didn’t take us too long to decide,” van Well says. “China simply sounded more interesting.” Things had to go quickly at that point; he moved from Berlin to Beijing in just two weeks. Liu found a job at a consulting firm that specializes in German-Chinese industrial consulting and cultural intermediary activities. Later, she moved to a company that organizes international drama performances.
As for van Well, he has been a German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) lecturer at Peking University since September 2013 – a “dream job,” he says.
Connected with Freie Universität
But van Well and Liu have not only gained a toehold in China in professional terms; they also feel right at home there in their personal lives now, too. They are now married, and their daughter, Meihan, was born in 2013. She proudly wears a Freie Universität T-shirt at preschool. Her parents were inspired by three-year-old Chen Huaide, who was presented with a T-shirt by Professor Peter-André Alt, the president of Freie Universität, when Alt visited Beijing in April 2015. “It was clear to us that we wanted a shirt like that for our daughter, too,” van Well says. The two of them know Alt from their own studies, when he served as an examiner for both of them in his role as a professor of modern German literature before becoming president of the university.
Finishing a Doctorate despite Vast Distances
Freie Universität has continued to command van Well’s loyalty even after completing his degree program. In recent years, he has been working on his dissertation in medieval studies – no easy task, given that he is doing so from China. Most of his support and advice from medieval studies professor Elke Koch came in the form of Skype phone calls. “I got excellent advice, which was a huge help,” he says today. When he needed important research literature that was not available in Beijing, friends in Germany scanned it and sent it to him.
He traveled to Berlin in June to defend his dissertation, which is scheduled for publication in December. And that’s not all; van Well also has ties with Freie Universität in his position as a DAAD lecturer and as a member of the Chinese Freie Universität alumni group. “This keeps me in touch with Freie Universität, even beyond the academic setting,” he says.
Where does he see himself in the future? As a basic principle, in both countries. “I feel very comfortable in China right now, but it’s always a question of the job perspective, too.” His DAAD contract is set to run until 2017, with an option to renew for one year. After that, he would have to go back to Germany for two years in order to be able to work for the DAAD as a lecturer abroad again. The alternative would be to find a job teaching at another university in Beijing. But van Well and Liu can also see themselves potentially returning to Germany. “We often think about how we can do it, but we just have to see how things develop in the future,” van Well says. For his daughter, though, he definitely has a plan: “I would be very happy, of course, if Meihan were to study at Freie Universität someday.”