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German Hans-Christian Marxen believes he lives a picture-perfect life in Nanjing.
The city’s European Union Chamber of Commerce board chair, who documents his Chinese odyssey in self-published photographic books, says he and his wife have never felt disheartened with their lives in the city since arriving in 2005.
“Everyone said we’d have ups and downs, but we never did. We never had any regrets,” the 54-year-old says, tapping on his picture book from 2008.
“The main reason for this, for us, is the people.”
Thumbing through the book, there are a few landscape photos, but most of the images are of Chinese friends, people whom the couple work with, or have met on their travels.
The idea comes from Apple iPhoto, which enables people to design their own picture books and are sent to the company for publishing. But he soon found local publishers would make the books for a tenth of Apple’s price.
“You can give this to your family and show them how you live in China,” Marxen says.
He makes at least one book a year and distributes about 20 copies to friends and family. He also published a special edition about the Olympics last year, in addition to his annual book.
His pictorial from 2008 shows pictures of a cultural festival, a girl with disabilities whom the couple sponsored from Sichuan province’s quake zone, and snapshots from the annual Christmas party the couple hosts at their home.
The couple stays true to German tradition and prepare cakes and gluvine (spiced wine) from their homeland for their Chinese friends.
“I learn about Chinese culture here but I want to make it an exchange, so (Chinese) also learn about German culture,” Marxen says.
But reciprocation can sometimes be difficult, he explains.
“I feel like all foreigners here like Chinese food, but very few Chinese people like German food,” he says with a smile.
Marxen also appreciates the way local people eat and is particularly fond of Nanjing’s casual approach to dining, as formal dinners are usual in his homeland.
The best part of living in the city, he says, is the friendships he has formed with local residents.
He remembers how touched he was when a close friend gave him free tickets to the Beijing Olympics. He enjoyed a front-row seat in the Bird’s Nest near the starting line on the day Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt made racing history.
“This was real friendship; there was nothing expected in return,” he says.
“It had nothing to do with guanxi (networking), and I’ll never forget it – ever.”
Marxen says that because he has formed such strong bonds with local people, he feels comfortable speaking candidly with them.
“If I really like someone, I feel I have the right to criticize them,” Marxen says.
“I wouldn’t do this with something or someone I didn’t care about.”
When the couple has free time they peruse local historical sites, stroll through parks and enjoy the abundant lakes and rivers – a feature of the city that reminds them of their hometowns in northern Germany.
“Nanjing is an ideal place for a foreigner,” Marxen says. “We call it our second home.”