Caspar Welbergen was initially put off by his first trip to Beijing. As a schoolboy, he was so overwhelmed by the foreignness of this new culture that he chose to ignore China for the time being. At the time, the 38-year-old had already been taking Chinese lessons for three years. “I drove across Frankfurt to another school once a week for that, because that was the first opportunity I had to learn Chinese.”
In the meantime, Welbergen has not only overcome the culture shock, since February 2020 he has been working as the managing director of the newly founded China Education Network to ensure that students in Germany have the opportunity to experience Chinese culture. There are still far too few opportunities to make China a formative part of one’s educational biography. Welbergen believes that this does not fit in with China’s growing global importance: “There is a big discrepancy between the intensity of political and economic connection between China and Germany and the knowledge we have about China.
China does not play a role in the curricula and voluntary work in afternoon study groups or language courses is still rare at German schools. Welbergen blames German Federalism for the situation and refers to France with its greater offer of language courses.
Virtual student visits – even after Covid
According to Welbergen, the aesthetics of the language is often the entry point for young people into Chinese culture. At the beginning of his studies, he also remembered his interest in Mandarin and first took Sinology lectures as a guest. “I just stayed there” Welbergen recounts. His original major, economics, was then left with only a supporting role.
After the initial “China-shock” as a high school student, a year-long stay in Shanghai during his time at University ignited his enthusiasm for Chinese culture and especially the Chinese drive to build a future for themselves and the country. “One of the best books I’ve read about China in the past is ‘Age of Ambition’ by Evan Osnos, former China correspondent for The New Yorker,” Welbergen says. “It describes this mentality perfectly.”
Before founding the education network, Welbergen was head of the Beijing office of Mercator Foundation for six years. During this time, he built up the office, established contacts between Europe and China, and even then organized student exchanges between Germany and China. Today, the education network, which is an initiative of Mercator Foundation and the Goethe-Institut, benefits from this. Nevertheless, Covid continues to severely limit their work. “A school exchange with a trip to China will probably not be possible until next year,” says Welbergen.
To give German and Chinese students the ability to get in touch, however, the education network offers virtual encounters. Here, students record their surroundings with 360-degree cameras and guide their exchange guests digitally through their own living environment. Incidentally, this could continue to be a component in the run-up to student exchanges after Covid – this reduces the danger of being hit by a culture shock. David Renke