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Roman Kierst – a storyteller with an eye for common ground

Roman Kierst works at the Goethe-Institut in Beijing and is responsible for the German-language section of yì magazìns.

As a student, Roman Kierst initially wanted to go to the USA. On his way to an interview for a student exchange program in the States, he saw a poster advertising a short exchange program to China. “That kind of appealed to me – and it was really cheap,” he recalls. At home, he told his stunned mother that he absolutely had to go to China now. And that’s how it all began: At 16, Kierst spent a month in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province.

“I can still remember the first evening in the host family. I first noticed the other, the supposedly foreign. And I think that’s also part of being human, you’re fixated on the other, you look for it.” However, in everyday life in the Chinese family and among his classmates, he quickly realized that things were not so strange, that they were actually all very similar.

All are equal when playing Counterstrike

“Of course, it looked different in Chengdu than at home in NRW. A different language was spoken, the city smelled different and felt different. But the fundamental experience, which I continued to have afterwards until today, is an experience of being together.” Kierst’s classmates in Chengdu had the same fears about the future, the same excitement about first crushes and first relationships. “When we played Counterstrike together, we got excited about the same things,” he says, laughing.

In the years that followed, Kierst traveled to China again and again, eventually studying Chinese studies in Berlin and London. One question ran like a thread through the years of study: What is it actually, the foreign? “There is no sum of objective characteristics that make up the foreign or the common – it has to do with our perception,” says Kierst. Today, he is particularly interested in how we can sharpen our perception of what we have in common.

Everyday life stories from China

After graduating, Kierst took a position at the Goethe-Institut in Beijing and, together with two colleagues, founded yì magazìn, which is financed with funds from the institute. “The magazine is an attempt to show similarities between China and Germany and to raise awareness of them.”

The articles on the website are lined up on large tiles with vivid images. Sometimes it’s about a Chinese writer talking about his childhood, sometimes about the nightlife of Beijing’s Wudaokou nightlife district. “We tell the small stories that have no place in the big press,” says Kierst, who is responsible for the German-language section and also writes articles himself. The big and the foreign are broken down to the personal, the close.

The 32-year-old has now been living and working in Beijing for four years – a return to Germany is not yet in sight. “Of course, the situation is not easy,” says Kierst. The zero-Covid policy is exhausting; his freedom of movement is restricted. He has not seen his family for two and a half years, he says. “Whenever there are particularly negative reports about China at the moment, my mother asks what I’m actually doing here.” But Kierst likes living here, has built close friendships – and brought his love of techno with him from Berlin. “People celebrate this kind of music here just as they do in Berlin.” Svenja Napp

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