The Nixon connection

Updated: 2013-01-25 09:37

By Diao Ying (China Daily)

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The Nixon connection

Gerald Beroud believes his long association with China has made him less egocentric and more modest. Provided to China Daily

From a classroom talk on China to one of Switzerland's foremost experts on the country, Gerald Beroud's life has had an intimate connection with the Far East

Gerald Beroud's first connection with China was in 1972, as a 15-year-old boy, talking to his class in Lausanne, Switzerland, about US president Nixon's first visit there. Now, more than 40 years on, he is one of the country's foremost experts on China and makes a living helping people better understand it. "It was like fate," he says, recalling his classroom talk.

Beroud runs SinOptic, a company offering information and services focused on relations between Switzerland and China. When he launched the company in 1998 it was the only one of its kind in Switzerland.

While Beroud's first contact with China was as a boy, his true connection with the country did not begin until he was 29. After graduating with a degree in sociology, Beroud took a job doing research on substance-abuse problems. Then in 1986, he received a call from his sister, asking him if he'd like to attend the International Esperanto Conference in Beijing. Beroud took up the invitation, and then traveled on to Kunming and Tianjin. During his trip, he says, he was impressed by the kindness of the people he encountered.

"When I came back from China, I felt I was an ignorant person. I did not know anything about China," he says.

To better understand the country, he decided to learn Mandarin and placed an advertisement for a teacher in a local newspaper. For two years he met his teacher, a student from Nanjing once or twice a week, and then in 1989 he decided to move to Geneva to pursue Chinese studies besides his work.

In 1998 Beroud launched SinOptic alongside a website offering information on China, including reports on politics, culture, economics and sports, as well as practical information for travel there.

There was little information on China available at the time and Beroud was forced to find unlikely sources.

"The first lesson I took from managing the website was to discover the profound relations that you would not notice otherwise," he says.

These included an acquaintance who had worked with a Chinese company some years before, and a neighbor who practiced taijiquan.

He also received permission from the Swiss embassy to distribute press releases regarding China on his website.

In addition to the information service, Beroud branched out into translation, and partnered with business and government in matters related to China.

His work took him to China many times and over the years he has visited every province apart from Hainan, which he will go to in February. Beroud has visited China's largest metropolises as well as small villages.

During his travels he has also maintained an interest in his earlier career, visiting rehabilitation centers and hospitals.

He has witnessed the changing face of Switzerland-China business relations. In the early days only large Swiss firms operated in China, but now many small and medium-sized businesses are beginning to enter the market there.

"The scope of economic activity is larger and larger, and they are in many different fields," he says.

He also sees more Chinese companies coming to Switzerland, including Bank of China and Huawei.

As a result his work has become broader and more diverse. In 2003, he recently received an inquiry about good lakes in China for ice sailing.

"Your brain must be very well organized," he says. "There are many small boxes and you need to put the right information in each box."

Unlike the early days of his business, there is now an abundance of China information in books and online.

"Now there is so much information that it is difficult to have a good overview of what China is like," he says.

This makes it harder to find good reliable information, according to Beroud, but he weeds out the best through attending conferences, trips to China, newspapers and contacts.

Beroud believes his long association with China has changed him over the years. Dealing with another culture has made him less egocentric.

"You have to become more modest, and realize that your own way of living and thinking is relative," he says. "It is one truth among other truths, but it is not the only truth."

His work has changed the way he thinks and acts. For example, Beroud now writes dates and addresses the Chinese way, starting from the larger or more general and working down to the smaller or more specific.

"It is also a different way of thinking, from general to specific," he says. "It balances our own way of thinking."

Aside from learning about China, Beroud says his work has also taught him much about Switzerland.

"I have the chance to meet people I would have no chance to meet otherwise, and discover the skills of Swiss companies and people that I would not know," he says. "It's like it opens a window for me."

(China Daily 01/25/2013 page29)