Stephan Wudy is a third culture kid who was born in Germany to a Taiwanese mother and an Austrian father. He speaks four languages—Mandarin, German, English and Spanish—and feels happiest when traveling. Two years ago he quit his job to spend over a year traveling around the world. And he still travels every chance he gets even though he is back in Germany working full time while getting his executive MBA. When I asked him where he would ideally like to live, he told me he would gladly live anywhere in the world.
I sat down with Stephan on his recent vacation in the U.S. and Mexico to ask him some questions about his upbringing. Since he is someone that easily drifts between cultures and languages—qualities I would love my own children to have—I wanted to know what he believed his parents did right in raising him to be the happy global citizen he is today.
“ My dad made it very clear
that it was good to be different. ”
How did your parents come to settle in Germany?
My dad was working in Frankfurt and my Taiwanese grandfather came and was working for the Taiwanese trade agency so this is how my mom came to Frankfurt, when she was in her mid-twenties. My father is 10 years older and he had a kind of adopted child. See, my dad’s best friend got pregnant and the father of the child left so my dad said he would help take care of the child. My dad grew up without a father as he lost his dad during World War II. And it was uncommon in the seventies to be a single parent so he didn’t want his friend to be a single mom. So he helped raise this child. She calls my dad “dad,” I call her “sister.” She doesn’t look like us at all as she’s half German and half Arab. Anyway, my mom met my dad by babysitting this child.
What languages did you grow up speaking?
My mom spoke to me in Mandarin and my dad in German. I would always be reminded to respond in Mandarin. We had strict rules in the house about language and as soon as dad came home from work, dinner was in German.
My parents speak German together. My dad doesn’t speak any Chinese.
How did your mom enforce Mandarin?
By not giving up on speaking Mandarin to us. And my dad, although he didn’t speak any Chinese, supported it. My dad kept reminding my mom to speak Chinese with the kids. I actually have to give the credit to my dad as my mom probably would have given up after a while.
I also went to Chinese school every Saturday from the time I was in preschool until I was a teenager. And when I was 15, my parents sent me to a Shaolin-type monastery in China for six months for the language and the culture.
“ Because I grew up bilingual, you get the mindset that languages are important. ”
Was there a big Chinese community in Frankfurt growing up?
There was enough of one to found a Chinese school. My mom was really involved in this school as she was the director. I embarrassed her as I had to redo first grade two or three times, I just didn’t care. I felt like I was too cool for Chinese school. It was every Saturday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m and I just wanted to be playing soccer. So I would go to Chinese school, change in the bathroom, sneak out to play soccer and then sneak back in. One day my dad caught me in my soccer shoes and hit me three times in front of everyone. I didn’t do it again.
Did you feel different growing up?
I felt different sometimes. For example, if you get your ham and cheese sandwich for school, I would have ham, cheese and ginger. And if I ate spaghetti Bolognese there would be ginger in it as well. And you could not tell my mom to leave the ginger out—she would be offended. So no one wanted my sandwich at school!
But it was nothing serious, just those little things here and there. My dad also made it very clear that it was good to be different and international.
When I was five I knew we were a little different from other families as we never did the typical German things. So I never had a problem being a little different.
Tell me about how you came to speak all your languages.
German was always stronger but Mandarin was a native language as well. I started learning English in school in fifth grade. And my mom’s sister married an American army dude and they lived in Germany on an army base so I had English-speaking cousins and loved visiting the army base.
I spent my junior year of high school in the U.S. I wanted to travel and go abroad. I was all by myself in Florida with a car and my dad’s credit card—it doesn’t get any better at that age! After the Florida high school year, English became a main language for me as well.
I started Spanish in eighth grade until the 13th grade—we have 13 grades in Germany. Then I didn’t speak it for two years of university. I almost lost it completely. Then I decided to go to Spain on an exchange program in college cause I wanted to get the Spanish thing going. After I came back from the semester in Spain, I could have a conversation in Spanish.
Also because I grew up bilingual, you get the mindset that languages are important.
We also had French in school from fifth grade until the 13th grade. So I had many years of French and had almost straight As. But I don’t speak a single word. You have to go to the country and stay there for several months. That’s the only way to speak.
For having learned French for eight years in school, that’s not the best record.
Where do you feel most at home?
Germany I would say but throughout the years I’m becoming more and more Asian in mindset.
It has something to do with the economic rise of Asia. Also it has to do with Asia being more present these days. There’s no way around not doing business with Asia. So when your country is doing well you feel more proud. Food wise I eat everything but in particular I love Asian food.
But I could live almost anywhere in the world. I’m pretty adaptable. Having parents from two different cultures made me more adaptable. If I look at some of my German friends—like one of my buddies from kindergarten—the life he is living, there is no way I could do this. I am not judging him but I would not want this lifestyle. For example, he can do the same thing for weeks and weeks—go to work come home, play soccer Saturday night, Sunday night you drink beer. I can do this too but after three or four months I need a holiday and to travel. I was never more than three months in a row in Germany. My friend, if given a choice between a sabbatical to travel or a Porsche, would buy a Porsche. A Porsche you can touch and when you travel the money is gone. I would travel.
When we were in Germany, we always made fun of this German behavior (and I was born there!). You have to do stupid spontaneous things sometimes. You don’t have to plan everything. This you only get when you’re not in Germany.
What’s the best thing your parents did for you language and culture wise?
To give me both sides. Let’s take religion as an example. My mom is Buddhist, not very strict but still Buddhist as for the Chinese, religion played a secondary role since it’s communist. My dad of course is Catholic coming from Austria. My grandmother would go to church twice per week. I was not baptized right away and my grandmother didn’t talk to my dad for two years.
My dad had this quite modern way of thinking. He really insisted on both cultures and languages. He was really the one who enforced them both.
Were you ever resistant or embarrassed to speak Chinese with your mom in front of your friends?
Never. In Germany you are pretty well integrated as a foreigner. It was normal to have Turkish guys, Moroccan guys, Yugoslavian, etc as friends. There is more of a mix here in the U.S. but it is less integrated then Germany. In Germany no one would ever ask you about your race. It’s actually forbidden to fill out your race in forms. They might ask you what country you are from, but not your race.
When I lived in the US, every other day I felt like had to fill out something that asked me what race I was. In high school in the U.S., you found the Hispanics hanging out with Hispanics, Asians with Asians and blacks with blacks. Germany was more integrated.
Have you had any negative experiences with your heritage?
Yeah. People always assume that I must be Thai. They think that my dad couldn’t get a wife so he went to Thailand and found one. People will ask if my parents are still together, thinking they must not be. That’s the common stereotype. People assume I came from an unwanted marriage. You can see it in the questions they ask.
Thanks so much Stephan for taking the time to talk with me and share your experiences!