Gerry Mattios is impressed by his two young sons’ global outlook. Home is officially Beijing, yet in reality they consider “wherever they are living as home”. So when the pair – aged four and six – return to Mattios’s homeland of Greece to visit their grandparents, they believe they are going home. When they spent a year living in Australia, that became home too.
It was always the intention of Mattios and his wife to raise a family in multiple countries. The couple themselves grew up in dual cultures. Mattios lived in Athens until the age of 15 when he moved with his father’s job to Accra in Ghana. His spouse, Elisa Mallis, is a Greek-American who grew up in Miami.
Over the past seven years, Mattios has worked almost exclusively in mainland China for Chinese and multinational corporations on supply chains and sustainability in the chemicals, industrial products, automotive and technology sectors.
Most recently, he completed a master of studies qualification in sustainability leadership from Cambridge university. The Prince of Wales is patron of the Business & Sustainability Programme – which was established with the university – and works with leaders from business, government and civil society on sustainability issues.
Most of the two-year course’s workshops and lectures are delivered online but once a year Mattios spent a fortnight in Cambridge.
Britain, where he studied as an undergraduate and started his career, is reassuringly polite, he finds, and credits the country with shaping his “manners and respect”.
The course enabled Mattios to spend time pursuing research in an area of interest – the impact of trade barriers on sustainable supply chains.
He has always been curious to experience other cultures. When his father, who worked in the shipping industry, was relocated to Ghana he gave his son a choice: to stay behind in Athens, complete his education and remain with childhood friends, or move with his parents.
“I wanted to explore another place. That’s always been inside me.” Today Mattios reflects that this was a “turning point”.
“I found it easy to make friends. I discovered that I liked the challenge of forging new friendships and adapting to the local culture.”
Although he went to an international school, there was a sizeable population of Ghanaian students, so Mattios was not in an insular expat bubble but had the opportunity to make friends with locals.
Nonetheless, it was a tricky age at which to uproot from old friends, in the pre-internet era, and he had to rely on the post rather than email, Skype and Snapchat to keep in touch.
One of the biggest differences between Greece and Ghana, Mattios reflects, was the latter country’s habit of saving electricity by switching off the lights at night.
“People spent a lot of time in the dark as they wanted to save money. ‘The help’ in our house would switch off the lights and I was forever coming out of my bedroom bumping along the corridors trying to find the kitchen.”
After studying at Aston University in Birmingham, Mattios entered the consultancy business in London, where he met his wife. Seven years ago he moved to Beijing and six months later, his wife – also a consultant – secured a job in China and followed him over. “The logistics were hard, though not insurmountable,” he says.
His ambition to work in Asia was not just to learn about the culture but to be involved with “the growth story. It’s exciting being part of the action”.
There are more people coming over to China to start their careers, just like I did in England 20 years ago
When the couple arrived in China in 2007, there were huge numbers of foreigners working on projects related to the Olympic Games (held in Beijing in 2008). Mattios says the expat population has changed during his time there. Today, he says, foreign workers are much younger. “There are more people coming over to China to start their careers, just like I did in England 20 years ago.”
Mattios says he is often contacted by friends and family, hoping he can set up their young offspring with work experience placements or places to stay in China.
While his social life has changed considerably since having children, he says that they provided a route into a different social network, and they have managed to meet other people through school.
The family lives in a compound in the area surrounding Chaoyang Park – Beijing’s largest park – which is located on the site of the former Prince’s Palace in Chaoyang District, home to foreign embassies and multinational businesses.
The two boys speak Mandarin more fluently than their parents. “I talk enough of it to get by but my children help me if I can’t think of a word.”
The family has a mix of friends from various nationalities. Plugging in to new social networks, Mattios says, was quite straightforward – he found it quite easy to meet people at clubs and conferences, as well as at the children’s school.
His advice for expats is “to get out there – sign up to clubs, sign up to school boards. I consistently pushed myself to meet people”.
Beijing has a lot to offer, particularly when it comes to history, and the family also tries to venture out to the countryside as often as possible. Mattios points out that a lot of nice hotels have sprung up outside the city.
In addition, he says China is a great base from which to explore the rest of Asia and the geography means that Vietnam and Cambodia make for easy family holidays.
In terms of his long-term plans, Mattios is content to stay in China for the time being. “I can never think forever.”
Emma Jacobs is a features writer for the FT and author of the Working Lives column
What you can buy for . . .
$500,000 A one-bedroom duplex home in the central business district
$1m A three-bedroom suburban villa
$2m A three to four-bedroom apartment in Chaoyang District
Mattios’s verdict . . .
● The opportunity to meet a range of nationalities
● Ability to employ domestic help means Mattios can focus on work
● It is a great place to raise children
● Smoke and smog
● Traffic in Beijing is quite heavy
● Distance from family (US/Greece)
The Great Wall is vast with breathtaking views and offers a pleasing antidote to the bustling city
The Hutongs – for vibrant street life
Skiing is just an hour’s drive away from Beijing