Vann at the Isemarkt.

In Hamburg by accident or design?

Sihavann’s very first impression of Europe was the descent into Hamburg airport. The parks and gardens, the trees, the houses with their colourful roofs. “I couldn’t believe that the houses really look like that. It was just like I’d seen on TV. Really cute!” says the Cambodian design student.

A world away from the concrete jungle and surrounding paddy fields that he left behind in Phnom Penh, I met Sihavann – or Vann for short – in Eppendorfer Baum where we went for a coffee followed by a walk through the Isemarkt, a weekly market under an iron bridge.

I was curious to find out whether the design student is in Hamburg by – excuse the pun – accident or design. In other words: why Hamburg?

Vann at the Isemarkt
Vann at the Isemarkt.

Friends of the family

Vann’s first visit to Hamburg was in summer 2012. Back in Cambodia he and his family made friends with someone from Hamburg, who was visiting Phnom Penh with a friend. They got on so well that they suggested Vann visit Hamburg, inviting him to stay at their place. Before then, he had heard of Hamburg but didn’t know anything about it at all, except that it was somewhere in Germany.

His visit lasted about one month and he was impressed by the city’s pleasant environment and its culture:

Hamburg is an inspiring place for a designer.

At that time he was studying Communication Design in Cambodia.

Education in Germany’s media capital

Vann was looking to study abroad because he felt the quality of the education would be better. After leaving Hamburg he read up about the city on the web, finding information in ex-pats’ forums. He found out that Hamburg is Germany’s “media capital” and a good place to study design. But in order to study here he had to find a university that would accept his Cambodian qualifications: public universities wouldn’t have recognised his school qualifications, meaning he would otherwise have to take a High School Diploma.

The Design Factory International in Altona, a private university, allowed him to start in the third semester without having to repeat the part of his degree that he had already completed at home. There he takes courses in graphic design, packaging design, web design, art direction, branding and more. He moved to Hamburg at the end of August 2013 and will be staying for the next two-and-a-half years.

Favourite neighbourhoods

Vann lives with a friend in Winterhude. What are his favourite neighbourhoods in Hamburg?

My favourite part of the city is the Stadtpark. It’s really big! In Cambodia, parks are different. They are not as big, and not completely covered in grass. Similarly to what Mélanie said about France, you’re not allowed to walk on the grass. In Hamburg people have barbecues and picnics in summer.

He also likes the Schanze, a trendy area of Hamburg that has a strong alternative scene. For him, the multicultural nature of the area around the Schanze, Altona and the Reeperbahn make him feel more comfortable.

It’s easier to fit in when not everybody looks typically European.

But his affection for the Reeperbahn, which is Hamburg’s red light and night-life district, is limited because he says it is dirty and unsafe at night.

Vann overlooking a canal in Eppendorfer Baum
Vann overlooking a canal in Eppendorfer Baum, one of Hamburg’s more affluent areas.

On the subject of multiculturalism, I asked Vann about the differences between German and Cambodian culture:

I don’t know where to start! Maybe with the food – I’m not used to eating lots of bread and potatoes like people do here. At Asian restaurants here you only get a small portion of rice, but the meal is overall bigger. In Cambodia you eat lots of rice and the meal itself is smaller.

Vann hasn’t found any Cambodian restaurants yet, but he is able to get all the ingredients he needs when he wants to cook Cambodian-style.

He says people in Cambodia are more shy and polite than in Germany. He notices in class that students here are more confident in asking questions, and also are more concentrated:

At my old university, students didn’t pay as much attention during the presentation or lecture.

We stopped for a few snapshots outside one of the vegetable stalls.

Despite speaking excellent German – we spoke in German whilst walking through the Isemarkt and I was surprised how good it was considering he had only learned it for one year before coming here at the Goethe Institut in Phnom Penh – he says that language is a barrier:

I usually speak English to other students and teachers, but the students’ English isn’t always great. It’s sometimes difficult to understand the public transport system or announcements without knowing good German – there are few signs in English.

He finds making friends at university difficult here, but they are gradually opening up now. Back home he found it much easier to make friends.

One unsurprising cultural difference: the Germans are more punctual than Cambodians. In Cambodia, it is not unusual for somebody to come to an appointment 30 minutes late. (I should add that Vann was perfectly on time for our meeting!)

As Vann is studying Communication Design, I was curious to find out whether there are cultural differences that have to be taken into account when communicating with people in Cambodia or Europe:

In Cambodia, advertising has to be more direct and concrete. Here, advertising can be more abstract and people will know what message is intended. In Cambodia, people might have a hard time understanding the concept.

I asked him to think of an example, so we did a quick Google search and found this: a McDonald’s advert that is clearly trying to communicate that McDonald’s products are fresh. (You have to scroll down to the bus stop poster showing salad behind glass condensation-covered glass.)

In Cambodia most ads are not that minimal, yet creative. The locals (usually older people) might not understand them because they aren’t used to seeing such ads.

The ideal city

It’s not only the culture that makes Cambodia feel far away, but visiting family is difficult. Vann plans to visit home about once per year whilst in Hamburg. Visa restrictions and lack of annual leave make it very difficult for his family to visit. They do have time off work in Cambodia, but are unable to take this time in blocks because there are lots of bank holidays that are distributed over the year.

Generally, Vann would find life easier if there were more Cambodian people in Hamburg:

I haven’t met any Cambodian people yet. I met a guy whose parents are Cambodian, and who speaks a bit of Khmer. But he’s more German than Cambodian. And then some Germans who had worked as aid workers in Cambodia. They spoke good Khmer.

He says there are more people from countries surrounding Cambodia like Thailand – but they are mostly here for business.

Near Hoheluftbrücke
At the end of the Isemarkt, across the road from Hoheluftbrücke underground station. (Incidentally, this area is the most densely populated in Germany.)

I asked Vann which city he would most like to live in, and why. He’s been to Paris, Rome, Barcelona, Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam and his favourite is Singapore. One of the reasons is proximity to his family, but the cleanliness and security are attractive for him:

The environment in Singapore is very clean, and security in the country is good. There are lots of malls but also food-hawkers selling tasty traditional food. The downside is that it is, in parts, very artificial.

Designing the perfect city

Vann’s decision to come to Hamburg was a mixture of accident and design – it was by coincidence that he stumbled upon Hamburg, but following his research he made a conscious decision to come here to study.

It was because someone from Hamburg visited Cambodia that Vann met – in his own words – his “second family in Germany”, internationals writing online in English that helped Vann make the decision to come here, and Hamburg’s status as a media city that made it the perfect place for him to learn his trade. His university’s openness to his qualifications enabled him to study here. Whether by accident or design, Vann is only here because Hamburg lived up to its own claim to be the Tor zur Welt: the gate to the world.

Now that he’s here, multiculturalism and international openness make his life easier; their absence makes it more difficult. He favours Hamburg’s multicultural quarters and would like to know a few more people who share his cultural background. That’s not to say he isn’t open to European or German culture: his German is excellent and our cultural differences weren’t an issue when drinking a coffee, speaking in German or going for a beer when I first met Vann.

Vann likes a place to be clean and safe, and is a fan of the greener parts of the city. So in that regard, he is a typical Hamburger.