Fred Guo is finding touch-points towards home
Life in Copenhagen and Paris, befriending neighbors and making career moves
Fred Guo has lived everywhere. Born in Singapore, he moved to the US as a child, where our paths overlapped in high school. We both went on to live and work in New York after college. He recently moved from Copenhagen to Paris after relocating to Europe for a job in the middle of the pandemic.
Fred is the oldest friend I’ve interviewed for this series. I was so excited to talk to him about how his career and life have changed over time, and the ways that the culture of a place impacts your life there. Also, Fred is hilarious! Enjoy.
Fred: I feel like we should get some wine.
Christine: You can definitely drink wine while we’re doing this. You’re in Paris!
So, give me some background - obviously, you’ve lived a lot of places in life, and especially in the past few years.
Fred: I’ll do a quick introduction.
I was born in Singapore to Chinese parents, who then moved us to Oklahoma when I was six years old. Then, later on in high school, I met one Christine -
Christine: That’s a major point in the biography. (Laughs)
Fred: And then I went back to Singapore to serve in the army after high school. Then I went to college in Massachusetts, and that sort of launched me to do more international things. So I interned first in Shanghai, then in London, studied abroad for a year in Paris, then ended up taking a full-time job in New York. And then during the pandemic I moved from New York to Copenhagen, and then only six months ago I moved back to Paris.
Christine: That was such a good background -
Fred: I think you needed a catch-up too. (Laughs)
Christine: And why Paris?
Fred: I always - ever since I was young - a lot of young gay boys, or maybe young people in general have this fantasy of Paris. And I was a nerd, I liked reading, I was also really into international diplomacy, and I just thought - wow. This place has romance, design, good food. It's aspirational to be a part of that. So I started studying French at a young age, and it wasn’t until I studied abroad in Paris that I was like, wow. I could actually live my life here. I could enjoy the way of living that I think is suitable for who I am - good wine, good food, good terraces -
Christine: Terraces! (Laughs)
Fred: I have this whole matrix in my head of why Paris, and how I think of some major cities. Want to hear it?
Christine: You know I do.
Fred: So as a consultant, we often think in terms of axes. On one axis, we have crazy versus chill. And on the other axis we have real versus fake.
Christine: I love this already. Okay.
Fred: And there’s no bad, or wrong, to this - I don’t want to say that fake is bad, it’s just how you portray yourself, in a way. Whereas real is more down-to-Earth.
Christine: I like how as a Libra, you have to state that you don’t have favorites here.
Fred: I am an impartial observer. But if I put four cities on the matrix, I think you’ll get an idea. So, on the crazy and fake side, it’s New York.
Christine: I thought you might say that. (Laughs)
Fred: So, crazy and real - we have Berlin. Real and chill, it’s London. Fake and chill, we have Paris. And for me, and my life, I’ve realized - having seen these places, I realized for me that I like chill places. I really like London, I really like Paris. I’m not someone who goes out every night. So that’s part of why I’m in Paris, and happy to be back.
Christine: You’ve mentioned that your career has shifted a lot. Do you want to give us some backstory on that?
Fred: I never knew what I wanted to do - I was always like, I want to be a Renaissance kid. I want to be good at everything. That’s why I went into the liberal arts. I was also really interested in international diplomacy.
Then a lot of people were telling me, you need to go into finance. And I’m, like, a gay Asian man - I’m not the profile you imagine when you think of the finance world. But I thought it would be a good learning opportunity, and plus, with all the college debt, why not? So I did it, and I learned a lot from the job.
I was in New York and working for a big French bank. I was literally on the floor of Wall Street, yelling at people. Overall it wasn’t who I am. It’s very cut-throat, it’s very aggressive, sometimes selfish, very macho. I really didn’t like those parts. But it did pay my bills and pay my debt.
So I’ve always been interested in this company that I’ve heard about since college, called ReD Associates. They’re a consulting firm that uses applied anthropology to solve problems. And I thought that was really interesting, impactful work - I’m someone who is into fashion, design, I’ve always been interested in brands. But then on the other hand, I do have this part of me that wants to do social impact work - and it often feels like I can’t pull the two together. In this role I get to do both, with a moral sense and actually helping people solve problems.
Christine: That’s so cool. That’s the role that took you to Copenhagen?
Fred: Yeah, the company is based in Copenhagen. In the midst of the pandemic I saw that they were hiring, so I applied and then within a week of interviews I got an offer. And within a month I packed up from New York, and I straight up just took two suitcases and flew directly to… Oklahoma.
Christine: (Laughs) Not what I expected.
Fred: Tricked you! I wanted to see my family before I moved.
Christine: Our ancestral homeland.
Fred: And then I moved to Copenhagen. I was so excited, I’d always wanted to live in Europe.
Christine: Did you have a social network in Copenhagen? What was your experience like moving there in the middle of a pandemic?
Fred: That’s a good question. I did not, and it was definitely tough. But I think given my background, all the travel, I’ve always just built my own community. In hindsight it was never something that held me back, or made me feel daunted. It always works itself out. I’ve always been social and outgoing, so I thought, it will all fall into place.
Christine: And did it work out?
Fred: It wasn’t easy. I moved to Copenhagen in November. It was basically the darkest time in Denmark, where the sun sets at 3pm. And it’s COVID, so the more socialist system in Denmark had a lot of rules. Gathering places were limited.
I was in New York when COVID hit, so I saw how different countries reacted to it. And the US was so legal, so policy-based, whereas in Denmark a lot of it was “guidelines.” And it was so interesting - it was almost psychological, but it’s also cultural. They would say, “it is recommended by the government that you do this.” And the people really followed it. It was rule-abiding, or maybe public shame, or maybe a mix of both? That’s how it went down.
Christine: I want to talk about cultural differences. Before the interview, we were talking about the massive PR campaign around living in Copenhagen, and how it’s the happiest city in the world. I feel like you had a different experience, so can you tell me your thoughts on that?
Fred: I mean - I don’t want to bash the city. I feel like I have to set the scene first. (Laughs) It’s beautiful - it is a beautiful culture. It’s very proud of its natural roots, there’s a folksy vibe. Everyone looks really stylish - I’m six foot, but there I’m very average, because I’m among all these beautiful elves.
Christine: The Danes, man.
Fred: It’s a high quality of life. But. It was really, really tough. Not to bash people - I think because I’m an anthropologist, I see it as structural. It’s a small agricultural country, and I think that the 1970’s was when they actually invited foreign laborers into their country. The seventies. It’s really, really late, and it’s very homogenous.
And because it’s such a small country - for Danes, you’re talking about a population of five million people, who all graduated from school. It’s a good education system. And they all flocked to a city, which is Copenhagen. So what that creates, in my opinion - you literally have everyone from your entire life in one city. They don’t have the room to mix and mingle, or the capacity, to meet new people. And I think it’s similar in Singapore - these small countries where everyone is congregating in one place. You can’t expect them to all the sudden just invite strangers into their homes.
Which brings me to another thing that’s structural - it’s a great socialist country, everyone gets paid well. I highly support that. But then people don’t eat out. You basically only eat out for a planned occasion. You’re not really there to meet new people, there’s no pub culture. So what they end up doing - which fits into their PR narrative, right? - is that they’re all about hygge.
Christine: They love the home!
Fred: Hominess, coziness. You stay at home, you invite your friends home, you light candles and cook together. It’s really wholesome, and it is a beautiful life, if you’re born into it. I don’t want to bash the city. It’s just the way they are.
Christine: You lived there for a year and a half. Did you make a community?
Fred: I had a good group of expat friends, and I also had my company - everyone in the company is very international. We’re all a little nerdy, we all speak a few languages. But unfortunately I don’t think I have a close Danish friend. And that was hard for me, at the time. I always take pride in the fact that I could go to London, or Shanghai, and make a local friend. I had a personal expectation - and I feel like I kind of failed a bit in Copenhagen.
Christine: It’s funny, because here it’s the opposite. In Ireland everyone is thrilled that you’re here.
Fred: That’s so cute and wholesome!
Christine: So, you’ve recently relocated to Paris - and I know you’d lived there before, so you aren’t totally new to it. I feel like there are a lot of stereotypes about the French not being the most welcoming, but I wonder how you feel about that.
Fred: The French are sort of rude - but I think it’s reasonably so. Because it’s like, they have a language, you come in, and oftentimes you come in and butcher their language. Or it’s like, another American tourist, they only speak English.
Christine: I feel like the French are very proud of their language. It’s world-renowned for being this beautiful language.
Fred: They have a lot of national pride, that’s for sure. And they all kind of know, like, we’re a cultural export. All the luxury goods come from them, these great artists - the finer things. There is this pride of what they were, and I think politically, everyone is trying to come back to this former glory of France - which is what the far right oftentimes -
Christine: And then there’s the Islamophobia, which - yikes.
Fred: I honestly think it’s not unlike a lot of Americans. It’s this idea of, like, speak English, we’re in America.
Christine: The French are the atheist version of Americans. (Laughs)
Fred: I know. My god. But anyway, there is a bit of a snobbish air - we’re the capital of fashion, we love the good food. But a lot of that is Parisian. It’s not French. Go to Aix-en-Provence, go to the South, people are extremely welcoming.
Christine: You’re still working at the same company. How has the transition back to Paris been?
Fred: It’s been intense. I had trouble navigating the housing market. It’s just tricky here, because everything is competitive, and the French are famous for bureaucracy.
Christine: The housing market is really bad in Dublin also. Thinking back to New York - it was obviously expensive, but you could still find something. And it’s weird because in Dublin, it’s expensive and there’s literally only two options available.
Fred: In New York it’s a demand problem. Whereas in Copenhagen, it’s a supply problem - there just aren’t a lot of good buildings. But in Paris it’s the bureaucracy that makes it challenging. Because even if you have a great salary, a great job, you need to have something called a garant, which is a guarantor. And the garant has to be someone who lives in France. And they don’t look at your salary alone, or at the garant - there’s also a dossier, which shows if you have a job, whether the job contract is short-term or long-term, how long have you worked there, if you’re still in your trial period. It’s really complicated.
Christine: How have you started making community now that you’ve moved back? Do you know anyone from your last stint in the city?
Fred: I luckily have a lot of great friends I met last time I was in Paris. A lot of them moved elsewhere, outside of the city. But it’s different, too, in that we’re all working now. It’s harder to make time - it’s weekends, you have to plan ahead to make the weeknight to go out for a drink.
Christine: I understand. That’s why I’m asking all these questions about friends, because I’m like, can you teach me how to make friends in Dublin? (Laughs)
Fred: For me now, it’s tougher. Our entire company is only eighty people, and that’s between New York, Copenhagen and Paris. So I can’t rely on my office to make friends. But I try. One thing that works really well for me is going to the gym, because you start seeing familiar faces - that happened to me in Copenhagen. And I recently - I’m trying to meet new people through hobbies, so I went to a shuffling court. (Laughs) That was fun. I really like wine, and I actually want to understand it, so I did a class at a wine school. I got through level one, full marks.
Christine: That’s amazing. You’re living my dream. Is Paris starting to feel like home yet? When do you feel like that shift happens for you?
Fred: I think it’s getting there. I had to bounce around a lot, and even though I’ve been here since March, I only got on a lease with this apartment beginning in September. And I have my friend groups, and they’re all here, but they’re also not here the way they used to be. I have the same job, but I’m also going to a new place, work is different. So there’s a lot of adjustments.
I can’t say that I feel at home right away, but there are mini chapters, or touch-points - checkpoints - where I feel like, wow, I do feel more at home. I enjoy that - like, I have a friend who, on Sunday nights, I watch Lord of the Rings with. He’s my neighbor, he’s someone who I kind of - I met him at a bar, very cute, but he’s also very French, meaning he doesn’t know what he wants romantically. You and I haven’t really talked much about romance. (Laughs)
Christine: I want to be friends with some neighbors. There are some similar-aged neighbors two doors down, and the other day I had Rigby off his leash, and he darted into their open house. Which they were shockingly very fine with - they were like, oh my gosh, he can come over any time! So now I’m like, thank you, Rigby. I’m going to make my friendship move.
My last question for you - do you think you’ll be sticking around Paris for a while? Obviously this is the chosen city on your matrix.
Fred: I love Paris. Out of my top cities, as you can gauge, it’s London and Paris. I think I plan on staying here for the next five years - that’s how long it will take to get a French nationality. So, unless I marry someone French - which would make that process shorter. (Laughs)
Christine: And I am crossing my fingers for you.
Do you know an expat I should chat with for this series? Hit that reply button and connect us! I’d specifically love to interview expats who have moved to/from Asian, African or South American countries.