On the way to Lomanthang, our trekker team stopped to visit Ghar Gumpa, one of the famous monasteries in Upper Mustang, at about 3,900 meters high in the Himalayas. While having a rest in the shade of the monastery I met Matteo De Micheli, an Italian man who left his marketing job at a multinational company in Shanghai to study Buddhism and the Tibetan language in Kathmandu. We agreed to meet in Lomanthang, where he would share the story of his career change.
Tell me about your family and your early life.
I was born in 1987 in a small Italian town up in the hills, called Vertova, Bergamo province and I lived there until I turned 18. I’m an only child, I have no sisters or brothers.
Did your parents urge you to continue studying?
It was not mandatory to continue studying after high school, but it would have made my parents happy if I went ahead with my studies. Of course, most of the people in my generation went to college, and I also decided to study further. They were happy to support my educational goals until I was 25, but they weren’t pushing me in any direction.
I shared my ideas with them about what I would like to study, and they were supportive, giving me some suggestions. But, ultimately, the decision was totally up to me.
Actually, the decisions were totally up to me since I turned 18.
How did you decide on what to study?
That’s a good question and I just have a guess. I knew I was fascinated by Asian cultures, traditions, and their religions since I was 15. I think it originates from the fact that my grandparents used to travel to Asia a lot. My grandfather was a business man and he was always travelling. He was in love with Asia, too. Their house was full of souvenirs bought in Asian countries, and they always showed me pictures and told stories of their time there.
So when I was 15 it was very clear that I wanted to study Asian culture and languages. I went to Ca’ Foscari University of Venice, which is one of the most renowned universities in Italy for Oriental studies. I studied Mandarin and their culture along with Chinese economics and law.
What is correct: to say “the Chinese language” or “Mandarin”?
In English, Mandarin is the correct word to use because Chinese stands for the family of existing dialects in China. Mandarin is the dialect from Beijing. At the creation of the Republic of China (1912, when the Qing dynasty fell), formally it became the official national language, the common language of all Chinese. So everyone speaks Mandarin. It is also the language used on TV and the news.
How did your career start after you finished your university studies?
As soon as I graduated, the owner of a big Italian textile company (they had around 1,000 employees worldwide) next to my village asked me to meet him. He knew me since I was a child and needed somebody who spoke Mandarin. I started a training period of six months and after I’ve been employed for two years, at their office in Shanghai.
Then I moved to Hong Kong because of some organizational shifts in the company. My superior, who before was responsible for the Asian market, became the general manager of the Chinese company, and after two years he asked me to move back to the headquarter in Shanghai.
What was your role in the company?
My language skills were highly valued in the company. Chinese customers, especially in the past, want to build a personal relationship with their business partners and they very much appreciate it if the foreigner speaks their language. Our company in China had around 200 Chinese employees and four Italians.
My main occupation has been in marketing and I was traveling a lot, because the office in Shanghai took care of all the Asian market, like Korea, Japan, Indonesia. I was attending trade fairs, sometimes going on business trips to explore the trends and visit customers in order to understand how the market could develop and so on. So the job was fairly interesting and I must say, I liked it for a while.
How did the thought of changing your career come about?
Everything started with me feeling that I wanted to continue studying the things I was interested in.
I had the deep desire to keep learning.
I always had this but, of course, as soon as I graduated I wanted to start my career and have a salary while being independent. I didn’t want to ask money from my father anymore, who was supporting my education until I turned 25. When I was working I didn’t have enough time for me to cultivate my passions. I was trying to study, but I didn’t really have enough time to do it properly.
Another thing was that I didn’t like the dynamics of the big company and the attitude that comes with it: your colleague is your friend and your enemy at the same time.
I didn’t like that and I didn’t really feel like I wanted to spend my life at the company. I saw managers going through a lifestyle and hold values that I didn’t share at all. I think these were the drivers for me to say that at a certain point, I would like to change something.
Was the idea of change scary?
It wasn’t really scary for me, because I was thinking, “I am still quite young, so I can try it. And if it doesn’t work out I can always go back to the company.” In between my working experience I had a two-month sabbatical where I went to Kathmandu to study Buddhism at an institute. After I saw that they were teaching at an international standard, I felt maybe I should go back for master studies. But then I went back to Shanghai and signed a new contract for two years.
On the last year of that contract I started to think about what to do next. Should I continue and sign a new contract? What are my requirements in case I continue working with the company? What are the pros and cons? I felt young, but already not so young anymore. I had to have a plan. After three or four months of thinking, I decided to quit my job and go back to the university. I started studying at the Rangjung Yeshe Institute in Kathmandu. Later on I am planning to continue maybe in the academic field.
Why did you choose Buddhism? What does it mean to you?
Buddhism and the Tibetan language go together for me. There is the language perspective and the philosophy; I’m interested in both of these things.
If you were to ask me why I am interested in these things, I wouldn’t have an answer for you. I just feel as though I need to study it.
Did you have fears?
I did not really have fears going into this, I just had to do some math at the beginning. I had some savings and Kathmandu is not very expensive. I made sure that I could survive a couple of years without too many headaches.
What did your parents and friends think about the change?
My parents supported me and said that if it made me happy then I should do it. They believe I’m quite a responsible person and I will not just do crazy things out on a whim.
Most of my friends didn’t understand my decision. From their reactions, they couldn’t understand what I was doing. I think most of people do not understand these kind of choices because you are in a company, you have a good position, you have a career going for you. Why would you throw that away?
Most people just think in terms of money and career advancement. They saw I have a bright future ahead of me and now I am leaving everything to study Buddhism. “Well, you’re just crazy.”
How do you perceive change and what pushes you forward?
Change is not easy, but it is a big opportunity. I kept changing all the time.
I studied Mandarin, then I moved to London for a while and afterwards I went to China, followed by Shanghai and Hong Kong. These are small changes, but big nonetheless, especially when you live abroad. I feel I live day by day, because every day is changing. I’m not sure of anything because today is like this and tomorrow is like that. This gives a lot of opportunities and I always learn something new. I think this is what pushes me, the beauty of learning, understanding, discovering new people, new cultures, new places. I couldn’t stay stuck in one place or in the same company for life. It is not for me.
It is a passion you are talking about.
I have this strong desire to learn, to discover. It’s a wonderful opportunity and it matches my interests perfectly.