Tim Hermann had never lived outside of St. Louis until, in his late 50s, he moved to China.
Hermann's initial trip there in 2008 was one of curiosity, and the first thing he noticed about the country was the dozens of construction cranes dotting the skyline of every city he visited. As the CEO and board chairman of Collins and Hermann, a multi-million-dollar specialty construction outfit, he was naturally drawn to China's building boom. He returned to China again and again, traveling around by train trying to drum up business. He saw the labor-intensive way Chinese crews carried out certain projects and he thought his firm could do it cheaper.
He really took to the country, particularly the southern city of Shenzhen with its tropical-like weather and ocean views. In all the cities he visited, the welcoming and open nature of the people he met felt at times more Midwestern than the Midwest from which he'd come. Eventually, tired of spending money on hotels, he rented an apartment in Shenzhen and kept traveling around China meeting people in local government and business.
"It took me a while to realize that this was a difficult opportunity for a foreigner," he says. "The type of business we're in is more of a state-owned business here."
However, before he came to that realization, a language teacher offered to set up Hermann, who was divorced, on a date with a woman who the language teacher said would be his perfect match. There was just one problem. This perfect woman lived in Nanjing.
In terms of distance, if Shenzhen is St. Louis, that would put Nanjing somewhere around Buffalo, New York.
Undeterred, Hermann began exchanging messages with the woman on QQ, a messaging app that was popular in China at the time. She was a middle school teacher in Nanjing, and her name was He Jian Ping, although she goes by JP. Hermann's Mandarin was improving, and JP's English was then only so-so. But over text that didn't matter.
"He would text me in English and I would translate into Chinese," JP says. "I'd text him in Chinese and he'd translate into English."
After a lot of messaging back and forth, Hermann finally asked if JP wanted to visit him in Shenzhen.
Her response: I don't know you that well. Why would I come down there?
Hermann's reply: Good point. How about I fly to Nanjing?
Their first date, which involved a translator, was a success. Now 55, JP says she right away found Hermann to be kind and generous. Hermann, who is now 67, liked that JP was smart and extroverted and very pretty. JP is a go-getter, too. She raised a daughter as a single parent while teaching. At one point, when her daughter was young, the two had to sleep in the schoolhouse, but JP eventually saved up enough money to buy multiple properties throughout Nanjing, which she used for rental income. When she met Hermann, her daughter, who had finished school and was working as a flight attendant, encouraged her to pursue the relationship.
They hadn't been dating long when JP came across an old newspaper article that mentioned the sister-city relationship between St. Louis and Nanjing — the very first between any Chinese city and one in the U.S. She thought it was nice that their hometowns had a connection that mirrored their own. She showed the article to Hermann, who was even more enthusiastic.
As he put it: "You got a St. Louis guy living in a country of 1.3 billion people who ends up meeting and falling in love with a woman from Nanjing. And it happens to be that the first sister city relationship between our two countries is Nanjing and St. Louis. Completely by accident. It's serendipity."