By Francesca Street, CNN
(CNN) — When Denise Sung was growing up in Taiwan, she dreamed about meeting a man called Sebastian.
It all started when she read the William Shakspeare play “Twelfth Night,” a romantic comedy in which one of the protagonists is named Sebastian. Young Denise was swept up in Shakespeare’s story of shipwrecks, mistaken identity and romance, and the play stuck with her – but mostly it was because of the name Sebastian.
“I just thought, ‘Sebastian is such a beautiful name,’” Denise tells CNN Travel today. “I fell in love with that name.”
At the time, Denise had never met anyone called Sebastian. And then she went through the entirety of her teenage years and half of her 20s without ever encountering the name in real life.
Until, aged 26, Denise Sung met Sebastian Fuchs.
Denise had spent her adult life living across the world – hopping from Taiwan to the US to Australia to China. The result was close friends scattered across the globe, and in summer 2015, one of them – a good friend from Denise’s college days in Sydney – was getting married in Hong Kong and asked Denise to be one of her bridesmaids.
“I’d always say to my friends, ‘We’re just a plane flight away. If you really want to catch up, if there are any important events in your life, I’m literally a plane ticket away. I can always be there for you,’” says Denise.
So, true to her word, Denise booked a flight to Hong Kong for her friend’s wedding. When she arrived, Denise threw herself into the festivities and then – at the last minute – decided to extend her trip into the next weekend so she could spend more time with friends.
One evening, post wedding, Denise and two of her friends headed out in Hong Kong’s Lan Kwai Fong district.
“LKF, it’s a party district,” explains Denise. “You go there anytime any day of the week and there’s always something happening – there’s bars, there’s restaurants, it’s right in the center of Hong Kong, so you won’t miss it. Especially when you’re young, that’s where you go.”
Denise and her friends spent the night dipping in and out of bars, before ending up in a shisha bar.
“If you ask me what the bar was called, I really don’t remember,” says Denise, laughing. “There was a lot of alcohol.”
In the shisha bar, Denise and her friends sat in a corner, deep in conversation. The bar was pretty small and the various groups were crammed together, so when two guys on a nearby table turned around and started speaking with Denise and her group, it wasn’t a surprise.
The two men explained they were from Germany, visiting Hong Kong on vacation. Then they introduced themselves – and that was the moment Denise met Sebastian.
“That’s my favorite name,” Denise exclaimed, without thinking.
“It’s quite a popular name in Germany,” said Sebastian, surprised.
“I’ve literally never met anyone named Sebastian,” said Denise, staring at him.
In 2015, Sebastian was working on a post doctoral degree in Switzerland. He was on vacation in Hong Kong with a friend from his PhD days in Frankfurt, Germany. The day he met Denise happened to be his 31st birthday.
“We celebrated my birthday in a bar and then we happened to meet Denise and two of her friends,” Sebastian tells CNN Travel.
Sebastian and his friend hit it off right away with Denise and her group. They talked about their experiences of Hong Kong so far and how they’d ended up there. Sebastian’s friend led the conversation – “he’s a very easy, outgoing person,” says Sebastian – but while Sebastian was quieter, to Denise he was magnetic.
“There was certainly attraction at first sight,” she says.
“I can say definitely Denise also made a very good first impression on me,” agrees Sebastian.
But back then, Sebastian was looking, first and foremost, for “stability” in a relationship.
And while he liked Denise right away, it didn’t occur to him she might be the person who’d offer it to him, simply “due to the fact that we met so far away from home,” as he puts it.
As for Denise, she was a romantic who firmly believed “that there’s a next great love just coming around the corner.”
“In my 20s I was pretty outgoing, always going out and loved to meet new people,” Denise adds.
But before she met Sebastian, Denise felt she’d truly never had a “meaningful” romantic relationship. And right away, something about him seemed different.
Even on that first night, to Denise, meeting Sebastian felt a bit like fate – she hadn’t intended to be in Hong Kong that weekend and, it transpired, neither had he. Sebastian and his friend had originally planned to go to Bangkok, Thailand, only switching plans last minute. Denise also thought the fact they’d met on Sebastian’s birthday was “really cool.” There was, of course, the whole name thing.
And then it turned out Sebastian and his friend were staying in the same hotel as Denise.
“Out of all the hotels in Hong Kong, Sebastian and I, we happen to book into the same hotel,” says Denise.
She couldn’t help but feel that they’d been “put in the same place at the same time,” against the odds.
Sebastian is more of a logical thinker than Denise. His mind hadn’t gone down that same route. But he was still swept up in the excitement of the evening and found himself acting out of character. When Denise asked if he wanted to smoke a cigarette, he said yes.
“Until that point, I had never smoked in my life,” he says. “After that point, I also never again smoked a cigarette. But at that point, for some reason, I wasn’t daring to say no.”
Keeping in touch
Sebastian and Denise left Hong Kong with each other’s contact details saved, but no plans to meet again.
Without really thinking about it, or making any conscious effort, they stayed in touch – “just constantly texting and talking to each other,” as Denise describes.
It was a whole year before Denise and Sebastian met again. In summer 2016, Denise and a friend booked a trip to Europe, planning to travel to multiple destinations. In passing, Sebastian mentioned he’d be home in Germany during that period, so Denise decided to include Frankfurt in her itinerary.
While Denise was naturally outgoing, this decisiveness was out of character, at least when it came to her romantic life.
“In my early 20s, I was always very scared of putting myself out there, always thinking too much. You could say I wasn’t very comfortable in my own skin, always caring about how people think about me,” she says.
“In my mid-20s, my mentalities really shifted. I was like, ‘What is there for me to lose? I really want to get to know this guy.’ So I went to Frankfurt.”
Denise and Sebastian reunited in Frankfurt, then traveled to Munich. They also visited Sebastian’s hometown, where Denise met Sebastian’s sister.
Spending time together in Germany felt easy and fun.
For Denise, it was the fact that Sebastian was “honest and very sincere.”
As for Sebastian, he enjoyed showing Denise his home country, and seeing her in Germany made their connection feel more real.
“It was definitely very exciting to meet her again, after that vacation setting, now in my real day to day life,” he says.
Committing to each other
A year later, in summer 2017, Sebastian visited Denise in California, in the US, where she was living and working.
It was then that Denise told Sebastian she was committed to him and to making the long distance work, longterm. During this conversation, Sebastian wavered a little bit. He didn’t know any long-distance relationships that had worked out. He wasn’t sure.
Denise struggled to understand this mindset.
“I told my Grandma about you,” she said. “And now you’re saying this is not going anywhere? You need to make a decision.”
Sebastian didn’t want to be with anyone else. He just worried about the realities of dating across continents with no end in sight. But Denise reassured him they would make it work.
“I just feel like, maybe because of my upbringing, I’m always in a different country away from someone,” Denise says today. “And I do believe that. If you meet someone who’s right and a meaningful person to you, everything else is going to work out eventually.”
Denise’s certainty helped calm Sebastian’s uncertainty. He agreed he also wanted to try to make their relationship work. Looking back, Denise is proud of how she handled this moment.
“As a proud feminist, I think that in the modern time, there’s no reason men should be the ones initiating things,” she says. “I was very certain that he was into me. Otherwise, he would be seeing someone else, but I know that he wasn’t seeing anyone else. So I know that this is serious, he’s serious – but he’s just unsure how this is going to work out.”
Denise and Sebastian decided that going forward, they’d make sure they had regular scheduled meetups. They committed to seeing each other at least every two months.
From then on, they met up across the world and grew closer each time.
“We both love to travel,” says Denise. “We’d pick a city and spend our time there together. I became an expert in learning how to accumulate airline points.”
The long distance was made easier by Sebastian’s job, which afforded him plenty of vacation days, as well as opportunities to travel to the US for work.
“These circumstances helped us to see each other quite a lot, which some people might not be able to,” he explains.
Still, both Sebastian and Denise had friends who balked at the situation.
“I’d hear, ‘How is that a real relationship if you don’t live together?’” recalls Denise. “But it’s just people’s perspectives. For someone who has never been in a long distance relationship, they are someone who is used to having another person being with you, 24/7. And they think that’s what a relationship should be like.”
But Denise and Sebastian were, as Denise puts it, “making their own rules.” They’re both strong willed and have a strong sense of self which they brought to their partnership.
“I’ve always thought, ‘I want to go my own way, make my own decisions, what’s right for me,’” says Sebastian.
“I love myself a lot. So every decision I make I always put myself first – like what makes me happy the most, what’s the most healthy way for me, personally, mentally,” adds Denise.
During this period, both Sebastian and Denise made steps forward in their respective careers and had successes they attribute, in part, to the support of the other.
In 2019, Denise and Sebastian took another step forward – Denise introduced Sebastian to her parents.
“I’m from quite a traditional conservative Taiwanese Chinese family, so culturally speaking, my parents are traditional in the sense that they feel like, ‘Don’t introduce me to any of your boyfriends, unless this is someone you are ready to marry,’” explains Denise.
When her parents did meet Sebastian, they “adored him,” says Denise. It was late 2019. The couple stayed in Asia into 2020 to celebrate Lunar New Year in late January.
It was around this time that Denise and Sebastian first heard rumblings of the pandemic. But when they said goodbye in January and flew back to their respective homes, they assumed they’d be able to reunite in the US in March as they’d planned.
But just before Sebastian’s departure date, the US borders closed.
“He had to cancel his flights. And that’s when we didn’t know when we were going to see each other next,” says Denise.
Suddenly, the “only a plane ticket away” attitude Denise had grown up with crumbled around her.
“That was the biggest challenge – because this is out of your control,” she says.
Over the months of separation that followed, Denise found herself thinking about her grandparents. They’d left China during the Chinese civil war and gone to Taiwan.
“They couldn’t return for about 15 years, they couldn’t go back to China to visit relatives and family at the time,” says Denise. “I remember when I was kid I’d heard about this story and I told my mom, ‘How is that possible?’”
While this was a very different situation, Denise understood for the first time that the ability to travel across the world to see Sebastian wasn’t guaranteed.
“It does make you feel like travel becomes a privilege – we didn’t take it as a privilege before,” she says.
As the pandemic spread across the globe and borders closed, Denise and Sebastian stayed in touch constantly, video calling and messaging. And, as time went on, they started talking about marriage.
Prior to 2020, marriage hadn’t been on Denise’s radar, but the combination of missing Sebastian and realizing that if they were married, they’d have been able to more easily reunite, made her consider the prospect seriously for the first time.
Denise and Sebastian were separated for nearly two years. During that time they cycled between sadness, anger, frustration and relief that their situation wasn’t worse. They were grateful to be healthy and in stable jobs, and while they couldn’t be together, they’d heard stories online of other separated international couples in much worse situations – people who hadn’t met their children, people with partners in other countries who were seriously ill.
But Denise and Sebastian still struggled being apart, and not knowing what the future held.
Denise distracted herself by adopting a rescue dog, a decision she describes as “the best I ever made.” She made new friends at the dog park, friends who joked that she could have made Sebastian up entirely, given they’d never met him.
Sebastian put a lot of his energy into work. During his downtime, he played basketball with local friends, who helped him take his mind off missing Denise.
“Stuff like that helped me a lot to cope with it, but definitely I was looking forward to meeting Denise as soon as possible,” Sebastian says. “And we tried everything.”
Sebastian and Denise finally reunited towards the end of 2021 in Mexico.
“It was definitely a big relief to finally see Denise again,” says Sebastian.
They were both over the moon to see one another again. But it wasn’t, says Denise, as dramatic a reunion as you might imagine. Instead, it felt like no time had passed, and they slipped easily back into their dynamic.
“With him, I always feel so content. There’s not a roller-coaster of emotions,” Denise says. “I’m just so content with this guy and I feel at home when I’m with him. It’s very important to me, because I left home at a very young age. But with him, I feel like this is home.”
Sebastian proposed to Denise in Mexico. They were sitting on a cabana by the beach when he turned to Denise.
“I want to spend the rest of my life with you,” he said.
While the couple were keen to get married as soon as possible, they also wanted their loved ones to be there to celebrate with them, so they realized they’d have to wait – Denise’s parents currently live in China, where the pandemic travel restrictions only lifted this past August.
Once the Covid travel uncertainty subsided, Denise and Sebastian were finally able to set their wedding date: spring 2024 in the turreted Schlosshotel Kronberg, on the outskirts of Frankfurt.
They’re looking forward to celebrating with family and friends from across the world. Denise is particularly excited to introduce loved ones to Germany.
“I wanted to use this opportunity to show them the country I will soon call ‘second home,’” she says.
Looking to the future
Denise and Sebastian don’t know exactly what the future holds, or where they might settle, but they’re excited by the prospects.
“I definitely want to pick a place that’s diverse,” says Denise. “If we have kids, I want my kids to be fluent in understanding all their different cultures – American, German and Chinese.”
Denise and Sebastian both enjoy learning about one another’s cultural backgrounds. Over the years, they’ve sometimes encountered some big differences in perspective, but they address these moments with a shared open mindedness and curiosity.
“The way we approach things can be quite different. But I think that that is something we can always learn from each other and understand,” says Denise. “We both equally respect each other’s culture and are equally curious to learn about each other’s culture.”
“That’s something that really unites us and which we have in common,” agrees Sebastian. “Cultural difference never has been something that deters me, it’s rather something that attracts me.”
It’s now eight years since Sebastian and Denise crossed paths in the bar in Hong Kong. Today, Sebastian spends more time looking forward to the time to come, than reflecting on times passed.
“I’m not dwelling on how unlikely it was that we met each other,” he says. “I’m just happy it happened and look forward to the future we have together.”
Denise is excited for that future too – but she also remains struck by the unlikeliness of their meeting, and believes it was meant to be.
“I believe in the energy from the universe,” says Denise. “In Chinese language we have one word, it’s ‘yuánfèn’ – it basically means ‘fate.’ We often use that word when you see people from completely different sides of the world drawing together.”
“He is from Frankfurt. I grew up in the countryside in Taiwan. We were in different countries. And we met in a third country that both of us would not expect to be in at that place, at that time. You start to wonder. You question, if it’s not fate, what is it? And he happened to have my favorite boy’s name. Maybe I knew all along I was going to marry Sebastian.”
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