Monday, May 20, 2013

Kiwi rite of passage in China

RSS | MMS Newspaper | Newsletter Feature Kiwi rite of passage in China 2013-5-20 Raymond Kwok (left), Alistair Kwun (right) and another friend share a light moment at The Peak during their visit to Hong Kong. More in photo gallery AT an event in Auckland, New Zealand, in March, young Kiwis discussed OE (overseas experience) destinations. But what emerged at the gathering organized by Future Dragonz was surprising: Increasingly people were choosing Asia instead of Europe. The figures, according to Statistics NZ, are clear. Back in 2001, only 273 Kiwis aged 18 to 30 arrived in China, planning to stay for 12 months or more. Last year, the number of young Kiwis migrating had jumped by more than 500 percent, to 1,482. In the same period, the number of 18- to 30-year-old Kiwis migrating to the United Kingdom for 12 months or more had halved - from 10,268 down to 4,996. Alistair Kwun, who helps run Future Dragonz, a New Zealand-based network of Chinese young professionals, says some Chinese-Kiwis visit China for cultural reasons. In the 1990s there was a large influx of Asian families to New Zealand. "In some ways, it gives access to both (Chinese and Western) worlds, but in other ways it can be hard to know where you fit," he says. As a result, says Kwun, many Chinese-New Zealanders like him are traveling to China to see how their parents lived - something he calls the "falling-leaves-return-home experience." "A lot of us born overseas are wanting to come back to seek those cultural roots, whether it's to learn Chinese, travel back to our home village, or just travel in general," he says. Seeing his great-grandfather's ancestral home was "quite emotional" for him, Kwun says. "From there you realize the contrast and what could have been had you been born in China," he says. "That could have been your experience. It would have been quite different from growing up in the West with all these luxuries." Falling leaves return home Twenty-eight-year-old Raymond Kwok, who hails from Auckland, is one such person who did his OE in China, in part for cultural reasons. His parents met in New Zealand, but they are originally from Guangdong Province. Two years ago, young Kwok decided to go on his OE, eventually settling on Hong Kong, only a 1.5-hour ferry ride from his ancestral village. Through living in Hong Kong and traveling back to his ancestral village, Kwok has gained a better understanding of his background. "My dad's the oldest son, and I'm his oldest son, so I feel there's sort of a paying respect and responsibility to connect," he says from Hong Kong over Skype. He also avoided the credit crisis in Europe and experienced something completely different. Jess Kwok, 24, is also a Chinese-born New Zealander. She grew up in Auckland, but went back to visit her mother's family in Guangzhou a number of times throughout her childhood. After graduating from Auckland University in 2011 with a degree in economics and public health, she wasn't sure what to do. She got a one-year Confucius scholarship to study Chinese at Fudan University in Shanghai, ending in August 2012. Although she had been to China before, she was nervous before flying off. "I've lived in Auckland all my life, and just suddenly deciding to take the plunge and move overseas to a foreign country for a whole year was kind of scary," she says in a Skype interview. "But I can confidently say it's been the best year of my life so far." The desire to connect with heritage was part of the motivation. "I've always sort of wanted to keep in touch with my roots," says Jess Kwok, noting that her mother's family is still living in Guangzhou. "And I also had this curiosity and interest in working in Asia. Obviously learning a language would be super helpful." Jess Kwok visited Shanghai for the World Expo 2010 and admits that she didn't really liked it. But when she came to study, she was hooked. "I love the fast-paced bustling-ness of it all. Auckland compared with that is just so slow." The experience gave her more perspective on her parents. "I can understand why they wanted to emigrate to New Zealand." Though China is growing in popularity, people in New Zealand still have misconceptions that sway them from China as an OE destination, Jesse Kwok says. "People kind of overlook China. Everyone has really negative stereotypes, like it's a Communist country, it's developing, it's dirty, they have all these scandals like bird flu. It puts people off." Land of opportunities Justin Yang's mother is from Singapore and his father is from China, but for him, culture wasn't the draw. "A lot of people are coming over for opportunity rather than cultural roots. If you're raised and born in New Zealand, culture, heritage and your roots - they don't really interest you that much," says the 29-year-old from West Auckland. Yang is on what he calls a "floating OE," traveling around the world with his job as an engineer, interspersed with stints in New Zealand. He first came to Shanghai for a four-month job when he was 22. "Once I did get here, it wasn't actually as bad as I thought," he says over the phone from Tanghai in Hebei Province. "It was actually mind-blowing how advanced it was, and how many people spoke English." He came back last year for the second time, and worked in Tanghai for a year as a commissioning engineer for Lanzatech. Although he resisted learning Mandarin as a child, he now wishes he had learned to read and write. "Speaking it has already opened a lot of doors," he says. "But if I could read and write, it would make my job much easier." Yang often encounters difficulty at restaurants where the staff are shocked that he can't read the menu, despite speaking fluent Chinese. Despite initial hesitation, Yang recommends China. "An OE in Europe would still open your eyes," he says. "But the difference is you have to push your personal boundaries a lot harder (in China) because it's not as easy." Jess Kwok, Raymond Kwok and Yang have all found that people in China were often confused about how to treat Chinese-New Zealanders. "At the end of the day, they see me as a New Zealander, who can understand and looks Chinese," says Raymond Kwok. The combination works in his favor. "You can mix in with both crowds, like the expat community, really well, and you can also relate to locals." For Yang, coming to China was an unexpected cultural awakening. "In New Zealand I always saw myself as a New Zealander, and never really thought about the fact that I actually look different from everybody else," he says. "That only really hit home when I was over here in China where everybody's Chinese, and you're like 'Oh, actually, I look like all of these guys. I'm actually closer to these guys than I am in New Zealand'." Today he'd call himself New Zealand-Chinese. "I'm Chinese, I look Chinese, so I can't deny that fact," he says. "You don't really get acceptance from either country that you're in, but at the end of the day it doesn't really matter." Interestingly, not one of the trio sees themselves living in China long-term. "I'm loving this," says Raymond Kwok, "but for me, New Zealand is still home." A matter of re nao The China OE isn't restricted to Chinese-New Zealanders. Jenny Cuthbertson, 30, took the Trans-Siberian Railway from Moscow to Beijing where she spent three days. That was six years ago. "I absolutely loved it," Cuthbertson says in an interview in Shanghai. "I went home resolved to do more about learning the language and, with my background in sports events, I really wanted to come back for the 2008 Beijing Olympics." So she returned a year later, first volunteering in Beijing, then studying business in Hong Kong. She finished her business degree at Auckland University of Technology and returned to China in 2010 in Shanghai to study language at Fudan University. From there, Cuthbertson got a full-time job at the Kiwi Expats Association (KEA). The initial attraction remains the same: the re nao or dynamism of China. "There are people everywhere and there are things happening all over the place at any time of the day. The more I got to know about the culture and the language and things, the more I got pulled in." Cuthbertson also chose China because it was demanding. "The European OE is so predictable and easy, whereas China is more of a challenge, it's more excitement, slightly more of a pioneering spirit." At times the dynamism and difference gets to be too much. "China has a lot of small challenges. We all talk about having a 'China day' where sometimes some of the systems or bureaucracy that's so different from what we're used to in New Zealand will really get to you, and the language barrier will get to you, and you get totally fed up and wonder why you're here. Generally on a day you do any kind of banking," Cuthbertson laughs. Her time is coming to an end now, but Shanghai has taught Cuthbertson valuable language, business and life skills. "China really has opened my eyes to the world. I think that China's where it's at." Unlike Cuthbertson, Wellington-born Jack Sheppard had always been fascinated with China. During his childhood there was a constant stream of Asian exchange students living with his family. He began learning Chinese at a weekend school on the recommendation of a Chinese-New Zealand friend. "Something really resonated," he says. "People say, 'Haha, you were Chinese in a previous life." At Victoria University in Wellington, he majored in Chinese. When he turned 21, he went to Nanjing University on a scholarship with the Asia NZ foundation, then called the Asia 2000 foundation. Though he had been learning Chinese, arriving in China was a shock. "I quickly found out I couldn't speak, even though I really thought I could," Sheppard says. He won the scholarship again, allowing him to stay on for a second year before returning to New Zealand. He has returned to China twice, first in a Te Papa traveling group, then to help at the Beijing Olympics. He was recruited by Spring Airlines, and now lives in Shanghai. "I don't feel like a foreigner anymore, despite being a big ugly foreigner," he says. Sheppard finds there is still a lingering cold war mentality, with many people he meets questioning why he would want to live in China. But Sheppard is happy he chose China rather than the "cushy" option of Europe. It's taken him outside of his comfort zone, he's learned a lot about himself. "I love how lyrical the language is, I love a lot of the literature, I love the food, I love how I can go out and sing karaoke any night of the week," the Kiwi says. He calls it a "fantastic OE destination," adding that it's possible to live in an expat bubble and speak English. "But I dare you to come here and learn the language ... They have everything here, even cheese."

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