You decided to jump in with both feet and take up the role of 2014-15 Chairperson for the BISS Pudong Community Group after having only been at the school for six months. Have you always been a “both feet” kind of person?
Actually I am not usually the sort of person to jump straight into something new. However, I was looking to do something to keep me busy, and my first experience of being involved with the Community Group at last year’s Summer Festival, was such good fun that I thought “why not”? In a way our move to Shanghai was similar, that was a definite “both feet” moment and I guess once you’ve done that once it becomes easier the next time!
You came to Shanghai from Scotland, where even the biggest cities are tiny by comparison… did you find it hard to adjust to the new environment? What helped?
It is definitely different, but I actually found it quite easy to adapt to living in the city and there are some things I don’t miss about Scotland. Having to shovel snow (a lot of snow) in order to get out in the winter is not something I miss, we had a tractor with a snow plough on it in order to clear the snow from our drive.
I think it is important not to spend too much time comparing places, everywhere has its positives and negatives and I try to focus on the benefits of being here. And whilst Shanghai is obviously an enormous city, the school and the compounds can give it a much more personal and friendly feeling, and my kids love having neighbours and their friends to play with.
Like many of the parents at school, and particularly the mums, you had a very interesting career before coming to Shanghai. Tell us what you did… and do you miss it?
I studied Genetics at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, my career has been somewhat varied, I worked for a while in the pharmaceuticals and health products industries but then when we moved to Scotland I had a change in career and I moved primarily into the voluntary sector. I worked with the long-term unemployed helping them increase their job readiness skills to get back to work; from there I spent many years working in vocational rehabilitation for people who had suffered Acquired Brain Injury, which was an incredibly rewarding, varied and interesting job. It was there that I understood how important it is for everyone to have a purpose, a reason to get out of bed in the morning and that work provides so much more than just a salary, (although that is important!).
I ran a project supporting people who were Deaf or Hard of Hearing, where I learnt British Sign Language, which was fascinating and definitely easier to pick up than Mandarin!
And my last job before coming to Shanghai was running a project supporting families affected by Huntington’s disease. HD is an inherited degenerative condition and working with families and individuals who were affected was a huge privilege and I met some genuinely uplifting and fantastically positive people but at the same time it could be extremely hard, as there is no cure for HD. I think the thing I miss the most is the feeling that every day I made a difference to people’s lives, this was often extremely small things but being able to do this certainly gave me huge job satisfaction even on the days when I couldn’t solve the big problems. It also made me realise just how lucky me and my family are, and it certainly gave me the perspective to see that even when I thought I was having a bad day, it was nothing compared to the situations in which some families were living.
People talk about living in an “expat bubble” yet anyone who meets you says you’re just very down-to-earth, and that’s certainly how you approach the Community Group work you do. Do you worry about “bubble” life… particularly when it comes to the experience your children are having now and the practicalities of your own experience in Shanghai?
I find it quite difficult to explain to people who haven’t experienced it, what it is like living in the “bubble” and there are some aspects of life here that do not feel “real”. I think it is really important to keep a sense of humour and perspective about the expat lifestyle and China, having things like my ayi and driver is fabulous, and I want to enjoy it but whilst still remembering that at some point we will have to go back to the real world. I think that kids are so adaptable and they accept the environment that they see around them which is a benefit when moving them to new places, however I am really glad that the school has such a strong focus on service and a recognition that not everyone is in the same privileged position as they are.
Your children have now finished one whole year at BISS Pudong. What’s your assessment of how the school has worked for them so far?
They’ve both had a great year, kids can be so adaptable and they have really taken everything in their stride! This time last year they were in a school in rural Scotland with less than 90 pupils and 4 classes covering the equivalent of Reception to Year 7, and now they are learning Mandarin every day and have friends who have come from all over the world. The opportunities that are presented at BISS Pudong are fantastic and I know will set them up very well for wherever we go in the future.
If you had to give the three most important things you want to achieve during your expat posting in Shanghai, what would they be?
Be able to have any sort of conversation in Mandarin!
Make the most of being able to travel to places that are on the doorstep here in China, but which are difficult and / or expensive to get to from the UK.
For my children to see themselves as part of the international community and what this can mean for them for their future.
Working behind the scenes with our school’s teachers and the administration team, you’ve had the opportunity to see things from the inside. Have there been any surprises? Have you come across any true roadblocks when it comes to planning/organising for events or anything that you’ve simply had to put down to a “China moment”?
I have been constantly impressed and delighted with the level of commitment that everyone in the school has to supporting the Community Group, it feels like there is a real understanding of how important the wider community is to our school life and this shows through when I am constantly asking people to do things for the events.
There is also so much experience in the Community Group, we are definitely building on the fantastic work that has been done before and the benefit is that everybody is willing to share what works and how to avoid too many “China moments”!
I have learnt to be very specific and precise in what I ask, I did not know that there were so many ways to take down Christmas decorations, but I will know for next year!
What’s the one thing about your former life that you would like to, but can’t, transplant to Shanghai?
I think it would be driving; I do miss the independence that came with being able to jump in my car at a moment’s notice.