Creating Community and Purpose

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What does a German tour guide, a Portuguese stay-at-home mom, and an Irish special needs care provider have in common?

No, this isn’t the set-up for a joke. They are all highly accomplished women back in their home countries who relocated to China for their spouses’ work. In the process of trying to fill their Dalian days with meaning beyond lunch dates and shopping, they found connection to the Chinese culture and a deep personal fulfillment. They did this by stepping out of their comfort zone and into a role as an English-speaking volunteer with Mother’s English, a group dedicated to helping students learn spoken English.

As any expat living abroad knows, making the decision to relocate and work in a foreign country affects the whole family. The trailing spouse – the partner who follows her or his partner on assignment abroad – faces a range of issues that impact their personal and working lives. They can feel uprooted with none of their usual support networks to navigate the many challenges of language barriers and an unfamiliar culture.

According to China’s most recent National Census there are at least 600,000 expats living in China. According to InterNations, a global expat network, 13% of these expats relocated to China for their partner’s work. Nine out of ten these trailing spouses are women.

AmCham China NE chapter member Rochelle Mathias was a trailing spouse in 2014 when her family relocated to Dalian. She did not speak Mandarin but she was determined to connect with her new community and find ways to give back. Over the past three years, she has built a successful English language volunteer program that provides high-quality English listening, speaking, and pronunciation assistance to migrant students in Dalian primary schools. In the process, she created a cohesive community of dedicated expat and local volunteers. Rochelle registered Mother’s English as a business in 2017.

“There’s a Big Problem”

New to Dalian in 2014, Rochelle was meeting with an expat healthcare provider when he said something that crystalized the course of her expat experience. He noted the high rate of depression among expat spouses and felt there was a need for some kind of community service to support them.

“There’s a big problem in my health clinic and it has nothing to do with illness. My patients are depressed because they struggle to find self-worth here. Can you help?” he said.

Rochelle was in the process of trying to create her own purpose in Dalian. She realized that there were many local students in her community who could not afford to learn spoken English and began to focus her efforts there. The free one-on-one and small group English coffee clubs she had been hosting in her home only allowed her a limited connection to the Dalian community and she wanted to help on a larger scale.

The Dalian League of Volunteers (D-LOV), a non-profit volunteer organization supported by the Dalian JinPuXinQu Women’s Federation and the Dalian Charity Foundation provided a platform to build the community enrichment project that became Mother’s English. D-LOV works in cooperation with foreign and domestic associations and chambers of commerce to support local community-building efforts. D-LOV’s programs are aimed at connecting expats to sustainable volunteer projects.

“Moving to a new place, especially one where everything is so different, can be overwhelming,” says D-LOV Founder and AmCham China NE member Ladon Ghalili. “I have found that when you provide opportunities for newcomers to make connections and become an active part of the community, it really changes the whole experience, for that person, and also for the community!  Everyone becomes a part of the growth and everyone benefits.”

D-LOV, in connection with TongLiGong community center in Dalian, KaiFaQu (KFQ), hosts a Welcome Wagon every August to connect expats to local businesses and services. They feature community building projects and cultural enrichment opportunities. Rochelle and Ladon worked together with TongLiGong to source volunteers for an English kindergarten class at the center. Over time, the relationship led to the support of a public program at the YangJia primary school in KFQ business devel̈̈̈opment area.

 “Something More Than Coffee”

Thanks to D-LOV, word about Mother’s English volunteer opportunities spread. The German Chamber of Commerce’s Partner Support Program reached out to connect their members’ spouses to the program.

Sanda Fülling, a trailing spouse with Volkswagon, is a weekly volunteer at Mother’s English Tongligong Kindergarten classes.

“When I arrived in Dalian, my daily life wasn’t very meaningful. There was a space that needed filling,” said Sandra. “My husband is very busy with work and my daughter is always fully booked with school and sports. I really missed my business back home as an independent tourist guide. I needed something more than another coffee or lunch date.”

Most of Mother’s English volunteers share a common trait. They were willing to reinvent themselves and try something new. Their efforts to connect lead them in new and exciting directions and build upon their established professional and personal skills.

“I was ready to go different ways and start a new aim on life,” said Sandra. “I loved Mother’s English from the beginning.  To become a member of a highly motivated team, to go hand-in-hand with them for helping children to learn English, that is a wonderful option and an important purpose for my life in China. So, I can contribute something here too.”

The Mother’s English community isn’t exclusively expat – they are spouses looking for purpose; high school students from Dalian American International and Maple Leaf International Schools seeking professional development; CSR programs from IKEA, Accenture, and Apple wanting to provide employee development; local schools and parents looking for enhanced educational opportunities for their students.

All volunteers are trained to engage with students in the classroom. The aim is to provide Chinese students with opportunities to converse in English so the focus is on listening and speaking. The ultimate goal of the program is to build a sustainable model that does not rely only on native English speakers’ involvement and can be carried forward with local volunteers. Mother’s English works closely with primary classroom Chinese English teachers around a Chinese English curriculum to enhance the learning experience and students’ English test scores.

Bursting the Expat Bubble

Volunteers not only give back to the community where they live, they’ve found a way to break the “expat bubble” and achieve a deeper connection to China. Many find the experience humbling and eye-opening. Most volunteer for the camaraderie; to learn from the students and each other. The exchange of cultural experiences has provided an illuminating expat experience.

“This project allows me to see, live, and be a part of the real China,” said Thelma Santos, D-LOV member and Mother’s English volunteer from Portugal. “What an amazing opportunity to learn from people from various countries and cultures. We all bring a unique perspective that enriches the classroom. Every person has her way of doing things and we all end up learning from each other. In the end, the students benefit.”

Thelma moved to Dalian in 2014. She is a baking enthusiast and delights her friends and family with her kitchen creations. But she needed a little adventure – something that took her out of the kitchen. Her desire to connect with others and try new things led her to a Zumba class, one of the activities D-LOV offers in partnership with TongLiGong community center. It was there she met other Mother’s English volunteers and decided to give it a try. Although English is not her native language, the process of preparing for each lesson has honed her English skills and given her an appreciation for the personal determination it takes to learn a new language. Her desire to connect with her students and community recently led her to start studying Mandarin.

Planting Seeds for the Future

Volunteering in a local primary school classroom gives Mother’s English volunteers a unique connection to Dalian citizens. For volunteer Kathy Ashmore, volunteering is a way to make Dalian feel like home. “I see life from a local perspective rather than a foreigner when I volunteer,” says Kathy.

Kathy is from Ireland where she was a volunteer special needs caregiver to disadvantaged children. She travels frequently between Ireland and China and wanted a way to feel “at home” in Dalian when she was there.  She volunteers three hours at the GongRenCun primary school in downtown Dalian every Tuesday. 

Kathy believes her strongest skill in the classroom is that of role model and she knows she is planting the seeds that will grow future volunteers. “Volunteering has a positive impact on society and is a good role model for students who will one day be active members in their community,” says Kathy. “Maybe these students will feel the need to help others one day. That’s how communities grow.”