April 4, 2011

China Daily: China Dream

Arizona native Tom Stader started his non-profit, The Library Project, with just $500 in donations soon after moving to China in 2006.

Talented foreigners with an eye for opportunity are heading eastward to realize their potential in a wide range of fields, reports Todd Balazovic.

While China may have once been a favored destination for expats seeking exotic experiences such as teaching English or learning Chinese, an increasing number of people are flocking eastward to realize their dreams. As the Chinese economy continues to grow, success is flourishing not only for entrepreneurial Chinese, but also for foreign residents with an eye for opportunity. This is the story of some of those intrepid foreigners who have shared in the “China dream” – the philanthropist, the actress, the restaurateur and the playwright.

For Charlotte Macinnis, also known as Ai Hua when she is hosting the China Central Television (CCTV) program Growing up with Chinese, the “China dream” started as a child when her family moved to the city of Nanjing to follow her father’s career in publishing.

In 1988 at the age of 7, Macinnis was pushed out of a comfortable life in the United States and placed in a land that, at the time, few people in the West knew anything about.

“We didn’t have the option of living a Western lifestyle in China, so we adopted a Chinese one,” the 30-year-old actress said.

Gaining high proficiency in Mandarin after just two years in a Chinese middle school, Macinnis and her sister Mika began making a local name for themselves as the only expat performers to share the stage with China’s well-known Little Red Flowers performing troupe.

After more than a decade in China, Macinnis returned to the US to attend Columbia University where her quirky Chinese mannerisms earned her the nickname “weird white Chinese girl” among her classmates, a title that sticks to this day.

Now, Macinnis is a recognized face in many Beijing households as the host of several programs on CCTV and a regular guest on Chinese talk shows.

“This is exactly where I want to be,” she said. “I wouldn’t know life anywhere else.”

While her opportunity came at a young age, when there was still “an element of wow associated with being a foreigner”, Macinnis said China is still teeming with possibilities for those looking to realize their dreams in showbiz.

“Definitely in entertainment there’s a better chance at getting somewhere or being on TV here than you would in the United States,” she said, adding that while many opportunities remain available for foreigners, employers are gradually getting more stringent regarding who they hire.

“But the caliber of people coming to China has risen, people are expecting more now. And that’s good, that’s what it should be.”

For some the “China dream” is not about realizing their own potential, but instead about helping others realize theirs.

Tom Stader, founder of The Library Project, a Xi’an-based non-governmental organization that donates libraries to poor rural schools, first came to China as a marketer for an English-language school in the northeastern city of Dalian, Liaoning province.

Following two years working in Dalian, Stader’s life took a dramatic shift after he was charged with finding a charity for the school to participate in as part of its corporate responsibility program.

The 36-year-old American responded by putting a plan into motion to host a book drive that would bring learning materials to a Dalian orphanage, where literature was scarce.

The public’s response to the fundraiser was overwhelming, bringing in more than 3,400 yuan ($518) and 600 books over the course of just two days.

Seeing the good he could do for those in need, Stader left the school and began the project which has grown into a massive organization that has donated hundreds of libraries across 21 provinces in China.

“I started this organization with $500 and a couple of friends. Building an organization over years from the ground up has really been a dream come true,” Stader said.

He attributes his success to China’s warm reception for those with good intentions, as well as the relatively cheap startup costs for businesses.

“The barrier of entry in China is quite small if you look at it in business terms, you don’t have to have a lot of money to start something big here,” he said.

“We did it slow, we did it grassroots, we showed results, we took risks and those risks played out in a very positive manner.”

Stader said if he had remained in the US, the chances that he would have been able to start an NGO would have been quite slim due to the overabundance of organizations already operating there.

“It comes down to the need. There are great organizations already on the ground in the US, I am not sure we’d have been able to provide the impact there that we can here,” he said.

It was seeing the need in an untapped market that led Briton Will Yorke, owner of the Vineyard Caf, one of Beijing’s up and coming Western restaurants, to venture from life as a club DJ to being a respected business owner in a budding Beijing hutong.

Coming to China in 1997 to study Chinese, Yorke was among the first of the city’s expats to bring the electronic art of disc jockeying to the capital, earning him a minor celebrity status in the city’s club scene.

After finishing his studies and exploring a variety of jobs, including running a kungfu school, the 35-year-old eventually tapped into his experiences working in restaurants as a youth and found himself in the unlikely position of being a restaurant owner.

“It was a mixture of sheer brilliance and a number of random events that kind of led to this end result,” he said.

“It was never my intention to open a restaurant in Beijing, I never thought this is what I’d be doing.”

The Vineyard, in Beijing’s quickly developing Wudaoying Hutong, was the first Western enterprise to open in the area, catalyzing a boom in boutique businesses along the old alley.

Yorke attributes his success to the fact that China is still a relatively young market for Western concepts.

“It’s a matter of saturation, the market isn’t as saturated as it is in London. You can still take an idea that might be quite old in the UK and make it quite new here,” he said.

Though the “eastern front” may be a ripe market for ideas considered commonplace back home, Yorke admits that this was not what he had in mind when he found himself in the restaurant business.

“It was a series of random circumstances that led me here. I didn’t consciously do that, I didn’t do it like that. I just opened a restaurant and cooked the food I liked,” he said.

While meeting success in China may come by chance for some, for American Elyse Ribbons, a host for China Radio International and a resident of China for almost a decade, the “China dream” is for young professionals seeking a unique early-career experience and willing to push themselves with hard work.

The 30-year-old first came to Beijing in 2001 following a trip with classmates from the University of North Carolina. Though at the time she aspired to work for the US State Department using her language skills in Arabic, China’s charm won her over and, after finishing her Chinese-language degree in the US, she was determined to return.

“All of us, myself included, fell in love with Beijing and China,” she said.

After returning to China in 2002 intending to study traditional Chinese medicine in order to use her skills in the West, Ribbons quickly realized that the medical field was not for her and began experimenting with the varying job opportunities Beijing had to offer, from English teaching to working as a translator for the American Center for Disease Control in Beijing.

Ribbons finally found her niche in the theater in 2006 after spending three weeks in Paris writing her own screenplay I Heart Beijing examining the social stereotypes of foreigners and Chinese in China.

Following the success of her play, Ribbons established herself in the capital’s drama scene and has since put on six more productions.

She said while China may offer expats a quicker chance of success than in the West, the room for career growth, especially in the theater, is often limited.

“There’s more opportunity in China to get your foot in the door, but once your foot’s in getting the rest of your body through is difficult,” Ribbons said.

“You’ve got to be stubborn and have perseverance, that’s how you push yourself through the door.”

She said while expats in China may be given unique chances, such as playing the role of a TV host simply based on the fact that they’re foreign, the opportunities often have little room for advancement.

“You get the introductory opportunities, but to break through the glass ceiling takes a lot of work,” she said.