A Readymade Family
A coastal community has perfected the art of making visitors feel at home
By Sudeshna Sarkar  ·  2018-11-27  ·   Source: | Web Exclusive

The Guanren Community in Xiamen’s Siming District started out as a place where many foreigners and Taiwanese who had come to Xiamen to work or study set up home (WANG XIANG)

Every time Zuzana Pavlonova returns to her apartment from a trip, she has the same feeling of homecoming she gets in Czech, where she was born and grew up. The 26-year-old petite blonde has made the coastal city of Xiamen in southeastern China her home for three years now, acting on the suggestion of a friend and enrolling in Xiamen University to study Chinese language and culture.

“I never regret the decision,” the aspiring translator-interpreter said. “I stayed in Shanghai for a year to improve my Chinese after studying it in high school. Then I wanted to live somewhere where life is not so hectic to polish my language skills further. The place where I live now, Shabowei, can’t be found even on the Baidu map. It’s a tiny fishermen’s village where the houses are made of stone and everyone knows everyone else. Every time I am back, my neighbors welcome me back just as warmly as people do in my 200-year-old village in Czech.”

Besides her neighbors, Pavlonova has also been befriended and helped to find her feet by an initiative where locals, foreigners and migrant Chinese have come together to help one another and create social cohesion.

More than a hangout

The Guanren Community in Xiamen’s Siming District started out as a place where many foreigners and Taiwanese who had come to Xiamen to work or study set up home, drawn by the green surroundings, the picturesque Yundang Lake nearby, and lines of coffee shops that sprang up to cater to expatriate palates. However today, over three decades since its inception, it is more than a hangout. The community center, supported by the local government and run by nearly 30 staffers and an army of volunteers, is the go-to place for help, entertainment and community service.

Smita, who declines to use a family name, even on her passport, is one of the volunteers at the center. She came to China 11 years ago with her husband Niren Anand, a footwear designer from India, and seven years ago, the couple opened their footwear company, Xiamen Evertrade Import and Export. Though the factory, where nearly 150 local workers make shoes for foreign companies, is in nearby Jinjiang City, they decided to move to Xiamen, which boasts several international schools, for their children’s education.

“This city has harmony between nature and balanced development,” Smita said. “You have greenery, the sea, mountains and technological development. Wherever you are, you are in touch with nature. Also, people here go out of their way to help you.”

Anand said their business grew 35 percent in just one year. “Our annual business turnover is almost $7 million,” he said. “Xiamen has a multicultural environment and there is a lot of opportunity. We’ve also got much support from the local authorities for business growth.”

Last year, when Xiamen hosted the Ninth BRICS Summit, Anand was a participant in the BRICS Business Forum. The couple was part of the local Indian community who were invited to meet visiting Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. “It was a milestone in business growth for us,” Anand said.

Smita teaches English at the community center and plans many of its activities like the frequent charity markets and Chinese festivals. “The center is a platform for the local community and foreigners to come together,” she said. “Foreigners can learn Chinese here. They are given 12 free classes to learn survival Chinese so that they can adjust to the city. There are also activities to introduce them to Chinese culture like classes to learn paper cutting, the basics of traditional Chinese medicine, and Chinese martial arts like judo.”

Angelo Nt perked up when he heard the word judo. The soft-spoken 48-year-old looked frail but appearances can be deceptive. Angelo has a black belt in judo, having begun to learn it when he was 10. When he arrived in Xiamen from Taiwan four years ago to do business in anti-pollution products, he decided to lend the community his martial arts expertise.

Today, the center has judo classes thrice a week where Angelo teaches with an Argentinian judoka. “Our youngest student is 5 while the oldest is 71,” he said proudly. “We try to help each other and make it feel like home.”

Turning garbage green

His other outstanding contribution is the little kitchen garden on the roof of the community center. “Xiamen has introduced garbage classification so that part of the waste can be recycled,” he said. “I said, why don’t you grow your own kitchen garden to contribute to that? A lot of agricultural products that we use have been grown using chemical pesticides. So growing your own food in a green way gives you safe food, helps you conserve and recycle, and also presents you with a rewarding little hobby.”

The community center liked his proposal and he started the rooftop garden, using organic wastes from the kitchen to demonstrate how it can be done. “Everybody learns how to recycle their garbage and eat safe food,” he said. “If you want to create a beautiful life in harmony with nature, this is a step in that direction.”

The center also organizes English classes for Chinese migrant workers and their children so that there is social interaction to give them a sense of belonging. Besides, there are events for people to have a good time in a spirit of camaraderie and to help those who need it. “Every month, we choose an individual or organization in need of assistance,” Smita said. The money raised from the charity markets goes to help the chosen ones. “This city has given us so much,” she said. “It’s our way of paying back and saying thank you.”

The community center also has a unit to provide legal advice for migrant residents, both Chinese and foreigners, said Wu Yun, Director of the center.

One would think that Pavlonova, who is fluent in Chinese and is often asked to interpret for foreigners, would not need the assistance of the center but she dispelled the idea. “Sometimes, you need a Chinese approach to resolve a problem in China,” she said. “If I need to find an apartment and negotiate with the landlord, I would always go to the center. Besides, once you meet a few people and make friends, you feel you have a family. They help you and you help them back.”

(Reporting from Xiamen)

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