A wonderful encounter between Jilin and me

By Robert Hynes

I travelled by car from the airport to a hotel in Changchun in early July 2011. My wife and two children were sitting alongside me staring out the window at our new surroundings. The sun was shining, car horns honking and people everywhere. In difference to previous family trips this was not a holiday, we were relocating to Changchun to live and work. The reality of our decision to leave Ireland behind began to dawn on us all.

It is hard to explain to people in Ireland that you have made a decision to uproot your family and relocate to a city in the North-East of China that nobody has ever heard of. Changchun with a population of 8 million people is nearly double the population of the country we were leaving. How have we not heard of this city people would ask? What is the climate like? Winter temperatures of approximately minus 30oC for 5 months of the year are difficult to explain to people from a country where the temperature rarely drops below freezing. Most people couldn’t understand our decision.

The first journey from the airport to a hotel made us all worried. We could not speak Mandarin, didn’t know any people living in Changchun and did not know where in the city we should live. This was the beginning of an adventure that will always be one of the most important periods of my life for my family and I.

Fear of the unknown was quickly replaced with happiness when we discovered how friendly the people of Changchun are. It is one of the most extraordinary qualities that all Changchun residents possess. Every person that we met was very willing to help and guide us through our journey. No query or question was too big for people to answer with people taking significant efforts to make sure we were happy and being looked after. I have previously travelled extensively outside of China and have never come across the same level of warmth and openness before.

Naturally, the language barrier was and remains a huge challenge to westerners. The word “Zhege” with a bit of pointing and a smile on your face can solve a lot of problems. This was the first word we learnt and helped us be able to buy food and good in the local markets, order food at restaurants and get around the city in taxis. Our first Mandarin word was now learnt giving us the ability to buy food and meaning that we could survive.

The first two weeks seemed to pass by in a flash and were spent house hunting and getting the children ready for school. The family were beginning to settle in and my attention turned to work. I had been asked by my company to work with Yatai Building Material group at their Shuangyang Cement Plant. The plant has 1,900 employees and is located 1.5hours away from Changchun. One other colleague and I would be the only westerners. We were welcomed with open arms and put to work. Within a matter of weeks we felt like part of the team and one of the family. Good relationships which are an important part of life everywhere in the world took on a new significance in Changchun. Trust grew on a daily basis with the opportunity to work in such an environment giving us great insight into how Chinese culture operates an experience that no tourist could never truly understand. Invitations to weddings, meals, sports events and the daily sharing of experiences made the bonds grow closer.

One of my best memories in was being asked to sing a song for a Chinese New Year concert being held at the plant. Naturally we jumped at the chance and agreed without hesitation. My colleague and I had a list of Irish songs that we could perform. This was not to be the case though as we were requested to sing a Chinese song. We were given the song “Yue liang dai biao wo de xin” which filled us with fear as we were not able to speak Mandarin let alone sing a song in Mandarin. We were guided and helped at every opportunity finally getting to a point where our pronunciation was almost correct. Singing and acting is not one of my strong points and hence it had been nearly 30 years since I had been on stage. We didn’t realise the size, scale or importance of concert when we had originally agreed to perform. One night in early February 2012 we sang on stage to 800 people at a plant in the countryside surrounding Changchun. Luckily we managed to have a good performance and were met with rapturous applause from the audience. The song has been sung many times since not only in Changchun but also many venues in Ireland where aunties, uncles and family members listen with amazement. It is one of my finest memories from the early days in Changchun and one that I will never forget.

Working outside of the city also gave me a great opportunity to watch rural life and look on in amazement at the wonders of nature. The contrast from the hard winter where the fields lay bare to the summer and autumn months where corn and rice are growing is astonishing. I often wonder how trees begin to flower only two to three weeks after the winter temperatures have gone and the spring sets in. How are these plants still alive? The streets that were once empty places are now buzzing with activity with markets and stalls appearing everywhere. Life has been reborn. Stopping to buy goods from the local stalls was always a treat with people watching in wonderment to see what the foreigners would buy and say. The support and friendliness of all the locals never ceased to amaze.

I have subsequently relocated to work in Yatai head office on Jilin Street. It is great to work in such a professional environment as the two cultures work together. I no longer view the people I work with as colleagues and now view them as friends and my Changchun family. We have shared many a meal, many a “gambee” and many a social occasion down through the years.

Yatai are very focused on exercise which is evident by the many sporting occasions that they organise. Another highlight of mine was completing at a company Olympic games that is held every three years. I got the opportunity to run in the 100m in a stadium full of people. I had many a boyhood dream about being a sporting superstar but I had thought that due to my age that my chance had past. This was my chance to be young again and full-fill my sporting ambitions. I lined up on the starting blocks with my wife and children looking on. This was my personal Olympic Games with a chance to prove to my 6 and 4 year old that their daddy was still a superstar. Bang - the starting gun sounded. I rose majestically from the blocks building up speed and power that I didn’t believe my 37 year old body was still capable of. At the 10m point I was at full pace with only 90m to go. I was in the middle of the pack and gaining on the leader after 30 meters when suddenly I pulled my hamstring. In the blink of an eye my Olympic dream was over. I guess my 37 year old body was the winner that day.

We have enjoyed the numerous tourist attractions and park in Changchun and around. We have travelled to the beautiful town of Tonghua and its awe inspiring mountain scenery, to the hot springs in Shuangyang, the ski resorts in Jilin and to all of the parks and attractions in Changchun. My family and I will often go for a walk in Moon Lake, South Lake or the sculpture park. On each occasion the warmth and hospitality of the Changchun residents is reinforced by them providing assistance and guidance where necessary. Of course, my family and I, with two young children, both blond haired and under six years old sometimes feel like the tourist attraction. We have posed for many a photograph with other residents who are out for the day. I have never seen as many brides in one location as you do when you walk around Moon Lake on a nice summer day.

Three years have passed and we continue to live in Changchun. The children have made excellent friends and are enjoying school. They have a quality of life that would be hard to match outside of Changchun as they are free to play outside and be children. My wife is now able to speak good Mandarin and continues to enjoy the daily challenges that life here provides. My children’s Mandarin is fast catching up on mine with them being able to correct my inaccurate pronunciations. The personal safety for my family and I is a large factor in our happiness. There are very few places in the world where you can walk around with the same level of safety as here in Changchun.

As a family we continue to grow as people and learn from the experiences that we have in Changchun. We now sit around a table and share food in a Chinese manner and don’t always have our own plates of food that is more akin to the Western approach. The communication between the family members has greatly improved as a result. Ordering in restaurants can still sometimes be difficult as the ice cream we order for our children’s dessert may come first. It is very hard to convince a child to eat their vegetables after the finished ice cream. The Changchun approach of eating fresh and local food provides us with a balanced diet and takes us away from the increasingly western norm of fast food. We cook using fresh raw ingredients and no longer rely on packages of prepared food.

It is the relationships that I have formed through work and living in Changchun that remain the most important factor to life here. I always know that I am welcome wherever I go and that there are many people who will assist with anything that I may need. The shared experiences over the last 3 years have meant that these relationships are stronger than ever. The personal bonds and friendships that I have formed will never be broken. My family and I have had many cultural learning’s that highlight the importance of family, friends and the community. These lessons are something that we will never lose and will hopefully be passed on to future generations of our family. I am delighted that we made the decision to move from Ireland and live in Changchun. It is a decision that I will never regret.


Robert Hynes is an engineering manager in Jilin.

(Opinions of the writer in this letter don't represent those of ejilin.gov.cn.)