From ‘city of coal’ to the ‘big village’
6 MIN READ
China has the largest population of any country on earth: Over 1.4 billion people, in 2019.
This is the story of just one of them, Da Zhao, who swapped life in the far east for life in the emerald isle nearly 20 years ago; making it his home.
It is a story of differences and similarities between two cultures which starts with a critical piece of Da’s identity – his name.
‘In China,’ he explains, ‘people always say your surname first and your first name after.’
Back in China, he would be called Zhao Da but here he chooses to put his first name first.
‘That’s the first difference,’ Da says, laughing. ‘My colleagues in the branch just call me Da. It’s handy, you know!’
100 cities with over 1 million inhabitants
‘I grew up in the north-east of China, a city called Fushun,’ Da says.
You might not be able to locate Fushun on a map but it has a population of over 2 million inhabitants, according to a 2010 census, more people than currently live in the greater Dublin area.
And Fushun doesn’t even make it into the top 50 biggest cities in China which has over 100 cities with a population greater than 1 million.
The biggest city, Shanghai, has a population of over 26 million inhabitants.
‘City of coal’
‘The city is famous for its coal mines,’ Da says, of Fushun. ‘They had the biggest open coal mine in the whole continent.
Even from Google Earth you can see the track and the trains going inside it. It’s unbelievable.’
There were at least four coal mines in Fushun when Da grew up there giving the city its nickname ‘the city of coal’.
The bottom of one of the open mines is 1,000 feet below the surface and the lowest point in China.
Both Da’s parents worked in the same factory making huge machines for the mines.
‘It was a big factory with about 3,000 staff. I don’t even know exactly what these machines were,’ he admits.
Pollution was always a problem. Da remembers that everything he wore got covered in a layer of dust when he left his family apartment.
Strict discipline at school
Da also recalls how strict things were when he was in primary school.
‘We had to stay in a certain order. We had wooden chairs, not very comfortable, and we had to sit like this with straight back and hands behind our backs.’
Da sits up straight in his chair and puts his hands behind his back to show how he had to sit.
‘It was like sitting in an army camp in the early years of primary school!’
When I ask Da if he has any brothers and sisters, he says no. ‘One child policy. I’m the only one.’
From 1980, Chinese families were permitted only 1 child in an attempt to prevent overpopulation. The policy was eventually relaxed in 2016.
He grew up with his parents and grandparents all sharing the same small family apartment.
‘My grandparents lived in one bedroom and I had to share with my parents in the second,’ he says. ‘That was just part of life, I didn’t think it was strange.’
At that time, back in the 1980s, China was only starting to adopt economic reforms introduced by Deng Xiaoping which have revolutionised the economy over the past 40 years.
‘People were on low wages,’ Da says. ‘There were very few houses in Chinese cities, at that time, mostly 1-bed and 2-bed apartments. Private cars were very rare. Most cars were only for companies or for the government.’
In 1980, China’s GDP was only $194.80 per person. By 2017, it was 40 times bigger at $8,643, according to the IMF.
Leaving China for Ireland
It was when Da was 20 and in college in Fushun that he first thought about leaving China.
‘When I was in my last year at college a friend of mine told me he had a friend who had studied in Ireland. It sounded like a fantastic place for an overseas study experience.’
Unfortunately, the only thing that most Chinese people knew about Ireland back then was the situation in Northern Ireland.
‘Many people thought it was a dangerous place to go,’ Da says. ‘They didn’t really know the difference between Northern Ireland and Ireland at that time.’
Now, he says, things have changed dramatically with the help of one particular Irish cultural export.
”Riverdance’ went to China for a good few years and had a massive tour there,’ he says.
Da decided he wanted to study English in Ireland but first he had to convince his family.
Both his parents agreed but it was very expensive for the couple who worked in a factory on modest wages.
‘My parents had to pay at least 65,000 to 70,000 Chinese Yuan, about €8,000 at the time. It was a big family decision,’ he says of the huge financial commitment his family made to get him to Ireland.
Landing in the ‘big village’
Before Da got on the flight from Beijing to Dublin, he had never left China before and he had never flown.
His first flight was over 5,000 miles long.
And his first impression, when he looked out of the window of the plane as it landed at Dublin airport was, ‘it looks like a big village!’
‘The Chinese style,’ he explains, ‘is to build big buildings, big skyscrapers that look nice and shiny from the outside.’
Dublin, it seemed to him, had yet to build its skyscrapers.
His second impression was that the natural environment looked a lot better compared to his hometown.
‘I could smell the difference in the air quality right away. It was much cleaner.’
Learning English in Ireland
Although Da learned English in China it did not mean he could actually speak the language when he landed in Ireland.
‘The Chinese education system at that time emphasised vocabulary and grammar so it was not really for daily communication,’ he says.
‘Even if you passed the exam and got very high marks you may still not be able to communicate with people in spoken English.’
Da finished his English language course in Dublin and began working in Ireland trying many different jobs before he joined Bank of Ireland.
‘I worked in a shop, in a restaurant, take-away, a hotel, a pub. It was all good experience for me. No matter what job you’re in, no matter what sector, you have to deal with people.’
In 2007, he got a job in our O’Connell Street branch, the busiest branch in the country.
First Chinese New Year away from home
The Chinese community in Ireland, when Da arrived in 2000, was very small.
It has grown since. The 2016 Census recorded 19,447 people of Chinese ethnicity, here.
‘Most Chinese people in Ireland would be students,’ he says of the time he first arrived here. ‘You wouldn’t see so many associations or have many activities like you do nowadays. Basically, you were on your own.’
And being on your own far from home, as any emigrant can tell you, could be lonely.
‘I still remember quite clearly the first Chinese New Year’s Day I had in Ireland – the first Chinese New Year’s Day I had apart from my family all my life,’ Da says.
‘I finished school and finished work and I’m sitting in Burger King on O’Connell Street and looking outside at life.
I was nearly in tears just missing home terribly and having a burger to treat myself as my New Year’s feast. I can still feel it even after so many years.’
Straightforward not sideways
But, despite his homesickness, Da liked the way that things were done in Ireland compared to how things were done in China.
Despite the feeling, among some Irish people, that the Irish play their cards close to their chests, Da found Irish people straightforward.
‘In China, you have to go sideways or in circles. Some people want to hide their real thinking, their real opinions, afraid to say things out loud.
I prefer the way in Ireland where you can think and do things straightforwardly, without a double agenda, or playing hide and seek all the time.’
Meeting Ying Ying
The first time Da met his future wife Ying Ying he says he felt, ‘wow, she is the one I should spend the rest of my life with.’
Although they met in Dublin, 5,000 miles from China, Ying Ying was born in Shenyang, the capital of Liaoning province, just 40 miles from Fushun where Da was born.
Shenyang has over 8 million inhabitants.
The couple now have two children who combine Irish first names with Chinese middle names.
Audrey has the middle name Xinyu ‘which means new sky, new universe, a beautiful name,’ says Da. While Aran’s middle name is Chengxi meaning achievement, success.
Da remembers the days when he had to spend €10 or €20 to buy an international telephone card to call his family back in Fushun ‘and it barely lasted a few minutes’.
‘Now, thanks to modern technology, I can stay in contact with my parents through Skype, Whatsapp, and social media,’ he says.
Experience of racism
In general, Da says that most of his experience of living in Ireland has been positive.
However, in his early years here, he says teenagers in the city centre where he lived would ‘curse and say bad things’ to him because he was Chinese.
He then rented a house in the north Dublin suburbs and lived there for 7 years without experiencing any racism there but after buying his home, only ten minutes’ walk away, local children harassed his family for 3 years.
‘They knocked on my door almost on a daily basis – knock and run,’ he says. ‘When they saw a window open they threw things into my house.’
Eventually, he installed a CCTV camera in the front of his house to provide evidence after reporting the harassment but it ‘didn’t make much difference to be honest’.
The individual acts, by themselves, might not sound too serious but they were daily, lasted for 3 years, and appeared to be solely motivated by his family’s race.
Joining the multicultural network
Da now works as a Customer Advisor in Baggot Street branch and was recently introduced to the Bank of Ireland Multicultural Network.
He has attended events that marked cultural highlights around the world including Diwali, the festival of lights, celebrated by millions of Hindus, Sikhs and Jains across the world, in the Mansion House.
About the multicultural network, he says, ‘I think it is an important part of life and work to have interactions with different people, groups and cultural backgrounds – Ireland is much more multicultural compared to 20 years ago.
It’s all been a very positive experience for me.’
He says he does his best to attend all the internal meetings of the network ‘to help brainstorm ideas, plan for future events, then attend as many events as well.’
A sense of security
One of the things that Da appreciates about life in Ireland is the sense of security he says he feels, here.
He gives the example of buying a house.
‘In Ireland, when you buy a house you own the house and the land but in China if you buy a property you can only have ownership of land for 70 years maximum and in some cities you only have the ownership for 50 years.’
On the one hand, moving from China to Ireland has been a huge challenge for Da taking him away from his family, requiring him to learn a new language, find work without a network of contacts and adapt to a very different culture.
On the other, new technology has made it easier to stay in touch with China, Da has discovered many things he likes about Irish culture and he has created a new family here combining both cultures.
And although it is hard to travel back to China as a family of four often, his parents are coming to visit him in Dublin this year.
Fushun, the ‘city of coal’, remains his home in the east but Dublin, from the Irish dubh linn meaning ‘black pool’, is his home in the west.
Find out more about cultural diversity
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To find out more about inclusion and diversity at Bank of Ireland, including cultural diversity, click here.