Bridging two cultures

Shanghai Star. 2003-07-31
BY--- Li jian

HE is like an egg, white outside and yellow inside," Boonham's friends say about him.

Jason Boonham, an Australian, was the first foreigner to receive the 2003 Ten Outstanding Youths of Pudong District award.

He received the award for his efforts in the development of the Chinese insurance industry and his contribution to his neighbourhood.

During his two years' service as development manager at China Life CMG, a joint-venture insurance company, Jason has made the shift from a layman to an expert and achieved outstanding things over the past two years.

"His efforts help narrow the gap between the Chinese insurance industry and the international level," it said in his recommendation materials.

Community activist

But his experience of working in the neighbourhood as a foreigner added more colour to his resume.

He became the head of Yanlord Garden in the Pudong District, which has 40 per cent international residents, because he could speak Chinese well and was always ready to help others.

The committee meeting held once a month has changed since Jason took office, never bypassing the opportunity to put forward proposals.

He organized activities which combine Western features with a Chinese style, meeting a warm reception among the residents. He also sponsored an activity consisting of donating toys to poor children.

"I am trying to build a bridge between China and the West. An open city needs an open mind and a varied culture," he said.

Committee affairs can be trivial and tedious. "But for the residents, every trivial thing is significant," he said.

The award is often given to outstanding people in high positions or those who make a great contribution.

Boonham has been an exception.

"I admit my nationality did help me to obtain the award. But I am glad to be recognized for my committee work representing the bottom-level administration. It is like the base of Jin Mao Tower -supporting the whole building but often remaining ignored."

Yue Zhicheng is Jason's Chinese name. His Chinese love knot has been tied since his childhood when he first learnt to use chopsticks.

Communion with China

Boonham appears to be a shy and quiet man with an introverted character. His seeming timidity prevented him from getting on well with his Australian peers.

But he found much in common with Chinese people. "I found Chinese students very attractive. We had much in common. We did not consume tobacco or alcohol and didn't despise each other for that, in the same way the Australian guys did," he recalled.

His Chinese friends often invited him to eat their native food in Chinatown in Sydney. At first, fumbling with chopsticks, he found it hard to grasp the food.

The two slim bamboo sticks were a mystery for young Jason at first. But after he learnt to use them skillfully, he developed a passion for Chinese culture and dreamed of leading a Chinese life.

To gain more understanding of Chinese culture, Jason attended a Chinese school in Sydney at the age of 20 with a group of children as his classmates.

The teacher would have put him in the pre-school class if it had not been for his gigantic height compared to the young kids. Those days were really hard for him, but his thirst for Chinese culture drove him on, and he persisted.

So far he has been learning Chinese for eight years. You would think him Chinese if it not were for his skin colour.

If you talk to him in English, he regards you as an acquaintance. If you talk to him in Chinese, he thinks you are a good friend. If you use Shanghai dialect, he treats you as his brother.

China experience

In 1993, Boonham made his first tour of China, including the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, Shanghai, Guangdong and Beijing. He made his first direct contact with China and its culture.

He had an opportunity to taste the meat of cats, mice and wine made from snake blood and to witness the bloody scene of eating monkey brains.

"We can not say whether it is right or wrong. I think it is part of their culture.

"It is impossible to know the truth without close observation."

It was in Guilin, in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region that he first heard the graceful melody of the erhu. He encountered a blind man playing the erhu and stayed to listen until darkness fell.

From then on, he took to the instrument. He bought one and tried hard to practice, although he was often interrupted by his neighbours who ran out of patience with the racket.

Later, under the guidance of an erhu teacher, he improved his skills. Now he can sing Shanghai Opera to the music he plays.

Since touring China he has known of Lei Feng, becoming an admirer and follower.

Public spirit

He saw himself as a Lei Feng bridging the gap between China and Australia. At one stage he was Financial Chief of the Sino-Australia Friendship Organization.

As an Australian who can speak good Chinese, he volunteered to help Chinese with their English and supported activities sponsored by the Chinese government, such as the celebration of the 50th anniversaries of national independence in Sydney, the banquet to celebrate direct flights from Guangzhou to Australia and the 1999 Spring Festival Gala in Sydney.

In 2001, Boonham was sent to Shanghai by the Australia Commonwealth Bank. He returned to China with his Beijing wife.

Standing in front of the Jin Mao Tower, he could not believe his eyes, remembering the what existed there before: a field covered in weeds and muddy puddles.

After living in Shanghai for two years, he has fallen in love with the city and takes pride in the Shanghai dialect he speaks.

His understanding of China and its culture greatly benefits his work and wins him many customers.

Now Boonham lives among the six members of a large family near the Jin Mao Tower.

He prefers to live in a traditional Chinese family like this. "It saves resources for us to share with each other," he explained. "I like the environment in a big family."

Boonham met his Chinese wife at a get-together in Beijing. They fell in love at first sight and finally married after overcoming opposition from his wife's parents.

Boonham referred to his mother-in-law as laoniang, a intimate name in the Beijing dialect.

"Laoniang is the VIP in the family. Without her we would starve to death," he said, embracing his daughter as she tried to steal grapes from the table.


Copyright by Shanghai Star.