By Abbey Heffer

05 February 2016 - 16:08

'Making the most of your year abroad can have a real impact on your future.'
'Making the most of your year abroad can have a real impact on your future.' Image ©

Abbey Heffer

When Abbey Heffer arrived in China in 2013 as an English language assistant, she could barely order dinner at a local restaurant in Mandarin. Now, the first female foreign national in history to work for the Chinese government, she can talk and write to her friends and colleagues in Chinese.

From 'dirty backwater' to thriving super-city: Foshan

While living in China as a scholarship student, I fell in love with the country. I began making emigration plans and, two weeks after graduating in 2013, I touched down in China. The school where I was placed, with three others, was in Foshan, a city on the border of Guangzhou. At that point, the city had little international reputation, aside from being known as the home town of Bruce Lee’s forefathers, and as a 'dirty backwater' for Guangzhou’s booming industry.

In the last two years, however, Foshan has come to be described as one of China’s most dynamic new cities and is recognised for its reform-minded openness. Where China shied away from sudden, brilliant change, Foshan made it a mantra. In his No Ordinary Disruption, Richard Dobbs wrote 'between now and 2025, Foshan will contribute more to global growth than cities like Madrid, Milan and Zurich.'

The first generation of 'Foshan foreigners'

Foshan was one of the first units of the Chinese government to hire foreign nationals. Around the time of the spring festival in China – which for other language assistants meant five weeks of paid holiday and the whole of Asia at their fingertips – I was slowly recovering from three months of illness and wallowing in self-pity. Too sick to travel, I began searching for an internship and a change of fortune.

In January 2014, I became part of the first generation of 'Foshan foreigners' – an international team of consultants hired directly by the Chinese government to help promote the city to potential foreign investors. The term was allegedly coined by a journalist from the Wall Street Journal, who went from doubter to advocate of the foreign team over the course of a month. During my one-month internship, I tried to learn as much as I possibly could about Foshan.

How I juggled government work and two hundred children

Being an English language assistant was a brilliant way to live in a country that I love, earn money, and have a fairly flexible teaching schedule. I balanced my time between school and the Bureau of Commerce, where I worked two mornings a week when there were no classes. My school supported me, and on one occasion gave me a full day off to host a delegation from a visiting UK company.

There is nothing quite like being a foreign teacher in China. Not only are you responsible for your students’ education and development, you also act as an ambassador for the entire foreign community. Many of the children I taught had never seen a foreigner before, let alone spoken to one.

In many ways, the first few weeks of my internship felt like teaching again, except I was building relationships with highly educated Chinese government officials, rather than school children.

'In January 2014, I became a part of the first generation of 'Foshan foreigners.''
'In January 2014, I became a part of the first generation of 'Foshan foreigners.'' ©

Abbey Heffer

How I started working for the Chinese government

Zhou Zhitong, the mastermind behind the Foshan foreigner experiment, had initially planned to hire three foreign consultants, all men, to assist in the promotion of Foshan. Fortunately for me, the third consultant didn't show up, so I was asked if I would be willing to stay on after my internship and sign a new employment contract with the Bureau of Commerce. I was happy to oblige.

Within the international team of 'Foshan foreigners' our responsibilities are varied, but largely concentrate on making foreign investment easier, and helping foreign companies set up a base in Foshan. One day, we could be hosting a welcome party for the new consul general of Germany in south China. The next we could be arranging a site visit for a British company wanting to set up an ice-cream factory in Foshan.

My legs still shake, but the fear is gone

In the two years since I have been working here, I have made a lot of progress. I have worked my way up from being an intern to taking on the role of vice-manager of an independent international department within the Bureau of Commerce.

When I first came here, I could barely order my dinner at a local restaurant in Mandarin, and the thought of speaking at a dinner party would make my face flush and hands tremble. Now I participate in meetings, deliver keynote speeches and speak to my colleagues and friends in Mandarin. My legs still shake, but the fear is gone.

Apply to be an English language assistant

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