Lisa Qin: Beijing feels like the centre of the world when you're there

Interview by Molly O'Brien

Lisa Qin describes the allure of Beijing as the "China Pull” – being intuitively drawn to a place without sometimes fully understanding why. She's currently on her third stint in China and has spent the past four years in Beijing. 

Lisa possesses a steadfast passion for bringing people together through cross-cultural engagement and community building – characteristics that make her a perfect fit for her role as an education officer with UNICEF China. Her work supports schools in China’s rural and western areas to deliver an improved quality of education to some of the nation's most vulnerable children. 

Lisa recently gave Advance an insight to her multicultural life; how growing up with a dual heritage informed not only her Australian upbringing but her career, how people can get involved with UNICEF and why studying at Harvard was like “Disneyland for nerds”.

How did you start your career with UNICEF?

I applied for a position when I was still studying, and like many organisations, UNICEF was competitive. I didn't get a job with them initially so instead I came to China and studied Chinese. As it often turns out, not getting that UNICEF job worked out well. I went back to the province where I was born to do volunteer teaching and learnt more about what was happening on the ground there in rural education and ended up consulting to the Asian Development Bank on a project to develop the province’s vocational education and training. Because of those experiences, I was a more eligible candidate for UNICEF when they had another job opening, and I got the job.

What’s the most rewarding aspect of being an education officer with UNICEF?

When I was considering taking this job, the then Representative to the China office, Gillian Mellsop, said to me that UNICEF has the best mandate in the world - to advocate for children's rights and well-being. That really resonated with me, to have the opportunity to work for an organisation that is wholly committed to a cause like that. Making sure that all children enjoy their right to a quality education, and it is a right, I find very rewarding.

What projects are you currently working on in Beijing?

I’m working on the education projects at UNICEF China which all have a poverty-reduction focus aligned to the Government’s priority in this area. China has a very large population, the numbers are quite astounding, and that translates to having the world's largest education system - there are over 260 million students and 15 million teachers. UNICEF works with the Ministry of Education on addressing some of the barriers towards all of those children getting a quality education. The projects I'm working on deal with the inequalities between urban and rural areas, with ethnic minority children and children that are affected by migration. For example, UNICEF is piloting child centres in rural and migrant communities for parents, grandparents, and caregivers to take children to learn best practices and play and the Government has adopted some of these pilots as policy and takes them to scale.       

What's the easiest way for people to get involved with UNICEF?

UNICEF is part of the United Nations and there are many ways to get involved. At the school level, high school students could join a Model United Nations conference. I recently spoke at one in Beijing which had over 1,000 students who had come from all over the world to learn more about international diplomacy in simulations and was so amazed and impressed by their energy and enthusiasm. If you’re already working, people could also donate, both their time and money. There’s so much value in finding time to volunteer and giving back to the local communities. There is the United Nations volunteering program but also many other grassroots non-profit organisations that are worthy of people's attention and are doing amazing work too.

You’ve had lots of global experiences living and studying in many different countries around the world. Do you have a specific highlight?

The highlight was when I got a scholarship to study at Harvard. It was pretty cool to be in the Disneyland for nerds.

What was that experience like?

I had never been to the US before, so it was really eye-opening to be able to experience American culture. Especially holidays like Thanksgiving and Halloween, experiencing what I had seen in the movies or books come to life was pretty "wow". I think there's something about America (similar to China) in that it has an aura of exceptionalism. It feels like the centre of the world when you're there.

How long were you in the States for?

I was there for a year. The opportunity to learn from Harvard professors, who are some of the best in the world and have thought so deeply about education and how it intersects with other areas, was invaluable. I’m still processing those concepts and ideas and in touch with the friends I’ve made.   

Do you think that your Australian-Chinese heritage has contributed to your success at all?

I moved to Australia when I was three years old from China and while there are benefits to having a multicultural upbringing, as a child you can feel quite like an outsider or that it’s difficult to fit in. Even now I still get people complimenting me on my English anywhere I travel so I hope with time, the idea of what is Australian is more expansive. 

As a woman of colour I can see my heritage gives me insight into different worlds and my Australian-Chinese background might have contributed to what I’m doing in my career in an international organisation in that I'm very comfortable dealing with uncertainties and trying to fit in to many different situations and cultures, wearing different hats, and having a lot of responsibility at a young age because my parents struggled initially to learn English. For example, I went from living in government housing growing up to working at a corporate law firm in Sydney and Hong Kong to teaching at a disadvantaged high school near Geelong to seeing Yoyo Ma performing at Harvard to being with my grandma on her farm in rural Guizhou and teaching the local children at my father’s old primary school.

When I was growing up in Canberra as a new migrant, I just wanted to fit in. I tried to assimilate a lot and I didn't speak Mandarin outside of my family. It’s just been in the past ten years or so that I've started becoming more comfortable with the Chinese side of my upbringing, even just talking about it. As for success, it certainly helps to be able to speak fluent Chinese working in Beijing!

What percentage of expats are fluent in Chinese when they move to Beijing?

In the last four years since I’ve been living here, I think there’s been a change in the type of expats who are attracted to a place like Beijing. It's not like ten years ago where you could just have good English and then become an English teacher. Now it's so much more competitive in the job market. There are Chinese students who have studied in all the Ivy Leagues or the top universities around the world who come back with perfect English and Chinese and international experience. Definitely the type of expats that I'm meeting now, they have very good Chinese skills or the experience to be competitive in this kind of job market.

How important are Australia-China relations to keep Australia forward moving and agile?

The short answer is very. China is a hugely important trading partner to Australia and vice versa. Beyond trade, I think with any kind of relationship – country to country, people to people, friend to friend – it's all about communication and understanding. That's not necessarily through speaking the same language, but having a sense of empathy and willingness to understand each other and confront some of the difficult issues that we all face. China becoming a more dominant presence on the world stage, everything that China does affects all of us.

What's your favorite thing about living in Beijing?

The people I meet and friends I’ve made here are my favourite things about living here. Beijing is like the New York of China in that it's where the ambitious young people, artists, and entrepreneurs from around the country come to make their mark. It has a population of more than 20 million people and is very historical and cultural, the scale and pace here for everything is crazy – people don’t use cash anymore! We're living in a period of history that's very unique and I couldn’t imagine living it in any other city.