Mosaic of China Season 02 Episode 19 — The Student Strategist (Seth HARVEY, Education Coach)
Seth Harvey works with Chinese students seeking admission into American universities. So he can observe the contrast between the attributes produced by one education system, and those valued by another.
SH: You get experience right after you most need it.
OF: Welcome to Mosaic of China, a podcast about people who are making their mark in China. I’m your host, Oscar Fuchs.
Today we are putting a spotlight on the foreigner teacher. And there's something very special about this subject, because it's one of the most common ways for foreigners to find their first job, their first identity, and their first footing into a new country like China. It's how I first came to Asia twenty years ago, and I'm sure if you weren't one too, you certainly know someone who was. For some people it's a stepping stone into something else in that new country, and for others - like today's guest Seth Harvey - it becomes a gateway into a longer-term career and passion in education.
Our conversation gets into its flow when we discuss how Seth interfaces with the education system and the family unit in China. And it's a story that reminds us how working with young adults offers teachers a unique window into the society in which they operate, and indeed where that society might be heading in the future. Seth is a mellow talker, so today's episode has the feel of an avuncular fireside chat. So let's slow it down, relax, and take a listen.
OF: I'm here with Seth Harvey. And Seth, you do a lot of things, but I guess the principal thing that you do is you're an admissions advisor, right?
SH: Correct, yes. I work for a company that helps students plan, prepare and apply to school overseas.
OF: Very cool. I know you're involved in education, because of course, you were referred by Lissanthea last season. So let's hear what Lissanthea had to say.
[Start of Audio Clip]
Lissanthea TAYLOR: I'm going to send my friend Seth Harvey, your way. Seth is the much maligned English teacher.
LT: He is coaching Chinese kids for American universities.
LT: So I think you'll have some good questions to ask him about what Chinese kids experience in education
[End of Audio Clip]
OF: Lissanthea: what is your relationship with her?
SH: Lissanthea is amazing. She is engaged to my best friend. If you want to hop into the object that I brought today, it's actually kind of related to all of that. So it's a nice transition.
OF: Great, show me.
SH: Alright, let me pull it out here. I just put on the table a weather cock. So it is a small rooster figurine. And the reason I picked this item is, it represents a lot of things about my lifestyle in China. So first, it was a gift that was brought back by my best friend - and Lissanthea - from Portugal. My best friend's Portuguese. This little thing changes colours by the weather.
OF: Wow. I can't believe that something so analogue can actually be so high-tech at the same time.
SH: Right, that’s a pretty good analogy for China.
SH: A lot of things are so very advanced. And a lot of things are still reliant on old traditional ways. It does a great job of mixing new and old together.
OF: Your experience in China has been all in Shanghai, right?
SH: Yes, I've never lived anywhere else. I have no interest in living in any other cities. For me 我是上海人 [Wǒ shì Shànghǎirén]. So that's the local dialect for 'I'm Shanghainese’. I'm a huge fan boy of Shanghai. In my mind, Shanghai is the best city in the world. And I'm here definitely by choice.
OF: And how long have you been here now altogether?
SH: I first came in 2009, a visit with a friend from my university, just a summer vacation for three weeks, we did Shanghai and 广州 [Guǎngzhōu]. And I remember having this feeling of ‘Man, it's all happening here’. I was in business school at the time. And I came home, and I think I was really impacted by this three-week trip. About every other sentence, I started with “In China…”, “In China…”, “In China…” I? annoyed everybody, all my friends and family. So I said “I'm going to come back”. And in 2011, on three weeks notice, I decided I was going to move here for a year. I had friends that taught English, I said “I can do something”. So I got on a plane with no job; no place to live; I didn't really know anyone in Shanghai; I didn't speak any Chinese. It was pretty scary, a big risk. And I came here, and I made it work, for a little over a year, 2011 to 2012. And I returned back to school, finished school, worked a little bit in the US, and I moved back here in 2015, and I've been here since.
OF: Yeah, that speaks to a certain tenacity about you, right? You didn't have any plans, but you had the bravery just to come here, on a whim almost.
SH: ‘Tenacity’ is a nice word; ‘stupidity’ would be another way to say it.
OF: Let's jump into that then. So tell us about what your job within the field of education actually is.
SH: Right, so I've had a number of different roles with different companies over the last five years. I was working for 新东方 [Xīndōngfāng], China New Oriental China. They're the largest education company in China. They cover every single service you could think about, from English training, to sending kids overseas, to giving prep lessons for test prep, for everything, of all ages. In January I transitioned to a smaller boutique firm, and we're doing the same kind of service, and we're focused on sending Chinese students abroad. For years now there’s been a trend to send students abroad, at various stages of their education. So some kids go for middle school, boarding schools; some kids go for high school; and a growing number are going abroad for universities, probably even more popular. My role comes in at the very end of the process, where we advise them on preparing themselves in this last year to do everything they can to shine on a college application. So that's everything from recommending and advising extracurricular activities; to planning out their standardised test dates; and kind of keeping track of their process, and making sure that they're on track, or that we're starting to address corrections that need to be made.
OF: And you're not involved in teaching them, but you see the product that the education system makes of them. They come almost fully formed, but then you have to mould them for the next stage. Is that a good enough description?
SH: I wouldn't say that’s super accurate. What we're trying to teach them, and the ideas we're trying to get them to understand, are quite different than in an academic setting. We're more focused on developing them personally, to help them start to form an idea of who they are, and what they would like to do. I don't actually feel like there's a lot of overlap between school learning and the kind of realisations and learning that I'm trying to help them achieve.
OF: Does that say something about the education system?
SH: Well, I think there's a lot of things to say about the education system. And no one has it perfect, I don't think that it's possible to have some kind of system that’s that large, that is going to work for everyone. There's a long-standing stereotype that the education system produces a certain kind of result, which is robotic, not being creative, or “They're very hard working, but it's a bit formulaic. You can give them an input, and they produce an output, but there's not a lot of variance in there”. It's been likened to a factory, where you’re mass-producing people. And if you look at it from a more zoomed-out perspective, by the government, it's kind of smart. I don't think that the correct approach is to try to produce, you know, a million Elon Musks a year. That’s not really sustainable, and it doesn't kind of work on a societal level. One thing about Chinese people is, I feel like they're especially good at long-term planning. They're very patient, and they kind of look farther ahead. So you see this in how they approach education; you see this in how they approach their careers; you see it in how they approach politics in this country, if you're tuned into those kinds of things. But I work with maybe a certain section of students that are looking to break out of that. The Chinese system to go to university relies on a test called the 高考 [Gāokǎo]. A famed test. And this is like the most important test of any Chinese student’s life. It is incredibly rigorous and competitive, and it is incredibly determinative of your future. So a lot of parents start their children on a path, which allows them to sidestep the 高考 [Gāokǎo] by looking to go abroad. It takes a lot of the pressure off, and opens up different opportunities.
OF: Which makes them what? That makes them privileged? That makes them slightly counter-cultural? Like, what kind of parents put their children into that situation?
SH: Well, I wouldn't say that it's so radical. I think that it's parents that have a different approach. So I think that you have this younger generation of parents in their 40s, to 50. And they grew up in a certain way. And they remember how it was, and they're trying to help their kids have a better approach to it. They say, you know ‘You want to give your children things you've never had’. And another quote is ‘To teach your children things you were never taught’. They're very family focused, and they're very focused on trying to elevate the opportunities in life of that next generation. That's the responsibility that they take on, when they have children. I think the planning process starts, you know… it probably starts the first time they get the pregnancy test back. So it's not one of the things that's done when the child's 15 or 16. It's done when they’re, like, 2 or 3. And this process all starts from… they’re getting enrolled in pre-schools and daycares, where they're being exposed to English, and they're trying to promote, you know, more cognitive development. It's a modern day competition. It's like, you know, how do I get the smartest kid, and the best results? And a child is a parent's greatest investment here. All for the dream of going to a Harvard or a Cambridge or brand name school.
OF: There'll be people listening to this in different countries thinking “Oh yeah, well that's the same as my country. We are giving our kids too many standardised tests, and pushing them too hard in that approach”. Do you think that actually they are similar, or do you think China has a specific type of examination system?
SH: The average Chinese student goes to school for about 10 hours a day, or more. And on top of that the student’s gonna do about 4 hours of homework, or extra classes, or prep. So you're looking at a 14 hour day. Now most of us who work a full time job, we work 8 hours a day, you know, we have a lunch break and things like that. Imagine being shuffled from class to class; and being tested, examined; you need to listen, to be engaged and focused for 14 hours a day. It's mentally exhausting. You're basically a mental triathlete. And you're talking about middle schoolers. So just the sheer rigour of the day-to-day - to keep up with the amount of homework that they're given, and not get left behind - is incredible. So on one hand, I think that these students are missing out on certain opportunities to develop their interests, to maintain a happier childhood that we kind of want. But on the other hand, I actually think it's a necessary evil. I think kids in this system are learning important personal characteristics that benefit them later in life. So the struggle that they're experiencing now, where they're in middle school or high school, I think it helps them become diligent; it helps them manage their time; it helps them stay focused, and push through. And once they learn to do that, it gives them a little bit of a competitive advantage over their foreign peers or counterparts. Where I think in the West, we're a little bit more entitled and individualistic, and things are a little bit softer. And the reality of the world is, you know, life's tough. When you get out into the real world, and you have to work, you know, not all jobs are super fun where you're gonna do your passion. But at least Chinese students, they have learned to kind of put their head down, to grin and bear it, and to work through it. There are upsides to this approach.
OF: So when you first encounter these children, at what stage do you usually start working with them?
SH: I would like to start working with them as early as possible. So the reason that my industry exists, is because Western and Eastern education, we value different things. So we had talked about how test-based the Chinese education system is, basically everything is done on a test score. So if you're on a test, and it's out of 1,000 points, well if you got 995, and someone else got 994, well, then you get the spot, and they don't. But in the West, we use something called a holistic approach. Where yes, test scores, academics are important; but we try to look at kind of every angle. So it doesn't necessarily mean that you scored high enough, there's no magic number on a test that will get you admitted. That's kind of just a precursor, a prerequisite, to meet a minimum threshold, to show competency. And then we start to look at other factors, which would be like reading your essays; trying to get to know your interests; maybe there's an interview; and to get to know you on a personal level, to decide if you're going to be a good successful candidate, who comes and contributes to our academic institution, our community. Those kind of things, more than just “Can you take a test?” So a battle that I have to fight is to try to allocate more time, more effort, more resources, to developing that personal story, and away from preparing for tests. So we could say I work in education, but I kind of feel that I work in Marketing. What my job basically is, is I'm trying to create a brand or a profile for these students. It's a sales pitch. Every kid that applies to Harvard has a great SAT Score, they have done some community service, they have an English competency. These kind of things have become homogenised. And for a Chinese applicant, they kind of just fit into the same pattern. So my job is to try to help them break this pattern, to try to give them some kind of hook. Something that makes them different. We talked about the day of a student, a 14-hour day. Well, there's not a lot of time or energy left over for thinking about things. So I try to help coach students to understand some really important attributes. I try to help them understand what schools are looking for. And that's part of branding, right? Step one: know your audience - know your customer, understand the need, understand the want - before you can create a sales pitch. Chinese are very collective. And the problem that creates is that Chinese people, they go with the flow. They're always looking at their neighbours, their family friends, their classmates, their peers, they're trying to ‘keep up with the Joneses’, right? In the West, we kind of value rebels, and rule-breakers, and iconoclasts. And that's something that's not very typical of the average Chinese student.
OF: Is it not just a case of, the ability to stand out, more fundamentally?
SH: Yeah, I think so. But how do you do that, Oscar? You know, how do you stand out? Maybe now you know, because you have life experience, you've tried different things, you've had careers, you've met a lot of different people. But if you look at the background of the students, the hard part is, they don't know who they are. And no-one’s ever asked them that. Most of the time, they're picking a major or what they want to study, they're picking it for one of two reasons. The first reason would be that they've done well in school, and they've gotten kind of positive feedback from teachers, or grades, and someone says “Hey, you're good at this”. Everybody likes things that they're good at, right? So they think “I’ll go and pursue that”. Or the second reason is, it's what their parents have done. “My dad is an engineer”, or “My dad is in business, and that's what I want to do”. Parents tend to be, I think, even a stronger role model here. And I don't really want to get into the psychology of parent/child relationships in China, and how they're different than than in the West. But I think that those kind of factors play a role as well.
OF: In both those examples, it's either they’ve been told they're good at something; or they’re following their parents. But there isn't this third option where “It's what I want to do”.
SH: Well, China, things develop very quickly here. And I feel there's a tide changing, where we're seeing more relaxed parents, and we're seeing children who are becoming more vocal in the things that they want, and they're starting to be able to - or feel confident enough to - kind of push back against maybe outside guidance, and to follow what they like. And it's quite amazing, you know, you're seeing a big trend for students who are very interested - and then get active - in a number of issues. That wasn't common just five years ago. The environment, and making things cleaner, safer, better. Social issues is becoming big, so the idea of justice and the role of government. Students are starting to think about these things, trying to do projects about these things, they're getting involved. So these types of students - that have access to more of an international path - they’re starting to take part in different competitions, different organised events. So a very popular one is called ‘China Thinks Big’. And China Thinks Big is a research-based competition, where they're trying to solve some kind of problem. They can pick anything that they're interested in, and they do this in a group-based project. Or YOC, which is the Youth Observer competition, where they need to write a six to eight page article, with graphics and research. So these types of competitions, they start to challenge students, and to make them think and engage with the outside world, and be curious.
OF: We're talking quite generally until now.
OF: Can you think of one individual - or perhaps another one - where you have taken them through this story, and seen them on their way to an American University?
SH: I've got one student right now, and he's really interested in architecture. And the problem is that this student is kind of struggling right now to maintain a high enough GPA. And he's struggling with his test prep and meeting SAT and TOEFL requirements. So this summer, he's going to use the summer vacation to focus on on test prep, and try to get those numbers up. And of course, his dad's an architect. And the other hobby he has is cycling. So instead of spending all of his time doing test prep this summer, I would like him to do something interesting. I would like to push him. So for example, I said “Hey, I looked up, and I found that you can cycle from 成都 [Chéngdū] to Lhasa, Tibet. And there's a plotted out itinerary, and it takes 27 days. It has it plotted out step by step, day by day, what you're going to do. And yes, it's going to be tough, but you're taking a journey; I think you personally develop from this kind of thing. So then when it comes down to application time, right, you've got two paths, which are: either take a risk and challenge yourself to do this cycling trip, or study and improve your standardised test scores. Right, so you've got A Path, B Path. If you take Path A, you have something interesting to write about, and I think this experience kind of matures you, and gives you substance, right? And on the Path B, if you study, and you apply to universities, you say “Look at my test scores,” and they say “OK great, that meets our minimum requirement. So what kind of student are you? What are you interested in?” And there's nothing behind that door. So that's a real challenge, a struggle of my job, is trying to help them see the value. So you say “I want you to go cycling.” And they say “But that doesn't improve my grades. I'm not learning. That's not education”. And I'm trying to tell them “Yes, it is”. There's a personal education. So you spent the last, you know, 13 years doing academic studying. It's time to afford a little bit of time to develop yourself, and get yourself prepared.
OF: So what happened? Could you persuade him?
SH: I’m negotiating right now.
OF: Right. And I'm guessing that means with the parents, right?
SH: Right. Parents are typically open-minded… But part of our service is opening up opportunities, this is something that they would have never considered or thought of, without maybe an outside presence. And you know, students who are like “I've never done anything like this before.” Like, here's your roadmap, here's your objective. Go. Do. Try. If they fail, they fail. They come back. But they're still learning right there. There's learning in failure.
OF: What is it about you, then, that makes you so well fit for this job?
SH: I like that I'm still involved with students, and something about working with younger people, like teenagers, kind of breathes in some life into your job. You know, they're still very optimistic, and ambitious, and they have kind of big ideas, and they're maybe naïve, but in a nice way. And I think also, it's kind of fulfilling a part in myself, where I think that I've made a lot of mistakes. And I think the fact that I have screwed up and have done things in a non-traditional or the wrong way - or that I failed at things - I think that's something that makes me good at my job. I find myself repeating a lot of idioms from my dad, but he said “You get experience right after you most need it”.
SH: It gives me a chance to take that wisdom, and that knowledge that I've accumulated, and at least pass it along. Someone can be older, but if they have never tried, if they have never taken risks, if they've never failed, then I'm not sure how much wisdom they have to offer.
OF: Would you like to talk about one of your failures? Or would you rather not?
SH: If you want to get into a divorce, or startup companies, or..?
OF: I don’t. It’s totally up to you.
SH: I think all of those things. But ultimately, when you look back later in life, I think those kind of things give you character, give you grit, make you interesting, and they make you more successful in other parts of your life.
OF: Well, you just used the word ‘grit’. And I think when there’s so much change going on, you have to be resilient. So I totally think that your experience is a good life lesson for the kids that you're mentoring.
SH: Yeah. It's not really something that you can fake.
OF: Amen. On that note, let's move on to Part 2.
SH: All right.
OF: The 10 questions. Question 1. What is your favourite China-related fact?
SH: The sport of football - soccer - was actually invented in China. England takes credit for it, but it actually predates England, and football is a Chinese sport.
OF: That's a good one. I think the English, we are the ones who invented the rules. So we like to invent rules, and plant flags, and stuff like that. Yeah. Number 2, do you have a favourite word or phrase in Chinese?
SH: In Chinese, there's a word in Mandarin, it would be like 没事 [méishì]. And that means, like ’It's nothing, don't worry about it’. And in the Shanghainese dialect, it would be like ‘méisì’, like they don't really do the ‘SH’, it’s just like ’S’. if you throw a little Shanghainese dialect in there, man, it just really opens people up.
OF: What is your favourite destination within China?
SH: I like Hong Kong, because they have a horse track there. I love to go to Happy Valley and gamble on horse races.
OF: If you left China, what would you miss the most, and what would you miss the least?
SH: What would I miss? Man, have you ever tried to take a taxi in New York City?
SH: It's like $30 to put your hand on the handle. This is such a well planned out city. It seems so big, but I find that getting around it from one side to the other is is amazing. Like I said, you can take the bus, you can take the metro, and you can call a cab for like two bucks to go anywhere. The thing I will miss the least would be, ah man, like the construction. That hammer drill. TA-TA-TA-TA-TA-TA-TA-TA-TA-TA! Like, everyone knows that, and I think everyone's had an apartment where somebody's been renovating next door. So that's a trade-off for the amount of change and development that we enjoy, and we love. Sometimes that that comes back, and it’s a huge negative.
OF: Is there anything that still surprises you about life in China?
SH: I was walking out of my office the other day, and there was a guy, and he had a turtle on a stick. Like, I think some of us maybe know what I'm talking about. But I think it's his pet turtle. So he's got a string wrapped around its shell, and on a stick. And he just like carries it around with him and hangs out. You just never know what you're gonna see. Every day, something new surprises me and like, I feel like that's a huge value. It's one of the things that I really love the most here, is that it's a very unpredictable place.
OF: Nice. Where is your favourite place to go, to eat or drink or just hang out?
SH: I play on a billiards team once a week, at a bar called Park 91 on 大沽路 [Dàgū Lù], near People's Square. It's a pretty cool chill place, the kind of place I can walk behind the counter and pour my own beer, and feel very at home there. Shanghai can have a bit of a materialistic vibe to it, in a bit of a status-seeking, show-off, luxury prone kind of way. And I'm just a simple guy from the Midwest, I have no interest in things that are pretentious.
OF: What is the best or worst purchase you made in China?
SH: Maybe a gym membership is a great one. I got a four year gym membership. And exercise is something that I started doing regularly that kind of grounds my life, it works as a balancing factor.
OF: Worth it. What is your favourite WeChat sticker?
SH: There are two types of WeChat stickers, right? There's ones that are pulled from like famous pop culture shows or cartoons and things, but you can actually make your own stickers. So my girlfriend sends me ones of her that she's made of herself. So then I find it really useful to send herself back to her. Like a little bit sarcastically. OK the second one. You know, stickers are a great way to end a conversation. You know, sometimes people say something outlandish or, you know, communication is tough, and I like this one of this… whoever this actor is, you know, just aghast for words. And there's like “I don't know what to say back to that”. You know, sometimes you just get flustered, and just “Let's end it there”.
OF: I use this one a lot.
OF: What’s your favourite go-to song to sing at KTV?
SH: Oh sorry, I'm such a big hater of KTV.
SH: I know. But for me, like, I haven't got it memorised down, but there's a Chinese song called 为什么你背着我爱别人 [Wèishéme Nǐ Bèizhe Wǒ Ài Biérén]. And that translates to “Why did you betray me? Why did you love someone else?” But for me, that's that song that represents my first year in China. And it was always on the radio, and it has this very, super nice melody, da-da da-da-da da-da. And whenever you try to sing this in KTV, it depresses all the Chinese people.
SH: It’s a very sad and emotional song. And it's like, you know “Why did you betray me? Why did you cheat on me? You stabbed me in the back! You went off with someone else!” But, man, the melody is so nice. So I guess that's my KTV revenge, it’s like “I told you I didn't want to go, and now I'm going to depress all of you with this beautiful sad song”.
OF: The perfect weapon. Very good. And finally, what other China-related sources of information do you use?
SH: I, of course, use SmartShanghai. Like, that's my number one go-to thing, I read everything. I read every article, like what events are going on. Like, I even have a pastime, a hobby, where I love going through all the apartment listings. I'm basically an uncertified apartment agent, I can tell you what the market value of things are, and how the market’s doing. I even love going through the classifieds. And secondly, I use WeChat quite a lot. I am the biggest lurker of group chats.
SH: I lurk in so many group chats, I get all this information, insight. People are like “How do you know that?” “Group chat.”
SH: Everything from foodie and restaurant groups, to exercise, cooking, social events. I'm even in a dad's group. So there's a group for expat fathers, a big one. And they talk about all kinds of stuff. And I have no kids. And I don't really remember how… someone put me into this group… but I never left, and I just lurk, and I get so much great information from that.
OF: Well, thank you. And before you leave, the only question remaining is, who would you recommend for the next season of Mosaic of China?
SH: Right, so I have a friend named Anton. He's an Israeli guy who’s been in China for a number of years. What's really interesting about him is, he speaks perfect Mandarin.
SH: So he's a very disciplined guy. He works in online gaming, like the gaming industry here. And he works in a Chinese company. And you know, he will be able to provide some insights to a totally different industry that none of the other guests have talked about. But also have a very different experience as a foreigner living in China, who is totally plugged in and adaptive in communicating with locals.
OF: Thank you so much. And thank you in general, it was really great to have you here. And I look forward to the next time we can meet.
SH: My pleasure. Thanks, Oscar.
OF: If today’s episode has sparked your interest, the best accompaniment is my conversation with Chang Chihyun from Episode 03 of this Season. Chihyun is in a very similar position to Seth, because he is working with the product of an education system that measures everyone quantitatively, and as a Humanities Professor at Shanghai Jiaotong University, he needs to evaluate them qualitatively.
And speaking of quality, there’s an extra 10-15 minutes of quality conversation for every episode of the Season in the PREMIUM version of the show on Patreon or 爱发电 [Àifādiàn]. As always, head to https://mosaicofchina.com for instructions on how to subscribe, and here are a few clips from today’s show.
SH: You have some students that are really sharp and mature, and you have other ones that have just no clue.
SH: I actually have a Shanghainese family. It's one of the things that I think not a lot of foreigners who come here have experienced.
SH: She was like this little Chinese girl, who's a finance nerd, and she like does like MMA, and Muay Thai, and boxing, and now I'm getting excited, I want to know more about that.
SH: There's not a lot of room for discussion, and if I teach you two plus two equals five, and I put it on the exam, and you write four, you're wrong.
SH: And I think storytelling is one of the most useful skills that you can have. And any major brand today and their advertisements, they tell a story.
SH: I thought that the way that I grew up, and the way that we did things, was correct. Until you step outside of it, you don't see it.
[End of Audio Clips]
While you’re there, you can also check out the images from today’s show. There’s Seth with his object, the Portuguese weather cock. He told me that when his cock is light blue, it means that the weather will be sunny but overcast. Now isn’t that a handy thing. There’s his favourite WeChat sticker, which is a great one to use at the end of a confusing conversation. There are some photos of him with a few of his students and their families. And there’s a bunch of other stuff too. Apart from on the website, you can also follow the images on Instagram and Facebook - just type in 'mosaicofchina' and you'll find us there - or add me on my WeChat ID: mosaicofchina, and I'll add you to the listeners group there. Oh, and the update of the student who wanted to study architecture is that he was accepted into his first choice of college, which was the top-ranked architecture programme at Syracuse University.
Mosaic of China is me, Oscar Fuchs, with artwork by Denny Newell. Coming up is a catch-up with the pain management expert Lissanthea Taylor from Season 01 Episode 28, the now wife of Seth’s best friend, and the person who recommended him for the show. And if you do end up tuning into Lissanthea’s original episode, listen out for the way she answered the final question in the totally opposite way to Seth.
Lissanthea Taylor: Hi Oscar!
OF: There are a few people who I'm doing these updates with, who I'm literally getting as they have just stepped off the plane. You've been here, now, a few weeks, right?
LT: I'm just over a month back. So almost a whole year away, which is just bizarre.
OF: Well, it's so nice to see you. Why don't you just quickly mention what your story was since then until now?
LT: Well, I left the country just before Chinese New Year, and thought I was just going to jaunt off for a short trip to the U.S. for a conference. And then I couldn't get back. Then I went to Australia, which is where I'm from. Then I had to get a very last-minute flight into Portugal, which was where I was due to get married, and meet my now husband, and got the almost last flight in. When the plane took off from Qatar, I was very relieved, because I figured I wouldn't like to spend any time in Qatar, stranded. And so I managed to get to Portugal, get locked down in Portugal, and stayed there for most of the year. We had to cancel the original wedding. So the original wedding was meant to be the big 150-person, everyone flying in from overseas, Bonanza of a wedding. And that couldn't happen. And you sort of do have to curl up in a corner and cry a little bit. And then you can pull yourself back out of it. And you can say “Well, what is possible?” So what was possible was we did get married, a few months later, in a different kind of way. We were allowed 20 people, and that meant we got to have immediate family and best friends. We got to have an amazing day. We got through the bureaucracy, because you can imagine I'm Australian, but I'm not a resident of Australia; my husband is Portuguese, not a resident of Portugal; and both of us live in China, but we want to get married. And I think, in the end, the authorities eventually just went “Ach, let them do it”.
OF: Yeah, because I guess if they're not used to it, they're just gonna say “No,” right?
LT: Yeah, it ended up being people just kind of looking at us with crossed eyes and sort of sighing. “You guys want what?”
OF: It's more like “Ach, you made my life difficult. Like, where is the paperwork for this particular arrangement?”
LT: You know, this year, for all of us has been interruptions. Maybe kind of an enforced mindfulness, let's say. You know, to be in Portugal - and, you know, Portugal has some beautiful coastlines - so I spent a lot of time on the beach. And I got to know this beach, the tides, the times of day, the rock pools, even the people, the culture, and that was an enormous blessing.
OF: Right, slowing down to an extreme degree, where you're looking at literally the shells on the beach.
LT: Exactly. I did start a business as well.
OF: Oh, well, you were a physiotherapist, you probably still are. I'm intrigued, what was your new company?
LT: So yes, I am still a physio. So I've come back, and I'm still seeing patients. I now work out in 苏州 [Sūzhōu]. So a couple of days a week.
OF: You’re working in 苏州 [Sūzhōu]?
LT: I’m working in 苏州 [Sūzhōu]. You know, I'm the only Western-trained physio in a city of 19 million people.
OF: Well, well. Congratulations.
LT: Thank you. It's always a new adventure for me. So that was nice to come back to.
OF: And it's not that far to commute to, right? I guess you wouldn't do it every day. But how long does it take you to get there?
LT: It's two hours, about, each way. But as an Australian, I'm used to it. About 12 months ago, I started work with an Australian company. So the company itself is called Brain Changer. And Brain Changer is a company started by a person with persisting pain who was able to use the kind of science that I use in the clinic. And she created her own very clever self-management system that she used to recover from persisting pain.
OF: And, wait a minute, so what can you do remotely? Because when I think about what you do as a physio, it's all literally hands-on.
OF: So what is the model?
LT: Right. It's using more of a health coaching model, which wonderfully can be delivered all by telemedicine.
OF: Oh it's called ‘telemedicine’.
LT: Telemedicine. So we use video chat. And what's been really good for us has been the way that the pandemic has forced some corporate behaviour change.
OF: Well, that's really interesting. So you have, like, one foot in your China world, with a job in 苏州 [Sūzhōu]; you have one foot in Australia. Like, do you think this is how you're going to try and continue? Or is this temporary? Like, what what does 2021 look like, from your vantage point now?
LT: One of the big things I got to do in Portugal was horse-riding. And I've now found a horse-riding school here. So I can also ride in Shanghai. So for me, 2021 is extending all of those things. My word for the year is ‘bloom’. I like the idea of ‘blooming’, to turn into really meaningful things.
OF: Well, Lissanthea, I'm going to release this episode alongside the recording of Seth, who you referred for Season 02.
LT: Wonderful. I'm looking forward to hearing that.
OF: So have you been in touch with Seth the whole time?
LT: So yes, we have been in contact the whole time. He was meant to come to the wedding. His parents were meant to come to our wedding. I'm really interested to see the kinds of things that he's put into his podcast.
OF: Thank you so much Lissanthea.
LT: Thank you, Oscar, it’s always a pleasure.