Long-time expat repays Shanghai through volunteer work

Yuan Luhang
Former academic Jacob von Bisterfeld, from Holland, helps his adopted home as a volunteer through everything from collecting trash during the pandemic to promoting cultural events.
Yuan Luhang
Long-time expat repays Shanghai through volunteer work
Ti Gong

Jacob von Bisterfeld (third right) among a group of volunteers

On the first day of the Shanghai lockdown on April 1, Jacob von Bisterfeld, a foreign resident from Holland, became a volunteer for the community he lives in – Songjiang Dongming Huayuan.

Bisterfeld used to teach at Shanghai Jiao Tong University since 2009 lecturing MBA and Business subjects to Chinese students and lecturing teaching methodology in China to foreign students who wanted to teach English at Chinese schools. The important but seemingly trivial basic services to the community were unfamiliar to him.

But he soon became a committed and tireless volunteer. From helping out at nucleic acid testing sites, to delivering supplies with his makeshift airport luggage carriers and a four-wheel push-trolley, to collecting garbage door to door, Bisterfeld has done a great job in his community and the expatriate has earned the respect of his neighbors with his actions.

In fact, Bisterfeld has many volunteering experiences from his about three decades in Shanghai. But this one is particularly memorable for him.

"I will never forget the feeling when I was sorting cabbages in the rain for the free government food parcels for the 2,500 residents. I don't know how long I did that, but it seems that time was stagnant at that time," Bisterfeld recalled.

Bisterfeld has made many friends during his volunteering or in his words, has cemented a solid bond among the team of COVID-19 volunteers.

"Volunteering for some people, including myself, is an inborn sense of responsibility. Besides it is an excellent way of making friends and getting to know people around us better. It's good to be fully integrated into the local scene," he added.

It is not tall talk. Bisterfeld was involved in many voluntary projects while in the education sector.

The link between Bisterfeld and the city dates back to 1982 when he came to Shanghai as a member of the first New Zealand trade delegation after the lifting of the "Bamboo Curtain."

"The tallest building then was the Peace Hotel where we stayed; the Waitan was a park," he told Shanghai Daily.

Pushed by his interest in the foreign city, Bisterfeld ventured into the Waitan Park and was immediately surrounded by 50 Chinese people who had never seen a foreigner close-up.

Finally, Bisterfeld was invited to see the house of one of his "fans" and took tea there.

In 1992 Bisterfeld came to work in Shanghai and since then he has never left the city for a long time. After managing a joint-venture as vice-president and about 10 years in the business field, Bisterfeld returned to education.

It was in 2009 when he was promoted to lecture English and Dutch languages at the Songjiang campus of the Shanghai Foreign Studies University, he changed his apartment to Songjiang which he calls a beautiful suburb.

There he launched Songjiang English Salon in the Songjiang Youth Activity Center in 2010 – a kind of free English Corner where Chinese students can improve their spoken English.

Bisterfeld acted as an organizer, teacher and manager during this volunteering, which is in his eyes the toughest and most challenging volunteering for him.

The Salon was popular among students, with an average attendance of 80 students and parents. Some of these students are now studying for their PhD in Oxford or in the United States and others have won top prizes in English language and debating competitions in Shanghai and China.

In 2004, 2005, 2006 and 2010, Bisterfeld was volunteer and host of no less than four Pudong Education Department English culture weeks. In 2008, he was a volunteer for both the promotion of the Beijing Olympics and helping after the Wenchuan earthquake. The wealth of volunteering experience is rewarding for Bisterfeld. Although his family is far away from him in New Zealand, he doesn't feel lonely as he has a lot of Chinese friends here.

Since 2009 when Bisterfeld moved to Songjiang to teach there, his love for the place has been getting stronger.

"Songjiang public landscaping is like candy for the eyes. Moreover, there are meticulously planned flowering trees throughout the year."

Days ago, when residents of his compound were allowed to go out as the COVID transmission rate fell there, Bisterfeld went jogging along a nearby road.

"When I saw the flowers blooming everywhere I was touched. I appreciate such small things," he said.

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