Expat caught up in the spirit of Spring Festival

A Swiss volunteer kept on the rounds this night, the Chinese New Year Eve, to ensure her neighborhood in Shanghai remains free of fireworks.  
Dong Jun / SHINE

Swiss lady Claudia Sun Gerber, 51, her 12-year-old daughter and three Chinese volunteers kicked off their patrol Thursday night, the Chinese New Year Eve, in Yanlord Garden housing estate in Pudong New Area on calling for a firework-free Spring Festival with the guidance of a police officer.

Dong Jun / SHINE

Wearing an orange volunteer vest, Gerber's daughter is on her patrol with the accompany of a local police officer in Yanlord Garden housing estate Thursday night, the Chinese New Year Eve.

You don’t have to be Chinese to get caught up in the spirit of the Spring Festival. Expats living in Shanghai also enjoy the color and the festival atmosphere of the Lunar New Year holiday.

Swiss national Claudia Sun Gerber, 51, is one of them.

Married to a Chinese-Swiss man, she is a volunteer at the Yanlord Garden housing estate in the Pudong New Area. On New Year’s Eve, she will be patrolling the estate, along with her 12-year-old daughter, and keeping an eye out for fireworks.

“We will walk around the community, making sure that people know that they cannot light fireworks,” she said. “I think it’s important for us to save the environment and keep the air clean.”

Ti Gong

Swiss national Claudia Sun Gerber and her daughter

Shanghai is home to nearly 200,000 foreign workers and students. In Yanlord Garden, some 60 percent of residents are from North America, Europe and South Asia.

Gerber, like many expats, said she finds Spring Festival exciting. “The Chinese New Year is very different from the Western one,” Gerber said. “It’s much more ‘re nao,’ or lively.”

She said she loves the color red and seeing everywhere in the city decorated in red. She and her family are following the Chinese tradition of posting red paper cuts on windows and decorating the door with Spring Festival scrolls. And yes, her daughter will receive a red envelope of “lucky” money.

Gerber, who has been living in Shanghai for 12 years, said she is particularly enchanted by the traditions of Spring Festival.

“I love it,” she said. “It’s a time when families get together with nice food. And certain foods even have meanings. For example, eating fish for good luck and prosperity. I think it's a very nice tradition.”

In past Spring Festival holidays, Gerber and her family have often escaped the winter cold and traveled to warmer climes. This year they decided to stay home. Volunteering to do the New Year’s Eve patrol was one benefit of the decision.

Gerber said she realizes that many people don’t like the municipal ban on fireworks, which was implemented in 2016 to mitigate explosive accidents and eliminate the dense pall of fireworks smoke that pollutes the air.

“It’s is not only for the safety of children but also the whole community,” she said of the ban.

Her volunteer team is involved in an array of local services that benefit the community. Gerber said she became a volunteer after meeting a neighborhood committee member who was active in looking after stray or lost animals. A longtime animal care advocate, Gerber was hooked. She said her daughter has also become active.

“I think it’s important for children to see the importance of doing community or volunteer work,” Gerber said. “You don’t get paid but you get the reward of personal fulfillment.”

She is particularly concerned about animal welfare.

“There are always a lot of animals getting lost and their owners can’t find them,” she said. “Or people who find dogs or cats don’t know who the owners are.”

The volunteer team came up with the idea of selling QR codes with information about pet owners. The money raised went to the Trap-Neuter-Return program.

“The owners are very grateful for what we did, and it’s also a chance to make people aware of the necessity of keeping dogs on leashes so they don’t run off,” said Gerber.

“What touched me most about the work is that everyone helps one another. Sometimes when you are living in a foreign country or even in your own country, people are very aloof and it’s hard to find help,” she said.

It’s also good, she said, to cultivate in children a sense of responsibility and caring — toward animals and people.

Zhang Su, vice Party secretary of the neighborhood, said the volunteer team hosts education events where they advise people on pet care and owner responsibilities. She said volunteers patrolling the community put a small yellow flag with the words “please pick it up” whenever they come across dog poop.

Expat volunteers also made “pooper-scooper” bags and distributed them free to neighborhood pet owners, as well as setting up bins where the bags can be dropped.

“The team has also done a lot for older people,” Zhang said. “For the Double Ninth Festival, they go to nursing homes to visit the elderly and take them gifts.”

Expat volunteers also act as mediators when disputes between Chinese and expat resident occur. There was the case of a household that bought a goose and slaughtered it at home. A horrified expat accused the family of animal abuse. With mediation from both Chinese and expat community volunteers, the two sides came to a mutual understanding.

Tang Jia, Party secretary of the neighborhood, said the community management team is cognizant of the large number of expat residents and wanted to create a harmonious housing estate.

“We set up a platform for foreigners to participate in community decisions and activities,” Tang said.

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