Expat residents learn how to make Chinese noodles at the Ronghua neighborhood in Changning District as activities are held to get them engaged in community life.
Whoever says expatriates in Shanghai don’t integrate with locals hasn’t met Frenchwoman Coralie Debras.
She has been a resident of Yanlord Garden housing estate in Pudong since 2004 and a member of the local neighborhood committee in the two years since a channel was opened for expat participation.
About 60 percent of the 1,944 households in the estate are people from offshore. Debras, 47, knows many of them through her work in the community.
Shanghai is home to nearly 200,000 foreign workers and students, and city officials are constantly trying to come up with new ways to encourage them to integrate into local life and culture.
“Communication is very important,” Debras said. “My aim is to foster harmony among people in the community.”
When foreign residents encounter problems, they often turn to her for help. She is a good listener. The problems range from broken playground equipment to noise from renovation work. Some expats who were frightened by air defense sirens marking National Defense Education Day called Debras to get reassurance that all was well.
Oddly perhaps, it is often animals, not humans, at the heart of disputes.
When Debras came to Shanghai 14 years ago, there were only two dogs in the estate. Now, there are more than 100, she said, and that can lead to quarrels.
“Dogs bite. They leave droppings everywhere. They run around unleashed. They scare some residents,” she said.
She suggested to the neighborhood committee that it stage regular pet festivals to get the message across in a friendly way that residents have to be responsible for the behavior of their pets.
Free “pooper scooper” bags have been distributed to pet owners, and bins have been set up where the bags can be dropped.
“It is not easy job to stand in the middle of neighborhood disputes,” said Debras. “I need to listen to both sides and try to make everyone happy. We live together; we can find solutions together.”
It took time for Chinese residents to get to know her and accept her as part of the community. Language is always a stumbling block to closer ties between expats and local Chinese, she said.
Debras, who has picked up Mandarin and even some Shanghai dialect in her work, has suggested to the neighborhood committee that some communities events and information brochures be multilingual.
“Our foreign committee members are very active in representing the voices of expats living in the complex,” said Tang Jia, Party secretary of the neighborhood.
Tang listed a litany of concerns that have been or will be addressed, including an upgrade of old barbecue pits, better management of school buses, help with domestic helper services, improved security, neutering services for stray cats and a resolution to the noise and traffic problems caused by tour buses parking outside the community to take tourists for night cruises on the Huangpu River.
“It is not an easy job to manage such a big community with a large percentage of expat residents,” Tang said. “But we appreciate that they love Shanghai and have made this city their home. We want to make them feel welcome.
Iranian Serrya Forooz is one of those happy residents.
“The environment is clean, and a lot of interesting activities are held in the community,” she said. “Expats in Shanghai can sometimes feel lonely because they are so far from home.”
The Ronghua neighborhood in the Changning District was one of the first residential communities in Shanghai to welcome expats.
With nearly 40 residential complexes and 33,000 residents, it is one of the city’s biggest expat communities.
Half its residents come from other countries, as well as from Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan.
In 2014, the community created a chamber of 10 counselors, including three from Japan, Spain and the Philippines.
“We built a platform to hear the voices of foreign residents, invite discussions and collect their feedback,” said Sheng Hong, Party secretary of the Ronghua neighborhood.
“If they report problems to us, we try to work out solutions,” he said. “They are enthusiastic about community affairs and have a pretty good knowledge of China.”
Chamber discussions are usually published online so that all residents are informed about happenings affecting daily life there. Topics can range from trifles, like garbage recycling, to more meaty issues like security, food safety and orderly maintenance of shared-bike parking.
Counselors also have had to deal with a few foreign residents who liked to listen to loud rock music at night, drawing complaints from Chinese senior citizens who couldn’t sleep through the noise.
The chamber had a hand in assisting in the construction of a Metro Line 15 station after it was asked to comment on two options for the exits and construction dust control.
When a Spanish counselor proposed a unisex toilet at the Gubei Civic Center for the convenience of parents with children, seniors and the disabled, the proposal was accepted and the project is scheduled to be completed in a year, Sheng said.
An expat counselor proposed an exhibition hall in the civic center, which has now been completed and displays exhibits from residents.
Filipina Michelle Teope-Shen, a resident of Shanghai for 18 years, suggested establishing one day a week when residents are encouraged to bring refuse to a recycling depot in the compound as a way of prodding more people to participate.
“It is all about raising awareness and showing caring for others and our environment,” she said.
On the whole, Sheng said, the chamber has been extremely useful in creating a harmonious community. Items it tackles may be small but they matter to people.
“In our sharing of ideas and discussing problems,” said Teope-Shen, “expats come to better understand the neighborhood. I am proud to contribute to that.”
This year, the neighborhood committee plans to expand the number of foreign counselors.