The charity dream of a foreign daughter-in-law comes true
——Interview with Mrs. Corinne Hua, founder and executive director of “Stepping Stones”
Written / photo taken by Zhou Mo
Corinne hua’s recent photo
A British girl who graduated from Cambridge University followed her Chinese husband settle in Shanghai. In order to realize her childhood dream, she resolutely left the well-paid job and created with her friends "Stepping Stones", a non-profit public institution, organizing volunteers to provide free English teaching in the schools for migrant workers’ children in Shanghai. The project has lasted more than 10 years. Today, "Stepping Stones" has begun to take shape. “Stepping Stones” send more than 300 Chinese and foreign volunteer teachers each week to more than 30 teaching points to provide free English teaching for nearly 5,000 migrant children. One afternoon early in May, the author met Mrs. Corinne Hua, a quite legendary foreign daughter-in-law in the office of "Stepping Stones" at a business building on West Zhongshan Road in Shanghai. High nose, short hair, she was wearing a blue T-shirt with a cartoon on it and white slacks. Once asked, this is the "work clothes" of every Stepping Stones volunteer. Mrs. Corinne Hua can speak fluent Mandarin and her bright personality also make our conversation unconstraint.
“Follow her husband settle in China”
Q: You studied in the Chinese department of Cambridge University in the 1980s, what is the reason for you to choose this major in Chinese? Did you know anything about China before you went to college?
Corinne Hua: To be fair, I knew nothing about China before I went to college, no one in my family and friends around me had ever been to China or to know anything about China. I was just interested in world issues from a young age, and liked to be a volunteer. I majored in language in high school, including English, French and German, I didn't want to learn the European language when I applied for college, and I wanted to learn a more important and useful language in the future. At that time, Japan was already very developed, may no longer need other people's help, the Middle East women's status is not high, I did not want to go there, as for Russian, some students began to learn Russian from high school ... In this way, I chose Chinese.
At that time, all I knew was that China was a closed socialist country and a big developing country. In my imagination, Chinese farmers are all working in the fields with steeple bamboo hats ... I am good at music, I like singing and can play the oboe. Some people say that Chinese words sound like music. In fact, it is very difficult to learn Chinese. I went to Cambridge University in 1986 and there were 11 students in the same class, only four of them insisted on learning and graduated. The rest changed their Profession in the Midway.
Q: When was your first visit to China? What is the difference between China in reality and China in your imagination?
Corinne Hua: The Chinese department of Cambridge University has a history of more than 100 years. In the past, students learning Chinese will go to Taiwan to study for a period of time. But I do not want to go to Taiwan, I would like to see mainland China. My hometown, a small city in the northern Britain, became a friendship city with Dandong city, Liaoning province in China just at that time. An English professor in Dandong Teachers College invited me to have advanced study there. As a result, I first set foot in China's land when I was 20 years old in 1988. I traveled with one of my companions to Hong Kong, Shanghai, Beijing, Xi’an, Guilin and Guangzhou, and then I travelled to Dandong by train alone.
At that time, there were very few western reports on China, and my parents would cut papers off and mailed them to me as long as they saw some reports about China in the newspapers. Like many foreigners, I thought China was another world completely different from ours. But my three-month study in China had completely changed my concept of China. In fact, China's big cities, especially Shanghai, are not much different from those in Europe. The clothes the people wore at that time were quite different from those during the Cultural Revolution. They were dressed in the same way as in Europe. Although the living standard is not high, everyone has a job. Young people are interested in everything, they are studying hard, and then the social atmosphere is very good. I remembered my Chinese teacher in Dandong once asked me what to do in the future? I wanted to say charity. But at that time my Chinese level is still very poor, I did not know how to say "charity", and she also did not understand what I want to do charity, and then I had to look into dictionary to express it.
Q: Your husband is from Shanghai, how do you know each other?
Corinne Hua: My husband was born in Shanghai and went to Beijing with his parents. He was a visiting scholar at the Cambridge University in 1989, and we met by accident. When I returned from Dandong to England, one day, the Chinese student Union of Cambridge University organized an event and they would pick up a Chinese guest. He had just bought a used car, but his license was still in the internship, according to the UK, a probationary license must be accompanied by a formal driver to drive on the road. I had a driver's license, but I didn't have a car, so I accompanied him to pick up the guest that night. As a result, we did not receive the guest and we met and I helped him find a house in Cambridge. I went to China for the second time in 1991 and worked in Beijing. I wanted to find a house and he introduced me to his parents’ home in Beijing, but then we were just ordinary friends. His parents are very kind and take good care of me. I returned to England again in 1992 and established relationship with him.
Q: Whose decision was your settlement from England to Shanghai in 1993? There is an old saying in China: "follow the man you marry". Do you agree with him to come to China and you are influenced by Chinese culture? Are you accustomed to living far away your home? Can you cook Chinese food?
Corinne Hua: In the 1990s, the European economy was sluggish, while Pudong development in Shanghai was booming. My husband is an architectural designer. He feels that the Chinese situation is more conducive to his career development, so he decided to return to China. We were still in love at that time, but I respected his decision, and in 1996 we were married in England.
Unlike the ordinary Englishman, my hometown complex is not very heavy. My father is French, my mother is British, I was born in France, but later because of my father’s work, my family moved to England where I grew up. Now my parents are retired and live in France, my brothers are not working in my hometown, and I don't seem to have roots there. I think, since I choose to live with my husband, naturally I would like to think of his hometown as my hometown. I have lived in Shanghai for 24 years, and Shanghai is my hometown.
In my family, of course, I eat more Chinese food, mainly cooked by my aunt, and I also do some western food on weekends. My husband had been living in the north for a long time, and influenced by him, our whole family prefers wheaten food. We make dumplings ourselves, and the whole family loves it.
Resolutely resign to devote to public welfare undertakings
Q: What prompted you to make this incredible decision to devote yourself to public welfare service in 2006 from PWC where you have worked for seven years? What do your family think?
Corinne Hua: I always have a charity complex deep in my heart, and I often do volunteer work when I am free. I can't say that learning Chinese is just for charity, but I want to do good things, to help more people in need. But in China, it is almost impossible for a foreigner to do charity. Until entering the new century, China has developed rapidly in all aspects, and social environment has changed, more and more young people in China are interested in public welfare service. I think the time is ripe for public welfare. Indeed, a lot of people do not understand my behavior, why I should give up a good job to do free charged public service. Fortunately, my husband fully understood me and supported me to do what I wanted to do. I think, we do not need a bigger house, and do not need to buy a second car, one of us can make money to support our family, and another one can do what she likes. I can say that charity is also our family’s choice.
Q: The scope of public welfare is very wide and charity contains a lot of contents, why do you choose the project to teach English free of charge for migrant children? Do you remember the first school you visited?
Corinne Hua: In 1999 I once knew a retired Chinese couple. They set up a non-profit organization of "love education Institute”, specifically educating Chinese children how to cultivate love, and how to love others, they have worked in the institute for more than ten years, and they are now over eighty years old. After I left PWC, my husband first wanted me to help them. Like all charities, they are short of money, and I took advantage of my relationship with some multinational companies and try to raise money for them. In the process of doing charity, I gradually realized that the most important problem in China is education. Even in big cities like Shanghai, the education resources enjoyed by local children and migrant workers’ children are quite different, which is unfair to children. I remember that the people of the Minhang District Education Bureau accompanied us to visit some schools for migrant workers children, we found the facilities and equipment were obviously inferior to public schools. In particular, there is shortage of English teachers. Seeing me as a foreigner, one principal said: "Can you come and teach the children English? We need good English teachers.” As we all know, in China, foreign languages are one of the three core subjects which are juxtaposed with Chinese and mathematics. Students with low level English will not be competitive, but the schools for migrant workers’ children often cannot afford a good English teacher. So, we started trying to do this project. I first visited Loving Heart Primary School in Minhang district with poor conditions. The students saw me as strange as seeing an alien. I had three friends who are willing to be volunteer teachers, so I sent them over. A second school was developed three months later. The project attracted a lot of people, the volunteer team is like a snowball gathering as it goes on. In addition to foreigners, there are a lot of Chinese young people to join in. Whenever I have volunteers, I will contact a new school. I did not do any publicity, but everyone’s enthusiasm for doing good things is far beyond my imagination. When I go to those schools, students will also take the initiative to greet me in English.
Q: Is spoken English or other English materials provided by “Stepping Stones” for migrant workers’ children?
Corinne Hua: Our English class is mainly based on the existing textbooks, after all, students are required to take the unified examination. Shanghai Public schools have relatively good conditions, and high schools have foreign teachers. But schools for migrant children do not have such conditions, the students’ foreign language foundation is generally poor, and the teacher's English foundation is also low. There is no opportunity for them to communicate with foreigners. Now things are much better, ordinary English classes are taught by school teachers. Our volunteers are giving lessons in English and exchange with students in English too. Of course, foreigners’ teaching English methods are more flexible, they pay more attention to practical use, and teaching effect is much better.
Q: When did your "Stepping Stones" register? What's the moral of taking this name?
Corinne Hua: It is possible to do public service in 2011, but it is still difficult to set up a civilian organization with too complicated procedure. Besides, I'm still a foreigner, and most of volunteers are foreigners. Therefore, we can only first register “Stepping Stones” in Hong Kong before the successful registration in Shanghai in 2013. Even so, the "Stepping Stones" is still a Chinese people's non-governmental organization, my husband is a legal representative, because foreign charitable organizations registered in China seem to have no precedent.
As for the name of "Stepping Stones", I think, each of us is a tiny pebble. But when a lot of pebbles are paved into a road, its effect is different. We are willing to become a paving stone to pave the way to the future for children, to do our humble best to achieve their dreams. We want them to understand that they can learn English as well as the children in the city and choose their own future. At the same time, we hope that they will also be able to become a paving stone to give their love to someone who needs help. Another mission of "Stepping Stones" is to build a bridge among migrant workers communities, expatriates and local communities.
Down-to-earth and no regrets
Q: "Stepping Stones" is now sending more than 300 volunteers a week to more than 30 teaching points to have English lessons for nearly 5,000 students. How many staff members do you own? Although it is a public welfare service, but it also has management costs. How does "Stepping Stones" solve its costs? What have you done for the children besides English class?
Corinne Hua: "Stepping Stones" has currently 14 full-time staff members including Chinese and foreigners. There are a few part-time staff members. In addition to arranging and deploying volunteer teachers, we have also built our own websites.
We did try to do more for our children. For example, because of not paying attention to the use of eye hygiene and poor learning environment, more and more children are now suffering from myopia, affecting their learning. With the support of the caring enterprise, we started in 2008 to carry out love eye projects, children with myopia were provided with free glasses or provided with free vision corrective surgery. We had another educational project, but we gradually gave up. I know that our advantage is English teaching, which is closely related to the future of children. We want to go all out, try to make the best of English teaching.
We have also arranged a few volunteers to go to the countryside as short-term volunteer teachers, and it is the wish of many volunteers to conduct face-to-face teaching with village’s children, but large-scale promotion is difficult. We are studying a set of English remote textbooks, and want to use the Internet platform to help the children in rural areas to enjoy good English teaching. This is a development direction, and also a very big subject that we need to explore and practice. I just want to gather more caring volunteers to change the lives of millions of children through everyone’s efforts.
Q: You have done public service in China for more than 10 years, how do you evaluate China's public welfare industry? Are there any other places in need of improvement?
Corinne Hua: When I was in England, volunteers on the streets are often holding donation boxes to raise money from passers-by, and people, rich or poor, were happy to give their love. There are many public-spirited organizations in Britain and the competition for fundraising is fierce. A large number of volunteers suddenly erupted in the earthquake occurred in Wenchuan in 2008. Nowadays, there are many kinds of public welfare activities in the society, and the concept of public welfare is gradually being accepted by everyone, which is a great progress.
However, there are still many unsatisfactory aspects. For example, it is more difficult to register civil organizations, and it is too cumbersome to manage social organizations. Maybe because “Stepping Stones” has foreign employees, and most of volunteers are foreigners, in addition to Civil Affairs Department, Public Security Department also manages our organization, we need to make reports to them on a regular basis, which does cost us a lot of time and energy. In fact, public welfare has no boundaries, charity has nothing to do with rich or poor. We, "Stepping Stones”, just want to do some work in improving English level for the disadvantaged children. The children have their demand, and we have our resource, so it is so simple. I think that the public welfare organizations should strengthen its transparency to win the trust and support of the Government and society. At the same time I hope that China will be more open to attract more foreigners and international charitable organizations to participate in China's public welfare undertakings.
In addition, the financial problem is a major one for all public welfare institutions, and we are no exception. China's newly implemented Charity Law stipulates that the annual administrative expenses of public organizations such as ours should not be higher than 20% of its total expenditure, but our management costs are basically staff salaries, far more than 20%. People who donate money tend to have a characteristic that you need a number of books, he is willing to pay money, and it is no problem to donate money to build a hope primary school. But it's hard for people to pay for a teacher, which is the same case abroad. In fact, charitable projects not only need volunteer participation, but also need a group of caring professional public welfare people, without their long-term adherence and efforts, many public welfare projects are not sustainable. I am very grateful to the Shanghai Soong Ching Ling Foundation in helping us solve this problem. Since 2012, the Shanghai Soong Ching Ling Foundation has given us great support in funding. Another example of our office space here, the entire floor was provided free of charge by Mr. Ye Shouzhang, sponsor and director of Overseas Chinese Foundation and Shanghai Guofeng Charitable Foundation, for joint office of a number of public welfare organizations. We are fortunate, "Stepping Stones" has got much help from the community since its inception. This is the happiest thing and all we met are warm-hearted people!
(From SSCLF’s Quarterly “Change” Fifth issue in July, 2017)