Canadian Lisa Alleyne was an International Education professional before she made the jump to becoming an expatriate. She is currently based in Beijing, China and launched Thrive Beijing as a way to build her skills and inspire others to make the most out of the unique connections and opportunities available in China.
Tell us your international story.
I am Canadian, from Toronto. My first encounter with Asia was when I was teaching in Madrid, Spain for a year after university. While I was there, it was cheaper for me to visit a friend in Hong Kong for Christmas, than to get back to my own family.
I decided to visit my friend in Hong Kong and I just fell in love with it. In school, I studied languages and figured because of this background I could teach English in China in the future if I wanted to. I didn’t feel a burning desire to get back to China after my trip to Hong Kong but the thought of teaching English in China someday stayed lingering in the back of my mind.
What was easy about moving to Spain was that I was familiar with Europe and the most common languages as I studied French and Spanish at university. With these languages in my back pocket, I felt like I could move there because I could speak enough to get around. I wonder now if I put off teaching in Asia because I was worried about moving around without knowing Mandarin. But going to Hong Kong, and having seen how many expats were there – I started thinking I’d be interested in teaching in China… or at least being in China.
After I finished my contract in Spain, I went back to Canada to work in higher education. First I worked in the international office at a university helping local students who wanted to go abroad. After a year I switched to working for another department in which I was covering someone’s maternity leave. I loved the job but the contract had a definite end. With one month left in the contract, I decided to take my vacation time before I left. I went to St. Lucia with a friend and that’s where the transition started.
While I was there, I received a message from a headhunter on Linkedin who thought I would be a great fit for a position in Beijing. I looked at the job description and thought it was too good to be true. I had started thinking about going to Asia but I no longer wanted to teach. I wanted a position similar to my roles at the university which involved working with students but not teaching them. This job was the answer.
The offer was to be an Activities Coordinator at a high school in China. The only thing I didn’t love about the position was that I wasn’t super keen on working with high school students. My passion is really geared toward higher education and that age of students. It wasn’t the age level I wanted to work with but the school wanted to start some international exchange programs and in the end, I decided that the age wasn’t such a huge factor.
In this new role, I could take the lead on creating exceptional programs molded from my understanding of education, travel and global citizenship. This was a dream job for me.
At first, I was skeptical, because it seemed too good to be true. Trying to ensure it wasn’t a scam, I set up a Skype meeting to learn more. The next thing I know, this Skype meeting goes from me asking the recruiter questions, to her asking me questions, to me receiving emails from the recruiter to request I meet with the school principal about the job. This happened so quickly that I didn’t have time to think about it.
What was your first impression of China?
I feel like your first impressions of China you never forget. I remember the day I arrived, we had a crazy rainstorm. And to get from the airport to my school, which should only take an hour, took like three-four hours. I didn’t do much research on mainland China before I went because I thought yeah, I’ve been to Hong Kong. I also have a lot of family members that are Chinese – my parents are from Guyana and there’s a strong Chinese community there. So I just felt like, I’ve got this, so I didn’t do much research.
I didn’t think the highways in China would be so clean. I didn’t think there would be trees and flowers lined on the side of the road. It was something that surprised me. In Canada and the US, we don’t have a strip of flowers that have been perfectly gardened alongside the highway. And in China, they do. I remember thinking, this doesn’t feel Asian. I don’t see bamboo and all the things you think of in the movies.
At the same time, it was bumper to bumper and people were getting out of their cars to have a smoke and talk to people in other cars… in the middle of the road.
I’m a huge fan of China, so I’ve never had a negative impression. I was just in awe. Well, except for the spitting. I still can’t over that.
What’s the vibe in Beijing?
I can only speak for my experience but there’s such an entrepreneurial spirit in the city. A spirit of giving it a try. It is filled with young people who are coming from all different places around the world with all different academic backgrounds and different experiences. It seems like you share something with someone and people encourage you to give it a try.
I love that kind of spirit in the city and I think that when I was in Canada, I was totally sleeping on me.
I loved working for the University and I was totally happy, making my salary, spending it on the weekends and that was a success for me. But when I came to China and start doing Thrive Beijing, I was like, “Wow, I’m capable of so much more!”
For example, at first, I was going to hire someone to build the Thrive Beijing website, but a former colleague said, “Absolutely not, I’m going to teach you how to do it.” I remember thinking I don’t know anything about computers, I didn’t do a degree in coding how can I possibly build a website?
That’s what Canada kinda brainwashed me to believe, that if I didn’t have a degree in something I couldn’t do it. I wouldn’t be good at it. I wouldn’t be validated. I couldn’t be an expert if I didn’t have a degree in it. China just tore that down. In China, if you can learn how to do it, that’s great. You’re in control of your own future.
What is Thrive Beijing and what is the mission behind it?
Thrive Beijing is a platform with the goal of connecting ambitious millennial entrepreneurs and young professionals in Beijing to other like minded people. We try to foster people to people connections and to encourage millennials to make the most out of their experience in Beijing.
My business partners Nicky and Boitha and I started Thrive Beijing because we’ve loved our experiences in China since day one, but we noticed there are many people living in Beijing who absolutely did not feel the same way. We wondered why our experience was so different from all these other people. We boiled it down to three things: the events we went to, the people we met and the resources we were finding. And they were all interconnected. We would go out, meet a cool person, they would inspire us in some way and then just chatting about everyday life in China they would put us on to a resource that could help us live better in the city. We wanted to recreate this cycle for others who for some reason weren’t part of it yet.
The idea behind Thrive Beijing was to inspire people struggling to find their place in the city through telling the stories of others who were living well in Beijing.
We’re trying to give people a place to connect and reach out to those that we feature on the site to create a domino effect of people making the most of their time in China and taking advantage of the endless opportunities around them.
Why do you think there was a need for Thrive Beijing?
Beijing is truly a city for everyone. Any interest you have there is a community for it in Beijing. The way to find these communities, however, is through Wechat groups and the way you get into a Wechat group is by knowing someone who is already in it. It’s a catch-22, which means for many people new in China they struggle to find where they fit because they don’t have access to the community. I’m in a lot of Black In Beijing groups now and it’s where I started to grow my friend circle, but I never would have found the community had I not messaged my parent’s embassy. Looking for something to do in my spare time in China I emailed the embassy to find out if they had any volunteer opportunities. A young administrator who had been in China responded to my message and connected me to the majority of the groups I’m still active in today.
Other colleagues of mine would never have the same experience. They didn’t really reach out to embassies. And there’s no open way of connecting with the community unless you see someone or know someone who’s been in China before, who can connect you. Now, it’s a bit different. The community has grown significantly. But at that point, we’d have all these events going on within the Caribbean communities and other Black communities but they’d never really make it into the expat magazines so that new people could discover them. Mostly the event flyers would circulate in groups a day or two before the event. If you caught it, great. But if you missed it, too bad.
What’s next for Thrive Beijing?
A lot. Learning to build and support a community has taken a lot of time but we get more efficient and purposeful each month. We’ve recently started to redefine our goals and objectives since the community and needs are ever-changing. We’ll continue on with creating written content and hosting events but they will just become more focused on meeting the current needs of our followers.
We’re also looking to expand our team. While Thrive Beijing as a platform does not make money, we’ve gained skills through building Thrive Beijing that our core team has been able to use to get into new fields or monetize in other ways. We want to do that for more people so we are looking to bring on dedicated members to grow us and to grow with us.