In the northwest part of China lies Ningxia, an autonomous region that is home to 6.81 million people.
Despite its sovereignty, Ningxia is still ruled by the Communist Party of China, the Beijing-based governmental organization that creates and enforces laws throughout all of mainland China.
Years ago, Sophie Yuan, a successful entrepreneur, was born in Ningxia.
She says that unlike more popular cities like Beijing and Shanghai, Ningxia once had its own language, but once Genghis Khan imposed his will, the Ningxia dialect eventually became extinct.
This meant that by the time Yuan was born, the standard language among locals was Mandarin, which is now the most common dialect spoken throughout the country.
For Yuan, understanding the history of China, and Ningxia specifically, has always been important.
But it wasn’t until Yuan entered middle school that her life would begin to plot a course that went beyond mainland China.
“I started learning English when I was twelve years old,” Yuan says, adding that every student in the highly unified Chinese education system begins learning ESL (English as a second language) when they enter their formative teen years.
Yuan also says that when she first began learning English, she didn’t fully understand how instrumental the lingua franca would be to her future success.
“I had no idea that English could help me later on in life. I was just a young girl who was going to school and following the curriculum that was being taught,” she says.
At the time, Yuan also didn’t know which direction she wanted her life to go.
She says that while some kids were tirelessly preparing to become a doctor or a lawyer, she was instead focused on the immense possibilities that the outside world presented.
“When I was a child, teachers would always ask what I wanted to be when I grew up, but I never had one answer to that question,” she recalls, before admitting that while establishing a future career path was not part of her itinerary, she also knew which vocation she would not adopt.
“I just wanted to experience as many things as I could, but with that being said, I knew I did not want to be a teacher. To me, teachers continually teach the same things.”
The prospect of being a teacher petrified Yuan, yet ironically, she later moved to Beijing and established a profitable ESL business.
Yuan also founded an education consulting company that assists students who are looking to move abroad with finding a program that is tailored to fit their individual goals.
It’s since been quite the career journey for Yuan, one that has afforded her the chance to travel outside of China and experience cultures and lifestyles that are vastly different from the one she grew accustomed to in Ningxia.
This includes a trip a to Nevada, where in addition to visiting Las Vegas, Yuan also saw parts of the state that don’t make it into travel brochures.
Yuan says one thing about Nevada that impressed her was the amount of infrastructure that had been built, even though most of the state population is located in the bigger cities.
She adds that in the more remote parts of China, modern amenities and infrastructure are virtually nonexistent.
“In some areas of China, like near Tibet, we do not have that same level of modern technology that you see here in the United States. Other areas in the northwest of China are very harsh. The climate and the mountains present various challenges for the people who live there,” she notes, then explaining that many people living in these oft-forgotten places farm their land in order to sustain their way of life.
Having visited these smaller towns on multiple occasions, Yuan reveals that while the way of life there is drastically different from more urban locales, the hospitality exhibited by the local residents is first-class.
“The people there have no problem helping strangers or offering them food and tea,” Yuan says.
Still, living in these areas means many of the local children won’t get the same education as kids in bigger metropolises, which was another factor for why Yuan ultimately embarked on a career in education.
“One reason why I’m in the ESL business is because I like sharing different ideas and cultures. I like seeing students evolve and expand their horizons. I want to see them reach their potential, and I believe education is the vehicle that will allow them to achieve their goals,” she says.
In fact, it was this type of commitment to the next generation of Chinese students that eventually brought Yuan to the United States on a permanent basis.
“In 2018, I partnered with an investment company in Beijing that specializes in education,” Yuan says.
“That company bought a bankrupt college in the state of New York, and they wanted me to help facilitate that project by seeing what kind of programs we could initiate using that campus.”
Yuan was eager to dive into the project, but a litany of legal roadblocks have since come with the purchase of the former university.
Consequently, Yuan and the investment company have been forced to exercise a substantial amount of patience.
“The big thing the company wanted to accomplish was to unify Chinese and American education by having a school that could promote Chinese culture and offer students a different perspective,” she says, describing a program that operates similarly to language immersion schools throughout the United States.
“All of this is why I originally came to the United States, but the project is still in progress due to the massive amount of bureaucratic obstacles that we have had to overcome. And then of course when COVID arrived that put a major dent in everyone’s plans.”
In the last two years, Yuan’s husband has since relocated to New Jersey for work, which has given her family ample time to take in all that the United States has to offer.
Yuan has certainly enjoyed this period in her life but acknowledges that there are a number of differences between life here and back home in China.
“When I first came to the United States, it was a bit of a struggle because I had to get used to the American lifestyle,” she remarks, then mentioning that the acclimation process is still ongoing.
“I currently live in Jersey City, and it is very much like Beijing, but there are still a number of differences.”
Yuan then notes the contrasts in the types of housing that each culture typifies.
“Not just in Beijing, but in all of Asia, people live in high-rises and they live in close proximity to each other. It is very dense, and less people live in the suburbs,” she says.
But the variances among the two demographics extend further.
“From a cultural perspective, Asian people like to be in crowds, and they feel more comfortable in large groups,” Yuan says.
There is also more of a tendency for Asian families to stay in one location for many years, whereas Americans are likely to move eleven different times throughout the course of their lifetime, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
“We have a saying in Chinese: secure your soil and take moving seriously,” Yuan says.
“A lot of Americans have lived in different states by the time they are thirty years old, but in China people don’t just move. That’s changing in our culture as we become a more global society, but traditional Chinese culture is very cautious about moving to a new province or city.”
Furthermore, many Asian governments have shown a propensity to allocate more resources to bigger cities, in turn leaving less populated areas with a gap in infrastructure that forces many low-income earners to migrate to big cities in search of financial opportunity.
“As the Asian continent continues to develop, we are seeing governments devote more money to high-density areas so that businesses can develop faster. There is not a concern for suburbs or areas outside of the main metro area. Those areas have fewer modern conveniences and so people gravitate toward living in the actual city,” Yuan explains.
This same trend can be seen in America, with many college graduates and entrepreneurs electing to leave their hometowns and head to major hubs like New York City and Los Angeles to begin their careers.
Yet, unlike in other countries, Yuan says that residents living in less iconized American cities aren’t left saddled with poor infrastructure or meager fiscal opportunity.
“The funny thing about the United States is that when I first moved here, I took notice of how organized everything was. It seemed that no matter if you lived in a big city or in a small town you still had access to the same amenities as everyone else,” she says.
At the same time, Yuan finds that the modern American infrastructure still leaves something to be desired, especially in terms of public transportation.
“Many places abide by the same standards, and that means you have to take a car to go anywhere,” Yuan says.
Beyond the lack of a convenient public transport system in most states, Yuan is also mystified at the fact that Americans schedule so many appointments.
“I still have trouble understanding that a lot of places require you to make an appointment to go there. Appointment culture in China has developed over the course of the last couple decades and people are slowly becoming comfortable with that, but here it seems like you need an appointment for anything. There are not as many places that offer a walk-in service.”
Regardless of the stark contrasts between the United States and China, Yuan maintains that there is much to love about both cultures, which is why she has no qualms about remaining stateside for the foreseeable future.
“My family and I will continue to stay in the United States for a while, but ideally I would be able to spend time here as well as in China,” she says.
This kind of freedom would afford Yuan more flexibility with her ESL and consulting companies, two lucrative education-focused businesses that are molding the next generation of Chinese students.
“There is a lot of money to be made in the ESL business because Chinese people take education extremely seriously. That has also been aided by the fact that in the last ten to fifteen years the Chinese economy has exponentially flourished,” she says.
“I’m just thankful that I get to take part in helping students and families create a better future.” QS
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