Reflecting on her life in China

By Rebecca Cawton


When Shannon Couper's family returned from living in China for a decade, they thought they'd arrived on a public holiday.

"It's so quiet," Shannon recalls her family saying, "'where are all the people?"'

The 15-year-old has some amusing memories from those first few weeks back in small town Te Awamutu - like when the family realised they still walked in a cluster just like they did back in densely populated Kunming, in Yunnan province.

"In China there are so many people around all of the time, so you have to stay close to one another or you lose them."

They also had to break the habit of talking loudly to one another (to be heard in public) and try not to invade New Zealanders' personal space.

It was those sorts of differences that really struck Shannon, so she wrote about them for an inter-schools speech competition. And she won.

She received the trophy for best speaker challenge award at the Rotorua Inter Schools Chinese Speech Competition in August.

The Tauranga Girls' College student was up against 50 other speakers and took the top award. She had also won the Year 10 award the previous year.

When Shannon was 2, the Couper family packed their bags and headed for China. Parents Harley and Shona were on a mission to help others - Shona was a primary school teacher and Harley was intent to help others less fortunate.

They lived in Lijiang for five years. Shannon says it was the most beautiful place she has ever lived.

"It had cobblestone paths and we were surrounded by mountain ranges with ice caps. We had a very traditional house with a courtyard in the middle."

Shannon remembers the SARS outbreak and being avoided as villagers believed foreigners had brought the disease in.

The family moved to Kunming. The city developed very fast during their time there. One vivid memory that stuck in the young Shannon's mind was there were just two interesting ice cream flavours available when they first arrived - red bean and green pea.

Kunming was multi-national and most people spoke English. They attended a school which was under the American system, so most of her friends were American. "We knew 'survival Chinese'. We could do the basics like buy things, get a taxi, talk to people on the street ..."

But Mandarin is hard to learn, made even harder when the Kunming locals spoke their own variation of the dialect. The Coupers returned to New Zealand in 2009 in time for Shannon to start high school.

Shannon still studies the language and culture by correspondence and also plans to choose a career which involves helping others. China is definitely on the cards - she will return one day and would like to raise a family there.

- BAY OF PLENTY TIMES

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