JEP Weekend – The Big Read

Briony’s interview with Features Writer Thomas Ogg

It is only when people Start to understand another language or culture that they fully appreciate their own place in the world!’

ThinkChinese Jersey is a Chinese language school and business service provider which aims to bridge the cultural gap between China and Jersey. Founder Briony Sun spoke to Tom Ogg about the origins of the business, the joy of Chinese New Year and the impact of Covid-19.

IT often seems that there is almost nothing but hostility between the various countries of the world. 

From the recent tensions between Russia and the Ukraine and the ongoing sparring between Canada and the US to the animosity between the UK and the rest of Europe following the former’s decision to leave the EU, it can all make for rather depressing viewing when plastered across the news bulletins on a daily basis.

Given the above, it is always welcome when efforts are made to bridge a divide, rather than widen it, and such is certainly the case with ThinkChinese Jersey.

Launched in 2016, the St Helier-based Chinese language school and business service provider is the brainchild of founder and managing director Briony Sun.

“‘ThinkChinese is a compact team of Chinese language and culture experts,’ says Northeast China-born Briony, chatting from the ThinkChinese Jersey headquarters in St James Street.

‘We operate from Jersey, with a presence in China, and we are perfectly positioned to bridge the language and culture gap, and to help Jersey businesses strengthen links with the Chinese market and serve Chinese clients.’

Among the services ThinkChinese Jersey currently provides are Chinese language tuition for all ages, translating and interpreting, and business communication, the latter with a focus on

Chinese social media.

‘We are the only business in Jersey which specialises in these areas,’ says Briony. ‘We’re very proud of our niche skills.”

Initially established as a solo enterprise, ThinkChinese Jersey began life as a Chinese language school, with Briony adding additional members to the ThinkChinese team in the years following its launch.

‘At the outset we were the first and only dedicated Chinese language school in Jersey,’ she says. ‘My academic background is education – I have a Masters degree in education from Durham University – and teaching was, and remains, a great passion for me. I knew I wanted to offer something different to the local community in Jersey – and ThinkChinese was the result.’

Asked what she considers the most enjoyable and satisfying aspect of running the business, Briony quotes American poet and civil rights activist Maya Angelou: ‘People will forget what

you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel’.

‘I think this is very true to our business,’ she says. ‘It is very satisfying to see our students progressing and our clients providing positive feedback over the services they have received. 

The majority of people we come across choose to stay in touch with us, and some even recommend students or clients to us. This testifies to the great relationship we are able to build with people.’

In addition, Briony and the team regularly organise and host large-scale events, educational trips and ‘webinars’, among the most memorable of which was a party to celebrate the Chinese New Year in 2019.

“The event was for our students, their families and our business contacts,’ recalls Briony.

‘We had around 80 guests and held it at the Soy seafood and sushi bar, which has ample indoor and outdoor space, and which provided us with a menu specifically catered for the event.

“I remember giving a speech in 2019 and mentioning that China was battling a new little-known virus. I invited all our guests to join me in wishing the epidemic would pass soon. At that time, no one would ever have thought that Jersey would be in strict lockdown just a few months later’

On the subject of which, Briony says that, like so many businesses both here and elsewhere, ThinkChinese Jersey was hit by the Covid-19 crisis.

‘As a small business, the pandemic undoubtedly affected us, but we worked very hard in the short time that we had to switch all of our lessons online and to meet clients virtually rather than face-to-face.

‘I would say that-Covid has ultimately prompted us to become more adaptive and resilient. It also reminded us of the importance of having preventative measures in place to ensure that,

whenever possible, the business stays undisrupted in the event of adversity.’

Born in the coastal province of Liaoning, Briony left her homeland and travelled to the UK in 2010 to pursue further education, before relocating to Jersey in 2013 in order to join her then-flancé, Phillip.

‘We married in early 2014,’ says Briony. ‘We’re now a happy family of three – our little boy is two years old’

‘The pandemic undoubtedly affected the business, but it also prompted us to become more adaptive and resilient’

Asked why she considers it important that people strive to learn about other languages and cultures, Briony replies: ‘I think it is only when people start to understand another language or culture that they will be able to fully appreciate their own place in the world. Learning the Chinese language and culture is a way to broaden a person’s horizons, but – more importantly – it can make people reflect and therefore promote understanding,

‘In our globalised world, no individual or community can stand alone,’ she continues. ‘The interdependence of trade and commerce, technology and medicine, can travel more smoothly when we understand the language and customs of other places in the world. 

‘Developing insights into other cultures can help us to live a more enriched and fulfilling life.’

Regarding Chinese culture and traditions, it was Chinese New Year earlier in the month, which is by far the most important of the many annual festivals on the Chinese calendar.

‘The Chinese New Year is one of the most widely celebrated occasions around the world,’ says Briony. ‘As a business, we carried out a big clean – it is tradition to clean your household in the advent of the event – and then we decorated our office with lanterns, window stickers and couplets. I cooked a hearty meal for my Jersey colleagues, all of whom are originally from China, and they were all so touched,

‘They almost ended up in tears – I hope it wasn’t my cooking,’ she adds with a laugh.

Like most parents of Chinese origin, Briony says she is particularly keen to introduce her son to the importance of Chinese New Year.

‘I want to instill the cultural heritage into him at a young age,’ she says. ‘I made Chinese dumplings on New Year’s Eve and then we had a video call with my family in China on New Year’s Day. It was a hopelessly inadequate but necessary substitute for not being with them in the flesh.

In terms of what makes Chinese New Year such a unique and special occasion, Briony says: ‘Well, the Chinese New Year is said to enjoy a history of some 3,500 years. Despite the passage of time, the core message of the festival endures, which is to allow people to re-focus on family and relationships.

‘Before the Covid pandemic, the festival travel rush was described by BBC as “the largest human migration on earth happening annually”.

‘Due to the pandemic, however, many Chinese people have been choosing to celebrate locally, and they had to send their wishes, gifts and “red packets” through social media.

‘Over ¥8 billion was sent through WeChat during the festival –  that is more than £900 million. To me, it showed that people were willing to be flexible, and that, no matter where they are, their thoughts and love are inseparable from their family and loved ones.

‘One of my most memorable Chinese New Years was the last one that I spent with my family, which feels like an awfully long time ago now,’ she continues. ‘It was 2017, and it was also my husband’s first experience of the New Year in China, and I remember us walking across the frozen river each day to get coffee, running from firecrackers and visiting the warm homes of my relatives around the city.”

Life in Jersey is, of course, quite different to that of her homeland and Briony admits that she occasionally feels homesick, particularly given the events of the last few years.

‘Besides my family, I would have to say that I miss Chinese food the most. When I was working in Guangzhou before moving to Jersey, I could spend 50p on a bowl of minced pork noodles for lunch – and it was delicious!

‘My hometown Fushun is infused with spicy food: m4 la ban, ma 1a tang and gan gu are renowned nationwide. I was in China with my adult students in 2018 and we visited Chengdu, which is in the Sichuan province, and which is a city famous for its spice. The distinctive Sichuan peppers numbed our students’ tongues.”

Yet while she misses the sights and sounds (and tastes) of China, Briony says there Is plenty in Jersey about which she now feels similarly passionate,

‘I just love taking my young son to the beach and watching him potter in the sand and the rock pools. And as well as its natural beauty, I also really enjoy the friendly and supportive community here in Jersey,

‘It has made the Island feel like home to me.’

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