I work at Hua Dan in Beijing and Sichuan Province which is a non-profit organization dedicated to using theatre to bring out the full potential in people, to encourage them to lead their own lives and their communities with courage, confidence and creativity. I prioritize working with and for migrant women as well as children, families and schools displaced by the Sichuan earthquake in 2008. The job has given me the opportunity to meet so many different kinds of people whose stories have made a deep impression on me as a constant reminder of the very real challenges that exist before our eyes.
I dreamt for years of performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland. My work at Hua Dan inspired me to start a new project with my colleagues – Dumpling Dreams – to bring stories from China to the outside world. These are perspectives that many Westerners never get to hear. I wanted to share compelling stories about migrant women in China and foster links with the outside world, putting a human face on my vast country. It had been a dream for years, but I faced challenges moving it to reality. My friend sent me information about the Mentoring Women in Business Programme and said it could be helpful. It was nearly the application deadline and I was so busy at work that I almost didn’t apply, but something compelled me to go online and submit my details.
At the end of February 2012, I received an email informing me that I’d been matched with my mentor, Safiye, the microfinance director at Citigroup in London, and that we needed to contact each other as soon as possible to begin our online correspondence. After I’d finished reading the email, my first reaction was: is this even possible? The mentor I had been paired with was a stranger from the other side of the world, unfamiliar with my mother tongue, life, culture and country. To be honest, I was more nervous than excited … and even a bit skeptical about the entire endeavor. I’d even thought about whether I should reconsider participating in this project. But in the end, I still chose to give it a try. After putting it off for nearly a week, I made an appointment with my mentor, to meet for the first time, online.
March 2012: Our first online video call. We started off showing each other the scenery from outside our windows. She showed me her world, with mid-morning rain drops sliding down the window panes. I showed her the color of the city lights of my city in the night. It was a very peculiar, magical feeling. She told me that she was also a little nervous to be part of this program, as it was also her first time participating in this sort of cross-regional online mentoring program. As we spoke further, I told her of my worries, my concerns and my uncertainties. But she quickly put them all to rest as she calmly discussed them with me, one by one. Concerns are met with “actionable solutions”, she said. We talked for over two hours. It wasn’t until I turned off the computer, that I realized I still didn’t know how to pronounce her name. But, just like this, we set forth on this unknown adventure – together.
Usually you wouldn’t easily share a personal “business idea” with another, nor would you lightly speak of your own “real” life – in all its worries and imperfections – to someone else. To admit that you’re not as confident as you’d like to be, to unreservedly expose the rawest, most genuine part of yourself to another who you don’t really know, takes courage. What is more, it requires trust. This last is perhaps the most powerful part of the mentoring program: it allowed me to discover a new understanding of trust.
Our mentor-mentee relationship unfolded even more smoothly than I’d expected. In the beginning, I was worried that my questions were reckless, or that they were illogical. Before asking my questions, I’d always timidly ask: “Can I ask you this question?” or “Can I ask you to read this file?” One day, my mentor said to me: “I am happy to support you in any way I can. You are doing excellent work and I am proud that to be your mentor, do not worry about whether or not your questions are appropriate, I would like to hear them all the same.” Just like this, she helped me step out of my own limitations time and time again, until the ring I’d put around myself slowly started to widen.
I spent the summer of 2012 in the rural outskirts of Beijing, helping to lead a group of migrant children in a theatre summer camp. Although my mentor by now had heard me speak frequently about my job – through phone calls, emails etc – the fact remained that the concept of using theater in work with children and communities was difficult to measure in standard business practice. One afternoon, the children at camp were in the midst of rehearsing a dance number that was to be a part of their final performance. In two days, they were to perform their plays for their parents, the majority of whom are migrant workers in the city. Busy and fatigued, these parents had very little time to really spend with their children, so this performance was highly anticipated, both by the children themselves but also my business.
On the same day, I met with my mentor to chat at our usual pre-arranged time. This meeting, however, was different, as I was surrounded by many children – many curious children who were intrigued by what was happening on my computer. I introduced my mentor as a friend from the UK, which excited the children even more. They waved energetically to her and danced in happiness to be speaking with someone who was from the same place as this year’s Olympic Games. The children then resumed their dance rehearsal. At this point, I pointed my computer’s camera towards the dancing children. As we watched, neither I nor my mentor spoke. I didn’t know what she was thinking, but I sensed how excited she was. I had never thought that I could share, so directly, this part of my work with my mentor. And so much of what I was currently doing was a result of her support, pushing me to do my best and then trying for even better. The children were also very excited that a new friend from across the ocean was watching them dance – the entire world seemed to be linked together. Later on, my mentor said to me: “I cried that day”.
This is the first of a three-part blog series, written by YangYang Tao from China, a mentee in the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women’s Mentoring Women in Business Programme. The programme connects highly skilled professional with women business owners around the world over an online platform powered by Google. Part 2 will be published at 2pm (UK time) on Wednesday 8 May.
Translation by Linda Yi and Jessica Naish