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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 14 November 2018

UAE Portrait of a Nation: Dubai's a ray of Sunshine for the girl from a coal town in China

Good English and a dream to see the world led Zeguang 'Sunshine' Bian to seek a new life in the Emirates

'Sunshine' Bian pictured in the Chinese tea room of International City, Dubai. Chris Whiteoak / The National
'Sunshine' Bian pictured in the Chinese tea room of International City, Dubai. Chris Whiteoak / The National

Speaking fluent English led Zeguang Bian to become the first of her family to leave their coal mining town in eastern China for work overseas.

Her warm and confident personality also meant that Ms Zeguang, nicknamed Sunshine, was picked from dozens of hopefuls in China for a job thousands of miles away helping transit passengers and tourists in the packed duty-free section of Dubai’s international airport.

But the journey was not without heartache.

Her family at first tried to stop the then 21-year-old human resources graduate leaving for a foreign land they knew nothing about.

Her college professor even stepped in and showed her parents and grandmother videos about Dubai to convince them to let her work as a sales assistant with Dubai Duty Free.

“There was a big fight between me and my father because 10 years ago they didn’t know anything about the UAE. It was not as famous then," recalled Ms Zeguang.

"It was a two-year contract and I remember my grandma cried. My teacher told my family that this was a good experience for me to learn more English. She showed them videos that showed Dubai with the desert on one side and the ocean on the other.

“She told my father that if I was not allowed to do a job related to English then all I had studied for would be wasted. I also told them that they couldn’t protect me forever - and that I had to go and see the world for myself.”

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Ms Zeguang received an offer to return to China to work as a supervisor at Shanghai's main airport, but she stayed in Dubai - a decision she's glad she made.

Her success story - she is now an assistant manager for manpower in the duty-free company - has been picked up by Chinese media and she has become a role model for the young people in Changzhi city, where many are desperate to move away from traditional jobs in Shanxi province, the country’s top coal-producing region.

And many are tempted to join the now 200,000-strong Chinese community in the UAE, which was in the spotlight during the visit of China's President Xi Jinping.

Both Ms Zeguang and her husband Zhao Yan, who also studied in the Beijing Economy and Business College Aviation Institute, were interviewed by state broadcaster Central China Television in a programme broadcast last year. Her husband works in the duty free merchandising section.

“My family and our college is so proud of us. Newspapers in my home town also interviewed me because of the CCTV interview. My city is famous for coal so this is a different story for young people to follow,” the 31-year-old said.

Two younger cousins took courage from her example and moved to the US for PhD degrees.

Education has always been important for her family. Her father worked as an engineer in charge of industrial heating in a coal company. Her mother is a school mathematics teacher, while her brother teaches electrical engineering at a college.

Hired in 2008, Ms Zeguang was among the first group of Chinese staff recruited by the company that began hiring Chinese nationals in 2006.

There are more than 800 Chinese staff currently in the duty-free section.

For the past seven years, Ms Zeguang has been part of the team which travels to China on recruitment drives.

“Generally Chinese people don’t speak good English so it can be very difficult for them to shop. We need Chinese staff to help improve their shopping experience and use of the airport facilities,” she said.

She is also part of a unit that organises Chinese New Year inside the airport with dragon dancers and cakes cut as part of the celebrations.

Other expatriates support Ms Zeguang’s efforts to link both countries.

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“She is a good ambassador and is a great example for young people, while she helps her own company focus on the Chinese market. It’s important for the young to look up to those who work hard and have a positive outlook,” said Grace Zhang, a host with the popular China Arab TV network.

It took the birth of her son Qiqi three years ago for her family to ditch all resistance to overseas influences. Her parents now are regular visitors to the UAE.

“On the day of the birth, not only my parents but my in-laws were also here. It was a mess because everyone wanted to cook,” Ms Zeguang said.

“My mother comes many times to help me look after my baby.”

Her younger brother has not been as lucky in his overseas ambitions.

“My brother got many job offers from big cities after his master's degree but my father told him that since I had left, he had to stay in our home town. And my father bought him a house in the same residential area where my parents live. Still, my brother and I are very close because we love our family,” she said.

She hopes her success story will open up the UAE to many more young people with ambitions to work here.

“I want to do what I can to make people from both sides know each other. I’m proud of my culture and want to show this to the people of the UAE and help my people understand the UAE.”