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'You're going where....to do what?'

By Ricky Chapman ( chinadaily.com.cn )

Updated: 2014-07-21

That was pretty much the response I got from friends and family when I announced I was going to interview for a job in China. This adventure actually began about 50 years or so earlier, in the daydreams of a young boy growing up in a medium-sized town situated in the eastern portion of the USA. Part of the strong attraction I have always had to flying airplanes has always been the ability it offers to travel and explore new places. That didn't always mean the other side of the world, sometimes it was just the other side of the state, but it was enough.

'You're going where....to do what?'
Ricky Chapman, captain of Xiamen Air, with the flight crew, pose for a photo. [Photo provided to China Daily]

My introduction to China was arriving on the last ferry from Hong Kong airport to Shenzhen's Shekou terminal, taxi to the 5-star hotel, so far so good. Then I was told that while I did have a confirmed reservation, there were no rooms available. It seems there was a typhoon on the way and many people decided not to check out as their flights were cancelled the next day.......huh? Typhoon...in April? They had "arranged" other accommodations, and the service manager even walked with me to the new hotel. It turned out the "new" hotel was a 2-star local hotel! Welcome to your new life!

The job offer did come through, and now the reality had really set in, I was going to live and work in not just any foreign (to me) country, but on the other side of the globe. I was very excited if a little nervous, my friends and family were questioning my sanity. I told myself it was only five years.

As with any expat moving to China, the amount and complexity of the documentation process is daunting, who knew there was such a thing as a provincial Secretary of State that needs to attach a seal to my criminal report?

I was going to work for a relatively new joint-venture between Shenzhen Airlines and the Germany-based Lufthansa, based in Shenzhen. I decided to move to the Shekou area, as there were a lot of ex-pats living there and it seemed like a nice place.

'You're going where....to do what?'

Two things struck me almost immediately: One was the fact that I was now the "foreigner" and also that as far as the local people were concerned, all foreigners are the same. I am sure that all expats experience similar feelings. What was really interesting for me was, out of about 120 pilots, there were more than 20 different nationalities. We were all...."foreigners", an amazing realization for this newbie expat.

Almost immediately I formed friendships with some of the local Chinese staff, some of these friendships have continued until today. What amazed me was that they were as interested in finding out about my life in the USA as I was to find out more about my new home. I was answering as many questions about everyday life in the USA as I was asking about how to get around in my new life in China.

My job was flying B-747-400 cargo planes to cities all over the world, carrying the goods that carry the "Made in China" label and bringing back those things made abroad that are considered "imports" in China. I spent a lot of time outside of China, mostly in Europe, with an occasional excursion to the Middle East or South America.

Being away from China this way was very unique to an expat life, and while it did offer some advantages, it also made it more difficult to learn a lot about the customs and culture of life in China. This was part of what motivated me to move away from the relative comfort of Shekou to another part of the Shenzhen area, where I was almost the only foreigner living in the community. It was one of the best things I have done since I came to China. I found a very good Mandarin teacher and was forced to learn at least a little of the language in order to have some reasonable life.

My language skills are still very basic, but I can at least get around town.....most of the time, and do some basic things on my own. I joked with my friends that I really liked talking to the small children in my building because their language skills and mine were about the same, and we could communicate pretty well. I am not sure their parents liked seeing a large foreign man trying to talk to their 2-year-old child.

I had never expected to cause the kind of fear and concern that I saw in the eyes of some parents, based just upon my appearance. This type of response was also something I had developed a certain level of understanding about. I had to realize that for many of the local people I came in contact with, I was the first foreigner they had encountered in person. It has been a real education for me, and one of the things that I value a lot as part of the "expat" experience.

Life was going along pretty good, until December of 2011, when, just as I was about to board an airplane to return to the USA for the "New Year's" celebration, I got word that my company had "ceased operations". I was shocked, and decided to postpone my flight until I could get more information. A day or two later I was assured that it was a temporary setback and as soon as a few financial details were worked out between the principal partners, we would be up and flying again. Those six brand new B-747's never flew another flight for my company. I was devastated to say the least. So here I am in a new country....unemployed.

Fortunately, having a pilot's license and experience in commercial airplanes in China these days means that there are lots of opportunities. I, along with a few of my colleagues, was offered the opportunity to come to Xiamen and work for Xiamen Air. I remember getting off the airplane for the first time, I was impressed by the cleanliness of the air.

The ride to the hotel gave me an opportunity to see a bit of the island, the hotel itself was situated beside a wonderful park and manmade lake. To be honest, I immediately felt at home. The people that conducted the screening were gracious and professional, a trait that I have come to realize is consistent throughout Xiamen Air.

The job itself could not be more different than what I was doing in Shenzhen. Instead of carrying a few hundred tons of cargo to the far reaches of the world, I am taking 150 passengers to places like Changsha and Harbin. Instead of one 11-12 hour sector per duty period, I am flying 3-4 sectors a day and still averaging about half that amount of flight time. My crew on the 747 more likely than not would consist of 3-4 pilots, almost all of us shared at least one thing in common, we were all expats. In my new job, I am the only expat on the entire crew.

To give you an idea of the growth of commercial aviation in China, I will use Xiamen as an example. When I came here in the spring of 2012, Xiamen Air had about 75 or so airplanes, now we have over 100, and the number is growing. Last summer, Xiamen took delivery of its 100th aircraft, a B-737-800. This year, probably before the fall, we will take delivery of our first wide-body, long-haul aircraft, a B-787. It is an exciting time to be in the airline industry in China. I don't use the word "we" lightly.

One of the big reasons I chose to come to Xiamen was that I wanted to work directly for the company that I was employed by. I did not want to work for a contract company that provided my services to another company. While I know that there will always be differences, I feel as much a part of Xiamen Air as any of the Chinese pilots. That is a distinction that is very important to me.

'You're going where....to do what?'

Ricky Chapman smiles from a cockpit window. [Photo provided to China Daily]

One of the really fun parts of my job is working with the young First Officers here. My foremost responsibility is to safely transport my passengers to their destinations, but I also consider it a professional responsibility to try and pass on some of the things I learned over the years from "old guys" like myself. One thing I have in common with most of my First Officers is that we all learned to fly in the USA. Xiamen Air is among many Chinese airlines that send their new pilots to the USA for initial training. English is the international standard for aviation language, so this gives the new pilots a chance to learn in a language they will need to fly anywhere in the world. T

he speed of the training is geared to maximize their learning and to get them certified in the quickest amount of time. Working with these individuals helps keep me thinking "young", what they may lack in experience they more than make up for in desire and technical knowledge. The cabin staff are very respectful, but I also try very hard to make sure they know they are a big part of the safety team when we are on the airplane. It is a very enjoyable working environment for the most part. The environment that airlines operate in in China brings challenges that I have not encountered anywhere else in the world. It takes some "creative thinking" as well as a high level of patience. This has offered me many "educational" opportunities to say the least.

On a personal level, coming to Xiamen is one of the best things I have ever done. I have met people here and formed relationships that will be a part of my life forever. When I moved to Xiamen, I made a conscious effort to become a part of the community and not just "work" here. I continue to have the very good fortune to meet and interact with people from a wide range and different walks of life in Xiamen. Obviously many of those are in the expat community, but also a lot of local people as well. Today when people ask me where I am from, I gladly reply, "Xiamen". That usually generates a few quizzical looks from those that are expecting, "The USA". I am proud of my heritage and being from the USA, but I am happy to say that I now consider Xiamen my home.

Living and working in a foreign country offers many challenges. Especially when my native language and culture is so different from that of China. What I have realized is that in almost all the ways that are important, people are more alike than different. Sure, our languages and cultures are different and do create barriers, but we all have similar hopes and dreams for our life and the lives of those we hold dear to us. The opportunity to live and work in Xiamen has and continues to enrich my life in many ways.

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