‘China is a great place to live’
You meet Dionne Holder and from the time she starts to speak, you can tell from her accent she is as Bajan as flying fish and cou cou. You can hardly believe this soft-spoken young woman from Cliff Cottage, St John, has lived in China for the past 11 years, speaks Chinese fluently and manages just enough German words to impress her German-born husband.
As she explained to Easy Magazine, it was her adventurous spirit that first led her to China after successfully responding to a scholarship offer.
“I was working as a management trainee at the old Rockley Hotel, looking for a scholarship in hospitality management. But then I saw an advertisement for a scholarship to study international relations in China. I thought this sounded just as interesting.
I felt if nothing else, I would get Chinese language out of it.”
Adventurous as she is, the move from tiny Barbados to Beijing in 1997 was a cultural shock which demanded adjustments that she readily made, and today she says she did so recognising the importance of “being more understanding to other people’s culture”.
“At that time things like cheese were very difficult to get. Body lotions were difficult to find. It was a bit tough. That was 1997. Since then China has opened up to the world. It is a major trading source”, abound with all the commodities she once found so difficult to locate.
“You would expect that other people would understand certain concepts and ideas and then you realise that you have to be a little bit more understanding because it might not be the norm where they are from.” According to Dionne, she has lived in China long enough to see Beijing “now become one of the most expensive cities in Asia”, but she remembers how inexpensive it was to live there when she first went there.
As a black person she stood out not merely by the colour of her skin, but by her clean shaven head. “When I first went to Beijing
I had shaved my head, I had no hair for one year, so I stood out even more”, attracting inquisitive stares wherever she went. She was often approached by curious Chinese and though she could not understand a word, she was aware their questions were about her appearance.
Fortunately she quickly made friends at the university where she was studying and it was those friends that asssisted her with explanations.
“I did not know what they were saying and my friends would tell me ‘people want to know if you are a guy or a girl’.”
She was fortunate to get some opportunities working with the 2008 Olympics and at an expo, to spread the word about her country among friends who knew absolutely nothing about Barbados. She recalls “at the rehearsal for the Olympics ceremony I was really able to identify with the island when Barbados was called and my colleagues cheered along with me. They felt special to know someone from so small a place”.
Dionne and husband Dirk Limstadt, the German she met in a bar while hanging out with friends during her first year in China, were just in Barbados for Crop Over along with a 16-member group of Chinese, Dutch, Germans, Philippinos, Mauritians and Turks who all live in China. Though this Bajan lives thousands of miles away, she seizes every opportunity to come back to the rock. In fact she brought Dirk here to get married at Codrington College in 2007.
The two have elected not to have a family and back in Beijing their home is a hive of activity – constantly entertaining and hosting dinner parties for the wide circle of friends.
“I love cooking and that is one of the nice things about being there. The market is just about five minutes by a bike ride down the road” and this Bajan girl loves to pedal to the market
While she employs a helper to do the cleaning, Dionne chooses to remain queen of her kitchen, cooking Bajan food rather than Chinese, building a fancy for Bajan dishes among those who sample her cooking.
“Some of the ingredients are difficult to find. Things like okra or the correct salted fish for fish cakes, plantains – most of the time these things are not easy to find, and I always have to search for them.”
So impressive is her cooking, a Chinese friend invited her to cook a Bajan dish on a television show and Dionne made pudding and souse.
“When they tasted the pudding they were like ‘wow, it tastes so good’ because sweet potatoes are not commonly used there so it is a novelty dish.
“I ride my bike almost everywhere” says Dionne, and she lists the regular bike trips to the market to purchase fresh fruit and vegetables among the memorable features of living in Beijing.
Yet there are times she confesses, that she misses home like “when the pollution is really bad in Beijing . . . or when you have a beautiful day sometimes in Beijing and the sky is blue and there are clouds, I think of Barbados and I say I could go to the beach right now, because I am from St John and the beach is just there. I am used to just picking up and going to the beach.” But she always reminds herself “if things do not work out I can always come back to Barbados to live”.
“For me, it is a natural thing to promote Barbados in China,” Dionne remarked, as she collected the Crop Over hits to take back to China.