Jiajun Chen: The self of caring for others
by Winluck Wong, PRUDE Inc. Living Library Project Coordinator
This article is part of PRUDE, Inc.’s “Living Library” project, featuring Saint John’s newcomers and the diverse stories they bring to the city. It is funded by ONB’s Multicultural Grants Program.
There is one word that comes up the most when Jiajun Chen describes living in Saint John: “happy”. You don’t realize how little you understand the word until you hear the amount of breath she puts behind it. A full exhalation of relief set free by the daily revelation that she is on the right path.
A push in the opposite direction
She’d never felt that way before coming here. Back home in the Fengtai District of Beijing, China, Jiajun felt like she was living in her older sister’s shadow. “I’ve always [looked] up to her and I want to be her. And sometimes, even my parents said, ‘Oh, look at your sister – you have to learn from her.’ And even now, I always think…why I am not my sister?”
That’s a lot of pressure to grow up under. To feel inadequate and, at times, even unwanted. And yet, she was expected to achieve the same level of success anyway.
But the more they pushed Jiajun to climb the corporate ladder, the more she yearned to stay on the ground, helping others who need it most. Her dream was to start a business that focused on care for the elderly.
“The aging population issue is worldwide, but in China, it’s more serious,” Jiajun said. “In 2030, there will be 0.4 billion people who are elderly.”
Right after graduating from university in 2012, she started working for Holcim Ltd. – then known as Lafarge – which manufactures building materials. Although it wasn’t the health care industry, it was still a good-paying job in a multinational company.
More importantly, it seemed to satisfy her parents. And that was all that mattered back then.
Jiajun stuck with the company for seven years and eventually became a Health and Safety Manager there. But what she couldn’t square was the fact that her impact wasn’t as large as she wanted it to be.
Somewhere in the hierarchical corporation where her health and safety work was treated as a burden rather than a boon, Jiajun lost sight of her dream. What began as a temporary compromise somehow became years of unhappiness in an unwanted career.
She needed to get out of there.
In search of self
Someone once mentioned to Jiajun that Canada is the place to be for both education and nature. She went straight for the Maritimes and narrowed her choices between either New Brunswick or Nova Scotia.
The first offer letter she got was from the University of New Brunswick’s Master of Business Administration (MBA) program. So she took that as a sign.
In 2019, she landed in Saint John. Although she was worried about racism in the beginning, her fears melted away from the compassion of a stranger.
“I just came here and it’s [a] windy and snowy day and I don’t have a car at that time,” Jiajun said. “And I’m walking on the road and I’m catching the bus. And then an old lady just drove by and asked me, ‘Do you need a ride?’ That’s a really warm moment for me.”
Jiajun also had a tough time adjusting to the sudden loneliness she felt, having grown up surrounded by family and friends. At one point, she even thought about returning to China. But another newcomer recognized her struggles and in their conversation, she had a revelation.
“I need to explore myself,” Jiajun said. “I need to know what I want to do and who I am. And this is what Canada can offer me – this bonus. I’m not here just for study or making friends or just look for a job. I’m here to look for myself.”
As Jiajun’s self-confidence grew, so too did her comfort level with reaching out to other people. She eventually connected with someone who went through a similar experience: Jiaojiao Meng. In time, she became both friend and mentor to Jiajun.
“She taught me that you just learn and you will do it,” Jiajun said. “Just focus on yourself…Every time I feel really bad, I will talk to her and after the conversation, I feel energetic…She is my pillar. My support.”
Jiaojiao is also the one who introduced Jiajun to a caregiver job with Kindred Home Care. Finally, after years of neglecting her goals, Jiajun is working in her dream industry of elderly health care.
The pandemic has exposed the already precarious system of long-term care for seniors. Yet, despite the stress caregivers must witness and live through every day, Jiajun approaches her job with a profound mindfulness.
“I cannot be affected by them,” Jiajun said. “I have to actively affect my clients. I have to be more positive. That can make them feel happier…that’s what I’ve learned and what I’m doing.”
In addition to working in a field she finds meaningful, Jiajun continues to empower herself. Because only then can she really see her own potential and take it as far as she can go.
Between the MBA program and PRUDE’s “Newcomer Women Leadership Program”, she has mapped out exactly how she would like to contribute to the world – by caring for the previous generation who once took care of us.
Above all, she has come to accept herself as well as to value the failures she’s faced along the way.
“I know how important failure is. Before that…I just chose the easiest way every time,” Jiajun said. “Now…I will choose the [toughest] way in the future…If there [are] just two ways, I would choose the tough one.”
Winluck Wong is a freelance writer helping growing companies and organizations tell their story. He writes custom-crafted stories in business, sustainability, personal finance, and productivity. Follow his twipsor visit his shop.