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Kiwi goes with the flow

NEW Zealander Justin Crooks plunges into Chinese culture - of course his Mandarin helps - and now he's giving some Kiwi culture back in his recently opened eatery on Dagu Road. Katie Foley reports.

For his first six months in Shanghai, New Zealander Justin Crooks decided he would live like a local. That meant lots of authentic street food, no cars or drivers and - a terrifying prospect for many Westerners - no coffee.

Part of it was a romantic notion to help him better understand the culture. The other part was budget-related, until he found a full-time job in Shanghai.

And while he has relaxed his rules slightly, Crooks continues to live a more integrated life than most expats.

He says he would never have been able to open his own business on Dagu Road had he not been fluent in Mandarin, which he studied in Auckland before moving to Shanghai in 2007.

Three years after arriving, Crooks is giving some of his own culture back with the recently opened New Zealand-themed restaurant Little Huia, operated with business partners Roger Chu and Jeff Chai.

The restaurant's name comes from a native but extinct New Zealand bird famous for its beauty and melody.

It's quite a niche concept - New Zealand is a country of only 4.3 million people and because of its settler history and multicultural society, it has a cuisine that is a combination of many different methods and nationalities.

Crooks says the main elements that make the restaurant a New Zealand eatery are quality ingredients: seafood, meat, dairy and New Zealand wine and beer.

Among the Shanghainese, he generally sees a skewed perception of what an "expat" is, usually a high-rolling executive on a fixed-term posting and living in a secluded expat compound on a large salary - a person who might not try particularly hard to learn about Chinese culture.

"I noticed it when I used to ride around in taxis a lot; the taxi drivers would often ask me questions like, 'How much do you get paid? 60,000 yuan (US$9,026) a month? 100,000 yuan a month?" he says.

"And it's like: 'What kind of world are you in'?"

Speaking the language has helped him live a more local life, as distinct from an expat existence. He also bought a scooter and braves the traffic.

He never really thought twice about his preferred mode of transport. "My wife did a little bit, but I've only had one accident so far," he says.

"An old man just decided he was going to cross the road on a bicycle, so he came straight along and turned and I just couldn't stop in time," he continues.

For the most part, he learned the ways of Shanghai's roads by a process of trial and error.

"It does look dangerous," he says. "But what I've noticed is it seems like there are no rules at all, but what I think happens is everyone just gives way to everyone.

"You don't worry about what's happening behind you or what the rule is. It's just: If there is someone there you go around them and people will go around you."

Crooks says Shanghai's expats can take it or leave learning much Mandarin, but it depends on what kind of life they want to live.

"I think not speaking Mandarin could be almost no barrier at all, depending on your lifestyle and the context that you are living in," he says.

Not speaking the language would be virtually no barrier to someone working for an international company, living in an area where there are a lot of expats and an international school - and having a driver who speaks English.

"No barrier to general life, but a barrier to truly understanding the culture and the way people think and work," he says.

Crooks lives with his Qingdao-native wife Xiaolu Song-Crooks, who works for the New Zealand government's trade and enterprise arm in Shanghai, and their four-year-old daughter.

His daughter goes to a local kindergarten and while she is bilingual, Mandarin is definitely her mother tongue. Crooks usually struggles to get her to speak English, even to him.

He says those who are half Chinese and half another ethnicity obviously have a double advantage.

"They have grown up in that situation where they have both cultures, both languages, and they are generally smart people who truly understand how to engage with each culture.

"I've studied about Chinese culture and I've learned about it by the mistakes that I have made. I know the language and I can talk to people about their culture in their own language and learn in that sense, but I will never understand that to the level that she (his daughter) can," Crooks concludes.

Justin Crooks

Nationality: New Zealand

Age: 34

Profession: Business Development


Self-description:Quiet, creative, practical.

Favourite place: The tree-lined streets in the former French concession and the parks where people are allowed on the grass.

Strangest sight: Too many to specify, strange sights have become commonplace in China.

Worst experience:Catching the guy that stole my scooter but having the police do nothing about it because I hadn't registered the plate.

Motto for life:There is always more to learn.

How to improve Shanghai:

Penalize cars that go through pedestrian crossings without giving way to people and stop people from smoking in buildings, especially around children.

Advice to newcomers:I know it's a romantic idea?to live like a local.?Be adventurous and try all the street food, but?just be?sure your stomach is up to it or that?you don't need to go to work for the next three days.


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