Grow Your Confidence with Toastmasters in Ningbo

This is an my first column published in Ningbo Focus magazine.

Madam Toastmaster, Ladies and Gentlemen…”, is how many speeches start at a Toastmasters club meeting. Two years ago when I arrived in Ningbo there was only one club with 5 guests. In 2015 there are five Toastmasters clubs, who meet regularly, from Book City to Ningbo University to University of Nottingham Ningbo China.

Toastmasters International is a non-profit educational organization that teaches public speaking and leadership skills through a worldwide network of clubs. Members deliver speeches to enhance their Communication. They take roles in the club e.g. president, treasurer, or meeting roles like Timer or Ah-Counter, to enhance their Leadership skills. Worldwide there are over 14,000 clubs and in China the rate of growth has been tremendous since launching in 1999.

Chuck Tidiane Ndiaye Toastmaster in NingboNingbo is a prime example of this growth with over 100 people who regularly attend meetings. Some clubs focus on Chinese Mandarin, some are English only, and many are bilingual. So why do people join Toastmasters in Ningbo besides the obvious learning environment?

What we learn in Toastmasters is really useful in our life. With all the presentation and communication skills I’ve learned in Toastmasters, I managed to enter one of the largest private companies in Ningbo and then start my own business. Toastmasters has helped me find my passion.” says Weiwei Yang, former president of Ningbo #1 Toastmasters club.

Many of my Chinese friends are not from Ningbo or Zhejiang. Some like Nina are from Hunan, and others like Lillian are from Gansu province in the north West of China. Toastmasters allows them to make high quality friends, sometimes with foreigners like me. The members of the clubs are all interested in personal development, they are confident and lead by example.

In fact the most popular phrase we use is “learn by doing” and every activity in a Toastmasters meeting reminds you of this. It’s a safe place where you can make mistakes and correct them easily. There are no teachers and everyone may provide some form of feedback either verbal, on the stage, or in a written form. The agenda for the meetings are followed closely because “time” is one of the most important values in our meetings. By being on time, it shows respect to your audience.

Ningbo University Toastmasters club China District 85It turns out Toastmasters helped me to reduce my culture shock after moving to China. The people I’ve met have become my best friends. The activities are always fun and my confidence around Chinese people has improved tremendously. The value of this group increases over time.

To join one of the next meetings, simple email add me on Wechat: rjthomas


My 10 Reasons to Study Abroad in China

There are many good reasons to obtain a degree after high school. This article is for high school students and parents who want to give their children a unique advantage in the 21st century – to study abroad in China. It’s based on my own experience after completing two degrees in South Africa and now my MBA in China since 2013. Throughout this article I will use RMB = Chinese Yuan Renminbi, the official currency of the People’s Republic of China.

The exchange rate is 1 RMB = 2 ZAR = 0.17 USD.

1. It’s Cheap

Living China is cheap compared to most places on earth. While a can of Coke is more than double in South Africa, that’s the difference in economics of scale. My MBA tuition fee is 20,000 RMB per year and in South Africa it’s at least 50,000 RMB or about ZAR 100,000 per annum.

Indian students told me it’s much cheaper to study Medicine in China because they don’t have to bribe anyone as they do in their own country. It may also be easier to get your degree due to differences in the levels of education. This always depends on the quality of your university.

Ningbo University 2013 opening ceremony
Ningbo University students receiving award from Chinese government

2. Scholarships Are Plenty

As some who received the Chinese Government Scholarship, I live a comfortable student life. This scholarship covers my tuition, text books, accommodation, medical insurance and a monthly allowance that was doubled in 2015 to 3,000 RMB per month.

Besides this comprehensive scholarship there are many offered by colleges, universities, local and provincial governments to attract more and more foreign students. The Chinese government promised to increase scholarships to African countries in 20112.

3. Learning Chinese language

To make your life easier in China it’s important to first study Chinese language full time. Since my MBA is taught in English, I only received 1-2 classes per week during the first two semesters. This is hardly enough to get by in daily life. Students with no work experience receive jobs offers constantly when they have advanced Chinese language ability like my friend Mahadi from Bangladesh.

Most scholarships will include a one year full-time Chinese language course if you request it. This means your total study for Bachelors will be 5 years i.e. one year for Chinese language, and a 4 year degree. In China there is no “Honours” degrees like in the USA, so afterwards you go directly onto Masters.

4. Understanding Chinese Culture

You can watch all the Kungfu movies ever made by Bruce Lee and Jet Li, and it won’t give you a real sense of Chinese culture. You can read about China and it will only scratch the surface of this ancient civilization. I read several translations of Tao Te Ching and other ancient texts. It gave me some appreciation for the culture.

However, it’s only when I travelled by myself around China where I experience the humility of the people from the Middle Kingdom. Each one of my Chinese friends taught me something valuable about where they come from in China.

5. Travel Cheap

The transportation system in China is beyond my wildest expectations. The local buses operate from after 5am to after 11pm in some cases. It cost only 2 RMB and drops even further to 0.6 RMB for students with a bus card. China now has the largest high speed railway network in the world.

So instead of flying you take the train, which is a first class experience and half the cost of the flight. The convenience impressed me after two years living China. Even the local taxi is relatively cheap and you can easily call a can and pay for it with your mobile phone. Traveling to nearby countries like Malaysia, Thailand and so on is cheap and easy.

6. Make New Friends

My friend Tony from Ghana has been in China about much longer. He’s a confident and funny African guy and a real ladies man. Foreigners stand out in China, and we are in short supply when it comes to making friends with Chinese. I am guessing for 100 Chinese who want to make friends there is only one of us. Sometimes it’s out of curiosity, sometimes because they want to improve English.

My best friend Terry Jiang helped me buy books online, book train tickets in the early days, given me great travel advice, and also explained some Chinese culture nuances in plain English. There are many reasons to have friends, mostly I believe it’s the fastest way to overcome your culture shock when you first arrive in China.

7. Experience Economic Growth

“You ain’t seen nothing yet,” is probably a what Chinese kids tell each other when they see a new skyscraper being built. Everywhere I’ve been from Ningbo to Nanjing to Shanghai, there is constant construction taking place. New buildings cannot be built fast enough as more Chinese people migrate from the rural areas into the cities.

Roads are upgraded and new subways built at a rate I cannot begin to describe. Infrastructure spending is how the Central government stimulates the economy. Exports continue to grow although slower than the last 20 years. Consumer spending is on the rise as the Chinese middle class becomes the biggest in the world. It took me almost six months to spot the first beggar in China.

8. Minimal Crime Rates

Walking around late at night with my smartphone in my hands, I feel safe unlike Johannesburg. Even carrying a 1000 RMB in my pocket, I do not fear being robbed in China. Yes, I avoid places I don’t know. And once I missed my train back from Shanghai to Ningbo. So I decided to go to a bar and have fun. After walking around and being propositioned by a prostitute I met some German girls and partied with them until it was time to go to train station around 5am.

Drug mules are routinely executed in China. Terrorists receive a similarly harsh and quick sentences. Several times I left something valuable and upon returning to the restaurant it was given back to me by the manager. There is a co-operation between the people and the police I am not familiar with. In South Africa it always felt like the police wants bribes and will blackmail you into submission.

9. Family Values

In African philosophy we have concept called Ubuntu – “I am, because we are…” and Nelson Mandela was a major proponent of this. In China they don’t talk about it, they actually live it. The family unit is indispensable and so is the community. Grandparents help rear children. Parents spend extraordinary amount of money and time educating children on weekends, and even during the holidays there is no rest.

When you see a father, mother and baby on an e-bike, you see a little bit of the real China. Even though divorce is increasing in China, I do believe it’s negligible compared to the West where it’s over 60% in some countries.

10. Government Without Democracy

This is the opposite of what most people in the West believe true. In my opinion Chinese people get on with living their lives instead of worrying about who to vote for every 4-5 years. They focus on what’s important to themselves and let the government get on with it’s work.

Author Martin Jacques described the relationship between the Government (State) and Chinese families as thousands of years old. And so far the best reasons why the Chinese Communist party remains in power after the spectacular failure in Russia is by Eric X. Li’s TED Talk. A famous writer visiting American once said that in democracy the people get the government they deserve.

11. Sample Asian food

This is more an honourable mention. Trying new food may or may not be important to you. However, it’s important to every Chinese person I’ve met. There is a pride in Chinese people which comes through in eating together. In China, a popular greeting is “?????” Ni Chi Le Ma. It means “have you eaten already?”

Each one of my friends from different provinces has helped me to sample their local cuisine. Much of its shockingly tasty unless you have some hang-up with pork or sea foods. Luckily for me I do eat everything and the variety is almost overwhelming. The best way to impress your new Chinese friends is to use chopsticks to eat noodles 😉


Why I Study in China not America

In September 2013 I arrived in Beijing, China on route to Ningbo University. It’s been two years since I moved to China, and this is the best decision I’ve ever made. So why did I choose this radical move from South Africa to China. Well it’s not because of BRICS, the group of developing countries: Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa all form part of. Why did I move to the country with the biggest population, and maybe the worst pollution on the planet?


RT Thomas with Chinese model in Ningbo Fashion Fair 2013China is not America, and the Chinese dream is not the American dream. Everyone who’s ever watched a Hollywood movie probably dreams of living in America. Not me! My journey to China started more than 10 years ago when I first read a book, Real Power: Business Lessons from the Tao Te Ching. This book is a beautiful synthesis of businessman James Autry’s servant leadership interspersed with quotes from the Tao Te Ching ??? translated by Stephen Mitchell. There was something beautiful and yet profound about the wisdom from ancient China and it’s only now I’m able to better appreciate it.

The rise of China is undeniable over the last 30 years, when nobody was looking. According to the Worldbank, the number of Chinese living in dire poverty fell by 662 million between 1980 and 2008. To add another black eye to America, in 2014 China over took the US as the world’s largest economy according the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Of course I may continue to quote number after number of China’s rapid growth until pigs learn to fly but that alone will not make my argument more convincing.

On a more personal note I wanted to start over. After more than five years of being self employed, I didn’t achieve some of my goals for income, romantic relationships and so on. In 2012 I ended a very difficult relationship with a woman whom I had been living with in Johannesburg. I sold my house and decided to take a year off to figure out what the hell I wanted to do with the rest of my life. This is called getting perspective and not beating yourself up for mistakes.

A few years earlier I was seriously looking at teaching English in Thailand. However, after reading about some of the race issues non-white i.e. non-European male teachers faced, I caned this idea. Now after a trip to Phuket in Jan 2014, I know Thailand is much more fun for holidays than working.

Anyway, after applying for the Chinese Government scholarship in early 2013, I finally received my admission letter from Ningbo University around July. This means I had only two months to wrap up my business and prepare for a move to the Middle Kingdom.

Even though there was so many reasons to stay in South Africa, like family, friends, good food, weather, the whole situation was all too familiar and I wanted to go as far away as possible. Previously I had lived and worked in London, England and Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates. So I’ve always considered myself a risk taker because I had no children to hold me back.

So on Sunday, 1 September 2013 I boarded my flight to China via Dubai on Emirates Airlines. I arrived in the Chinese capital, Beijing, on Monday, after 10pm and basically two days of flying.

Here’s the top 5 reasons I choose China over America:

  1. China is the land of opportunities (certainly for the next 100 years).
  2. Chinese people are don’t care about religion and politics.
  3. Chinese Taoist philosophy (Yin / Yang) places harmony and balance above all else.
  4. China has the best high speed rail network in the world, and public transport is cheap & reliable.
  5. Chinese girls are soft and feminine.

As China continues to rise, there’s opportunities abound. Chinese people are hungry to learn more about the outside world and I’ve become the defacto South African business expert in Ningbo. Even though China has a Communist party, religion is not banned as it may have been in Communist Russia. I’ve been to church several times and was pleasantly surprised how easy it was. In fact some Chinese are curious about religion, and ask good questions about Christianity and so on. For the majority of people, they only go to temples on very important days of celebration like Spring Festival.

Real Power: Business Lessons from Tao Te Ching by James AutryAs a Tai Chi Chuan practitioner since 2002 I’ve come to appreciate the Taoism / Daoism and the Tao Te Ching even more since moving to China. It may not be quoted widely but people certainly act accordingly. I’ve now been to Beijing, Shanghai, Nanjing, Hangzhou and some smaller cities using the high speed train. Since I’m not able to book and buy my tickets it’s even easier to travel around China. Finally what can I say about Chinese girls that haven’t been said before. They are like a dream compared to the Westernised, materialistic feminists women.

If you want to join me in China, here’s some basic information and Scholarship Conditions before applying on the China Scholarship Council website. The Chinese Government provides the following:

  • Registration and tuition,
  • Shared accommodation in the international dormitory on campus,
  • Living allowance:
    • Undergraduates and Chinese language students: CNY 1,400
    • Master’s degree students: CNY 1,700
    • Doctoral degree students: CNY 2,000
  • Once-off settlement subsidy provided to new students after registration
    CNY 1,000 for new students who will study in China for less than one academic year.
    CNY 1,500 for new students who will study in China for one academic year or more.
    – Medical insurance
    – Once-off economy train ticket from airport to institution (for first time arrival in China and final

5 Reasons for Gratitude before Christmas 2014

Watching a video by business coach Shannon Waller, I want to express my sincerest gratitude before Christmas 20RJ Thomas after speaking at IWE Conference in Hangzhou14. Gratitude is an inoculation against guilt or anxiety in your life. When you are grateful and you appreciate the people and things you have, you don’t feel bad about what you don’t have in you life. These are words to live by if you’re feeling lonely this Christmas season. Here’s my top 5 reasons I am grateful in 2014:

  1. Making New Friends – When I moved to China in September 2013 it was very difficult for me to adjust to the new culture, new environment and the Chinese language. Terry Jiang has become my best friend in Ningbo. I always appreciate how he helps me with simple and complex translation with other Chinese people, especially at the first business dinner I had with the owners of a Clothing Factory. It turned out these Chinese business people were speaking the local dialect in Ningbo, and since Terry was born in the same city, he could easily understand and interpret my conversion. Thank you for being such a great friend.
  2. Finding A Support Group – When you’re a stranger in a strange land, you can either go it alone or you can find a support group. Before I moved from South Africa to Ningbo, China I looked for a Toastmasters club and found only one. Just over one year later we now have 3 clubs and about 100 members. A special thank you to Ningbo #1 Toastmasters club and the immediate past president Vanessa Yang and new president Larry Kowk for your support.
  3. Support From My Mother – My mother has been a pillar of support my whole life. Having raised me by herself without my father, she did an amazing job. She was the one who kept in contact via Skype with me, sometimes on a daily basis, to give me encouragement. Mom I appreciate all those early morning or late night phone calls because of the time zone differences. A special thanks to my sister’s son Caleb and daughter Payton who often talked to me on Skype even though they couldn’t always see my video.
  4. Good Health – My father has had 4 heart attacks over 5 years; my mother has high blood pressure but no serious illnesses. So I am confident I have some good genes to keep me healthy, because I don’t exercise enough, hate jogging and never have enough time to go to the gym. Bad habits, like smoking, have returned while living in China, so I have to avoid other smokers to help me stop. Good health always includes eating healthily, drinking water and some exercise. However, I do have a good role model in the form of Uncle Andrew, who died at age 88 in 2015. He walked an average of +10km from the time I become conscious of his routines. So instead of reinventing the wheel and whenever possible, I plan to emulate his habits and daily routines which encouraged good health. Thank you Uncle Andrew!
  5. Relationships with Women – Whenever I was dumped, I used to believe I didn’t deserve it, I was such a great guy, and so on. Well now, I can easily say to all ex-girlfriends, thank you for breaking up with me, thank you for dumping or rejecting me. All the bad relationships with women in the past, makes my new relationships better because I learned how to avoid the same mistakes. As I always encourage other people who are trying to move on from past relationships, “You cannot open the door to new relationships, unless you close the door behind you.” Why? Because the draughty wind from the past will spoil the new opportunity in front of you. And as Tom Leykis taught me, the best revenge is to become successful.

Africa is Rising in Ningbo, China

Ningbo has eight twin sister cities around the world. It’s a uncanny that Nelson Mandela Bay (Port Elizabeth, Uitenhage), South Africa, my home town was selected in recent years for this honour. So this first column serves as an introduction to the South Africa, the windy city, and to yours truly.

Mr Hong Jia Xiang, Vice Mayor of the Ningbo Municipal People’s Government, visited Nelson Mandela Bay in April 2013. He said the purpose of the visit by the high powered delegation led by him, was to enhance the relationship and the cooperation with Nelson Mandela Bay Municipality.

South Africa is known as the “rainbow nation” because of it’s diversity, and ?? in Chinese language. On 5 December, my world came to a stand still when I turned on CCTV, to discover our former president Nelson Mandela had passed away. The outpouring of grief and condolences was overwhelming from the Chinese people and the world.

Like the eponymous, Nelson Mandela, I’m from Eastern Cape province, often considered the poorest in South Africa. And yet it is one of the most naturally diverse and beautiful places in Africa, untouched by urbanisation. The coastal city of Port Elizabeth and nearby town, Uitenhage, was merged into the Nelson Mandela Bay Municipality in 2001. The new metropolitan are was named after our former president in his honour.

Ningbo Rivers Panorama ChinaThere are no known companies from South Africa operating in Ningbo but some products may be available if one looks hard enough like Rooibos tea ??? at some supermarkets. In recent years, Ningbo companies have looked to South Africa for opportunities.

“I came here before and brought along very powerful companies from Ningbo. The exchange and cooperation between our two cities is progressing well and as a result I am satisfied with the progress,” Vice Mayor Hong added after his most recent visit.

Engineering News reports that over 600 million RMB worth of products have been exported to Ningbo from Eastern Cape, South Africa. The products include African-style honey-based wine, iQhilika; mohair products; pickled cherry peppers for Seea Seafood Restaurant, which is owned by a large franchising group with market capacity in over ten major provinces in China.

So because of Ningbo, Africa is rising. And because of Africa, Ningbo is rising. A mutually beneficial relationship is a trade mark of both Chinese and African business culture.

For more on African opportunities please visit our website Africa Is Rising in association with Bruce Mubayiwa.