Exchanging time for words

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Margaret Plevak | June 27, 2014

EAST TROY—Volunteering is touted as a way to fill a need and feel needed, to use a talent or to support a cause dear to the heart.  

Mia Emmerich discovered volunteering is also great for brushing up on her English.

Mia, 26, is a native of China. She and her husband, Gerry, were in East Troy recently, visiting her mother- and father-in-law, Signe and Gerald Emmerich.

Mia first met her husband in 2009, when he and his mother were part of a group of photographers touring Asia. Mia had been hired as a tour assistant, assigned to everything from lugging camera bags and tripods to serving as a photographer's model.

 “We didn't know any Mandarin, and she knew little English, but by the end of the trip, everybody called her 'Miss Sunshine' because she was so friendly, always had a smile, never complained about anything,” Signe said of her daughter-in-law.

Shortly after the trip, Gerry moved to Hong Kong, where he taught math and science and studied Mandarin.

Mia, meanwhile, enrolled in an English language school. More and more, her employers at an investment firm and hotel where she worked wanted someone who knew English in order to handle their international clientele.

“Mia was living in Shenzhen in mainland China, and I was in Hong Kong,” Gerry said. “We started meeting together on weekends. It was maybe an hour, door-to-door traveling time.”

 “When we saw her again in 2010, it was like night and day,” Signe said. “She could carry on a wonderful conversation.”

Mia and Gerry got married and the couple made a few visits back to Wisconsin, where Gerry began training to become a pilot.

Mia took to Wisconsin, exchanging her Chinese name of Bai Hui Lin for something a little more Americanized. She traveled the state and surrounding areas. But on her fourth, most recent visit, she wanted to do more than sightsee.

She wanted to try out her English on strangers.

She turned to Patti O'Brien at Volunteer Connections in Elkhorn, who helped her try a range of volunteering activities, including working at the East Troy Library, assisting at a local blood drive, and even giving a presentation about the Chinese New Year at the Kiwanis Manor in East Troy. Mia settled on the Elkhorn Food Pantry.  

“When Mia came to me, she wanted to be kept as busy as possible,” O'Brien said. “Mia has a warm personality and is willing to pitch in when needed. She is a quick learner and was a great asset to the pantry.”

Mia said she enjoyed the interaction from people at the pantry. Coming from Shenzhen, a city in China with 20 million people, she found the contrast amazing.

“Here people are really easy to talk to, they'll say hi and talk about the weather,” she said.  
Besides being impressed by their friendliness and compassion, Mia liked the fact that Walworth County residents are concerned with nature.

“Everybody tries to protect animals,” she said. “Everybody here has a birdhouse, and (Signe) puts cotton out in the trees for the birds to build nests. Everybody has a mind to do this. This make me feel warm.”

Mia even worked English lessons into her recreational time.

“We signed up for a family membership and Mia took swimming lessons at the Lake Geneva YMCA,” Signe said. “Mia would go on Saturday and Sunday for the whole weekend, all day on her own. She was playing basketball with the kids and making a lot of friends. She'd come home and tell us who she met.”

Used to the plenitude of subways, buses and trains in Hong Kong, where she and Gerry now live, Mia admitted the only thing she didn't particularly like about her stay in East Troy was having to rely on rides, since she can't drive.

Mia and Gerry flew back to Hong Kong last month, but plan to return to America by the end of the year, perhaps settling in Colorado where Gerry will finish flight school. Mia said she'd like to run an import-export business.

Gerald and Signe Emmerich, always interested in travel, have come to see another side of the world through their daughter-in-law.

“There are over a hundred cities of a million or more people in China. There are only half a dozen such cities in the United States,” Gerald said. “Most people in the United States never heard of Shenzhen or know what the city is all about. There are hundreds of places like that in China that we know nothing about, all with very different cultures and histories “

“It's funny how the world is so tied together now,” Signe said. “You can talk easily on the phone or Skype or use Facebook.”

“Before I met Gerry, I felt oh, my gosh, Shenzhen is so big, this world is so big,” Mia said, smiling. “But after I've been married to him, I think this world is too small. It takes us 15 hours to get to another country across the Pacific Ocean. It isn't that far.”

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