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Local business owner shares knowledge overseas

Date: 10/10/2012

By Lori Szepelak

lori@thereminder.com

WESTFIELD — Julie Cecchini loves to travel and considers herself adventurous, so her latest venture teaching a course on small business management and entrepreneurship at Jimei University in China was a dream come true.

During an interview with Reminder Publications on a late summer afternoon in her shop, Terra Americana, located on Southampton Road, Cecchini said she found China far different from the one she expected.

"I thought the architecture would be a drab concrete jungle and the people would be party centric," she said.

Jimei University is in the Jimei district of Xiamen, Fujian province, on the South China Sea, between Shanghai and Hong Kong.

Her three-month stint was teaching traditional college students, mostly juniors, with an average age of 21. The actual course was 10 weeks even though a semester usually runs 15 weeks.

"I also had 200 students so the work load was intense," she said, adding, "My students spoke varying degrees of English."

Cecchini lived in the college building that houses all foreign faculty and students. "The living arrangements are a Communist regulation," she said.

Perhaps most surprising to Cecchini was the rampant cheating that took place among students.

"I had five sections of the same class so I learned quickly to do different quizzes," she said.

Cecchini said her students "embraced the course 100 percent," but felt there were four students who stood out among their peers in the five sections. Li Juyuan, Zheng Jie, Cai Tingting and Wu Libing created a business model called, "I Beauty Your Beauty," for the cell phone industry.

Their mission statement was to "make phones more fashionable and more stable by giving them high quality cases and do-it-yourself service." They also planned to donate 10 percent of their profits to feed poor people in western China.

"The four students worked extremely well together and were ambitious as a result," she said.

"The most important thing I learned was people can accomplish anything they put their minds to but very few of us have that passion," Cecchini said. "The Chinese are different and very much the same as Americans. Not everyone wants to work, but those who do can move mountains."

While Cecchini was in China she had time to explore Xiamen, an island city of approximately seven million people. Since her passion — and her Westfield business — centers on specialty foods, she relished every opportunity she had to peruse city streets and sample the Chinese cuisine.

"I can truthfully say I have never eaten better than in China," she said.

Trips to the market were an adventure in itself. Cecchini often left with far more than she could carry. "There are so many options to eat, you could make a profession out of enjoying them," she said.

Cecchini noted that in large restaurants the focus is not on the quality of the cuisine but rather the experience.

"My first meal was at a hole in the wall instead," she said. "It included chicken, dumplings, a sausage made of vegetables and tofu, a vegetable hot dog all in succulent sauces. Then there was the lotus root. Until you have had the distinction of trying it, you will never know what you are missing."

There were also salads with ingredients like sea kelp and pickled cucumber around every street corner, as well as Chinese Flat Bread known as Chung Yao Beng.

"I fell in love with this traditional Chinese bread," she said. "A hole in the wall by the farmer's market supported a family of bakers that churned out huge disks of this bread from sun up until it got too hot to move. At 8:30 a.m. a line would form that stretched for blocks. In China that is a sign of quality. I scheduled my trips accordingly."

As Cecchini looks back on her time in China, she looks forward to returning — as early as next spring. She encourages other like-minded individuals who have a yen for teaching and enjoy adventure to also consider a stint as a teacher in a foreign country.

"The only way to understand the world is to experience life in another culture," she said.

For more information on Terra Americana, which has been a staple on Southampton Road for 18 years, visit www.terra-americana.com.