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Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Shanghai International District and Our Tradition for Young Single Adult Events at District Conference

For those who work with Young Single Adults (YSAs), I thought I'd share some of the experiences we've had in the Shanghai International District. Some things that worked for us might be helpful to others in the future, especially in places with scattered single adults over a large geographical area.

Shortly after my wife and I moved to China, my wife and I were asked to serve as co-chairs of the District's Single Adult Committee, one my duties in the District Council. (Best calling ever! Love these enthusiastic young people, and a calling where husband and wife get to work and travel together is a dream calling indeed--for those of us who enjoy being married.) Our district has waves of YSAs come in twice a year, with roughly 100 or so LDS YSAs at peak times. Most come here for just a few months to teach English or to study for a semester. The biggest groups are in the Nanjing Branch (4-hour drive from Shanghai, or 90-minute by train), where they are dispersed across several cities over a large area, and in the Suzhou Branch, also scattered over several cities like Suzhou and Changzhou. Changzhou is one of those tiny Chinese cities you probably never heard of since it only has 5 million people, not quite twice the size of Chicago. Shanghai and Hangzhou also have groups of YSAs.

Our initial challenge when we were asked to work with the YSAs was to look for some way to bring YSAs together for our District Conference held twice a year on a Saturday and Sunday. Previously the District YSA leaders had tried arranging Saturday service projects but meaningful group service projects pose unique challenges in China and may require complex approvals that have sometimes been withdrawn at the last minute. We took a slightly different route. Recognizing that many of our YSAs were not making much money and didn't have much time off, giving up a free weekend and a big chunk of change to come attend church meetings was not all that big of a draw. We wanted to make District Conference more appealing and valuable to them. Since many of the District's YSAs have not seen much of Shanghai, we decided to offer group tours of Shanghai for YSAs. We would also continue the tradition of providing free housing for YSAs coming to town, with the help of LDS members (foreign members) in Shanghai.

We quickly found that the idea of organized tours to see Shanghai was quite appealing. We initially offered a variety of tours that people could sign up for, and then we would offer the three or so most popular ones. Developing the itineraries and getting support to run the tours was an exhausting challenge, especially since we were also struggling just to find,  reach, and provide housing for the flood of new people who had just come to China in time for the Conference. Way too much work.

As things have evolved, we now have the Shanghai YSA liaisons kindly running the housing end of things. They take the names of the YSAs as we get their information and work with them and the Shanghai members to arrange housing. As for the tours, we now offer just two. The first is a "Main Attractions" tour of Shanghai that hits some of the most famous and interesting sites (People's Square, nearby People's Park to see the amazing matchmaking market, East Nanjing Road, Yu Garden and the adjacent old city (we go into the Ming Dynasty era garden), the Bund, the Huangpu River ferry, the skyscrapers of Pudong, and Lujiazui.

The other tour is the Qibao Ancient Water City tour, where we go to see a beautiful region with a crowded pedestrian street, lots of crazy shops, unique little museums, and some beautiful views on a canal. The Qibao tour is popular with those who are already familiar with the basics of Shanghai. It's one of my favorite places, but very few foreigners ever go there. Both tours end by bringing people to our LDS meeting place (Yongda Center at the corner of Longyang Road and Fangdian Road in Pudong) in time for our 3:30 PM Saturday afternoon session of District Conference, where we hope our YSAs will be fed spiritually.

Speaking of food, those on the tours buy their own lunch on Saturday. Good meals are possible for around 30-40 RMB ($5). They can also buy their own dinner above the Longyang Subway station near our LDS meeting place for about the same amount.

Since 2011 when we started this, my wife and I with some other volunteers ran the tours, and we ran ourselves rather weary in doing that. We found that not a lot of other members knew the heart of the city the way we do, and it was quite a chore trying to guide the groups and manage all the logistics. This year we made a change to simplify the tours to make it easier to hand over to someone else: we hired professional tour guides to take groups of people on the Main Attractions tour. Four excellent, English-speaking tour guides took groups of about 15 people each on the route we selected, managing the time well and providing lots of interesting information about this incredible city to help participants really enjoy it. We had the guides take groups as they showed up so we didn't have to wait around for stragglers, as in the past. The last group had the lest ones to show up. And since we weren't chasing everyone down and worrying about where everyone was and where they were going, we could just relax and really enjoy the tours and our time with these terrific young people. Much better. More expensive, but well worth it. This was my wife's inspired idea that really made life so much better this time around. 

In our first couple of years, we had also offered an evening tour that involved lots of walking and seeing some of the cool evening sites. But the past several conferences we have instead provided an evening dance which has proven to be a lot of fun. Using the facilities at the Yongda Center, we've managed to tap iPhones or computers into the sound system and play dance music. Part of the fun is that our YSA liaison in Shanghai is a dance enthusiast who is excellent in teaching some popular dances, and this year one of the YSA men is a skilled dance instructor who led the group in some fun line dancing and taught some fun swing moves.

The dance ends at 9 PM, giving people time to get home and perhaps see a little of the town on the way. They they come back in the morning for the General Session at 10:00 AM (plus there is typically but not always a Priesthood Session at 8:30 AM). At noon after the main session ends, we once again rely on the generosity of our Shanghai area members in 3 branches (Shanghai Branch, Hongqiao Branch, and the Jinqiao Branch) to provide a warm meal for the YSAs. My wife organizes the food and works with the branches to make sure we have a good mix of foods (especially things that go well on rice, plus deserts, salads, etc.). We have some wonderful cooks in this area with a great mix of international cuisines. Good food, including home made cookies and lemon bars that my wife and others prepare for the dance, is part of the recipe for success.

After the meal, there is a devotional for the single adults at 1:00 PM. It last for just an hour, leaving plenty of time for travelers to catch their train and get home.

We think the combination of fun tours, a dance,  good food, free housing, and chance to get together with other YSAs adds incentives for people to make the sacrifice and come to District Conference. Some would come anyway, just knowing that it's District Conference, but since it's so easy to drift into obscurity in this big, complex country far from familiar friends and support networks, we think the added incentives are important. We've heard from quite a few people that they weren't planning to come until they learned about the events, the fun, and the free housing. We've also seen our numbers grow rapidly once we got the system established. The numbers of YSAs in the District are down slightly right now compared to last year, but the turnout was surprisingly high. We had 83 YSAs join us for the tours, and 81 YSAs still with us at the devotional on Sunday. We think nearly 100 came to Shanghai for District Conference (not all went on the tours and not all made it to Sunday meetings).

The devotionals and the other District Conference meetings have generally been highly uplifting, spiritual, interesting sessions. Our District President, Stephen R. Dyer, does a great job as a speaker and in selecting other speakers. These are outstanding meetings. 

We are now looking at working with other Districts in China to coordinate our future events and invite their YSAs to join us and visa versa, but our emphasis will definitely be on those in our District.

In preparing for District Conference, my wife and I go out to Suzhou and Nanjing right after the arrival of the new wave of YSAs  and, with the support of the Branch Presidents, start preparing the YSAs with info about District Conference and our YSA events. We collect contact info to keep them informed, and the branch leaders also send us contact info and work to invite them all to come participate at District Conference. We also sign up those with musical talents for special musical numbers or to serve as the pianist or chorister in the devotional, and we get help on the music for the dance. We feel that going out and visiting the biggest population groups of YSA is important. There is not enough time to visit every branch between the wave of incoming YSAs and Conference, but we see quite a few and help get the word out.

YSAs in foreign lands are a unique group of bold, adventuresome, and fun people. But there are also many who are lonely, frustrated, and drifting. The support and spiritual feeding that occurs through attending District Conference is important, in my opinion. Now we need to look at some additional events to better meet their needs.

We hope some of these ideas might be helpful to others dealing with YSAs under unusual circumstances, though I'm not quite sure how it might help. Let me know if you have any questions.

Here are some photos from our latest event in March:


bunker said...

I see 3 of my YSA ward members from Cedar City, Utah in these pics. How awesome you are able to help them in this way! Thanks!

bunker said...
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Unknown said...

Going on September 2016 to study, hopefully there are activities. I am from Peru by the way.