Tianjin is a highly industrialised city in the northeast of China.
Since it’s located on the other side of the world, you may be forgiven for thinking it has absolutely nothing to do with Ireland, or country living, or agriculture.
But then, you’ve never met Haoyang Jiao: Tianjin native, University College Dublin (UCD) student and Irish enthusiast.
To the outside world, Haoyang (who has taken the Irish name Caoimhin, which is how we will now refer to him) is just another international student.
He has not been home to Tianjin, but when hearing him speak about Ireland, you don’t get the feeling he’s very homesick. Indeed, he has adopted nearly every aspect of Irish life, even amidst the pandemic and lockdown.
“It’s a long way from Tipperary,” he says with a coy smile, as I mention where I’ve travelled from. He’s clearly picked up on the Irish sense of humour, as well.
A dream come true
“Ireland is a wonderful place,” he says while making a cup of tea (Lyons, in case you’re wondering).
“Before I came, I didn’t know much about Ireland. I would picture green fields and beautiful scenery, and I thought Ireland would be a bit more traditional; with people being more down to Earth.”
The opportunity to study in Ireland came at a time when Caoimhin was learning about Irish culture and, in particular, Irish music.
His mother bought him his first tin whistle three years ago and he started playing by ear. Now, he is as proficient as anyone you might hear at a late-night trad session.
“[Living in China], I would dream about this Celtic wonderland; the wild mountains and the green valleys,” he waxes poetic.
“And the music, of course. My mom gave me a tin whistle as a birthday gift. We had come across some Irish music online and we loved the way it sounded, so I started to imitate the slow airs, at first. I think a great part of Irish culture is the ‘living tradition’ of one generation passing on the music, stories and history to the next generation.”
A real home
We’re chatting across the large kitchen table in his Dublin homestay (ideal for social distancing).
The bright, airy kitchen gives off a very welcoming vibe. Caoimhin tells Irish Country Living that two other international students are currently living with him and the homeowner, John. One student is from the Congo; the other from Spain.
He explains that the home was John’s family house. When his mother passed away he had the house renovated and created a student living space. Caoimhin says John, as well as his fellow students and professors at UCD, have been extremely supportive in helping him develop his conversational English.
“I think John is the healthiest man in all of Ireland,” he jokes.
“He swims in the Forty Foot every day. I met him hiking in the Wicklow Mountains and I was impressed by his optimism and physical strength.
“I found it very challenging at first [speaking English in college],” he continues.
“But, I was surrounded by so many helpful professors and fellow students and John, as well, who offered a huge amount of support to me. I started just chatting in English and it got much easier as time went on.”
Up the Dubs
As a foreigner myself, acquaintances have noted that, after several years in Ireland, I have yet to pick up a Tipperary accent (I likely never will!). As Caoimhin speaks, I can’t help but mention the highly noticeable Dublin accent he has acquired.
“Thank you very much; I’m flattered,” is his response; eyes twinkling.
“I work a lot with Dublin people. I volunteer in a homeless hostel; they have been operating for almost 100 years and they’re still run by the Legion of Mary. I’ve met some amazing people there.”
While Dublin is currently “home” for Caoimhin, he is eager to get out and explore the Irish countryside.
Having grown up in what he calls “a forest of skyscrapers” in Tianjin, he says he had previously never visited a farm. He enjoys cooking and points to the quality of Irish food as another reason he wanted to come to Ireland.
“Ireland is a world leader in terms of food safety, quality and traceability,” he says.
“Irish food is gaining recognition among Chinese consumers. A few years ago, the average Chinese person would think about Riverdance when you mention Ireland. Nowadays, people think of Ireland as a pure green land which produces wonderful food.”
Growing his own
Besides coaching Caoimhin in his English and “giving him the push he needed” to begin sea swimming at the Forty Foot (“I find it very cold, but once you get in the pain disappears,” he says), John also encouraged Caoimhin to pursue his interest in farming by giving him a small garden plot in the front yard. He is currently growing long stem broccoli and potatoes – impressive for such a tiny space.
“I have faith in the rich soil of Ireland,” he laughs.
“I put these broccolis down last year in August and they are slow-moving plants. Patience is a virtue that is required of a farmer! I feel a huge sense of achievement when I see my broccolis; started from a small seed to what they are today.”
Caoimhin has decided to spend his summer holidays as a WWOOF-er (willing workers on organic farms) in Co Galway where he will live on a farm and learn more about Irish agriculture.
“I got kind-of a job on an organic farm in Galway,” he explains. “It’s a combination of turf and vegetables. They also have some pigs and sheep.”
“So when he comes back [to Dublin], he’ll probably have a few sheep in the yard, as well,” John jokes as he passes through the kitchen.
A good life
Caoimhin says he has no real experience in farming, but learning about Irish agriculture has become a passion for him. He says Ireland has a unique set of circumstances – the right climate, good grass, excellent farmers and good agricultural traditions – which helps produce such high-quality ingredients.
“I grew up in a highly industrialised, super-modern city with a population of 20 million people,” he says.
“There, many people dream about living a more slow and natural lifestyle. As a result, many people (including me) romanticise about farming.
“The farmer’s lifestyle is a privilege,” he continues.
“For me, coming from such a city to Ireland, I’ve experienced the freedom to wander around green fields for the first time. I do notice in China, sometimes, farmers are not represented with enough respect. In big cities, farmers are often perceived as uneducated or not up-to-date with trends in society. The image of a Chinese farmer is of hardship and illiteracy, but in Ireland it’s the opposite.”
Caoimhin points to a dynamic and healthy system of production in Irish agriculture; largely comprised of small family farms.
“I think the huge production (on an industrial scale) you see in America is very rare in Ireland,” he says.
“Most things are produced on family farms which are very well cared for. The generations have passed on these living traditions and, at the same time, they have adopted modern technologies. It’s more sustainable and efficient.”
A bright future
While he misses his parents (Caoimhin is an only child) and his grandmother, who lives with them in Tianjin, he hopes the time will soon come when they can visit him here in Ireland.
He wants to expand his knowledge of Irish food production and agriculture and hopes to apply for the Bord Bia Marketing Fellowship programme when he finishes his degree at UCD.
“When I moved to Ireland, I found many of my fellow students grew up on farms and their families have been farming for generations; it was a new experience for me,” he says.
“It’s important to bear in mind that this is a privilege: to grow up on a farm and farm for a living.”