Problem-solving brigade one big, happy family

Updated: 2015-05-15 11:17

By Yu Ran(China Daily USA)

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If there's something strange in your neighborhood, who you gonna call?

For expats living in Shanghai, the Shanghai Call Center hotline (962288) would be a good start.

The city's first and only 24-hour multilingual international hotline service was launched in May 2006 in the build-up to the Shanghai 2010 World Expo.

It now ranks as the quickest way for newcomers and veteran expats alike to get their queries solved on whatever subject they can think up - visas, accommodation, pets, traffic, security, dining and so on.

The center is manned by a team of 60 well-educated ladies from six countries who patiently answer questions and give advice in a total of 13 languages.

"Our team is young, enthusiastic and professional. We help expats with their daily problems anytime, anyplace," said Yue Di, the center's director.

The women, who are in their 20s, field 350 calls a day on average, said Yue. Most are conducted in English, but French, Korean and Japanese calls are also common. They give information on such areas as travel, transport, education, healthcare and entertainment.

"We're kind of like foreign-language ambassadors for the city," said Yue. "Our job is to ease people's nerves."

Many of the operators find the job challenging.

"I found that many of the things I'd learnt to say for years were way too academic," said Lily You, deputy supervisor of operations. She is in charge of answering calls from English speakers. "I had to learn how to speak with people normally in English."

Apart from general inquiries about addresses and directions, the team also find themselves in the middle of disputes between, for example, a foreigner and their maid, or ayi. Their role often keeps switching. In one afternoon they may have to play doctor, counselor and personal assistant.

"I never know who is going to be on the end of the phone or what their problem will be," said You. "It's impossible to predict what the day will throw at you. But that's also what makes the job exciting. It keeps you on your toes the whole time."

Figures from the city authorities showed that the number of expats living in Shanghai has been rising in recent years. The figure exceeded 173,000 by the end of 2012, a 6.7 percent increase from the previous year, making up a quarter of the total on the Chinese mainland.

The Chinese members of the team have language-training courses twice a week to keep abreast of the latest lingo.

"I can guarantee that everyone is making progress every day," Yue said.

To keep its staff happy, the center strives to create a homely working atmosphere. To this end, it relocated from an office building to a cozy loft with two floors last July.

It has a living room equipped with a coffee machine, microwave, oven and TV. There is even a small gym so they can work out between long stints fielding calls.

"I love working here. I feel free. I get to hang out with such friendly colleagues, and it's exciting never knowing what the next person is going to ask of you," said Malaysia's Cynthia Chou, chief of the center's Western language service department.

Chou came to Shanghai a year ago to study Mandarin from scratch. She is now fluent.

"We're working more like a family with common thoughts and hobbies. We share interests, learn languages from each other and get to grow up together," she said.