‘We named our first son Adam after a Dublin hair salon. They were like family to us’

New to the Parish: Lisa Miao and Yi (Johnny) Zheng arrived from China in 2001

Lisa Miao and Yi (Johnny) Zheng arrived into Dublin airport on the same bitterly cold February afternoon in 2001 but on separate flights. The following day the two young Chinese students ran into each other at their first class in an English language school in the city centre.

"In China we would never have met each other," says Lisa. "I'm from the northeast of China, a place called Shandong. He's from Shenyang in the very north of the country. We both wanted to study English but we didn't know each other."

18 years later, the couple sit in a small meeting room at the Hill Street Family Resource Centre in Dublin’s north inner city. Behind them on the wall is a portrait of their 15-year-old son Adam taken recently as part of an exhibition of young people at the centre. Across the room is another photo of their son with his three younger sisters.

Lisa and Yi both planned to stay in Ireland for between three and five years. They hoped to learn English, save some money and return home. They spent their first few months in host families where they were given what they call their "English names". "I was called Mary at first but then I went into the school and the teachers were like Mary is an old name, call yourself Lisa. I only realised a few years ago that it's only Chinese people who take English names. People from other countries don't change their names. For me it's because of the culture. We say that when you move somewhere you have to follow their rules and English names are easier to remember for people. If I tell you my Chinese name you'll probably just forget it."

When I went home to visit people were so surprised because they didn't know about him. They were like, 'where did you get the baby?'

A few months after arriving Lisa, who had trained as a hairdresser in China, found work at the John Adam salon on Baggot Street. Shortly afterwards Yi also found work at the hairdressers and the couple started seeing each other.

“I worked afternoons from 2 to 5pm at the start but I learned a lot of English there,” remembers Lisa. “My colleagues would say ‘at first you never spoke but now that you speak English you never stop!’ The people there were so friendly and kind.”

After nearly three years in Ireland, Lisa became pregnant with her son. When she called her mother in China to tell her the news she got a bad reaction. “It just suddenly happened. We were shocked and my mum had never met him (Yi). We weren’t married and that was really bad at that time. My mum said ‘I cannot tell anybody’ and when I went home to visit people were so surprised because they didn’t know about him. They were like, where did you get the baby?”

The couple decided to name their son Adam after the hair salon where they worked. “We were so lucky to have such a nice place to work, they really were our family. When we had our son Yi used to work Monday to Wednesday and I worked Thursday to Saturday. That was only possible because the salon helped us.”

In 2008, Lisa gave birth to her second child, a girl they named Amia. “I always wanted to have a big family. But now I say I have too many children,” jokes Lisa. “My mum was shocked every time another baby came.” When Amia arrived the family was living in a one room studio apartment off Dorset Street. “We lived in a very small room. It was stressful with the children getting bigger. I used to lock myself in the bathroom for five minutes just to have some time alone. Maybe it’s because I’m an only child but sometimes you want to be by yourself.”

The couple did consider moving back to China but couldn’t decide whether to base themselves near Lisa or Yi’s family. They were also worried about China’s one-child policy which was still in place at the time. “We thought what will we do if we bring home two children, we could be in very big trouble. Then two years later Anna was born and we had three.”

Children don't know anything about China, they see you as alien. But if you keep going and smile and chat to them they start saying 'Chinese people are nice'

While pregnant with her third child Lisa left her job at the hairdressers while Yi found full time work as a chef and they moved into a bigger apartment. By this point they had become active members of the Hill Street resource centre where they attended parenting courses, baby groups, computer classes and art classes. “It was a really good way for us to meet people. When you stay home and mind the babies all the time, you lose that. They even had a thing called the cafe group where people could just meet and chat. It’s really important for someone who has only just moved here. They helped us with everything, my Irish family life started there.”

Lisa now works as one of the centre’s home visitors which means dropping in to check on Chinese families with young children. She is also studying a Level 6 course in childcare while Yi works as a chef at the Guinness storehouse. Both play an important role in organising the annual Chinese New Year festivities at the centre. Lisa had worried about her children’s connection to their Chinese heritage and wanted to make her country’s culture accessible to all families in the area.

“A few parents started talking about our children’s identity; they were born in Ireland, they go to the local school, they have Irish culture. We as parents want to keep up the Chinese culture and traditions. Ever since my son started school I go in and talk about the Chinese New Year and involve everybody in the class. Children don’t know anything about China, they see you as alien. But if you keep going and smile and chat to them they start saying ‘Chinese people are nice’. I think that’s important and my children are more confident now about their background.”

It’s been seven years since the last time Lisa visited her home in Shandong. “China is very far away and it’s changed a lot. We don’t really go often, we have too many children now and it’s expensive. I don’t really feel homesick. My kids are doing well in school and they mix well. We’re very happy here.”