Role Models: ISABELLA, Zhang Di

Article by Marcella

Can you introduce yourself? Job title, educational background, languages, hobbies, your family etc.
I work in a bank, and for privacy reasons I cannot go much into details about it, sorry! I was educated in Xi’an, but I moved to Beijing for college.
You did not study abroad, but your English is excellent, where did you study it?
Thank you! About how and where I studied English, I get these questions very often, even back in college! Actually, I was struggling at the beginning of senior high school. But I had to focus on the English course because it was a major subject. So, I spent hours and hours on the weekend learning grammar and started to watch American movies and TV series. I first started with Sex and the City. Can you imagine the cultural shock for a Chinese high school student? I loved it, and started to fall in love with the language and culture as well!
In China once one graduates from university and finds a job, the opportunity to speak English is usually scant. And after so many years of hard study this is such a waste! So, after college I have found new opportunities to practice the language. First of all, I have a lot of very good foreign friends. I love spending time with them! I also help out friends with English problems as much as possible, and I like to create my own English environment – reading the latest English novels and watching English movies without Chinese subtitles and such.
This is so cool. Tell me something about your hobbies, you have so many!
I have quite a few hobbies indeed. I practice archery, and recently moved from 10 meters to 18 meters! I upgraded and I am quite proud of myself! Archery is very fun, it’s very good exercise for concentration and back muscles! I also have been training Brazilian Jiu-jitsu (BJJ) for more than a year. I love it because it helps to control all the components of the body. I have always liked martial arts, but when I was a kid, I could not practice much because I was told they were “boys activities”.
Speaking of family…can you tell something about it?
I am an only child, and I grew up in a very typical Chinese family, where the parents would always expect a lot from their kids and be strict with them. So, as a child I always tried so hard to be the best in school because that’s the only way I knew I should be as a kid. Luckily my effort paid off, every time my mum came back home from a parent meeting, she was so proud because all other parents had asked her for advice to raise a kid like me. However, the downside is, after college I found myself outside the “evaluation system” that I used to be into during school years and I could not “place” myself anywhere. At that moment I could not recognize myself anymore and I could not figure out who I was in relation to my family and the society. It has been a journey toward self-consciousness since then, which has changed, and perhaps improved the relation with my family. We have negotiated their expectations (i.e., me getting married and have kids as soon as possible) in relation to my needs. Things are going well, although I feel that I am still in the process of knowing myself.
Are you from Xi’an? If no, why did you come here?
I am fully local! I love this city, and all my loved ones are here, which is the main reason I came back after college. But I also believe it’s always beneficial to live in multiple places, so who knows? Maybe one day I will relocate and explore more cities.
What do you do every day? What is normal schedule like? What is not “normal” work for you?
In ordinary days I start working at 8:30 AM. It takes me really a short time to go to work, only 10 mins, but I need an hour to get prepared. I have a lunch break at 12 and if I can, I go for an hour workout. My working day should end at 6 pm, but I overwork almost every day, usually until 7 to 8 pm. This is my typical schedule. During not “normal” working days, I used to go on business trips to various places in China. Because of the pandemic, however, I don’t travel anymore for work. Now my “not normal” working day is the day I manage to get out of work on time! When it happens, I can go to the gym and have my Jiu-jitsu, boxing, or something else. On the days I don’t work out or spend on my own, I would like to meet my friends. I have some close friends here, we grew up together. We have a podcast called “Nonsense FM” where we talk about daily life or movies/shows, give our opinions on basically everything. We used to record every week, but now we’re in a transition period because two of them moved away from Xi’an. So now we’re figuring out how to do it from three different cities.
This is so interesting! So, tell us about your other achievements, what are your most impressive accomplishments? What accomplishments might not impress an average person, but you are particularly proud of?
This is a hard question! Let’s say that, considering that I have never been abroad I am proud of my English language skills! I took the IELT test in 2019, I only prepared for a week, and after many years of being immersed in a Chinese-speaking environment, I still got a pretty good score of 7.5! I am quite happy with myself!
I am also proud that I was able to somehow free myself from the “Chinese social protocol”. Most Chinese parents have certain expatiations for their kids: they have to go to a good university, after graduation they have to get married as soon as possible and have kids. At one point this started to no longer sit well with me. During my college years I had to take a break because I was suffering from depression, I started questioning many things about my life, to the point that I could not recognize myself anymore. But I did not give up and worked a lot on myself, trying to find a way to balance the relationship with my family and society’s expectations. I have had a lot of talks and discussions with my parents about my life choices, which sometimes do not fit their expectations and do not adhere to the Chinese social standards. Things with them were even ugly at one point. However, after years of discussion, arguments and negotiations now my parents are more understanding and accepting. They sometimes even joke about it. They now consider my cat as their grandchild!
What are your goals for this year? 5 years?
For my career, I wish I could make some progress within the next one to two years. As for personal life, I’ve been taking online courses in Psychotherapy and at the end of this year, I will finish my first stage of study. Hopefully, I can further my study around this field and build something within 5 years. We all work out and we know we should take care of our body when it comes to physical health. Taking psychological consulting/therapy or doing things like meditation would be like working out mentally, which is also essential for urban office workers to keep mentally healthy. And this is something I’m interested in besides my daily work.
What are the biggest challenges you face in general and as a woman?
I would say that, especially for a woman, being loyal to herself and to what she wants is very challenging in societies, such as the Asian ones, where expectations are very high. Even if you are happy with who you are, this high-pressure environment makes you question yourself all the time. I found myself many times wondering “Is there something wrong with me?” “Why I am not in a relationship or marriage like everyone else?” Now I am more confident over the fact that I won’t settle for anything I don’t feel like is right for me. However, the pressure from the outside is a constant challenge to be faced with every day.
What motivated you to choose the career/path that you have today?
The desire for independence. The idea of being supported, especially financially, by my man has never sat well with me. I have always believed that as a woman I should be able to afford my needs and then be financially free, self-sufficient and independent.
What advice do you have for other women, Chinese or foreign, who are looking to farther their careers?
To give ourselves more credit. I give this suggestion to other women as well as to myself, because I too sometimes don’t commend myself enough for my successes. I often notice that even women that excel in their lives, do not give themselves credit for their achievements, but always focus on their flaws and weaknesses. We should be braver and put ourselves out more, with no fear nor embarrassment. I was recently attending a conference, where two female speakers were talking. At the end of the speech, during the questions time, men asked many questions (sometimes not even pertinent ones), no woman raised her hand. By the end of the event, the moderator asked specifically if there was any female participant who had any questions. I did have questions and asked. But the whole situation was a bit embarrassing and definitely reflected how we are still scared to put ourselves out. Finally, I think that as women, we should support each other, especially for successful and capable women, in order to create a fair and even personal and working environment.

Role Models is a monthly column that introduces some successful ladies in Xi’an and Shaanxi. Reach out to join our growing network of women professionals
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Aspiring Women for Excellence (AWE) Association
Organizers: Malgorzata A. Garstka, Marcella Festa, and Jin Zhou

Marcella is an archaeologist working at Northwest University. Her research focuses on the prehistory of Northwest China and Central Asia. She likes learning, swimming, and meeting new people