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Mr big mama

Hamid Dehghani

Publication Date : 03-12-2013


Iranian man has a Chinese dream to work as community service volunteer


Hamid Dehghani is an Iranian man. But Chinese would refer to his job title as "big mama" (dama), or "auntie".

The 48-year-old, who heads a trade company, has voluntarily worked for a decade in Zhejiang province's Yiwu in a capacity traditionally occupied by elderly - stereotypically domineering - Chinese women, hence the literal translation of his post. He's heavily involved in community affairs. His job as a residential committee director often involves arbitrating disputes among neighbours.

Dehghani shows up to diffuse arguments between couples who keep neighbours awake in the wee hours. And he speaks to residents who discourteously park their cars in places that block local traffic. And he shows residents fire extinguishers' locations.

Rather than consider himself a "big mama" or residential committee director, Dehghani thinks of his position as that of "minister in the alley". He believes his gig is "as important as the secretary-general of the United Nations".

The UN analogy is apt in terms of multiculturalism. Yiwu's proportion of foreign residents, mostly businesspeople, exceeds even Shanghai's and Beijing's.

The Yiwu Public Security Bureau's Exit-Entry Administration Bureau's figures show that 417,000 expatriates were doing business in the city at the end of 2012.

Dehghani's 2-square-kilometre community, Jimingshan - which takes its namesake from a local mountain - has the city's highest percentage of expats. A fifth of its 3,000 residents hail from other countries.

"There is the saying that there is no triviality when it comes to foreign affairs, and that's true for everything at the Jimingshan Community," Dehghani says in his 29th-floor office overlooking the area.

Dehghani was among the first foreigners to arrive in the town when he moved there in 2003.

He pitched in as a translator between Chinese officials and foreign residents. He helped neighbours locate fire extinguishers. And he began participating in local officials' decisionmaking meetings.

"The first meeting I attended was one about community safety, and I was somewhat moved when someone at the end of the meeting asked about my opinions," he recalls.

The husband of a Beijing native, Dehghani speaks fluent Mandarin, understands Yiwu dialect and comprehends the nuances of Chinese culture, such as the reality that meetings are for attendees to listen rather than speak.

"Everyone can find fault with this or that. But complaining is the last thing that can help. I'd like to propose a solution," he says.

Jimingshan community Party chief says his jurisdiction started a project to expand foreigners' involvement in its daily management and decisionmaking in 2006. The community is the first in Yiwu and among very few in the country to have foreigners on residential committees, he says.

A dozen expats signed up for the project. But Dehghani is perhaps the only one to "regularly contribute", the Party chief says.

Many volunteers are discouraged by the "chores", such as patrolling after 7 pm once or twice a week to make sure every household's door is locked and gas is turned off.



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