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Patrick Phelps steps from isolation to Nanjing

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Patrick Phelps

Patrick Phelps, 23, is bracing for a sharp shock when he arrives at Nanjing South Railway Station on the high-speed train. The West Coast-born adventurer, and occasional journalist, has just spent nine months in arguably some of the most isolated parts of New Zealand.

Patrick’s been working as a tour guide at Lake Moeraki, at the bottom of the West Coast. He now lives on Great Barrier Island “keeping an eye on a wildlife sanctuary while they’re looking for a full-time manager”.

Branch President, Henry Acland, got to know Patrick when they were both journalists at Radio New Zealand. “He would ring me and we’d chat about China when we were working late. I was in Auckland and he in Christchurch.”

Now he’s off to explore the unknown, or more precisely Nanjing, as a recipient of the latest round of Prime Minister’s Scholarship’s for Asia.

“I wish him the very best. He’s sure to have an adventure alright, and he’ll come back speaking Mandarin,” says Henry.

Patrick will spend two years studying at Nanjing University, where he hopes to become fluent in Mandarin – a language he’s been studying for some time. 

“I started learning about halfway through 2014. I’d always wanted to learn a second language. My girlfriend at the time was New Zealand-born Chinese and it seemed like a good idea. My brain’s always been better with words than numbers, so it’s not a big surprise I’ve enjoyed it enough to stick at it”.

New Zealand’s first Chinese arrivals came to New Zealand in search of gold, and “gold mining brought my family to Hokitika in the 1980s,” says Patrick.

He has a few ideas for what he might do with fluency in Mandarin when he returns. “I’ve got to actually master the language first, but I can see a lot of potential either in the agricultural sector, or preferably tourism.”

“I like being out in the bush, and as far as I’m aware there aren’t many New Zealand tourism operators with a sound knowledge of our wildlife and our wild places who are also fluent in Mandarin, it’d be good to try and cater to that gap in the market.”

But his interests in the Chinese language and people are not driven by business alone. “From an academic point of view, it’s just a good challenge, and I don’t think I’ll be happy till I’m fluent.”

Patrick is also excited at the prospects of being in a place so completely foreign.

“When I left high school, I thought and OE might have me knocking around in Edinburgh or Dublin. It’s neat to be going to places people I know can’t pronounce, where I can’t (yet) speak the language fluently, and everything’s so huge and different. Being a West Coaster, I take a bit of pride in the region’s pioneering history. This is about as close as I guess I’ll get an unknown frontier”.