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John Williams interview transcript
Published on: 2012-10-11
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altA transcript of a radio interview for the program “Expat Tales” on China Now.  John Williams, managing director of International SOS China, is interviewed about his nearly three decades of work experience in China. 
 
When did you first come to China and why?
I first came to China in 1983 as a student and I was studying in Shanghai at Fudan University for a year. I came back in 1989 to work, actually. That was my first work assignment here.  
 
When you were in Fudan University, what were you studying?
I was studying Chinese and German and management studies at Leeds in the UK. A part of that 
program was to have a year in Shanghai, really to do a focused year  on the language training.
 
Why did you study Chinese at Leeds University?
All through school in the UK I always had a strength for languages and had a good command of French and German. I wanted to do something completely different and Chinese really was a bit of a leap in at the deep end. I have no regrets and everything worked out really well. So it was a language and a country that interested me, and I chose that.
 
John, where are you from?
I am from Cardiff in the UK, so Welsh and my family is still back in the UK.
 
Currently you are the managing director at International SOS China. What is International SOS China and what does your job involve?
International SOS is a global company headquartered in Singapore and London. It is a company that looks after members around the world for their medical and security needs.
So, essentially if anybody is away from their home country and hometown and needs medical assistance, they can through their membership call our 24 hours assistance center. We have one in Beijing and a total of 27 throughout the world. We have doctors on call in our assistance center that can speak directly to the caller, to advise them on medical issues. If a member has any medical issue, we can provide timely and professional medical advice. If the need arises for medication,  we can tell them where they can get the pharmaceuticals. In a more serious circumstance, such as if they need to be admitted to a hospital or in more extreme circumstances if they need to be transported back home for on-going medical treatment, we can arrange that and have doctors and nurses to accompany them. A key part of our service, and indeed something that sets us apart from other assistance companies, is we have dedicated aircraft, what are called air ambulances, on stand-by in Beijing and Tianjin. We also have a 24 hour clinic in in Beijing that provides a full range of general practice medical services. We also provide medical services to companies operating in very remote environments, including oil rigs and mining companies.
 
How did you come to work for International SOS China?
Well, what brought me to China in a working capacity was an insurance brokerage firm in London which sent me to China back in 1988-89. I was with them for over 10 years and got them a company license and so on. By the end of 1990s, I was looking to see what was next up and just at that time International SOS headhunted me from Singapore. So, I moved across and here I am today.
 
As you mentioned, you first moved to China in 1983 as a student. How would you describe the changes you have seen here since then?
It’s phenomenonal.  From the way all of the cities across China look-- the buildings, the new avenues and mega-structures that have gone up around the country, the way people do business, the way people dress, and every aspect of life--I would say there has been a huge change in China. When I first came to Beijing , I will never forget driving from Beijing to Tianjin which would take 5-6 hours. Now it is a 30 minute train drive.
China has truly reached a modern international standard, coming from what was a difficult situation when I first arrived here. 
 
You have been teaching Vikram Yoga in Beijing for the past 6 years. What is vikram yoga and how did you come across it? 
I used to play a fair bit of tennis and went to the gym every now and again.  One day I saw a group of people practicing something which I had no clue about. I was with a friend and we said we would go along and try it out. It turned out to be yoga. 
And when I took my first yoga class, I realize I could barely touch my toes. I had no balance and I was a bit of a wreck. So, I took up yoga with a vengeance. I was addicted beginning with my first class and started to develop an interest in different types of yoga.  My instructor started teaching vikram yoga here in Beijing and vikram yoga  is a series of 26 postures which is taught over an hour and a half in 40 degrees heat. It is very intense but fantastic for the body and for the internal organs to keep you healthy.
 
Like many foreigners who have lived in China for some time, you have a Chinese name. What is it and what is the meaning behind it?  
My English name is John Williams. When I was in university, my professor gave me a Chinese name, and I said I wanted it to sound Chinese.  She took the name “ John”-- and very often people named John are called Johnny in the UK-- and translated this name to Zhang Yi which is my Chinese name. Zhang is family name and Yi is the name of a mountain in the south of China, Jiu yi shan, and it really mean a mountain which is not easily moved. So, perhaps I’m a bit stubborn. 
 
How long did see yourself living and working in China?
I have no plan to go back to live or work in the UK immediately. I am very happy living and working in China. It is still a country that offers huge potential for growth and development on a personal level, as well as from a business perspective, and I have no plans to move on just yet.
 
 
 
 
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