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Colleen Robar

Colleen Robar


November 2, 2012

I am excited to begin a new role as Dome Magazine’s China correspondent. My goal in this first column is to explain who I am and why I am in China. In future columns, I will explore topics here in China that impact the Great Lakes State and introduce you to people with a Michigan connection that are doing cool things in China. I will leave analysis of the big issues on China/US relations to Tom Watkins, another Dome Magazine columnist and an expert on the topic. Instead, my goal is to focus on the people.

Until September 14, I was the director of corporate communications at Crain Communications in Detroit. It was the world’s greatest job that I was really sad to leave. My husband, Dan, had the opportunity to work with General Motors in Shanghai so we decided to depart to the city with 23 million people.

When not in foreign lands, my husband and I own a home in Detroit’s Indian Village and we have two college-age children. Jackson, 21, is a junior at Detroit’s College for Creative Studies studying transportation design and Hannah, 18, is a freshman at Michigan State University. We have a friend staying in the house for the next three years while we are in China and look forward to returning to Detroit when this assignment is done.

We’ve lived abroad before. In 1997 and 1998, our family lived in Yokohama, Japan and from 2008-2012, we were in Sao Paulo, Brazil. The entire family was in Brazil the first two years. Jackson and I returned to Michigan in 2010 and Hannah and Dan finished out the assignment there. Hannah did all four years of high school in Brazil. It was an amazing education and frankly, it solved our issues with the Detroit Public Schools.

During that time, we put a lot of frequent flier miles on the books as we journeyed between North and South America way more than we should. The important lesson from that assignment: married couples should live in the same city. Two years was too long to be apart.

So when China came up in the conversation, we agreed that we both had to go. The major sacrifice this time? The kids wouldn’t be going with us. Luckily, we have lots of incredible family and friends who promised they would be there for Hannah and Jackson if something came up. Hannah is taking Chinese at MSU and hopes to do an exchange semester abroad while we are here. Jackson is always up for a visit and who knows? Maybe he can find an internship in China with an automaker.

While in China, I hope to land a full-time job and will be helping Crain Communications with some China-related projects. In addition to a career that included 15 years at Crain, I’ve had my own PR agency, worked for Governor Snyder at Ardesta LLC in Ann Arbor (he was Rick then), served as a vice president at Mullen Advertising and led PR and media relations at The Ritz-Carlton, Dearborn and the Detroit Convention Bureau. I am also a big advocate for quality early childhood education and the environment, having served as the president of the Women’s Caring Program and as a board member and marketing chair for the Greening of Detroit.

During my first month in China, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to get comfortable with my new city. Quick observations so far:

  • I’ve spent many hours in Chinese coffee shops nabbing free Wi-Fi since the internet in our apartment doesn’t want to work. So far, we’ve had five service calls and still no juice.
  • I am pleasantly surprised at how “green” Shanghai is. There are trees and flowers everywhere, even on highway overpasses. I know a green canopy is a fabulous and natural way to fight pollution but I never expected so many trees and green spaces in such an overpopulated city.
  • Mandarin is a very hard language that I hope to conquer. Enough said.
  • My first purchase was a bike. It is an essential way to get around. I live in Pudong, the newer area of Shanghai. They built the roads with wide bike lanes that make it easy to get from A to B, as long as you can navigate around all the scooters, workers with stick brooms and fruit carts that also use the bike lanes. We also did a 50 kilometer bike ride to the ocean with some friends over the weekend. No sugar-sand beaches here in Shanghai but the ocean seemed as good a destination as any.
  • Fast fact about Pudong: This area of Shanghai is slated to be home to the next Disneyland Resort in 2015. It is predicted to cover 963 acres and attract 7.3 million visitors a year. It will be interesting to see Mickey Mouse come to life. When we lived in Japan, we took our small children to Tokyo Disneyland several times. It was a blast to see the Country Bears singing in Japanese. I can only imagine what China will be like.
  • On a less magical note, I am following what is happening between China and Japan with their dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea. Japanese auto sales here have plummeted, Chinese banks boycotted the IMF meeting in Tokyo and trade between the two countries is at a standstill. That’s been all over the news. But Japanese restaurants here are empty. The eateries are flying Chinese flags out front to show their allegiance. I am a runner who registered while I was still in Detroit for the Toray Shanghai Marathon on December 2. The marathon website went dark a few weeks ago and just went live again recently without their sponsor, Toray, a Japanese industrial chemical company. It is just Shanghai International Marathon now.
  • As we head into November’s U.S. election, I am watching the presidential debates with a different eye. In the recent town hall at Hofstra University, Governor Romney and President Obama mentioned China 24 times –more than health care. Currency and trade with China continue to be two of the biggest issues for the candidates. Romney wants to officially accuse China of currency manipulation and “stealing U.S. Jobs.” Obama recently won a World Trade Organization case against China in a dispute over imposing duties on steel exports, a decision crucial to future pending cases impacting the U.S. auto industry. CNN carries the U.S. debates live here in Shanghai.
  • China also is going through a political transition with new leadership on the horizon. The results of this once-a-decade ritual are scheduled to be announced at the 18th National People’s Congress of the Communist Party of China November 8 to 15, with the leaders not taking office until March 2013. Just like the U.S., people say not much happens now until the new leadership takes power.
  • We are following the Tigers and all things Michigan sports related via Slingbox, a technology that transports the cable feed from our Michigan TV to the Internet. It is an amazing lifeline to home.
  • Last observation: I miss the no smoking policies of Michigan’s restaurants. There are lots of smokers here and they have no problem lighting up mid-meal. The food here is fabulous but a table in the wrong spot can make a great meal horrible.

I am looking forward to getting to know you as I report from my new hometown. If you have friends in China that I should meet or an idea for a future column, drop me a note at

Gung- ho!

Colleen Robar is a Detroiter who is based in Shanghai for the next three years. She is a Central Michigan University journalism grad, runner, weaver and an enthusiastic Detroit Tigers fan. She formerly worked for Crain Communications before departing for China.

November 2, 2012 · Filed under Robar

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