Christine Xue wants to be an architect. Her mother, who runs a financial services business in their home region of Chengdu, southwest China, does not share this ambition for her daughter. She would rather her only child opted for something altogether more secure – accountancy, perhaps, or maybe banking. So the 17-year-old is resigned to studying physics at university in order to appease her parents. Secretly, however, she harbours hopes that one person may be able to bring her parents round to architecture: her guardian, Ophelia Colley.
The well-groomed Ms Colley, 33, helps her young charge navigate the mysteries of the British education system, translates school reports for her parents and is on hand to support Ms Xue through the loneliness of living far away from home while studying at Queen Margaret’s School in the desolate Yorkshire countryside. The girls’ boarding school, on the grounds of a former Georgian estate, is beautifully elegant but on an icy-cold, rain-soaked day like today, it looks rather sombre and grey.
Ms Colley, originally from Hong Kong, sees her role as an advocate for her mainland Chinese and Hong Kong teenagers, not just liaising with the school but also the parents. It is her duty, she says, to educate the parents in western ways, telling them they need to adopt a new perspective. For parents rooted in Chinese culture and traditions, it can be difficult to understand their child’s outlook infused with western experiences.