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East meets Western charm

By Nancy JohnstonContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / June 1, 2005


The Chinese, by some accounts, could use some polishing. Their manners and public behavior aren't as dazzling as some of the new skyscrapers in China's biggest cities.

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In Shanghai, for instance, sidewalks are awash with spittle; unkempt passengers still push, shove, and cut in line with abandon when boarding buses, subways, and at the post office. Long-nailed taxi drivers will nose-pick, spit, and belch freely while ferrying passengers through the city's chaotic traffic.

But one petite woman is trying to change that. Call her Shanghai's manners maven or a savvy, attractive version of Dr. Henry Higgins. Just don't speak to her in a loud, boorish voice. June Yamada will have none of that.

Ms. Yamada, a Japanese-born and American-raised former model, UCLA student, and fashion consultant, just opened what is billed as "the first school of fashion and manners in China, a school of elegance."

Ms. Yamada has also published China's first authoritative book on fashion and manners, "Tell It Like It Is, June," which became a surprise bestseller, with all 10,000 copies snapped up in just two months. A second edition with a much higher print run will be released soon, because local Chinese readers have been clamoring for it.

Four years ago, Yamada, in her early 40s, decided to follow her stepfather, a businessman in Taiwan and later Japan, when he returned toShanghai, where he had been educated. She had promised her late mother that she'd always look after him.

Divorced with no children, Yamada says her first days in Shanghai were "too lonely to describe," but eventually she made friends. These newfound Chinese friends, who learned about her professional background, soon encouraged her to open a training center.

In the past she had acted as a comportment consultant to such high- profile clients as Ross Perot, Sean Connery, Issey Miyake, Givenchy, Countess Isabella D'Honano of France, Halston, and even Henry Miller, in addition to many ambassadors and movie stars.

With her mother's wish in mind - that she be a bridge among cultures - Yamada worked for two years to set up the city's first school to teach the international norms of etiquette.

Her stepfather warned her that it wouldn't be easy, saying that residents of Shanghai are the "New Yorkers of China," who think they know everything.

But nothing has deterred Yamada from her goal of teaching "proper behavior" to those who want to learn.

She sees the June Yamada Academy as "an Asian school for fashion and manners ... that combines Western manners with renowned Japanese hospitality."

Classes, held in the five-star Okura Garden Hotel, go beyond simply teaching businessmen and women to function in other cultures. They stress that bearing, fashion, and manners are necessities for daily life anywhere. Yamada believes that presenting oneself well is more powerful than any title on a business card.

The school employs a roster of nearly 30 teachers, all of whom are expatriateswith a minimum of seven years relevant teaching experience outside China. Most classes have about 15 students each. About 60 percent are mainland Chinese and 40 percent from elsewhere. Each two-month course costs about $540, which limits the classes to professionals who earn enough to afford it and who are also interested in gaining the social skills that will help them move up in the world.

Yamada doesn't mince words on any subject, which is part of her charm. She comes across as a drill sergeant when reinforcing the finer points of proper behavior to clueless students.

But in private, she quickly reveals her inner "softy" via an admitted passion for animals (she avoids the National Geographic Channel for fear of seeing an animal being attacked).

Yamada says she cares about China's people, and wants to help them realize their full potential as individuals with a bright, powerful future.