The fruits of her labour

A passion for food, science and New Zealand combined to draw Janelle Li Mo from Beijing to Palmerston North.
The fruits of her labour


It is very appropriate that a migrant in the process of becoming a Kiwi is working on ways to make the most of New Zealand’s kiwifruit harvest.

Beijing-born Janelle Li Mo now lives in Palmerston North, and works as a research officer at Massey University’s Centre for Post Harvest and Refrigeration Research. Her recent PhD study investigated how to use advanced sensors to predict how long kiwifruit will last in storage, instead of testing the fruit in physical ways that might damage it. There are plans to use the model she has developed on a much larger scale in the future.

“You shine light on the surface of the fruit, then a small amount of the light will be absorbed by the fruit and the remaining light will be reflected. By estimating the amount of light that’s absorbed or reflected by the fruit, you can find a correlation [link] between that and the future quality of the fruit,” Janelle explains.

“You want to be able to tell, at the time of harvest, which batch of fruit will last longer during storage. The kiwifruit industry has a lot of fruit losses during storage, so they can’t export those fruit. But if we can somehow segregate that fruit, we can reduce fruit losses – which currently cost the industry hundreds of millions of dollars a year.”

Her relaxed life here is a long way from bustling Beijing, where years ago Janelle decided she did not enjoy the level of stress and competition at high school. She convinced her parents to let her finish her schooling in Singapore.

A few years later, she was studying for a bachelor’s degree in food technology at Massey University’s Singapore campus. Some lecturers flew from New Zealand to Singapore to teach the students. “We heard about stories about New Zealand and the lecturers would give us chocolate fish if we could answer their questions,” Janelle smiles.

In 2011, she spent two months in Palmerston North working on a food microbiology project. “On the weekends we went skiing, we went to Hawke’s Bay, we went to Wellington; we did as much travelling as we could. After the project, a few classmates and I toured New Zealand. Everywhere was so beautiful and the people were so friendly. I didn’t want to leave.”

Two years later, when an opportunity arose to do her PhD here, she grabbed it. Janelle is due to become a permanent resident in November.

On a typical work day, she does everything from project management and updates to experiments. When she first arrived from Singapore, Janelle sometimes struggled to understand her colleagues with heavy accents.

“But don’t feel shy to ask the person, ‘I’m sorry, I didn’t get that. Can you just repeat?’ Or, ‘Can you talk a bit slowly?’ People know it’s not your first language and you’re already trying very hard.”

Meeting her husband, Alan Stockwell, was easier in that respect: they met through internet dating, and spent time emailing each other first before meeting up in person. Now, they own a home together and share it with three cats, named Bailey, Apple and Mantou (mantou means ‘steamed bun’ in Mandarin).

Weekends are quiet and relaxed, involving trips to the beach, gardening, spending time with friends, or just relaxing at home.

“I really enjoy the slow-paced lifestyle in New Zealand. We just do the things that we want to do, and we don’t have to worry about whether we’re doing better than other people. We’re just having fun.”

Their house is more than 100 years old, with tall ceilings, wooden floors and wooden doors. A large gas heater keeps them warmer in winter, though Janelle misses having central heating in Beijing.

“But for the same amount of money, you can’t really buy anything decent in Beijing, because the housing price is really up there. Here, we get 700 square metres of land, a big garden and a standalone house. It’s just not something you can get easily in China.”

There are far fewer shops to choose from in Palmerston North, and they close much earlier at night than in Beijing – but at least, Janelle says, the Chinese Association organises events such as Chinese New Year celebrations and a Mooncake Festival.

She also plays the clarinet in the Manawatu Youth Orchestra; they rehearse every Friday and perform 2-3 concerts a year. It has helped her to meet another group of people and make new friends. Janelle and Alan have become friends with the conductor and his fiancé. “They were at our wedding; he was my husband’s best man and she was my bridesmaid.”

Though it can be scary when you are new to a country, Janelle says it is important to overcome that.

“Don’t only stick around with people from the same place. Try to put yourself out there and get to know people. It’s not that scary. Once you get to know people, they’re actually really nice and you have a whole new experience.”

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