Home Enthusiast 20 for 20: Michele Camargo, early childhood education consultant and music enthusiast

20 for 20: Michele Camargo, early childhood education consultant and music enthusiast

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As we continue our celebration of 20 years of The Pekingese, we take a closer look at some of the expats who have been here for two decades and those who have had an outsized impact during their stay.


Michele Camargo is yet another amazing person who has been in Beijing for over 20 years and has made an impact since day one. You may know her as Michele or Mich, but no matter how you know her, those who know her know what a passionate and energetic beacon she is.

Camargo describes herself as a tree hugger, sun gazer, and nature lover among other things, and says, “If life is a tapestry, mine is so colorful.” This rockstar chef has indeed had quite a colorful life, and the stories she could tell you about the rockstars, musicians and artists she met and worked with all over the world are quite fascinating, and a whole different story in itself!

I asked him what it was like to go from working with musicians to working in Montessori education, and his answer was perfect. “I just went from working with big kids to working with little kids,” she said, “and now I can look at any person and see the kid in them.” In many ways, Camargo is still the same colorful music lover she always was, but the unique, exceptional and one-of-a-kind training she received through Montessori education in Italy changed her life and was, in some ways, a moment of enlightenment as she went on and found her true calling. In her classes, she is always able to mix a bit of her spirit into her teaching, and she is able to enrich her students’ learning with the music she loves, introducing them to everything from Mozart to Marley. .

Camargo says Beijing has always had greatness, but what many may not know is how much of an impact it has had on the growth of that greatness. She played a monumental role in the excellence of early childhood education in Beijing. She helped mold and shape many international schools, training centers, and helped Beijing and all of China understand the incredible impact of “real” Montessori teachings, saying, “I was lucky to be here and to be part of this story. The potential for human development is incredible.

What brought you to Beijing and when did you first arrive?
In 1991, I was living in Miami, Florida, and working as a traveling chef. At that time, I was working with a professional musician, but I was looking for a change and applied to be a chef aboard a yacht in the Caribbean. It was then that I met an American businesswoman who was looking for someone to take care of a newborn baby and travel with her through China. Anyway, that’s what brought me here. And that American businesswoman is still one of the best parts of my life and we’re family forever.

What were your first impressions of the city?
I first arrived in Beijing on March 11, 1992. We landed at night and I remember it was very cold, very dry and very gray. At the time, there was no highway to the airport, so we took what is now the Fu Lu. At the airport, I felt like I had stepped back in time in a old movie from soviet era. The airport was still just a terminal and, except for our flight, it was empty. The next morning I had my first real introduction to Beijing and was able to see the sights, hear the sounds, and feel the full feel of life in Beijing’s hutongs.

It was a lot for anyone, and especially for me, someone who had grown up in Eastbourne, East Sussex. Everywhere I looked was full of activity. There were people yelling at each other, guys on flatbed bikes picking up furniture, another guy rattling knives while yelling at neighbors to come get theirs sharpened. Everyone was busy and happy to get on with their day.

A few people looked at me, and some tried to talk to me. At first I thought I had done something wrong because people were using high voices, but I soon realized they were just being friendly and high voices were the norm, like in Italy.

Was there good music in Beijing back then?
Wow, yes! This could be an entire article in itself, and I’ve experienced some of the best music ever here in Beijing. More underground greatness than international headliners, but truly memorable musical memories. I even remember times when I rode my bike, heard music somewhere far away, and followed the sound of songs. It was still underground, but it was so amazing.

Did you imagine at that time that you would still be here more than 20 years later?
I had promised to stay for at least a year. I still had a home in Miami, but after the sudden death of a loved one, I felt I had no reason to return to the United States and decided to stay in Beijing.

Can you tell us about one of your first quintessential experiences in the city?
There were so many things that were different, like having two currencies, RMB and FEC (exchange certificate), and only being able to shop at the Friendship Store on Jianguomenwai and Xiao Youyi in Sanlitun. In addition, there were the two-tier pricing systems in most restaurants, where foreigners paid double the local price, and the same applied to train and plane tickets. Another novelty was the lack of color throughout. Even in parks, the only flowers there were often plastic.

Another thing that took some getting used to was seeing so few foreigners. So little, in fact, that if you ran into one on the street, you were sure you’d made a new friend right away. And for me, some of those random encounters in and around the Friendship Store have led to lifelong friendships.

What has changed the most since your arrival in Beijing?
All. Anything but how much people value their family. That’s probably the only thing that hasn’t changed.

How do you think Beijing has changed you as a person?
I’m not sure it changed me, but it certainly helped me become who I am today. In 1997, my world changed when I went to Italy to study the true traditions of Montessori education, and being able to bring those traditions back to Beijing was one of the most defining parts of my life and career.

What advice do you have for relatively recent arrivals (within the last year)?
Make the most of every minute. Also take the time to learn some Chinese history and don’t worry too much about the language. I’ve survived 30 years without anyone really understanding what I’m saying.

Can you tell me your three favorite places in the city?
Jingshan Park at sunset, the Lama Temple at any time of the day and the hutongs. Always the hutongs.

Are you still doing what you came here to do over 20 years ago?
Oddly enough, one of my tasks 30 years ago was to open a crèche (day care centre), but back then we ran into all sorts of loopholes. So instead, I started working at the first Montessori school in Beijing, China World. The two Irish Montessorians who carefully prepared the school advised me to train at the Montessori Center in London, where the mother of one of the girls was a lecturer. I spent the following summer in Hong Kong and did an internship at the new Lido campus.

The following year, we opened the first Infant Toddler community in Beijing. I feel super lucky to still have contact with many of these students today. This was really the beginning of my life as a Montessori teacher, and then I was invited to start a class at the new Western Academy in Beijing, in a factory building in Wangjing, and I made friends again for life. Gosh, I could go on and on!

READ: 20 for 20: French musician Djang San

Images reproduced with the kind permission of Michèle Camargo