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Essential Tips for International Interns in Shanghai

Lanterns in Shanghai

Well, clearly you’re already a rockstar because you’ve decided to intern abroad in Shanghai! Known by some as the “Paris of the West,” Shanghai is one of the most dynamic cities in the world, a burgeoning hub of business and culture, and a rising economic power.

If you really want to take your rockstar status to another level, you’ve got to bring your A-game to your internship.

In other words, we can’t think of many better places in the world to gain experience and kick off your career! But if you really want to take your rockstar status to another level, you’ve got to bring your A-game to your internship.

1. Take Initiative

While Shanghai might have a reputation for being a place that will challenge you, you have to rise up to the challenge.

If you’re not being given enough work, ask for it. Some companies or bosses may operate with the idea that you will find and own your own work. And unfortunately, some company cultures in Shanghai can reflect a “pretend to work hard when the boss is around, then do nothing” mentality. Don’t fall into that!

Take initiative on work you know needs to be done, even if no one has asked you to. Stay productively and effectively busy, create new projects, take ownership of your work, and never let yourself be bored or make up excuses.

2. Stand Out, But Not Too Much

Ted X Shanghai

In the States, having and voicing an opinion is looked at in a positive light -- it’s practically a national pastime.

Your first inclination may be to jump in and get your hands dirty, perhaps to tell your boss all the things you see wrong with what they’re doing and how they could improve it. That’ll make you stand out and shine brighter than the rest!

No, no, no. Don’t do it. Hopefully in your research of Chinese culture, you’ve come across something about “saving face” and maybe something else about respecting elders.

Questioning your boss (or anyone above you) or telling them they’re wrong about something can be offensive. You may stand out, but not at all in the right way.

That being said, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t offer helpful suggestions or correct people with genuine improvements. No one wants an intern who is indifferent about the growth of the company, just stay aware of cultural differences and use your best judgment to decide how to relay more critical ideas.

3. Pay VERY Close Attention to Details

In that same vein, your boss or colleagues may not be very direct with you about things, especially critical things. They may tell you the work you are doing is good and you are doing everything right, but unfortunately that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s true.

What company doesn’t want to hire someone with “close attention to detail”? Well, now you’ll have a ton of examples to share in your next interview!

Pay close attention to what they’re saying and how they’re saying it, their body language and responses to things. If you get back a report and it looks very different from how you originally prepared it, take that and learn from it. Constructive criticism may be subtle.

It may be frustrating not knowing for sure how you’re doing or feeling like you have to question yourself, but in time you will be able to pick up the nuances. And hey, what company doesn’t want to hire someone with “close attention to detail”? Well, now you’ll have a ton of examples to share in your next interview!

4. Network, Network, Network

Shanghai Networking

Did we mention Shanghai is a major business hub? People from all over the world converge in Shanghai to meet and do business.

The city is rife with moguls, entrepreneurs, expats, and high-achieving interns like yourself. To sum it up, the people in Shanghai are motivated, focused, and up for a bit of a challenge.

These are the kind of people you want to meet now and build relationships with. While the experience you gain during your internship in China is important, the connections you form could very well be even more so.

There are always opportunities for networking -- galas, industry events, conferences, and more -- all over the city, and some internship placement providers like CRCC Asia even organize their own networking events in Shanghai.

5. Don't Overlook the Value of Internship Program Providers

On that note, finding your internship through an "internship program provider" -- or a company that will place you in an internship in your field in Shanghai -- can be incredibly valuable beyond just matching you with a great internship. They'll help you rock your internship abroad with the outside-of-work details as well.

Doing an internship abroad is different. You may require extra support, language lessons, housing assistance, and someone to turn to in case of an emergency.

Although you may have been successful finding yourself an internship independently back in your home country, doing an internship abroad is different. You may require extra support, language lessons, housing assistance, and someone to turn to in case of an emergency. Well-rated program providers, like CRCC Asia, that offer internships in China will help you get settled and make the most of your time in Shanghai.

6. Dress to Impress

Professionalism and how you present yourself -- physically and otherwise -- are important values in Shanghai. When everyone is trying to climb the ladder, these are simple things that could make you stand out and look good to those above you in the hierarchy.

Luckily for you, if you arrive in Shanghai without the proper business attire, you can find some pretty incredible deals on tailor-made suits throughout the city!

7. Learn Some of the Language

Shanghai Market

For one, learning some Mandarin could certainly make networking easier! It’s also another subtle (but very important) way to stand out and impress your internship supervisor. Even if English is the main operating language of your company, you will be able to work better with and become closer to your colleagues and supervisor if you can speak to them in their native tongue.

Not to mention, speaking some Mandarin will all in all make your everyday life easier, and it could definitely be helpful in making sure you are never late to work (a big no-no!) because you couldn’t understand an announcement, figure out signs, or ask for directions!

In Shanghai, Mandarin lessons can be found relatively inexpensively, or offered as part of your internship program. Alternatively, you could even try finding a tandem partner -- a local who wants to practice their English while help you practice your Mandarin.

8. Learn Some of the Language (wait, again?)

Let us explain ourselves before you think we made a typo. Mandarin is the official language of China spoken by everyone, but different regions also have their own dialects that are for the most part mutually unintelligible.

This means someone speaking Shanghainese won’t be able to understand another Chinese person speaking the local dialect from Sichuan. Even though Mandarin is more than enough to live anywhere in China, it might be helpful to learn some of the local dialect while interning in Shanghai -- especially outside of work.

Shock your co-workers with a sweet nong hao in the morning instead of the expected ni hao.

As one of the two most popular cities to intern abroad in China, Shanghai offers a linguistic subculture that the Mandarin speaking Beijing doesn’t. Shock your co-workers with a sweet nong hao in the morning instead of the expected ni hao.

Most language schools offer Mandarin courses as it is more universally used, but it’s always fun to pick up a few phrases by just talking to some locals. Take advantage of this and go back home with your technically trilingual language skills.

9. Get Familiar with Public Transportation

Shanghai Subway

If you're using public transportation, getting to work is can be a battle in and of itself -- perhaps even more challenging and tactical than your internship itself. Be prepared for a gut-wrenching but rewarding adventure of rush hour commute twice a day.

So before the first day of your internship, dedicate an entire day to exploring Shanghai's subway and bus system. Strategize the best route to get to work with a plan B incase a line has unexpected closures. Focus on utilizing the subway lines over buses as traffic gets pretty bad during rush hour.

Make sure you allocate extra time for delays as well. It is not uncommon to have to wait for the the next train because the one you originally set out to catch is full to the brink with people still trying to squeeze in. Everyone is trying to get to work on time and even the nicest people become competitive. Don’t be afraid to fight for your spot on the train when someone tries to cut pass you!

Shanghai isn’t the most populated city in China for nothing, and it's critical that you know how to get around this sprawling city efficiently.

10. Take Advantage of Every Opportunity to Rock!

In Shanghai, it feels like anything can happen -- so make it happen! Both in the workplace and outside of it, take advantage of everything this incredible city has to offer. Your internship in Shanghai and living in the city itself will challenge you every step of the way, but believe us, the payoff will be worth it!

You will emerge from your internship abroad in Shanghai a rockstar!

The experiences you’ll gain, the connections you’ll form, the challenges you’ll overcome, and the memories you’ll make will all ensure that you will emerge from your internship abroad in Shanghai a rockstar!

Have you interned in Shanghai? Share your tips in the comments below!

Photo Credits: Lanterns, TedX, Subway in Shanghai, Shanghai Market, and 38th Floor.

Rachael Taft

Growing up in the Midwest, Rachael couldn't wait to get out and see the world. She's studied abroad in Italy and Thailand, interned abroad in Sydney, worked abroad in Australia and Fiji, and traveled to 30+ countries, including backpacking solo across South America. In addition to working in international exchange, Rachael obsesses over all things her blog Girl, Unmapped.