What I Wish I Knew Before Interning in China

Jason Rodgers
Jason is a hockey player from Virginia, and his passport is a quilt of stamps and visas. He studied French at the Sorbonne in Paris, worked in...
Intern in China

Landing an internship anywhere today is exciting (thanks, economy), but a thousand times more so if you're interning in China! What if someone had already done it, gone before you, come back and told you what to expect, and what lessons they learned?

Depending on where you intern in China, your beloved mu shu pork or general tso's chicken may not be on the menu.

Well you're in luck! Here are the things I learned while abroad but wish I had known before interning in China; things you now get to know before departure.

1. Efficiency is Not the Goal

You may find yourself walking around the office wanting to scream, "Why is it done this way???" Many processes in China can seem bogged down in inefficiencies, bureaucracies, and just plain stupidities. Try to understand that maximum efficiency is not the goal.

See, in China, providing for everyone is the top priority, including providing employment. This manifests itself in surprising ways. "Why does this random scarf store need five security guards, especially when four of them are outside smoking cigarettes?" "Why does it require the stamps of three separate postal workers just to send a letter down the street?"

Because it ensures there is employment for everyone -- and perhaps more importantly in China, everyone gets to feel important, to receive their daily dose of "face," which is crucial to a feeling of personal fulfillment in China. So just grin and bear it, and remember it the next time you think the line at the U.S. Post Office is taking too long.

2. Bikes / Scooters Are The Best Form of Urban Transportation

Yes, there is public transportation in China. In fact, the subways are generally very reliable (in fact, learning to navigate public subways is one of Rachael Taft's essential tips for interning in Shanghai).

Bike in China

But the rest of the infrastructure, especially in smaller cities -- things like buses, trains, and shuttles -- are unpredictable at best, and bedlam at worst.

If you need to get to an appointment on time or regularly be punctual, invest in your own bicycle or scooter, both of which are popular and affordable in China. This way, you are only reliant upon your own ability to leave on time.

Also, no being packed into a hot smelly bus like sardines. Win-win, right?

3. Chinese Food in the U.S. isn't Really Chinese Food

Depending on where you intern in China, your beloved mu shu pork or general tso's chicken may not be on the menu. In fact, you may not even recognize the menu!

Most people in China eat what is available locally: lots of greens, lots of roots and tubers (like carrots, taro root, and lotus root), and typically only enough meat to flavor the dish. The transition to a Chinese palate is not as simple as just "eating a lot of Chinese food." You'll experience new ingredients and ways of cooking!

But hey, when you get home, now YOU can be the food snob that says, "That's not REAL Chinese food, you know!"

4. Language Skills = More Friends!

This is just a darn good rule for anywhere you go, but especially in China. Spoken Chinese is fairly simple and easy to learn, so just a little practice can get you through a huge number of daily functions, and speaking a little Mandarin (or whatever the local dialect) is the ultimate goodwill tool to make new friends.

Chinese elders feel respected by outsiders wanting to learn their language, so the higher-ups at your internship will consider it a form of giving them "face" to see you try out their vocabulary. This relationship is especially important, so make sure you give it a try.

And besides, telling gawking Chinese youngsters on the backs of scooters that "I'm not a foreigner -- you're a foreigner!" is fun in Chinese.

5. Nonverbal Cues are Meaningful Too

The language barrier as an intern in China will be real, and it may at times be enormous. So reach out and touch somebody!

Okay, maybe don't touch them (or do! Chinese people often touch each other while speaking), but counting on your fingers, pointing, and pantomiming will be your best communication tools sometimes. So don't worry about looking foolish! Sometimes, playing charades counts as homework!

6. Your Time Is Valuable, So Don't Learn to Read or Write!

Honestly, unless you're going to be there a few years, it is unrealistic to even attempt to learn how to read and write in Chinese.

Intern in China

Chinese school children, products of some of the strictest old-school memorization methods on earth, learn around 600 new characters in an entire school year. Mandarin has several thousand characters in total. The math just doesn't check out.

This means that most interns would be better served spending their time to read and write Pinyin, or the Chinese language represented in western letters, like when I write the word "Beijing". Chinese students learn Pinyin before writing characters anyway, so in a pinch, you will be able to communicate in writing.

I'm not saying don't learn to read or write. I'm just saying: think about whether you would realistically learn it in the future and need to learn it at all.

Insider tip: Carry around a pack of cards with common words written in Chinese characters and in English (like "toilet" or "bus stop" or important addresses / neighborhoods), to help you decipher signs.

7. Respect Every Elder and Person of Authority Like a 5-Star General

The concept of "face" -- respect for authority given in front of other witnesses -- is the most important social currency in China. There is no light-hearted kidding with elders in the work place. No funny e-mail forwards. No cartoon mustaches drawn on staff photos.

Your boss is always right at your internship. Even when they are wrong. Especially when they are wrong. Just learn to show respect, and this kind of broken game will eventually benefit you -- when your omnipotent boss' favoritism falls on you. It's all part of the business etiquette in China.

This applies at home, too: sometimes, you have to play the game! You may like to get credit for your work, but so long as the right people are noticing, what matters is pleasing your boss. So tough it out!

8. You Have Lots of Cool Opportunities as a Foreigner

Native English speakers are a hot commodity in China. With English taking over the country, and the influx of western culture and consumerism, many Chinese businesses big and small are scrambling to have an English voice. And guess what -- you have one!

Yes, simply by virtue of being an English-speaking American, you are a unique and special butterfly in China, and will have lots of chances to make extra money outside of your internship if you choose. I am just an average guy, but during my internship in Guilin I also did voice-over work for a children's book, acting for a local commercial, fashion modeling for a clothing company, and English tutor for a local family.

Take advantage of all these things for the cool experiences! The extra cash in your pocket ain't half-bad, either.

9. Life Isn't Fair

This is a lesson many Americans learn the first time they travel abroad. Poverty strikes people who deserve all the happiness and riches in the world. Captivating women are treated like old maids and sexual objects. Blowhard bosses receive credit for others' hard work.

This sucks, but China is not the place to complain about it. Chinese justice is not based on "fairness" or "equality" but on dessert -- things like rank, seniority, and associations decide who gets preferential treatment in China.

You can combat this in your own ways, by offering kindness to all you see and being generous with your heart, but do not expect China to look like a "fair" place.

10. Work Ethics Aren't Universal

What you do professionally and how much money you make doing it are very important social markers in China.

Intern in China

The American attitudes of "live and let live," "different strokes for different folks" and similar sentiments are not shared in China. Either you're keeping up with your peers or you're being judged. You can still be yourself, but expect others to expect you to tow the company line at work.

Also, work relationships are fully expected to spill over into your social life, like drinking after work, singing karaoke at night, and working late at the office. Remember that even as these lines blur, you are still with your coworkers.

You can lower your guard when you're alone, but even off the clock, your "work face" needs to always be on when around coworkers.

11. Things in America Cost Too Much

Especially if you're living in one of the smaller cities, things in China are just so darn cheap! I got so used to my big delicious bowl of guilin mi fen noodles costing thirty cents that now five bucks for a Taco Bell crunchwrap seems absurd!

It's not that things in China are of lower quality than their American counterparts -- the market has simply decided that this is what these items should cost. To see the same process back home spit out prices ten times higher can really bite you in the wallet when you get home.

12. You Will Get Stared At -- So What Kind of Person Do You Want to Be?

At first, getting stared at by curious locals made me want to scream, "Take a picture, it'll last longer!" or "Don't you have anything better to be doing?" (Though, if I had said "take a picture" they probably would have done just that).

Think about it, though, and you'll notice that the curiosity is genuine, the interest is friendly, and the wonder is real. Suddenly, you might just find yourself acting a little more like a magnanimous celebrity -- it makes them so happy to see you ham it up, so why not! You'll start to smile for pictures, wave at people, and generally make their day.

After all, what does it cost you to be a good sport? Nothing, and that's a valuable life lesson.

Photo Credits: Beijing Skyline, Bike.