The Internship: Part 1

 

I’ve been an intern in China for two weeks now and wanted to share a little bit of what I’ve been doing, as well as my initial perceptions of the Chinese work ethic. As a disclaimer, I’m sure it differs industry to industry and this post is only based on my experience and the experiences my fellow interns have shared with me.

I was forewarned when I started that my supervisor wouldn’t be present for the first few days, so was expecting a light workload, but boy was I surprised. There were only four people in the office, as the time of my arrival coincided with everyone else’s holidays and visa runs, so the first week was quite intimate. My supervisor had left one of the girls a short set of instructions telling me to look through the public file to familiarise myself with the company, the website and setting my task for three days.

That three-day task was actually completed in three hours.

At first, I wasn’t sure if something had been lost in translation and I’d be receiving a new task each day, but unfortunately that was the total of what I was given. I had to plan 5-8 blog posts – not even write them, just come up with titles and subtopics. Okay, fair enough, they have no understanding of who I am, what I can do, so it’s quite acceptable to underestimate an unknown intern. But… it didn’t get better.

I planned them paragraph for paragraph, doing a bit of background research for myself and it still only took the first afternoon. As it turns out, I had also done too much, as the blogs should only be around 500 words each and my topics went too in depth. I found this out when my supervisor returned, “wow, you’ve done so much” and I started writing them up. I wrote two in the first morning as these are only short blogs and take less than an hour each only to be told, “wow, you’re so quick!” which is when I started to realise that just because you’re at work for nine hours a day doesn’t necessarily mean you are working for nine hours a day.

Not one to sit and twiddle my thumbs, I have been working on an online communications strategy in my ‘spare time’. This has been quite useful, because although I get the feeling the supervisor doesn’t want to see it, it gives me something to do. I’ve been asking for more tasks and usually get told that there is nothing to do, or if I can wait fifteen minutes they’ll give me one. Fifteen minutes seems to mean 2-3 hours.

This started to improve somewhat in the second week. I now get asked to help research projects! Some are interesting and give me plenty to work on – finding out about the company, the target audience and competition in order to brief the design team – but some aren’t even marketing. I’ve been asked to come up with designs for a client to put on their wall and this is not my area of expertise. I’m not a designer and even when reliant on Google images, I didn’t understand the brief. They want something ‘cool’, but not like that. ‘Modern… you know, something… modern.’ I spent the best part of a day trying to understand the image that my supervisor clearly had in mind, wondering why she didn’t just do it herself as she clearly wasn’t going to be happy unless I got the exact thing she wanted.

Mainly, I’ve gotten good at sitting around and pretending that I’m busy. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not dossing off as all my tasks are completed, it’s just that there isn’t enough work for me. I’m using my downtime to write those articles, which are still just sat in a file on the shared drive because they need to be translated into Chinese before we can post them. I’ve been finishing that online communications strategy that the supervisor doesn’t want to see. I’ve been working on my dissertation at work.

It’s a little demoralising, actually, because I have so much more to offer. The other day, I was given one task at 5.55pm. That was my first task of the day and do you know what it was? Finding an image of a pretty person eating a burrito.

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Finding an image of a pretty person eating a burrito is actually a lot harder than it sounds, but it’s also incredibly funny. Here’s one of the gems that I came across.

Everyone in my office naps and the supervisor doesn’t mind. It genuinely seems like the emphasis on ‘good work’ is just about showing up – which, even then, my office isn’t great at. For the first week I arrived on time, only to wait in the corridor for 30-40 minutes until a keyholder decided to come in.

I thought it might have just been me, or just my company, but it seems to be affecting the whole of Beijing. A colleague said it was the same for her at first, she had to adjust to the slower pace of life. It’s not that these people are lazy, they’re just really slow.

Except for the girls in our building, they very well may be lazy. It’s very rare to get a cubicle in the bathroom because people from the other offices disappear into them in order to have a smoke or play on their phone. I’m pretty sure even the cleaner uses her time in there as an unofficial break.

My friends all have similar stories. For example, when a receptionist was asked “Do you not want to do this and become better? People are unhappy with your work“, she responded ‘no, I’m fine like this.’

At a different friend’s office, he goes in around 10am, has a 2 hour lunch and leaves at 4pm. Even when he’s there, he barely has any work to do, so he’s in the same boat as me, just wasting a few hours less of his day doing nothing.

Then there’s the intern working in a hospital who pushes a button and waits for the machine to finish. That’s his whole job.

So, my impression is that the Chinese aren’t good workers. They’re happy to show up, because that’s how they get their money, but I don’t see any pride going into their work.

I know I’m wrong to generalise, and I’m sure this doesn’t apply to every individual in this nation. Certain sectors such as construction are probably a lot more hard-working and even though my experience of wait-staff is one of frustration (I’m looking at you, Taqueria), they seem to put the effort in.

Tourism is Forbidden

Trying to make the most of our last days before work started, we opted to do some mid-week sight-seeing. The Forbidden City had been on the list for a while and doing it when there weren’t going to be as many people seemed a smart move. I read up on it before hand this time, not getting caught out by a lack of English signage and was a pretty good tour guide if I do say so myself. Listing off years that things happened, highlighting interesting architectural points and even throwing in some Mongolian trivia almost made up for the fact that we barely saw any of it.

Yeah, you read that right. We spent a good three hours walking around the Forbidden City and still managed to miss out on the calligraphy, the ceramics, and the Palace Museum. It’s a big complex okay? A big complex with a one-way exit policy. We left through the North Gate, not really realising that it is the official exit, and once we had left we weren’t allowed to return. The boys will probably visit again as their student ticket was only 30RMB, but foolish ol’ me left her ID in the UK and is a little too tight to dish out 60RMB twice just to see the bits I missed. Maybe next time I’m in Beijing.

It was at this point that we got a message from Sami asking where we were. He was helping out Ayodele get some footage for her vlog and had arrived maybe two hours later than the rest of us.

We sent him a message to let him know that there was absolutely no chance of finding us, as we had accidentally gone through the North gate and we weren’t allowed back in. To which dear Sami asked “What, are there exits?”

We were in creases. Of course there were exits. What he actually meant was something along the lines of ‘oh, we don’t leave through the same place where we came in?’ but it was at this point that Sami became immortalised for the phrase “I don’t know… it’s China, man!”

Once we’d established we were never going to see Sami at this rate, we headed up Prospect Hill (Jingshan Park) to get a good look at the city complex. It’s quite a peaceful place, quiet, and there’s quite a few old people just doing their own thing.

 

That was Thursday. I returned on Saturday with Ayodele, as she was determined to do some tourist attractions in her last weekend. She’d offered to front my ticket (or half of it), which made the idea of returning to see the bits I had missed a lot easier on the wallet. Only, things didn’t quite go as planned.

We arrived on a lovely day and joined the crowds out of the tube, but our journey began with an English-speaking Chinese man luring us into a side room to sell his calligraphy. It was alright, as far as calligraphy goes, but he was probably the least interesting artist in the room. We had no intention of buying and only went with him so as not to be impolite. On reflection, looking at his artwork and then turning him down is probably a lot ruder than ignoring a stranger on the street. Oh well.

We went back to the entrance, over the bridge and under the picture of Mao, we went through the different entrance courtyards, but the ticket office didn’t seem to be open. Maybe I’d missed it. We milled around a while but couldn’t find anywhere to buy tickets, although the place was heaving. We figured it must be free, and if it wasn’t someone would point us in the right direction, so we did as everyone else was doing and moved to enter between the guards. They stopped us.

“Where is your ticket?”

-We don’t have one.

“You need to buy a ticket.”

-Where can we get one?

“You can’t get one. You must leave.”

We watched as the guards ignored everyone else ducking between them to get to the entrance, regardless of whether they had a ticket or not. Maybe it was a Chinese-only day? We scoured the crowd for other foreigners, seeing if they had a prized ticket clutched in their hands or were just as miffed as we were. Defeated, we headed back the way we came.

“No, you can’t go this way, you must go ahead.”

Erm… what? Again, we watch as a string of Chinese people make their way past the guard yelling at us. It’s okay, turns out there’s an exit on the left in the second courtyard. That we also couldn’t get out of. We asked again, ‘where do we leave?’ and they pointed us to the main gate that’s already rejected us. Well, damn. Maybe Sami’s comment wasn’t so stupid after all. We spent a good twenty minutes trying to get out and it felt like going two steps forward and one step back each time. We resorted to waiting for the guards to be distracted, moving past as quickly as possible, only to be stopped by the next one. I really hope those other foreigners we saw had tickets, otherwise they’ll be trapped there forever.

We then proceeded to queue for another 30-40 minutes to get into the National Museum of China. This is something that could do with better direction, let me tell you. There were three queues: the first one took you up the stairs to the little plaza out front, which then has its own two queues facing opposite directions. Surmising that one must be the ticket queue and the other was not, we were further confused to see everyone had a ticket of some kind. We got on line whilst we figured it out and an overheard (but not understood) conversation in Chinese had someone pointing at tickets and moving to the other line. Okay. So it is the ticket line. Just to be sure we phoned our friend who had already passed the trials to find out there’s another door for foreigners. We found it, and actually, I’m glad as there wasn’t a queue for that one. We joined the line heading into the museum, went through security and… had to turn back. “You must get out now,” as the security lady’s ominously translated phone message told us. A camera tripod counts as a selfie stick and has to be stored in the cloakroom. With no idea where the cloakroom was and with no intention of queueing again, we played dumb until a security guard escorted us back down past all three queues to a hidden office beneath some stairs.

The museum was the first time I became aware of actual propaganda. The censorship is a little more noticeable, but proactive propaganda has only really manifested itself as a sense of civic duty. Walking around the museum, however, there was some beautiful wording, which would have made me feel like scum if it weren’t so ridiculously over the top for a government organisation:

 

We left around half four, with not enough time to see the Ancient China exhibitions, but with enough time to get in some last-minute gift-shopping at the pearl market. The first time we were there Ayodele was young and naïve, paying 300RMB for two dressing gowns, but this time, she was on her game. Pyjamas for her brother? 80RMB. A jacket for her father? Something like 100RMB. Two Michael Kors knock-offs and a Herschel back pack? 90RMB each. She had really upped her game in such a short amount of time – I think the indignity of the dressing gowns fuelled a rage that could only be sated by true bargaining.

I, on the other hand, needed to buy a new purse and fell victim to a nice store attendant and the glittering hope that I wouldn’t have to check every purse on every stall. It had the same layout as my purse, a similar pattern (Cath Kidston) but as soon as I over-paid for it, I regretted it instantly. I hate it. It doesn’t feel right, it’s ugly, they didn’t even bother putting a lining in it. I’m using it – my old purse is too damaged to fix – but I’m not happy about it. But oh god, is it ugly.