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.
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.