Alex Knight Intern in Guangzhou
28 Jul, 2017
Alex Knight graduated from the University of the West of England in 2016 with a 2.1 in History. After his internship in China he soon began work at Aspectus, a PR agency in London, where he works in the Financial Services department.
Alex describes below his experience of ‘Interning’ in Guangzhou:
Most people have a preconceived idea in their mind of what China might be like. I know I did. My experience of China was very much along the lines of what I had expected it to be, but then again, I was in fact expecting to be somewhat confused and bewildered most of the time.
I had flown to the city a few days before my internship started, just to get a feel for the place. I was aware that the next few months were going to be a bizarre and, above all, very new experience. I had done quite a bit of travelling previously but China is certainly a deviation from the classic backpacking trails and I wasn’t there to travel, but work.
First off, a bit of background. Guangzhou is a city of around 14 million people – the 3rd biggest in China after Beijing and Shanghai – so I was surprised not to have heard of it (as I am sure there is a chance you may not have). Bristol and Guangzhou are sister cities, which is a relationship the Chinese seem to take more seriously than we do in the UK, something I put down to the fact that a Chinese city can easily have a similar population to your average country and therefore has a relatively high level of autonomy.
As is the case with swathes of China, Guangzhou has gone through a rapid transformation in recent years due to a flourishing economy. Guangzhou’s population was about 1.8 million in 1980 and now stands at a whopping 14 million, dwarfing that global capital of ours by some 5 million. This transformation has demanded the intelligent application of resources to channel this rapid urban development. The municipal government has certainly been busy; innovative policy has been essential.
Slick, enormous, polished towers dominate the skyline whilst efficient feats of infrastructure keep things running smoothly down below. Something worth particular mention is the metro system which, as a Londoner I could not help but admire. It was modern, timely, air-conditioned and, above all, phenomenally cheap with an average journey priced between 20p and 60p making it very easy to potter about the city, hitting various tourist attractions.
One of the first things I learnt was that I should have brushed up on some basic Chinese before leaving; very few people speak any English at all, so hand gestures became my primary form of communication for a few days there. Apps came to the rescue eventually.
Although I am hesitant to generalise, my experience of Chinese people is that they are fantastically kind, welcoming and open, yet, to your average westerner, this can come across as eccentric and strange. People are far less reserved in their actions and expressions than a British person is.
From what I could gather, they have an intense admiration for the British and have a conflicted love affair with ‘western culture’. Conflicted because western culture shadows Chinese life. Western clothes, food and music for example, are predominantly seen as cool but they are also immensely proud of their own cultural heritage and of Chinese tradition.
The streets felt safe and there was minimal police presence, which I think is a good sign of a content population. People I met would often express their delight on hearing I was from London. I was stopped in the streets and on buses for pictures. I was also approached several times by school children. These kids would have homework to ask a foreigner a series of questions to practice their English; an entertaining occasion for all involved. One particular occasion I was asked to recite a well-known British philosophical phrase, and I’m afraid, on the spot, the best I could come up with was “the grass is always greener on the other side of the hill” – suitably British in hindsight I suppose. My pearl of wisdom was met only with confused glances and mild giggles.
On lunch break with my colleague Roger one day, a man sitting nearby who was looking curiously at me leaned over and asked Roger where I was from and how he knew me. After a short exchange, which of course I didn’t understand, he shook my hand and left after complementing me for my “good, strong country” (encounters like this were frequent).
This brings me to the actual work and what it involved. I was working for the European and American Division of the Foreign Affairs Office of the Municipal Government of Guangzhou. I was working in a subcontracted office on the 39th floor of a new swanky office adjacent to one of the busiest shopping streets in the city. Primarily, I was there to help them prepare for the International Award for Urban Innovation, or Guangzhou Award, as it is known.
This Award is a global intercity competition whereby city governments submit initiatives they have devised to tackle their local urban issues which are subsequently examined and judged. The Award looks into the various forms of urban innovation, such as infrastructure, technology, civil engagement and social inclusion - all with the ultimate goal of creating social, economic and environmental sustainability. The initiatives are examined by an independent jury according to their originality, effectiveness and replicability. This is what differentiates this award from any other; it is about innovation which can come in a diverse variety of forms such as master plans to produce carbon neutrality, programs for migrant integration to help social cohesion or creating cleaner waste management. The point being it is not about how much money the city pumps into an initiative but rather the intelligent application of available resources to tackle urban issues.
The Award is one which will continue to grow in popularity and significance due to the fact that there is such a contemporary trend in mass-urbanization. This was only the 3rd Guangzhou Award but it gains an increasingly large traction.
For me, The Award is fascinating for one main reason; it represents China’s new extrovert foreign policy. It portrays the new image China is trying to project internationally; that being one of a rising power driven by communist principles of courteous sharing, harmonious development and one driven by social improvement, not just within China, but across the world as a whole.
Among other small administrative tasks, my chief role was ensuring that any publications and promotional efforts were in good English. This included many of the pamphlets and information packs given out during the event. Chinese which has been translated directly can be a confusing, jumbled and amusing mess.
My colleagues were extremely accommodating and were enthusiastic to bring me along to many occasions and events. I attended several conferences and, in many instances, felt more like an honoured guest than an intern. I sat as an official representative from Bristol at a roundtable discussion between various officials from municipal governments from across the globe. The night before this inter-city event began, I was driven to the conference centre and given a room key to the on sight hotel, to my surprise. The room was luxury; designed to accommodate international businessmen and official delegations.
The internship paid 10,000 yuan per month, so around £1,150, a fairly handsome salary in China. And considering I could afford a flat to myself, could eat out basically every meal and had some fairly lavish weekends (more on that a bit later), I was being paid far more than I should have been.
I was also fortunate enough to meet Marvin Rees, the Mayor of Bristol. He came along for the Guangzhou Award and, naturally, I was the allocated intern from the Foreign Affairs Office to accompany him and the Bristol delegation around the city. I was pleased to have a couple of political conversations with him and enjoyed hearing his opinions on. He articulated his points well and justified his opinions with logic and passion. We are, however, politically aligned so my opinion was also going to be one of admiration. Nonetheless, a politician to watch I should think.
On the topic of food, unfortunately this is one area I will admit ‘West is Best’. I am sure you may have heard of some of the delicacies eaten in China and, although you can find some absolute gems, your average meal is not fantastic. Deep fried chicken feet, for example, are held in high esteem, whilst good cheese is non-existent. They also use far more of the animal when cooking and this is reflected in their dishes. A far less wasteful method of cooking, I accept, but I can’t say it didn’t bother me.
Something I did admire about their culinary habits, however, was the tendency for one person to take charge and order for the table, then you all share and try a bit of everything. However, although a pleasant sentiment, this could also backfire. One particular lunch with colleagues, I was politely eating a soup starter which had been ordered for me which contained a deeply suspicious looking meat. After noticing the look on my face (I thought I had been far more convincing than I was obviously), my colleague Echo laughed and asked if I knew what part of the pig it was. I simply requested that she not tell me and kept on eating. I still do not know what that was but the imagination runs wild.
Chopsticks are inferior to the knife and fork in every way. They are redundant tools.
I’m sure you can imagine the extent of my struggles but I am proud to say that I have just about mastered the art.
Now, I am a sociable person and was keen to make some drinking buddies for the weekends. In this respect, I was lucky. I think it is probably not an exaggeration to say that in every city in the world there is at least one bar which claims to be Irish. In Guangzhou, this bar was Hooley’s. I headed there my first weekend and was fortunate enough to be spotted for my accent by another guy from London (Will) and a bunch of his mates from various area of Europe who were all studying at the local university – Sun Yat Sen.
Having some mates to show me the best places for food and nightlife was a godsend and it would have been a different trip without them. Most weekends were spent on what is known as ‘party pier’. Despite the terrible music, Chinese nightlife was something I thoroughly enjoyed.
Being enthusiastically invited to a table by Chinese people was something I would never have gotten tired of. The standard ritual was to be passed a shot of whisky, then the whole table would stand and raise their glasses to “gan-bei” meaning “bottom up”. Considering my lack of Chinese language skill and, having already used up my catchphrase “Hello, I am from England”, this could again become the only fully comprehensible form of conversing. For the students I became pally with, drinking a sacred drink called “bai-ju”, or “white alcoholic drink” as it is literally translated (circa 50% alcohol content), was a ritual. As were Oasis fuelled karaoke nights – predictably far more popular in China than here. My Chinese nights out are among the most bizarre and memorable of my life.
Once I had finished my internship, I was keen to explore some other bits of China. I had not left Guangzhou since arriving and wanted to compare the giant city to other areas. I packed a bag, headed to the station, hopped on one of the super-fast long-distance trains (with a map printed for my arrival), and headed to a town called Guilin. I got a room at a hostel and explored the area a bit – found another Irish bar much to my delight, and did a few tours. I got talking to a Chinese tour guide who approached me and was trying to sell me a tour. He ended up joining me for lunch in the local market and over the meal he convinced me to come with him so I did. He drove me to the local tea plantation and showed me around, only asking for a fraction of the original price when we returned. Another random and delightful encounter. The scenery there is remarkably picturesque, with tall steep peaks springing out of nowhere from the misty damp forest-covered ground beneath.
I took this time like a holiday after my work and finished the book I had been reading like the retired Chinese worker I had just become.
After about a week and, having stocked up on ‘bai-jiu’ and world famous Chinese tea, I headed back to Guangzhou to say my goodbyes to friends, both Chinese and European. I was back in London just in time for Christmas.
All in all, not only did I catch a glimpse of a country in which I am truly fascinated, but I managed to make some good memories. There are, of course, also major CV building benefits for such a trip; doing an internship in China makes your CV interesting and it has cropped up in every form of job interview I have had since. It is the first thing employers ask to hear about and I imagine it is something that will crop up for a while. So, if anyone is reading this who is considering doing an internship in China, that is certainly something to consider.
Leaving for China I was nervous and I was prepared for the possibility that I might not enjoy myself at all. My motivation was primarily CV building. I can however say with confidence that I had a great time, and I am so very pleased to have gone but, more importantly, I have a new found respect for the mysterious country and its people. China is a bizarre place and it certainly wouldn’t be for everyone, but if you like exploring alien places and cultures in between hilarious and confusing encounters, go to China. There is so much to discover and so very much to enjoy.