My internship at the Oriental Danology Institute (自然力研究院) wasn’t quite what I expected to say the least. I anticipated working on the world water summit the organization has hosted for the last 3 years, as the interns last year did. However, our assigned project ended up being something else entirely. Two fellow IES interns and I worked on their “GRAYvity Cultural Center” project that involved renovating municipal community centers for retired/elderly citizens by redecorating the insides to provide a more hospitable environment for interacting with each other and would encourage younger people to participate as well. Our task was to conduct interviews with senior residents from the area who frequented the community centers for activities such as music lessons, playing ping pong, cooking, and just chatting together. The purpose of the interviews was to get their personal stories and memories about the places. We filmed the interviews and then translated and edited the footage to include both Chinese and English subtitles with the help of our Chinese co-worker Miya. We also did English translation for other miscellaneous print materials they had for other events as well.
Overall, this internship has been about as dysfunctional as I anticipated. I feel I have learned to be more flexible with lack of directions, grown more comfortable with having to work independently on tasks, and chasing the answers I need. I can see improvement in my Chinese communication from just daily tasks like interacting with shop personnel, restaurant staff, my Chinese co-worker, and reading street signs and menus. I feel I have learned quite a bit more about Chinese/Shanghaiese culture through the translations of the interview transcripts. Reading about the senior citizens’ lives was an interesting part of the experience that I wouldn’t have had at any other organization. I also appreciate that we got to visit multiple areas of the Jing’an district due to the nature of our work, but finding the locations on our own and coordinating how to introduce and conduct the interviews was a bit stressful. Our bosses, Jingjing and Zhou Lei, were very welcoming and open to questions, but were often preoccupied with other matters and weren’t present on a daily basis to oversee us. Given the small size of our organization, our agenda and instructions were often given on the fly and were subject to change at a moment’s notice, so flexibility was key in our work environment. This also seemed to be a trend in the other students’ internships as well as they might be given a task they weren’t expecting or felt prepared to carry out at first.
While I did primarily apply for the internship experience, the biggest gain has been the experience of living abroad in a culture different than the one I’m familiar with and learning to adjust to the pace of living (mostly) independently in the city. I’ve become far more comfortable speaking to native speakers and have gotten over the awkwardness/fear of being misunderstood or looking foolish, something I struggled with at my home institution even while taking classes. You just have to accept it won’t be perfect, but that it’s worth trying in the end and press into the uncomfortableness until it’s not an ordeal every time. Most people you talk to are very understanding that you’re trying your best. We all quickly learned how to make it most anywhere using only our map apps, public transport, and walking, a skill that seems simple but is a crucial part of daily life. I’d often go on errands or commute back by myself and became comfortable with doing a lot on my own. Being outside of my comfort zone on a daily basis made things that might seem like a big deal in the States, small potatoes (relatively speaking).
Shanghai requires you to grow a thick skin, but it has grown and challenged me to become a more “global citizen” and will always have a place in my heart.
This portion is for those considering traveling to Shanghai on the program in the future. These are my own personal tips based on my experience, take ‘em or leave ‘em.
• You WILL need an umbrella at some point during your stay, it’s up to you if you want to buy one there, bring one from home, or try to borrow/share the whole time
• Don’t need a money belt, but do need reliable means to carry money
• Either convert all your money at one time at a bank or keep withdrawing large sums from the ATM
• Bring some CNY with you when you arrive, at least enough to cover the taxi ride and from the airport and a meal (just one more thing you don’t have to struggle with immediately)
• Bring outlet converter/adapter as needed (especially pay attention to the voltage your computer cord can handle)
• Bring slightly more clothes or do laundry more often (it was hot af and the sweat was real, so it was harder to re-wear outfits without washing)
• Bring a backpack that could be used for weekend trips AND school work
• Figure out your VPN situation beforehand (often schools provide them)
• Comfortable, versatile shoes
• Check if there is a student discount on everything even if you’re unsure (especially tickets to touristy places)
• Nearly everything requires a bit of a commute, give yourself enough time to get places
Some pros and cons for those who can’t decide which would be a better fit:
• For those with an independent spirit
• Provided meals and laundry
• Some outings with fam
• Good Chinese practice
• Far from campus
• Hard to meet up with other students and hard to explore casually with others on campus
• Cafeteria and class v close
• Lots to do nearby
• Easy place to meet up and lots of field trips meet here
• No laundry
• May share room
• More of a bubble
• Have to find meals on your own (no microwave and fridge)