Interning in China

Coming to China I knew I wanted an internship but I had absolutely no idea what I wanted to do. I knew I wanted a real “internship”, not just a glorified volunteer position. I wanted to work in an office and learn valuable skills that I need for the “real world” all while learning about Chinese culture. We all had meetings with Han Bing, the man who is basically in charge of Alliance China and one of the most helpful people I have ever met in my entire life. I was worried walking into the meeting that he would be annoyed that I literally had no clue what I wanted to do for my internship, but in reality, I didn’t really know my options. I talked to Han Bing about my major and my interests and told him I wanted to work for a Chinese company but I couldn’t see myself walking around an office in a suit. He told me I was “too nice” for a corporate internship and that he had the perfect placement for me: the Study Abroad Foundation in China.

The Study Abroad Foundation (SAF) is an American non-profit organization that helps Chinese, Japanese and Korean students study abroad in America, Australia and Europe. I would be interning at one of the three mainland China offices. As of now I’ve been working at SAF for about a month (sorry guys, I’ve been really busy) but I’ve been keeping a work journal of my experiences at my office so I decided that every once and a while I’ll share some of it with everyone.

Day 1: The Interview

I was extremely nervous before my interview because I had never interviewed for a Chinese company before! I had no idea if the interview would be in English or Chinese or what kind of questions they would ask. I was also very worried about what to wear to the interview. I didn’t bring a lot of clothing with me to China, and I wanted to look very professional for my interview: I settled on black pants, a nice sweater and high heels. When I went down to the lobby, I assumed the man that runs SAF China would interview me but I was actually interviewed by this younger woman named Trina (her English name). I made sure to give her my business card with two hands and we went into the classroom to start our interview. I was surprised Marketus stayed for my interview, but it was very casual. I was expecting it to be more of an “interview” but it was kind of more of a “when can you start” interview. I told her about my major and Chinese level and we talked a little about SAF.

I was very surprised when she told me we would be going into the office. I hadn’t planned for that! I ran back upstairs to grab my coat and change my shoes to some peep-toe flats even though it was -500 degrees outside, because they were the only other nice shoes I brought. Marketus, Han Bing and Trina asked if my feet were cold, along with everyone else I met that day, even random people on the bus. Whoops. We walked about a block and took the bus to Beijing Normal University. On the bus Trina and I attempted to have a conversation but my Chinese conversational skills are severely lacking, and our English conversations were a little strained. At one point I was trying to ask her if SAF was part of Beijing Normal University, or an independent organization that just happened to reside at BNU and she had no idea what I was asking. This is before I learned that SAF was an American non-profit, and I eventually got all of the answers to my questions when I read through a giant packet they gave me at the office.

At the office I met my boss Daniel, and the two other SAF Beijing employees Richard and Helen. Daniel, is probably in his thirties while I believe Helen is a little bit older, and Richard and Trina are both in their 20’s. I was shocked by how small it was! Not only are there only 4 people at my work, the office is a little bit bigger than my dorm room! After talking with Daniel for a while about SAF and my schedule, I headed back to the bus to go home. I knew the bus I was supposed to take was 690, but I couldn’t find the sign for it anywhere! I asked a man who was in charge of crowd control and he was so confused! I tried saying it multiple ways, six-hundred and ninety, six nine zero- nothing worked. Finally he asked where I was going but I had no idea what the name of my university was in Chinese! He dragged me over to the sign and pointed at 960… whoops. Well at least now I know!

2/13- First real day

Today was my first real day at work. I had to meet my language partner for the first time, so I left for work a little late, around 1:20. I called my boss to tell him I had to be a little late, which was very awkward since it was my first real day. He told me it was no problem but I felt very unprofessional. There was nothing I could do about it though, because the language partner meeting was mandatory. I ran to the bus at 1:20 and on the bus I realized I had forgotten to look up the Chinese name for Beijing Normal University!!! I turned to the young Chinese couple behind me. “请问,你们知道北京normal大学的中文名字吗”? (“Excuse me, Do you know the Chinese name for Beijing Normal University?). They had no idea what I was talking about. Then the whole bus decided it was their job to help the 老外 (laowai- a term that means “foreigner” which may or may not be offensive depending on the context) with the pink computer figure out where she was going. The ticket-checker woman then started talking at me (yes, at me) in rapid Chinese with an extremely thick accent, asking me all of these questions. What?! Eventually we figured out where I was going, as the whole bus either eavesdropped or added to the conversation. The name for Beijing Normal University is Beijing Shifan Daxue, which kind of sounds like chi fan (to eat), which is how I remember it. The only problem was that I could not understand the woman’s accent! I thought she asked me how long I would be in China, so I said 8 months, but her reply was that I needed to work on my listening! So I’m guessing she asked how long have I been in China… I still don’t know. At least I provided endless entertainment for the entire bus.

When I arrived at work my four colleagues were in the middle of a conference call, and I had no idea what to do! I was only about 5 minutes late, which was a miracle. Towards the end of the conference call Daniel had me introduce myself in Chinese to everyone in the Shanghai and Guanzhou offices. After the conference call I worked on setting up my computer to the wireless printer, which I had never done before. Let’s just say I’m not very good with technology. Eventually I finally figured it out and Daniel had me work on setting up fetion, a QQ-esque chat, on my computer. I had to find one that was mac compatible, which was borderline impossible because all of the websites to download fetion were in Chinese. I was able to download 3 different mac versions but none of them worked on my computer! I worked on it for 3 hours and was unable to download it. Not the best first day at work but hopefully it will get better once I do real work.

On the way home I had to wait for the bus for FORTY FIVE MINUTES. In China, the busses are supposed to come every 5-10 minutes but they constantly have the same number of busses running all day so at 6:00 rush hour the busses get stuck in traffic and don’t come. I was so confused and tried to ask people in Chinese when the bus was coming and I eventually found an older man who spoke English. He explained to me that the 690 bus is notorious for being awful at night because it was literally the only bus that was not coming every 5-10 minutes. When the bus FINALLY arrived it was so crowded I had to basically climb through people’s legs to get on it. Let’s just say it was a “THESE PEOPLE” kind of day (more like THIS COUNTRY), but I bought a chocolate fish on the street and I felt a little better.



Today was my first day of real work. Yesterday I mostly read through SAF documents to get a better feel for what SAF is all about. They have a really nice English website since the non-profit is American, but a lot of the China-specific documents were in Chinese so I had to use google translate. The translations were a little 马马虎虎, but I figured it out. Today we talked a lot about what my exact job was, and how I would go about raising money for SAF. Basically I am in charge of setting up a scholarship fund to send Chinese students to western countries to study abroad. Right now, it is very difficult for Chinese families to afford to send their children to another country because of the higher cost of living, so Daniel really wants to raise scholarship funds. He and Jasmine, (last semester’s Alliance intern) contacted a few companies and set up an initial letter, but they didn’t really get much interest. My only job at SAF is to work on this scholarship fund, which is a good goal. Daniel had me write out a proposal of how I want to work on researching and contacting companies. I basically had no idea what I was doing, and I’ve never written a proposal before! I was really nervous about writing it and giving it to him because I didn’t know if it was what he wanted. I guess we’ll see on Monday!


Today is the first time it’s really hit me how hard it is to manage my internship with my classes and language partner. I finish class, scarf down lunch, leave at around 1:15, finish work at 6, it takes me about an hour to get home because I have to wait for the bus for about a half hour and then it takes another half hour to get home, then I run to meet my language partner by 7 and I don’t get to eat dinner until 8 so I go 8 hours without a meal. Today at my language partner meeting I had a full on physical meltdown from either exhaustion or not eating, and my stomach hurt so bad I could barely walk back to my dorm. My roommate got me ice cream, which actually helped- I just needed to eat something, but I now have to study for my test tomorrow and it’s almost 9:00. I think my language partner and I are going to try and change the days we meet so that I only have to meet with him one day that I also have my internship. Hopefully this works out because this week has been really rough.


This week has been a lot better in terms of workload and stress. My language partner and I have made it so that we meet on Tuesday, Thursday, Sunday, rather than Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, which was killing me since my internship is on Monday, Wednesday, Thursday. For the past two weeks I have been working on a spreadsheet of companies we think might donate. I write down all of their contact information, details about the company and their donation history to like causes. It’s not going as fast as I planned in my proposal, but that’s expected (I had no idea what I was doing when I wrote my proposal anyway). I also wrote a recommendation letter for companies to sign saying that we are a legitimate organization that is not going to rip anyone off. I thought it was very interesting that companies wouldn’t believe we were a real organization unless we have multiple universities writing recommendation letters for us, but the culture here is very different. Companies are just starting to realize that donating to the community is beneficial for them and tax breaks are a new idea here. Trying to convince a Chinese company to donate is much harder than in America because people are so afraid of being scammed. Hopefully my letter is good, and we can get some Universities to support us!


Daniel looked at my recommendation letter and said that he was going to re-write a Chinese version I could translate. I felt kind of bad that I apparently didn’t do a good enough job, but he said that the way I wrote it was very American, and wouldn’t work in Chinese business culture. The one thing I thought was interesting was how I had written “I am I representative of blank University”, which apparently doesn’t work in China because by saying you are a representative you are taking all the credit for that university, so if something goes wrong you could get blamed. I didn’t really understand it but apparently no one wants to take credit and use their name, so the letter has to be written in third person. Instead of saying “I am a representative of this university and I vouch for SAF because they’ve helped our students study abroad etc. etc.”, you have to say “blank University fully supports SAF because they’ve helped our students study abroad”. It was a culturally interesting experience to compare his letter to mine, because in America, the Chinese letter would be weirdly formal and not personal, but China has a very different business culture than the United States. Hopefully I’ll get to learn a lot more about it while I’m here so I can bring my experiences back to the US for future job opportunities!


Today at work everyone was really tired and somewhat sluggish so my boss told us all to go outside and “exercise”. Trina bought these hacky-sack-like things that had feathers attached and we played around outside for about 25 minutes. It was really fun and I was pretty much awful, but I got a lot better. I thought it was an interesting idea for Daniel to have us go outside, but it did make us a lot more productive. Even though we wasted about a half an hour we were all upbeat and awake for the rest of the day afterwards. I also really liked bonding with the people at my work. Helen and Daniel speak very good English because they went to grad school in English speaking countries, but Trina and Richard are a bit more hesitant. Everyone at my work speaks English to me and I speak Chinese to them. I think I would get better at Chinese if they spoke only Chinese to me, but they want to practice their English too. Sometimes I have to speak English if I have an important question or they ask me a really detailed question, but I try to speak as much Chinese as I can! For example, if I’m asked: “Richelle, please explain the scholarship system in the United States”, I can’t really use Chinese, but I try to incorporate as much of it as I can.


Tuesday night my glasses broke (they’re really old and they basically fell apart on my face) and I tried to get them fixed yesterday but apparently their un-repairable. My boss helped me tape them back together so I could get through work yesterday, and they actually worked pretty well, but I couldn’t bend the arm of one side. Today Daniel called me at 1:00, telling me he was near my campus and to come downstairs in 15 minutes so he could take me to get new glasses! I told him I was going to just try and super glue mine but he insisted, and picked me up outside my dorm and drove me about 45 minutes to this glasses mall. I picked out frames and had my eye exam done and my glasses were 180 kuai (aka $20- INCLUDING the eye exam). I was so shocked when Daniel said he was going to have SAF pay for my glasses! I tried to convince him I had enough money, but he said that I needed them to work, and so he was going to pay for them.

On the way back to work we talked about politics in the car. We started out with American politics and at one point he asked if you need to join the Democratic or Republican Party like you need to join the Communist party. I told him you didn’t and asked him if he was in the Communist party. He told me he wasn’t and that now only really politically active people joined the party. He said he thought that you basically had to be rich to be a politician and I brought up Obama, who didn’t have a lot of money growing up. We agreed that Obama was an exception to the rule, but that it is possible to be a powerful politician in America without being rich as long as you work really hard and have rich people who support you. I was surprised how much he knew about American politics; he knew all of the names of the people running for the republican presidential candidacy, but he was also surprised how much I knew about Bo Xi Lai’s scandal and the speculation for the future leader of China.

So that’s everything from my internship for now, I’ll keep you all posted with the progress I make in raising money, as well as interesting cultural things I learn about China at work. I also have to write a huge (8-10 page) paper about the cultural differences of Chinese and American working culture so I’ll be sure to share some of that too!



About Richelle

Expat, traveler, and spicy food lover, I've spent the last few years living in China and traveling around Asia. In my spare time I enjoy salsa dancing, exploring night markets and stuffing my face with street food.

4 comments on “Interning in China

  1. There are so many things that are different when you compare two cultures. China and the USA are certainly some of the more extreme. It’s always really tricky to sort out just what are the cultural or political differences versus what are the personal or attitudinal differences. Regardless, I am sure that all the things that you are learning will be very valuable in future employment. It sounds like very exhausting but rich experiences!

  2. Pingback: Beijing | Richelle Gamlam Photography

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