Things I Wish I Knew Before Working in China (Shanghai, China)

by Kerry Lin

After my exchange in Hong Kong, I didn’t really want to come home yet, so I took the opportunity to intern in Shanghai. It was one of the most rewarding things I did whilst abroad and highly encourage you to consider interning during your exchange too. Not only is it a huge learning experience, but you will also have interesting stories to tell at job/internship interviews, which could help you stand out.

For those of you who are interested in working in China, here are some of the things (China focused) I wish I knew beforehand:

1. Your boss

Chinese bosses are hard to work with, and it might take some getting used to. For me, my boss was most definitely not a collaborative person, disregarded the suggestions of members of our team, always made a decision on his own, sometimes turned up to work at 2pm, missed team meetings, and used sexually suggestive and rude language towards female team members. Sometimes this made work horrible and midway through my internship, there were SOOO many days where I just did not want to go to work.

Most of the time, these bosses are hired because they can earn the big $$$$ for the company, but as a person, they aren’t very pleasant to work with. It might have just been my experience, but I’m sure it’s common in China.

Take it as a learning experience and be comforted that you will have a lot of situations to draw upon when you are asked difficult questions in interviews.

2. Your colleagues

Everyone tends to keep to themselves at work and the divide between work life and social life is very distinct. No one hangs out with their colleagues after work, so don’t be disheartened if they don’t invite you / reject your invite to hang out at the end of the day.

And don’t worry if they don’t really want to socialise with you in the office either; my colleagues didn’t really see a point of small talk. Everyone came to work, plugged themselves in at their desk and got straight into a task. There is often no interest to get to know the others in the team or in the office. The extent of socialisation that happens in Chinese workplaces would be going out to grab lunch together. (More about that later)

On the flip side of the coin, as a foreigner, you might also have it easy. Some Chinese colleagues might be very interested in talking to you, because you are ‘different’. From my experience, the Chinese colleagues that have had overseas experience (whether it be university or work) or are more interested in Western culture will be more willing to hold a conversation with you.

3. WeChat

WeChat runs China. Literally.

You will most definitely have a team group chat on WeChat. I was working in a global consulting firm and we also had a group chat for the whole office (yes, you read that right, WHOLE office, as in 107 people were in the group chat). Although it was mentioned above that people might not seem that sociable in person, or colleagues might not be talking to each other face to face; it is a completely different story on WeChat. They send hundreds of messages to the group chat every day, and often it’s the most random conversations….

Even though WeChat can be considered China’s version of Facebook Messenger, it is so much more as well, and being on WeChat all day at work is perfectly normal and necessary.

EVERYTHING gets done on WeChat. Often when I asked one of my colleagues to send the document to me, they would send it to me through WeChat (at the beginning I thought: “Why not email?!?!” but you get used to it). Office announcements are sent out through WeChat. Some conference calls are made on WeChat.

So get your WeChat emoji’s and stickers ready because you’ll spend 80% of your day on WeChat ☺

4. The Chinese take lunch times very seriously

Whatever you do, do not go out and get lunch at 12pm. The whole of CHINA would be outside having lunch. It’s almost as if it’s a CRIME to not have lunch at 12pm.

You might look around the office at 12pm and think you turned up to work on a Saturday. If you want to skip the lines, grab lunch after 1pm. This may sound ridiculous, but lines in China are crazy. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Things I Wish I Knew Before Working in China - Burson Marsteller
Last Day at Work

These were just my experiences, and the lessons that I learnt. After writing this, I realise that these tips might not apply to everyone that interns in China, so take it with a grain of salt.

Overall, I would say that working in China was definitely rewarding and eye opening. Although there were its ups and downs, I look back at my time in Shanghai and I would do it again in a heartbeat.


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