My China Internship Experience - 7 Months On A Boat

by Spencer Jan
(Seattle WA/Shanghai China)

My China internship took place on a five star cruise ship that sailed the Three Gorges (between Wuhan and Chongqing). My job was to be the tour guide who looked after the English speaking passengers. I translated cultural lectures, gave outdoor narrations as we sailed through the gorges, hosted evening parties, and got to work with a 300+ person Chinese staff. It was a great experience and prepared me a great deal for the China business travels that are such a big part of my life now.

Reflecting back on my seven month China internship working for RCC, my mind wanders back to when I first arrived in China. The experience was so new and exciting. I have learned a lot about the people and culture of China. I experienced an entirely new working environment and struggled with work problems I have never been faced with before. The RCC internship provided me with lessons and challenges that have left me with priceless experiences.

One of the cultural differences I observed while in China was the workplace culture. From the very start I felt the need to quickly establish positive relations (the Chinese call this “guanxi”) with those I was to work with for the next 6 months. It was a difficult task to learn the proper ways to address people. There is a clearly defined level of seniority within the Chinese workplace. For instance, Marvin Cui who was the entertainment manager was not addressed as Marvin nor was he to be addressed Mr. Cui but rather Manager Cui. This form of properly addressing co-workers was only the beginning of what turned out to be a culturally complex workplace.

Eating meals took place at the same time for everyone on the ship; however, there were separate areas for eating depending on one’s position within the hierarchy of this small working society. Even within the eating areas there were certain seats for certain people of differing importance. The seats in the middle of the table, which were closest to the dishes, were left open or at least always given up when the GM walked in. Although there was no written rule this was always the case. This public gesture was a means by which one was able to give face (the Chinese call this mianzi) to another person. This idea of mianzi was incorporated into everyday actions when dealing with the Chinese especially in the workplace.

I had numerous chances to interact, interpret, and help convey ideas of our American guests with the Chinese crew. These opportunities allowed me to more clearly define the cultural differences between people from different sides of the world. One incident that was interesting was when the doctors on the ship charged more than what the western patients claimed they received in services. The Chinese doctors were unwilling to admit fault while the western patients stood by the idea that the customer is always right. After explaining the Chinese cultural idea of “face” the patients were able to better understand the Chinese concept of face and quietly accepted a small gift instead of a refund of money which would cause the doctors to lose face.

The proper ways of interacting with the Chinese with regards to proper business etiquette was a difficult but rather enjoyable challenge. The list of cultural complexities that I experienced while in China helped me understand that just like the difficult spoken language of Chinese, a substantial knowledge and competence of cultural skills is a necessity for survival.

Almost 10 years have past since my first China internship. Looking back on where I am now today, I realize how important my first China internship experience was. It was a shot in the dark that ended up being a trial by fire. I survived and learned a whole lot from it. I continue to experience this same pattern in my China business dealings (and travels) to this very day. What keeps me going is the feeling of knowing that I've been through the fire early on in my China travels... so BRING IT ON CHINA!!!

Spencer Jan

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