Monday, June 9, 2014

Working in China: My Experience at a Yunnan NGO

My internship finished last Friday, and I am still wiping the sweat from my brow. I spent the weekend properly by lounging on my couch watching ancient episodes of The Simpsons, sort of in a state.

These past four months have really been something; I say something, because I still can't quite tell what. Working with my group has been incredibly challenging, and I am still figuring out which combination of factors made it so difficult for me to adjust. Foreigners in China are prone to blaming their problems on "China" with a capital C, but since China is such a large country with varying cultures I try to avoid doing this. I am more apt to say that maybe it's a Yunnan thing, but I also don't thinks so, because we are actually pretty relaxed out here in comparison with the more developed areas out on the coast. I am at an NGO, which are notoriously fast paced and 辛苦, according to all of my classmates in NGOs right now.  There is also the intern factor, where they were just piling on the work because, well, I work for free. But then again I'm not even really familiar with what real American work life is like, so maybe I am just being overly sensitive about the whole thing.

I remember arriving at my office with my two classmates on the first day. Us three, along with my two coworkers and my boss Amy sat around that giant dark wood conference table eating watermelon. There was a small whiteboard and a giant piece of white paper absolutely drowning under the ink of hastily written Chinese characters, which I would soon find out was the plans for my four months of work. My work was strange and nebulous, hard to pin down: about ten different long term projects were plunked down in front of me, some of them of types completely unfamiliar. "Just begin like you are starting a qualitative research report," Amy says to me. "You can interview news media reports, it should be fun," Amy says-- please imagine the my dear-in-headlights look that might accompany these intimidatingly offhand statements. After four months, many deadlines, and an excruciating number of meetings later, a large bulk of these plans, plus some other projects added on top, were only about halfway completed. I completed the major ones, but I was disappointed to see so many slip by the wayside.

Working with my organization sure had its quirks. We are made up of university professors in the area who come together several times a week to plan and do projects. This makes for much running around between universities, extended meeting times, company meals, and rescheduling. Much different from the classic nine to five scenario, I didn't have a classic boss who came to check in on me very much, and sometimes I felt like I didn't have all the support I needed to get my work done. It even dawned on me that the professors themselves might not be entirely clear about the organizational structure of the group. Three to four meetings per week was not only a total time sink, but would also make it difficult to keep priorities straight as they would add on new and "important" projects for me to do.

On a more positive note, being with my NGO also gave me some really interesting opportunities to learn about Chinese life. I will never forget the ability of my coworker Geng to be able to buzz around gracefully keeping everyone's teacup full, or Yin to be able to graciously fill everyone's rice bowls at our lunch meetings. I reflected to my classmate that it was really foreign for me to pour tea for the professors and serve them as needed and took some adjusting, whereupon he cried "I would never do that!" Our workplace had an unspoken hierarchy in which I and my two coworkers were much below our teachers. Another very interesting experience I had was listening to my professors speak openly to each other about their opinions on the Chinese government and Tibet and other topics which I thought were off limits. There was even one of these discussions in which a government worker participated in! I was surprised and delighted to be included in on these talks, and to find that contrary to popular belief, intellectual Chinese people have no qualms about talking politics. Another major discovery I had was that academics are cool. It's where the young people are and it where the interesting progress is happening. I'm not sure why this surprised me, because America is similar in this respect, but I always sort of had a tendency to think that academia is stuffy and snobby. It's part of the reason why I never had the urge to immediately enter graduate school. But in this country where so many people don't even make it into high school, college students clearly have an advantage for understanding the global zeitgeist, and they were crowd with which I felt most comfortable and welcomed.

Overall my experience was surprising, interesting, and challenging. I am really thankful to my organization for accepting me into their group and having me work alongside. I feel that a position at another NGO is not in my immediate future, but they have successfully launched me on a good trajectory, and I am looking forward to new employment in a similar vein. Maybe getting a job that actually pays me money will put my work into a more positive light? We shall see! I am fast in pursuit of a new job, and hopefully I will be able to answer that question very soon!