A British Graduates Summer in Shanghai

photo (13)Apart from the really fortunate among you, those who have recently finished university will have a good idea on how competitive it is to attain employment in such a saturated market. For the modern day graduate, a university degree fails to deliver as it once did. With so many candidates going in for the same role, employers can be extremely fastidious about who they hire. Consequently, it takes something special to diversify ourselves from the rest of the pack.

I was aspiring to work in the city of London in the financial sector. However, as a consequence of limited work experience, I felt this was somewhat of a long shot. So I fervently hunted for an internship that would give me the edge I needed to stand a fighting chance in my quest for employment, a search which forcefully opened up the doors to my summer in Shanghai.

Chinese culture is worlds apart from our own. It is thoroughly paradoxical. When I initially arrived in Shanghai there were many peculiarities I had to adjust to – eating with chopsticks being the obvious, but once you have the opportunity to get amongst it, you start to acknowledge a multitude of adjacencies between their culture and ours. The mad rush is ubiquitous – everyone is ensnared by it. The ride to work on the metro each morning was dumbfounding. I could not believe all the pushing and shoving that was ensued to secure a place on the train. It is possible, if not probable, that the citizens of Shanghai have never heard of the concept of queuing. An open mind is fundamental so one can avoid haphazardly mistaking this behaviour as rude or obnoxious. Health and safety is either non-existent, or very poorly enforced. Visions of an unprotected man squeezing his helmet-less wife, and baby on the back of a vesper still reside within my memory. No one drives within the lines. No one has any regard for road signs. Perhaps in my ignorance I was consistently unaware of a more subtle sense of order. Nevertheless, the almost unidentifiable, indefatigable, magic of Shanghai rapidly conditioned me. In fact, the inscrutable process happened so swiftly, I failed to realise how accustomed I was getting to life in Shanghai.

You would be hard pressed not to notice China’s extraordinary rise to prominence in the world of business over the past few decades. In Shanghai it is equally visible in the day-to-day lives of it’s citizens. The Chinese are an entrepreneurial people – food vendors line the streets selling their wares. In the event of an unexpected rain storm, they come out in droves to sell you umbrellas and rain coats, which in turn, leaves one desperately wondering where they all appeared from. It is no wonder that China is growing so fast. In their eagerness to sell low cost, profitable products it was a commonality to find fake alcohol being served in the middle of Shanghai’s night scene; this is an  enumerated warning that circles the expatriate community. One frequently-used, treacherous, and temerarious tactic to counterfeit alcohol is to water the alcohol down with coloured dyes. In the case of fake wines, wood chips can be added to give it that tannin flavour.  This gives you a feel about how keen they are to maximise profits, regardless of how illicit their methods may be.  Their unyielding, callous desire to generate wealth is a by-product of having never had it. I can relate to that.

In contrast to the blatantly obvious, in the privacy of high end corporate offices, a new breed of enterprise is born. Business is a much slower process where close relationships must be forged before any transaction can be made. Business is done more on trust than it is on contract; such is the law of Guanxi. At its most basic, Guanxi is best described as the benefits gained from a social connection or relationship between two people. One may ask a favour or service of the other, or indeed be asked to perform a favour or service. It is custom in Chinese culture to generate many Guanxi relationships, and therefore it is easy to see why it may take time to generate business where no relationship precedes the partnership.

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Shanghai has been a truly inspiring place for me. Being surrounded by vast amounts of entrepreneurial people ceaselessly trying to carve out an indispensable threshold named survival for themselves, can be the motivation needed to emphatically provoke one to go out and do it for themselves; and for me it certainly was. I feel the western world, with its copious amounts of social security, lends itself to a more relaxed way of living. Shanghai has caused me to question the way we live in the first world. My concern is that too many taxes and social security takes from us our aspirations and incentives. I used to be grateful for the way our country was run, for our freedom and opportunity. But now I think about it, we are content to accept what we have and never go anywhere. Subsequently, as many of us sit in the midst of economic gloom, clutching at unjustifiable lethargy, unwilling to work our way out, the Chinese continue to grow in prominence and prosperity – and deservedly so. Now that I have returned from Shanghai, I fully intend to follow the Chinese example and keep my foot firmly on the throttle.