Alice Slevison from Asia Options sat down with Charlton Martin to chat about his experience at the Australian Trade Commission in Taiwan, as part of the Australia China Youth Association Austrade internship program.
Some background about Charlton:In 2011, whilst an undergraduate student of the University of Tasmania, Charlton Martin received the Ministry of Education Huayu Scholarship to study Chinese at the National Taiwan Normal University (NTNU) in Taipei, before returning to Tasmania to complete a Bachelor of Economics with Honours (First Class) in 2012. Upon completion of the Honours degree Charlton returned to NTNU, continuing his study of Chinese until February 2014 when he received a bi-lingual internship position at Austrade Taipei. He has published on the economics of China’s rise and recently completed a course on this topic at Peking University through the London School of Economics. In the future, Charlton hopes to complete a PhD examining the Great Shift East and its implications for Australia and the world. Charlton is also the Founder and President of Australia-China Youth Association (ACYA) Taipei. Charlton has recently produced an article for the ACYA examining the middle-income trap in China.
How did you find out about the ACYA Austrade internship opportunity?
I learned of the Austrade Internship through attendance at a Sundowners event run by the Australia New Zealand Chamber of Commerce Taipei (ANZCham Taipei). Here I chatted with Austrade Taipei’s Senior Trade Commissioner, Martin Walsh, who passed on his card and advised me to apply for the position. All the details were on the careers tab of the ACYA website.
Do you have any tips for others applying for similar opportunities?
I have been party to much debate around how useful Mandarin Chinese really is for getting a job in Greater China, given that local professionals often already have great English. During my time at Austrade, I learnt that even in an environment where colleagues have near-perfect English, Chinese is still an indispensable skill. Understanding what your workmates are talking about, being able to participate in non-one-on-one conversation, making small talk with local businesspeople at the various seminars, conferences and trade shows are all crucial skills for work at Austrade, or for employment within Greater China more generally. Thus, my biggest tip for securing similar opportunities is to get your Chinese to a level at which you are confident to use it in a business context. An implication of this is that one should live in a Chinese language environment for a good length of time – it is difficult to elevate your Mandarin to a strong level just studying in Australia. All previous Austrade Taipei interns, including myself, have benefited from the elevation of language skills that arise from living in a Mandarin-speaking environment.
What did you gain from interning at Austrade Taipei?
On just my second day on the job Martin said to me ‘come on Charlton, you’re coming to meet the managing director of Yellow Tail Wines– and make sure you don’t forget your business cards’. It was the 10 year anniversary of Yellow Tail Wines in Taiwan. We entered the function room and Martin went straight to the stage and delivered a speech in Mandarin before sitting with the distinguished guests. I sat on the table behind surrounded by a group of Taiwanese wine connoisseurs and entrepreneurs. They chatted with me about the Taiwan wine industry, their thoughts on Australian wine and a range of other fascinating topics. Within an hour or so my pocket had about 25 new business cards, and I’d met some intriguing and important people. Such functions, which span a range of industries important to Australia trade, are the heart of Austrade’s business; and they were also the most enjoyable part of the job for me. These industry events gave me a grassroots view of how Australian products end up on shelves all around the world.
In just my first week on the job, Martin sat me down and said ‘this internship is not about what Austrade can ‘get’ out of you, it’s about how we can support your development’. Accordingly, knowing I had a background in economics, he set me a number of economic research projects spanning trade and investment, through to domestic market analysis. So I also took away from my internship a big-picture view of the Taiwan-Australia bilateral trade and investment relationship, and a nuanced view of Taiwan’s domestic economy. Such knowledge and experience will be invaluable in pursuing a future career in economics and/or business within Greater China. I am most extremely grateful.
Any negative aspects of the program?
This is by no means a diplomatic answer: but for me, there were no negatives in interning at Austrade Taipei. I was able to practice my Chinese in a non-classroom setting and experience real exposure to Taiwan business life, met a range of valuable contacts within the Australia-Taiwan bilateral relationship and conducted economic research in both English and Chinese – all in an incredibly friendly, welcoming and supportive setting. On top of all that I also got paid a decent salary and got to work on the 27th floor of the International Tower downtown, which had an amazing view straight over 101 and the mountains in the background – really beautiful!
Outcomes of the program?
I am keen to further my research skills in economics applied to Greater China, so I wasn’t expressly seeking future employment. However, in my view, Austrade is unlikely to have many post-internship positions. Each Austrade office has a trade commissioner, administration staff and business development managers (BDM’s) who are each in charge of a portfolio of industries. Their job is to find domestic buyers of Australian exports, which requires absolute fluency in the native tongue, an intricate understanding of the local industry and good relationships with its key players. In my experience, the vast majority of foreigners working within China never attain absolute fluency and often live in a microcosm of the Western world – factors which preclude them from ever converging with the knowledge, behaviours and skills of a local BDM. Moreover, if one did attain these requisite skills one could probably find more lucrative employment opportunities elsewhere.
However, that said, the internship is a great addition to the CV of anyone looking to build an Asia-centered career, particularly if your background is in business, economics or international relations. Within economics and international relations, there are many jobs at embassies and international organizations throughout greater China which will value previous experience within a bilingual language environment – especially one, like Austrade, in which China-focused trade and economic issues were examined. Similarly, for business, multinational corporations value experience gained in a bilingual environment and with an understanding of business etiquette within Greater China.
If, however, you are looking for a greater challenge, Austrade provides many opportunities to have face time and build rapport with directors and CEOs from local firms which already have an interest in Australia. Thus, the Austrade internship could also provide a stepping stone into an almost purely Mandarin working environment within a local company. Although the pay conditions will certainly not be near the standards of an embassy job, the experience would be invaluable for full amalgamation into the domestic working environment. As it’s a path many foreigners cannot or will not take, the potential gains of ‘sticking it out’, I believe, are substantial in terms of future career prospects. Indeed, this is the advice Martin gave me upon finishing up my internship, and I may still go down that road.
Was the internship a paid position?
The Austrade internship is a three-month full time paid position. The salary is set at the minimum wage so it can meet the basic terms of Taiwan’s labour laws, and full-time engagement precludes the intern from working a second job. The salary is enough to live comfortably on; allowing you to enjoy the best Taiwan has to offer. I recently had an old high school friend come to Taiwan to visit me, and she was astounded by how many beautiful places there are to visit that she’d never heard of; Taroko Gorge, Sun Moon Lake, Yushan, Hualien to name a few. Tourism Taiwan has tended to restrict its promotional initiatives to neighbouring Asia, as there is a quicker response time. So don’t forget to go exploring on the weekends. There is much to see and do.
How did you find the office culture?
As I mentioned, the focus of Austrade Taipei was on my development as well as on Austrade’s strategic objectives. Thus, the various economic research projects Martin assigned to me may be markedly different to those given to the incumbent intern, Jack, whose speciality is law. However, many projects are delegated by the BDM’s and are likely to be given on a needs basis. My advice would be to develop good relationships with the BDM’s as ultimately your inclusion is their prerogative. They too have fascinating projects which could be valuable additions to your experience. For example, the investment manager assigned me to research the key individual players within Taiwan’s highly oligopolistic hotel industry; putting together small personal histories, the details of which were mainly in Chinese. This gave me a real sense of the nepotism that determines and dominates Taiwan’s market architecture.
Two key roles that will remain unchanged across the spectrum of potential interns is the role of quality control for all written documents within Austrade (the BDM’s are all local staff whose second language is English), and a facilitator and networker role at the various industry events hosted by Austrade.
The office culture is laid back, but still hard working. No dog-eat-dog behaviour. Moreover, the staff are all incredibly welcoming, and genuinely interested in getting to know you and hearing your stories from Australia and Taiwan. Quite often on a Friday we’d crack open a bottle of red and chat about stories arising from the work week, or go out for all-you-can-eat hotpot after work. As a result of these social opportunities by the end of my internship, I felt like I’d met a great bunch of new friends, and I have continued to catch up with many of them since.
What sort of visa did you use during the internship?
To work in Taiwan a working visa is mandatory. To obtain a working visa, Austrade will lodge an application with Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA). MOFA will return a letter of approval, which you will take, along with a personal application form, to one of their representative offices overseas which, upon lodgment takes 1-2 days processing. The fee is US$66 for single entry and US$132 for multiple entries. If you are in Australia, lodgment is with the Taipei Economic & Cultural Office (TECO) at their Brisbane, Melbourne or Sydney branches. If you are based in Taipei you can select any Taipei representative office in a neighbouring Asian country (I chose Singapore). Flight expenses are borne by the intern.
For more information please see the ACYA website.
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