The Best of Both Worlds: Discussing Study Melbourne’s Language and Internship China Program with James Webster

Are you a university student in Melbourne? Ever considered gaining some overseas experience to boost your resume, or simply to experience something new?

Since 2017, Study Melbourne has been running the Study Melbourne Language and Internship program in China, which enables twenty-five Victorian-based tertiary students annually to experience work and study life in China!

Last year James Webster took part in the program in Chengdu. James is completing a double degree in Law and Arts at La Trobe University in Bundoora. Recently we caught up to find out his thoughts on the program.

Why did you decide to apply for the Study Melbourne Language and Internship Program?

“I really wanted to get some work experience before finishing my degree. I love to travel, and with the program supported by the Victorian State government, it was too good an opportunity to miss. Also, despite having previous experience studying in Taiwan, I knew that the work environment would be something entirely different. It just really sounded like the best of both worlds —how often does an opportunity that includes study and work pop up like this?”

The program was run in both Beijing and Chengdu, what made you opt for Chengdu?

“I didn’t have a very clear idea of which city would be the best option. My first thought was Beijing, just given the fact that it’s such a big business and international city, perhaps there would be a greater range of opportunities in regards to my internship. As it turned out, I was placed in a law firm called De Heng in Chengdu. And I’m so glad I was! My expectations were quite low, all I’d heard about the city was that it was renowned for its spicy cuisine, and it was home to the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding.”

What in particular did you enjoy about Chengdu?

“Chengdu is such a vibrant city. It was easy to walk around and find something exciting everywhere you went. Chengdu is famous for its unique Sichuanese cuisine which absolutely lived up to its reputation. Jinli Street, and the Kuanzhai Xiangzi Alleys stick out as memorable highlights for great street food. Not to mention the hot pot, which is an absolute must-try when visiting this region of China.”

Did the program include any experiences outside of work and study?

“Apart from the language and internship aspects of the program, there are also a range of culture and business-related weekend excursions organised. We visited an ancient city in neighbouring Chongqing, the Volkswagen factory, and, of course, the world-famous Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding.”

The internship takes up the majority of the program. How did you find the program from a working perspective?

“I was honestly flabbergasted by my working experience, and I mean that in the best way possible. Even though I was only a temporary intern, my colleagues and superiors were engaging with me like a legitimate member of the team, and I was given tasks that I knew were actually contributing to the firm.

I was drafting documentation for review, cross-examining contracts, all the while working closely with my Chinese colleagues. Over the five weeks, there was one project that stands out in particular. I was analysing and reviewing power purchasing agreements for infrastructure projects related to the Belt and Road Initiative. It was quite surreal, I almost felt like asking, ‘Are you sure you want me to draft this?’ I couldn’t believe I was being trusted with this level of responsibility!”   

Did you notice many differences between the Chinese and Australian working environment?

“Yes and no. Everybody has heard the stereotype of the grueling work culture in China, but that wasn’t the case at De Heng. All the staff in the office worked regular nine to five hours. Also luckily for me, all the work I was doing was primarily in English, including the materials we were reviewing and drafting. Despite having several years of experience studying Mandarin, I think it would have been a step too far doing this sort of work in Chinese.

Even though we were largely communicating English, there was definitely some interesting cultural differences I observed whilst working in China. For starters, WeChat is used for just about everything, including communication amongst co-workers in the office. Also, surprisingly, it’s completely socially acceptable to nap at your desk. I can’t imagine anyone doing this in Australia, but at my office in Chengdu, a bunch of Chinese colleagues would lay their heads on the desk for little breaks, and no one even seemed to notice.”

Would you recommend this program? And if so, why?

“Absolutely! As I said, this program is really the best of both worlds. To be given the time to get such a rare opportunity such as working abroad, and to gain such a valuable skill as the Chinese language, is priceless. It’s really for anyone that wants to get a better understanding of China, which traditionally speaking is a very misunderstood place. Most people agree that China is growing in significance, yet few people are willing to take the time to really engage and get to know it. It’s an enormous contradiction, really, it’s not until you’re there, experiencing it, that you can honestly separate truth from fiction. 

Another thing is that nobody should be put off if they don’t have experience studying Mandarin. The program is for people of all abilities, from absolute beginners to the super experienced. During the three weeks of language classes, you’ll be put into classes that will help you improve no matter what your level, so give it a shot! Plus, you get a taste of Chinese University living, I did my classes at the Southwestern University of Finance and Economics, and we lived on the campus too. Trust me, Chinese is nowhere near as daunting as people make it out to be.

All in all, China is such an exciting and unique place. It’s unlike anywhere else, and it absolutely brings the best out of people. I’ve been very lucky to have been brought up in a family that loves to travel — I’ve been to 32 countries in total, but there’s something that keeps pulling me back to China.”

Applications for the 2019-2020 iteration of Study Melbourne’s Language and Internship Program will be open during August, with the program taking place between 24 November 2019 and 18 January 2020.

For more detailed information regarding this year’s specific program details, including costs, and how to apply, please visit the Study Melbourne website.

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Oliver Lees

Oliver Lees is a journalist based in Melbourne. With extensive experience in China, he's passionate about sharing stories in the Australia-China space.

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