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Experiencing the Chinese Work Culture Through My Internship at SparkPad

Aug 28, 2018 1:30:00 PM / by Trisha Sanchez

Trisha Sanchez

Trisha is an official CAPA blogger for summer 2018, sharing her story in weekly posts on CAPA World. An International Business major at Champlain College, she is studying abroad in Shanghai this semester.

In this week's post, Trisha explains what the Chinese work culture is like and shares 5 important observations from her tech internship at SparkPad in Shanghai.

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During my time in Shanghai this past summer, my fellow intern Billy Hughes and I had the chance to experience the Chinese work culture as Software Development interns at the tech corporation SparkPad. SparkPad designs touchscreen interfaces that allow consumers to place orders with restaurant vendors without having to directly interact with wait staff or cashiers. Being a Computer Science minor myself, along with Billy having limited programming experience, we were hopeful to learn a lot more about working in the tech industry from interning with the company. Here are 5 observations and experiences that I encountered during my time in Shanghai.

1. Working and Socializing

At the Entrance with Fellow Intern Billy Hughes and SparkPad Co-Founder HeikwanAt the entrance of SparkPad, a tech company in China, with fellow intern Billy Hughes and co-founder Heikwan.

One of the first stark contrasts we found between the American and Chinese work cultures was the blend present between working and socializing. Back home, it’s a commonly accepted idea that one’s work life and personal life should be kept separate, whereas in China we found that not only is the reverse more common, but that retaining the opposite western ideal was actually frowned upon. The Chinese treat the employees in their companies as an extension of their families, with far more frequent company outings, weekend gatherings, and long trips, many of which are more obligational to participate in as it’s also frowned upon to not regularly attend these events (and can even reflect a poor morale). One person that interned in China with us had his company taking him on 2- or 3-day long trips to sightsee outside of Shanghai nearly every other weekend! In addition to participating in company outings, the sense of “not bringing work home with you” was absent, as people in China will typically want to know more about your personal life and what you’re like outside of work, and being vague or impersonal about this can come off as a displeasing trait whereas in our work culture it’s far more acceptable.

2. Rigid Efficiency vs. Creative Leeway

Billy Hughes and I at Our Workstations at SparkPadA candid photo of Billy and I at our workstations.

A stereotype about Chinese work culture I found being broken during my time at SparkPad was the concept that the Chinese are rigidly efficient in all work protocol to the point where no creative leeway or room for mistakes exist. At least working at a Chinese tech corporation, I found this to be the total opposite of the truth! In China, being overly critical of one’s work (a.k.a. “micromanaging”) is extremely frowned upon, so you will typically receive basic guidelines on an assignment or task and be expected to use trial and error, as well as common sense to achieve the desired product. After some progress has been made is typically when your supervisor will present you with further feedback.

Billy Hughes and I Intern at SparkPadAnother shot of us at the office.

Something that took me a while to adjust to when I was given the task of coding a project in a specific programming language was the number of times I would run into time-wasting errors in execution and would need to restart the entire project with a newly specified design. In the beginning I couldn’t stop thinking about how inefficient the work process was coming along, but then our supervisor Jingsheng explained that running into this many mistakes and starting from scratch over and over again was just another expected part of the project building process. I would almost describe the experience as a “reverse funnel” from what I’ve experienced in the US, in that beginning a project back home you’re typically given very well defined guidelines, and once you’re able to meet those you then receive leeway for implementing more creative elements; whereas in China you are given more informal instructions and only when things begin to go haywire or detract from the desired outcome will you receive more constructive critique or specifications.

3. Time

Billy Hughes and I with Our Favorite Coworker Xiao FangBilly and I with Xiao Fang, one of our favorite coworkers. We'll miss you!

When it comes to punctuality, the Chinese are somewhat lenient, at least when it comes to clocking in. Our day typically began at 10am or later, however it would also end typically no earlier than 6pm, when many of our coworkers were staying as late as 7 or 8 pm. One thing that everyone was very punctual for, which I noticed not just for our company but all the other businesses within our region as well, was lunchtime. When noon hit, a sea of people would flood the elevators in our building, and a massive flow of people walking in one direction toward the restaurants on the main street would unfold. Lunch was usually around 2 hours long and, unlike in the US, at our company it was out of the norm for someone to work through lunchtime. It was common for over half the staff to indulge in afternoon naps at their desk as well, which was a custom I soon adapted to myself!

4. Cross-Cultural Communication

Billy Hughes and I Giving a Presentation to the Everyone at SparkPadDelivering a presentation about the American culture to the entire company.

While Billy and I were interning with SparkPad, we had two opportunities to show the company a presentation about American life and culture. We approached the task as creatively as we could once our supervisors JingSheng and Heikwan informed us that we would be presenting to employees who mostly did not speak English, so there would definitely be a language barrier to consider. We resolved this by first choosing to incorporate several clips from classic American tv shows such as Seinfeld in order to assist our demonstrating cultural tropes to our Chinese coworkers through body language and facial reactions. We also put together several skits and got a chance to hone our acting chops! Although not everything got through the language barrier, most of our coworkers found the presentations to be rather informative and entertaining, so we considered it a success!

5. Kindness and Generosity

With the Entire Company at SparkPadWith the everyone from SparkPad.
From left to right:  Our supervisor JingSheng (in glasses), Billy, myself, and Heikwan.

One of the best things we both enjoyed about being at our internship were our coworkers. They were always very personable with us and tried their hardest to communicate with us in English (although frequently their Chinese friends would laugh when they messed up). Our office environment was very generous as our coworkers would often bring us snacks or buy us lunch without us even asking! There was definitely time during the day to stop and “smell the roses,” and once we were even treated to an impromptu boxing match toward the end of the day between one of the co-founders of the company, Heikwan, and our coworker Xiao Fang. It was a quick and very informal match in the middle of the office. Heikwan won, but Fang put up a valiant fight! I hope that I can take this cultural norm more than any other home with me and implement it in future workplaces so I can remember how much better work life is when you’re bonding with your colleagues.

Thanks Trisha!

Trisha's journey continues every Tuesday so stay tuned.

Learn More about the CAPA Shanghai Program

Topics: Shanghai, China, Internships Abroad