July 2019 – one of the most riveting months of my entire life so far… was spent doing a legal internship in Shanghai! I certainly didn’t expect to feel this way when I first started my program.
On the night of Thursday 27 June 2019, I arrived in Shanghai after a 10.5 hour flight from Sydney. As I lugged my huge suitcase into my single-bed hostel room, it really dawned on me that I would be spending an entire month in a foreign city with no one by my side. One reason that I chose a hostel to stay in was so that I could meet other travelers like me – so I could feel a sense of familiarity in what was a month of anything but familiar.
Although I had a decent grasp of Mandarin thanks to my parents, I saw it more a curse rather than a blessing. I wasn’t able to express complex thoughts or string together long sentences. Although I was able to ask for directions or order food at restaurants without issue, ‘Add me on WeChat’ and ‘I want to open a bank account with a debit card’ were slightly outside my vocabulary bank. I also felt distinctly like a ‘foreigner’ – I couldn’t even order KFC at one particular restaurant because I didn’t have WeChat Pay, which unfortunately required a Chinese bank account. Paying for things in cash just wasn’t a thing in Shanghai!
As I started with the internship the following week, I slowly but surely began to find my feet. By that point I had secured a Chinese bank account and was living and paying like a local! At Hui Ye Law Firm, I was introduced to the craze that is ordering milk tea (or bubble tea) using delivery services straight to the office. Can you imagine using UberEats or Deliveroo to send a coffee up to your office! I discovered that napping at work was entirely appropriate given Chinese business culture and the expectation to work long hours.
Progressing with the internship, I began to appreciate Chinese cultural values such as ‘guanxi‘ (the relationship) and ‘mianzi‘ (the concept of ‘face’). This meant not approaching shy colleagues for a conversation until they were ready on their own terms to have a meet-and-greet. It similarly meant not bothering my supervisors for more work until they were ready to provide it. Overcoming these initial barriers in understanding a foreign culture was one of the major successes of this internship.
Substantively, I was tasked with drafting various research papers, presenting on ‘Investing in Australian Real Property‘ to my Chinese colleagues and visiting both the Shanghai People’s Basic Court and the Shanghai Commercial Mediation Centre. In the final week, there was a brief change of scenery with a visit to the Nanjing office! None of it felt like I was doing things for the sake of an internship – it truly felt like each task was provided so that I would better understand Chinese culture, Chinese commercial law and Chinese working habits.
Having stayed in a hostel, I looked forward to chilling out in the rooftop bar every evening after finishing work. Unwinding after a long day with a beer and some international friends – I couldn’t have asked for more! In my spare time, I visited the nearby city Suzhou (the ‘Venice of the East’), did tourist-y things around Shanghai and even sat down for a dumpling class! An honourable mention definitely goes to the unforgettable KTV (karaoke) nights!
Striking a balance between work and play was perhaps one of the most enriching aspects of the internship. In some ways, I felt like I was truly an adult managing my own time, relationships, work and travels. Navigating the challenges, highs and lows of Shanghai, I feel like I have taken positive steps to becoming a Global Leader. I have found mentors from Hui Ye and friends across the world that I no doubt will keep for life.