10 things I wish I’d known at the start of my internship in Shanghai

I’ve spent the last two months in Shanghai interning for Ostara Productions, as part of CRCC Asia’s fabulous internship scheme, my place having been funded by the British Council’s China – Generation UK initiative.

I couldn’t recommend the experience more wholeheartedly.

As my time here draws to a close, I am filled with a mixture of jealousy that the new interns have such an amazing time ahead, and utter sadness that I will be leaving the most incredible city.


For those yet to touchdown here, beyond the obvious advice of how much you need a VPN and Wechat, here are some other nuggets of wisdom I think are worth knowing:

1. How quickly time flies when in Shanghai.

There is so much to do here that if you’re making the most out of the city then you’ll also be learning how to run on next to no sleep. Most of my fellow interns and I have learnt from experience how easy it is to waste most of the much-needed weekend in a hung-over, self-indulgent, guzzling comfort food sort of state. But your months here will be over before you know it. My advice? Get geeky, get a guidebook and get writing a to-do list from it that you can gradually cross off. There is so much to do, see, eat and drink here that without some serious determination, you’ll be missing out.

2. How optional the bag checks are at metro stations.

This is a phenomenon that never fails to baffle me. Every single entrance to every single metro station is watched over by a uniformed security guard, employed with the specific purpose of guiding metro users to put their belongings through the baggage screening machines. Despite this simple job description, they do absolutely nothing beyond pointing and stammering the odd command in mandarin. Feel free to put your bag through the x-ray, but you’ll be wasting your time. So if you’re feeling down just think of the metro’s security personnel for proof that your internship is, at least, more challenging and useful than their job.

3. How delicious, cheap and (sometimes) nutritious street food is.

65p dinner? Sure.
65p dinner? Sure.

On my first weekend in Shanghai, a group of us interns got the metro to Carrefour in Zhongshan Park for a basic food shop. Upon paying, we were confused when the price came to what we would have expected back home, as we had been under the impression that everything in China would be cheap as chips. With two months of Shanghai experience under my belt, I can now eat three meals a day for £2 thanks to the wondrous world of street food. Cast your doubts aside and embrace eggy wraps for breakfast, steamed buns for lunch and noodles for dinner. It’s all fresh, inexpensive and ridiculously tasty. Your wallet will thank you for it, your waistline might not.

4. How, internship-wise, if you don’t ask you don’t get.

As an intern you are an unknown being, from far far away, starting at the bottom. Though not an ideal position to be in, you have everything to gain from being as enthusiastic and hard working as possible. Some interns complain about being given little responsibility or work to do in the office, but once you prove yourself capable then the world is your oyster. Outside the walls of the office? Get networking! My visit to the Shanghai expat mixer did not prove fruitful in terms of the journalism contacts I wanted, but I did win tickets to the Shanghai Beer Festival, which proved to be the best night ever! Get Wechatting anyone and everyone, you never know where it may lead.

5. How quickly money disappears.

With the mentality that China is cheap and as a westerner, you’re pretty darn exotic, it is easy to get lost in feeling like royalty amongst countless happy hours and cheap taxi journeys. And yes, you can buy everything you want from back home – from Head & Shoulders shampoo to Starbucks green tea lattes. But, this lifestyle comes at a price in China. My advice? Remember that the metro is only 30p and stick to Chinese food as much as possible.

6. How satisfying it feels to explore off the beaten track.

Lake Qiandao

Though my first point urged you to buy and use a guidebook, I’ve learnt that getting lost and spontaneity are also necessary for enjoying China to the maximum. Some of the best meals I’ve eaten have been the result of wandering side streets and pointing to mysterious food (equipped with the only full sentence I know in mandarin ‘I don’t eat pork’). Amongst my best memories is the hilarity that ensued on a weekend trip to Lake Qiandao, where my friends and I found ourselves stranded, with no buses, and no way of conversing with bemused locals about how to get to the base of Mount Huangshan. Planning is important, but be prepared for China to have a way of messing up even the best laid plans.

7. How little English is spoken in the city.

Leading on from my above point on grasping the opportunities on offer here, Monday’s mandarin lessons are extremely underrated. Whatever qualms you might have with the teaching style, time or length of class, everyone I have talked to has been surprised by how few Chinese people have even a rudimentary grasp of English. Therefore, the ability to converse on even the most basic level is something that will prove incredibly helpful during your time in Shanghai.

8. How worthwhile it is to participate in CRCC’s extracurricular activities.

My biggest fan
My biggest fan

After a long day of work (and scrolling through your Facebook newsfeed), it can be tempting to make excuses not to attend the activities offered by CRCC. But even if you are feeling tired or run down, they are definitely worth going to, if only to make a change from socialising in bars and clubs. In the time I have been here, CRCC highlights have included dumpling making (frustrating but satisfying, even the veggie ones!) and KTV, which couldn’t be less my scene, but is surprisingly fun. The most rewarding activity I found was the charity day at a migrant school on the outskirts of Pudong. Not only was it a chance to escape the expat bubble, but playing with the adorable kids was incredibly feel-good, for both us and them.

9. How (nearly) every night is Ladies Night.

On a nightlife note, I cannot emphasise enough how much money you will save by research into ladies nights and happy hours. Shanghai is the best place to be if you like drinking for free (and let’s face it, who doesn’t?). Ladies nights mean that between certain hours, certain drinks are completely free, providing you are the lucky gender. With this in mind, head for Diva on a Tuesday, Zapatas or on a Wednesday and Bar Rouge on a Thursday. Gentlemen, do not despair. Once you’re in with the promoters, the free alcohol will be at your beck and call as well. Though the quality of this alcohol at some clubs is questionable at best, at Muse you’ll be downing champagne by the flute-load.

10. How the friendships you make will last a lifetime.

Providing you’re friendly and fluent in small talk, you will be shocked by how quickly close friendships will form. The nature of CRCC internships means that you’re bound to be surrounded with like-minded people, ones that are keen to travel and up for an adventure. Living in such close proximity is a bonding experience like no other. You’ll be hard pushed to find people that met here and don’t plan on staying in touch for years to come.

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