Ni Hao! Internship in Beijing
Patrizia Steiner spent six months at Swissotel Beijing
Many MU students opt for an exchange semester at one of our 19 partner universities, but others want to jump right into the working world at any chance they can get. Sixth semester BBA student Patrizia Steiner opted to cut her teeth in the Far East, spending six months at an international hotel in the Chinese capital. Patrizia filed this report:
Exchange semester at another university? Boring, everybody does that! I was looking for something ‘’different’’, and furthermore I had in mind ‘’you can never have enough working experience’’. Those were the two thoughts that brought me to the Swissotel in Beijing, China, as a management trainee in Food & Beverages (F&B). Honestly, I arrived there quite unprepared - but therefore, the learning experience was even greater!
Most of the department heads were foreigners, termed “expats’’, including my Swiss-Italian F&B manager who was a great help in the beginning: he organized a mobile phone and a bank account for me - all the basics you need! I found that if you are an expat in China you will often feel a bit “privileged” or treated differently. Best example: all expat trainees stayed in a standard guest room of the hotel, where we could use the whole fitness area, and even our laundry was done by the housekeeping!
“You will never get a second chance for a first impression”, so they say. My first working day in the restaurant was at breakfast, always very busy. I was thrown in at the deep end with no instruction, so I simply started doing what what I was used to doing in the morning in a hotel - the breakfast service, meaning I started to clean and set the tables, and brought empty plates to the back office. If I did not know where something was, I tried to ask my colleagues in some kind of language. While I thought that this is what they expected of me, they were surprised. So far the locals I met had experienced foreigners just as authorities giving commands, and I showed them respect by doing exact the same work as they did. “Welcome to the world of respect, losing faces and chopsticks”
Two months later, I was the outlet manager of the hotel’s beer garden. I got my own staff, created the menu together with the kitchen chef, and organized working schedules, yes it was MY restaurant! As my staff could not speak English, and were new to serving guests, we did a lot of trainings with ‘learning by doing’ such as role plays showing them how to treat guests. On the otherside I learned the most important words in Chinese which helped secure the bond of trust between my staff and me. All in all, we had a lot of fun and most importantly, we were a team!
Language: I really thought English is the second world language that everybody speaks - no, definitely not! More experienced employees and those at the management level understood you, but the rest was a “body language” thing. If I learned something then, it was how to communicate without talking: pointing, body language, and even drawing. Sometimes it was fun, but often also very frustrating.
Food: Believe me, the food in our European Chinese restaurants is definitely the “western version”. Spicy, tasty, extremely fatty, or everything steamed, there were a variety of great choices. Open-minded as I am, I tried a lot of “specialities” and street food. Well, my stomach never really got used to that kind of food, but I enjoyed more often than planned the slimy, overcooked rice soup with absolutely no taste…to recover: a great invention!
Honestly, I do not consider street food with the words “hygienic” or “safe”, but believe me, there is nothing better after a long party night than sitting together with people from all over the world eating the famous hot pot or Chinese dumplings, it’s worth it! But no, I never tried dried duck neck, chicken feet, or snake...
In the beginning everything was an attraction for me: the people, the supermarkets (amazing choice of indefinable food), the underground system (do not expect that first everyone gets off, then those waiting get in – that happens all at the same time!), the cars, the way to cross a street safely (never trust a green traffic light). On the other side I was an attraction: I was told that a lot of Chinese from the countryside who came to the city for work had never seen a foreigner before, so I got used to people staring at me. They touched my hair (I am blonde) in the underground and took pictures with/of me. It was unbelievable - that would never happen in Europe!
Censorship: The first time I came in contact with the “hiding policy” was when my parents asked me on Skype if I had heard of the political protests somewhere close to the place where I was, and I hadn’t at all! I had TV in my room, mainly Chinese channels and a few news channels. When I was watching CNN and they began a report about “China” or “protests” suddenly the TV went black…after a few minutes when the report was over, the programme continued. When other people told me that they had experienced the same, I was sure that this was no coincidence. The “worst” thing: no Facebook in China! Fortunately after some time I also found out how they solve that problem. There is always a solution!
Once, the Chinese managers of the restaurant invited me to join them on their ‘’going outside’’ staff trip, which was a great honour for me. After 4 hours by car we arrived in an amusement village in the mountains. As I am a foreigner, I was not allowed to sleep with the Chinese together in their apartment house, so they reserved another room, 10 minutes away, just for me! We had a great time horse riding, hiking, and going on a boat trip, and in the evening we had Chinese grill. Late at night they brought me to my room and in the morning picked me up. They really gave me the feeling of being one of them!
Beijing was a great experience! I never experienced “being a foreigner” in this sense. As my manager always said to me in times when I was kind of helpless: “Your first day will be your worst day, your first week will be your worst week, and your first month will be the worst one!” He was right and it just got better and better!
My open-mindedness, positive thinking, and warm-heartedness offered me insights and contacts I had never ever dreamed of before.