Five things I didn’t expect from my time in Shanghai

A bustling metropolis with over 1800 startups, we couldn’t have been in a better place to learn firsthand about international startup culture and integrate into the local environment.

While this was an amazing and unforgettable experience that I will treasure, there were definitely some unexpected moments that helped me to broaden my mind and develop my cultural awareness.

1. Business is done very differently

Ever had your boss hand you a bike so that you can cycle together to work? Have you ever dared to take an hour and a half long nap at work when you’re feeling a little tired after lunch? Neither had I until my first day of my internship at Luogu Technologies, a startup which provides an online judge system to help programmers improve their problem-solving capabilities and compete in programming competitions.

While each intern had a slightly different work schedule, the daily pace at my workplace saw me arrive at 10am, work hard until lunch at 11.30am, eating incredibly quickly, napping and then continuing with work until clocking off at 5pm. Due to the ‘Great Firewall of China’, many external sites and services are not accessible without a VPN and the Chinese market has responded by providing a local version for anything and everything from Facebook to YouTube; for me, this meant I was exposed to a wealth of Chinese alternatives for design, prototyping and product management.

Exploring different startups in the Caohejing Hi-Tech Park where I was based also helped me to understand how different the company culture could be at some of the larger companies.

For instance, our trip to ByteDance (the company behind Tik Tok and formerly demonstrated the perks of working for a global company that offered rewarding work and amazing facilities like chill-out zones, karaoke booths and personal trainers on-site.

2. Chinese design is different, but not completely

Working on user experience design and research for my startup was an initial challenge as I realised that some of the core design principles and standards that I had learned to date may not be entirely applicable to the Chinese market. Some early research into this helped to reveal the subtle ways in which Chinese web design can be different and why.

It turns out that while Western websites gravitate towards a more modern, simplistic and clean aesthetic, the historic difficulties in using Chinese characters in a search bar meant that the trend was instead focused on showing as much information and as many links as possible upfront on the page. Research has also shown that Chinese markets can be distrustful of pages with too little information as they then perceive the company to be attempting to hide or obscure information. However, this has all begun to change in the past few years as more and more Chinese websites simplify the design of their sites, reduce the reliance on hyperlinks and ensure that enough information is still available to instil consumer confidence.

All in all, this research, combined with research into the differences in colour meaning and interpretation in China helped me to better challenge my preconceptions and expand my cross-cultural understanding within my discipline.

3. The startup scene is pervasive

Shanghai is truly a global hub for startups and we were fortunate enough to be immersed in many different aspects of the startup scene through UQ organised activities and broader networks established by students at their various internships. Attending the UQ Global Alumni Connection in Shanghai was a particular highlight as we were able to network with a range of working professionals across many industries who all had the same connection to UQ that we did.

The conversations from these events were invaluable, as we are able to learn more about working life in Shanghai and gain their perspectives on the many differences between working in Australia and China.

There were also more spontaneous and surprising encounters, for instance, another student and I met a shop owner who had over 15 years’ experience in startups both in Canada where he lived for 10 years and in China. Another surprising experience came from a brief weekend in Beijing where I got to meet a few recent graduates who were working in various parts of China to teach English prior to commencing graduate work in business and tourism, and it was very rewarding to exchange our journeys and provide each other with first-hand advice. Ultimately, if there’s one thing I wish I had done more of it would have been networking!

4. Language is not a barrier

Initially, I was very intimidated by the notion of working in a workplace where there was no guarantee that English would be spoken. While it did take me a little bit longer to translate every page of the product using Google Translate, I made sure to write up a reference document to save myself time in the future. Further, while only two out of the five colleagues in my workplace did speak English and many conversations went over my head, it’s amazing how quickly you can get settled in and comfortable in a workplace.

Navigating through China more broadly was also made easy with apps like Google Translate, Say Hi and more, although be prepared for a few awkward exchanges as these apps are far from perfect. Learning a few phrases and being sure to always greet, thank and farewell someone in the local language can also be the first step towards being a better traveller. I also lost count of the number of times a smile helped me to make a connection and bridge the language gulf.

By the end of the trip, I was comfortable with being uncomfortable and found that it’s pretty easy to navigate through even the trickiest of situations if you have a little patience, kindness and a plan.

5. You will never have enough time

When we first started our adventure, we thought that four weeks would be more than enough time to immerse ourselves into the local startup culture and explore this amazing city. That all changed once we started working and began to invest time into working and daily life (aka adulting). By the end of the third week, it was obvious that it would take a lifetime to see and do everything I wanted to do in Shanghai or even attend the many industries, expat and traveller meetups that occurred almost daily.

My biggest takeaway is that you have to seize these sorts of opportunities with both hands and try to achieve as much as you can without pushing yourself to your limits.

Most importantly, there’s no better time to start seeing the world or undertaking a global experience than today, so if you’ve been unsure about applying for a Startup Adventure or any other UQ Global Experience do yourself the favour of submitting your application and seeing what comes next – future you will thank you.

In summary

Ultimately, my time in the bustling metropolis that is Shanghai has been a truly unforgettable experience and I’ve been so grateful to share this with 29 passionate and remarkable students who I have no doubt will do great things. Thanks as well to the UQ Idea Hub team and The University of Queensland for this once in a lifetime opportunity.


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Last updated:
16 November 2020