This morning, I was sitting at my own (technically my parent’s) living room in Meishan City, Sichuan Province, China, but later moved to this tea & coffee shop and ordered coffee instead of tea. I guess I am Americanized in some way[i].
June was an intense month for me and deeply apologize for this late blog post. Other than the obvious reason that I get nervous before writing anything in English (especially after reading all these good posts), I had a hard time deciding which stories can be shared. Before coming home, I was busy trying to find cheap air tickets and contacted people I met at gatherings to thank them.
|ACYF Delegates in Salem, OR|
During its fifth and last session of The Social Innovator Leadership Program from June 16-27, Mercy Corps hosted 20 Chinese delegates mainly from the All China Youth Federation (ACYF). The delegates represented a variety of sectors, including government, state-run enterprises, NGOs, the media and academia, and were invited to Portland, OR for training & discussion about social issues relevant to both China and the U.S.
After witnessing the large amount of work it had devoted in preparation for the visit, ranging from the purchase of chrysanthemum tea[ii] to the endeavor of inviting governor (who actually has a bodyguard), I greatly respect and appreciate MC.
The mixture of participants from both China and the U.S. was aimed to maximize the potential future impact on social enterprises and policies. Neal Keny-Guyer (Chief Executive Officer) and Paul Dudley Hart (Senior Vice President – Global Partnerships and Alliances) represented MC. Other American participants included Noah Siegel (Portland Mayor’s Office – Policy Director), Robert Liberty (former Metro Councilor and Director of Portland State University’s Urban Sustainability Accelerator), Tony Pipa (USAID Bureau of Policy, Planning & Learning – Deputy Assistant Administrator). Representing the ACYF were, among others, Deputy Secretary- General China Youth Press Association, ACYF Vice Presidents from Hubei, Sichuan, Jiangxi, Dalian provinces (or cities), Deputy Division Chief Department of Aid to Foreign Countries Ministry of Commerce, and Director Asset and Finance Department of Harbin Electric Corporation.
In terms of study areas, MC introduced the delegation to the US system (government, civil society and philanthropy), negotiation strategies, the role of the private sector (business managers from Starbucks, Intel), history and the evolution of United States foreign aid, etc. The delegation visited multiple sites, including Council Chambers, City Hall, Portland Youth Builders, the governor’s office, Salem (Oregon’s capital city).
When they arrived, Paul Dudley Hart (MC Senior Vice President – Global Partnerships and Alliances) told the visitors that the delegations have been getting better and better over the years, so they had high standards to match. I asked my supervisor if that was actually true (I suspected it was only a strategy to encourage them) after program finished; she told me it was. All, including the guest speakers, were impressed by this year’s delegation. They raised many good questions and led strong, interesting discussions.
(I received my supervisor’s final notes for the program several days ago; I will post more details later)
The Traps I Fell Into
I had two identities during this experience: one as a Chinese and another as an intern in the U.S. Before the delegation arrived, it was easy to locate my position. I started with some easy translation while still in Maine. And, very much like a typical intern, copied countless pages one Friday in the Portland office when all my colleagues were working from home.
The first trap actually involved regular difficulties one could expect in a foreign country, which I enjoyed as always. Some ridiculous aspects of logistics work challenged my adaptability to my new working environment. For example, I went to OfficeMax (I didn’t previously know of this store’s existence) with my colleague to find notebooks, markers, and some type of big paperboard with a sticky upper area (as you can see, I still don’t know its official name). I was totally lost during the conversation between my colleague and the salesman for the proper, but inexpensive, paper for nametags. How easy and efficient it would have been for me in China? And how hard it was in a foreign city? It is an important issue that I believe each of you must have experienced during your own internships.
Another example – office manner. My desk was a 10-second walk from my supervisor. My instinct was to discuss every tiny issue with her in person. But another colleague advised that I should send my supervisor emails instead of constantly talking about every problem. Even though I had realized that communicating by email was a better tool in many cases, it was still hard to make right decision every time.
The second trap was very obvious, but it was just too big to immediately notice. I simply attribute it to cultural differences and it took me a while to realize how big they were. For example, I was not responsible to go shopping with every delegate or to accept every dinner invitation. But I almost did. They were time consuming and the most physically tiring work during my internship. My roommate (a Confucius Institute teacher) once gave me a huge hug since he hadn’t seen me for one week. One morning, while I stood in the kitchen eating breakfast, my landlord said “it is really strange to see you here at this time.” I went to work very early in the morning and came back pretty late for a while. It took me about 40 minutes to cycle to MC. Portland is the bicycle capital of US and it was obviously a great chance of exploring the city and exercising. Sometimes I had no choice but to cycle since bus service was not available during my commuting hours.
Also, more than half of the delegates didn’t speak English. On one side, I felt a natural impulse to help everyone whenever I could. I figured my logistics responsibilities (like taking care of water heater, snacks and microphones, or escorting them to the hotel) was for their convenience, so it should be part of my job to provide my services even though it exceeded my normal working hours. On the other side, as a Chinese, I knew not making myself available may offend them (this group might be easier to offend in some ways since they are leaders). My supervisor offered to change plans to “save” me, like asking others to escort them to the hotel (especially during the first few days while they remembered the directions). I agreed at first, but later realized I just could not do that. Let’s say 50% percent of this was because of being a nice Guoyan, and the other 50% was being a smart Guoyan – walking and talking could be the easiest way to further conversations with them and make future connections.
Considering the positive results, perhaps I shouldn’t describe these experiences as “traps.” But I do know I should have given more consideration to the balances. The workload was not sustainable at all by the end of the month.
On the day they arrived, Paul said all of us will meet as strangers and depart as friends. I did not believe it at the beginning, but it did happen.
I was pretty shy at times. I only collected all of their business cards during the last few days (just so you know, some people have two types of cards – one with, and another without personal phone numbers). But I had conversations with almost every one of them and each gave me suggestions about my future career or provided encouragement. I noticed while organizing my photos before sending them to someone several days ago that they were full of happiness and happy faces; no traces of hardship.
I never denied my concern of seeing too much bureaucracy from ACYF group before I met them, but it turned out much better than I expected. 1. They restrained themselves in foreign country (I am willing to share one or two stories when we can talk). 2. I finally accepted the fact that I am too cynical sometimes (it is still a good quality as far as I see). 3. I need to have the courage to deal with it (or other similar issues) when I have to take overall interest into account.
[i] I actually just wanted coffee to stay awake, and the air conditioner in the shop.
[ii] A type of tea, which according to Chinese medicine, can make people feel better in hot weather. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chrysanthemum_tea