Just like every job, I had my first day jitters.
I was going to be the first International Intern the International Affairs Office at Qingdao University had ever had. Leading up to my arrival in China, I was constantly trying to find out exactly what my responsibilities would be in the office. My professor had certain expectations and I wanted to ensure that the experience was going to be worth all the effort. However, regardless my professors ensured me that no matter what I did there it would be a worthwhile experience simply because of the cultural knowledge I would gain.
I was told to meet with my supervisor for the Summer at 9:00 a.m., and so I arrived in the office to meet with him. I had walked through the office before, but this was my first time to actually “walk into” the office and see it working at “full-tilt”. This office acted as the major contact and service center for all international students at Qingdao University. With a total of 1500 international students throughout the year, it was a fairly busy office.
The phones rang off the hook with a shrill tone that made me cringe every time I heard it. I thought maybe that someone had the volume turned up too loud, but that tone continued at that volume for the rest of my days in that office. This would be one of the many quirks of the office I would soon learn to adapt to.
My supervisor Leny (which was his English name) was quite busy. He spoke on his phone with a very quick words that showed how busy he was. He spoke into the phone, and would often say the phrase, “Hao Le” which was essentially meant “yes” or “correct” as I would learn later. Leny got off the phone and quickly rushed out of the office right by where I had taken a seat and was watching the commotion of the office.
At this point it is about 20 minutes past the time we said we would meet. I was a bit anxious and wasn’t quite sure exactly what to do. Feelings of discomfort were part of this interesting first day as I sat in my button up shirt and slacks in a small corner of the office taking notes about the “newness” and office environment I was in. At that moment, another intern, who’s English name was Strong, said to me, “Hen Mang”. After finding out that this meant, “very busy” I agreed and let Strong get back to work as I got back to my notes.
I could tell I was not the only uncomfortable one in the office. My presence alone made the office workers look at me as some outsider. They were just as unsure who I was, as I was who they were. This tango we played, made the first morning in the office a strange introduction to my summer internship.
Leny and I finally met and discussed some of the activities that I would doing during the summer. They were open to many things, but cautious as well. My position was brand new and this was a brand new adventure for me as well the office. They had certain expectations for me, but allowed me to work and mold the internship experience into something that would be relevant for me.
This office served many different functions. As in higher education in the U.S., student affairs professionals wear what is often called different “hats”. These “hats” or duties, roles and other titles; are less defined in a job description and are something that isn’t necessarily described in someones job title. This is very much the same at a Chinese University. That seemed to be a continual theme throughout the summer was how things were so similar, but obviously different.
My internship was a mix of observing, working and interacting with the different student services at Qingdao University. Some days I would find myself involved in helping students in the office and discussing their policies and procedures, other days I got to observe proceedings among different schools trying to set up agreements with QU, sometimes I acted as an ambassador for visitors to the university and daily I acted as a student.
I was learning so much and I only set foot in a classroom maybe twice a week while I was there. To see how things were so vastly different, but still had that sense of similarity to it was both refreshing and strikingly intriguing. Whether it was academics, housing, judicial affairs, finances or even simple registration for the university I saw how stepping into a completely new environment can be a tough experience for any person.
I was a student of the Chinese way of higher education. Specifically I was surrounded with the international student side, but I was able to experience some interaction with the domestic students and their services. However for the most part I was focused on how they worked with international students, because as a newly “christened” international student I was very interested in it.
I was sitting on both sides of the fence, an international students working in the international student office. I had overnight become the expert on Americans, the U.S., English and American Higher Education. It was quite a new weight on my shoulders, not to mention being an ambassador for my university and self. It was quite a lot to take on. However those things were the least of my worries as culture shock and confusion began to set in.
As I finished off my first day in the office I left not knowing exactly what I was doing. I was the new guy, the outcast, the lost and confused puppy wondering where my true place was. I remember coming back to my room frustrated because of the situations and how unsure I was about almost every detail that my Western mind was telling me was missing.
This feeling however would eventually change as I began to feel and understand what it meant to be a part of a Chinese office, and what I had kept reading about in books about Chinese social interaction. However I’ll talk more about this another day, because it’s still something that I’m yet to understand completely.
I was an international intern, but first I was a student. Learning and absorbing as much as I could.