Holly Graham - General Journalism Projects in China
I divided my time as a journalist in Shanghai between two placements which really couldn't have been more different. Projects Abroad offers two forms of journalism placement - some in business journalism and some in entertainment publications. Having always seen myself as much more of an 'entertainment' kind of girl, and not really having a head for numbers, I was fairly certain that I wanted to work for one of the many English language magazines servicing the ex-pats and students living in Shanghai. However, I was initially given a placement at China Briefing - an English language business magazine which works in conjunction with a tax and accountancy firm operating in East Asia.
Although I was initially convinced that I knew what I wanted to do, in retrospect I am glad it turned out as it did. The China Briefing offices are on the 18th floor of a high rise on People's Square. It is routine to hear eight or ten languages being spoken every day - often by one person. The team are international, interesting, friendly and always willing to teach if you don't quite grasp what you're doing, or what the Chinese economy is up to. China is - especially in 2008 - home to a bustling and fascinating economic situation. Gaining insight into this, and particularly how it is handled and presented by the press, is knowledge I could not have gained anywhere else. In addition, being taken out of my comfort zone meant that work was intellectually challenging and interesting.
After a month working for China Briefing, I moved from their hushed, 18th floor offices to the French Concession - where I started my placement with SmartShanghai, a webzine which provides information on Shanghai's nightlife, arts and dining. The team behind SmartShanghai is small - about seven when I started, and ten by the time I left - all of whom are either native, or just staggeringly good, English language speakers. The size of the team and the size - and nature - of the office space means that it has a really relaxed atmosphere and it's a really fun place to work. They also gave me the chance to write, and gave me my first encounter with the Chinese take on 'copyright.'
My first article for SmartShanghai was about where to find ground coffee in Shanghai. Although not exactly life-or-death journalism, this was a fantastic opportunity because it meant that everything about the article; from the first piece of research to the final copy I sent to the editor (he sat next to me, but we still communicated by email) was my own work. This is when working for a website is at its most exciting; your work appears online hours after you've finished it - and as SmartShanghai is considered by most as an essential resource for living in Shanghai, I got quite a few reviews from friends only hours after it was up.
And my work wasn't just read by SmartShanghai's readers - the state-run China Daily and New Oriental newspapers decided they wanted it too, and it was also on their websites (unaccredited, but oh well) the day after it went up. I really enjoyed the process of writing all the articles I wrote during my time in Shanghai - after coffee I moved onto parks, gyms, delis… getting to know ex-pat Shanghai a little better with every one. As I was the least essential to the office, they often sent me to write the articles which involved the most research. This turned out to be fantastic as I got to see Shanghai from a journalistic perspective, and to visit places and areas I wouldn't have otherwise known about.
Particularly during the second month of my time in China, my placement was a really important part of my experience. I enjoyed my time at work - and particularly the times when I was 'at work' but out of the office - as much as I enjoyed my time outside of work. But that is not to say that the time I spent outside of work was not well-spent.
As I learnt almost immediately, and as you will almost undoubtedly learn within days of arriving in Shanghai - there is amazing nightlife. Being from London, I have visited some fairly cool restaurants/bars/clubs in my time but even London doesn't quite measure up to the fast-moving pace of Shanghai nightlife. If you, your bank balance and your liver can take it, there is something to do every night in the city. There are new bars, new events, new deals every day and there is almost always someone who will want to experience it all with you. Depending on the time of year, there are between about 10 and 60 other Projects Abroad volunteers out there, as well as all the other Westerners and Shanghainese who you meet along the way.
This culture of going out all the time can take its toll - but it also means that friendships are accelerated and you make amazing friends. Your flatmates are like your family - you'll usually go out and home together unless one of you gets tired and they become your support network. My flat was in Pudong (often referred to as 'the dark side' because all of the bars and clubs are over the river) and this meant that we all relied on each other even more, if only because we couldn't afford to take a taxi home alone. Honestly my flatmates were fantastic, and it wouldn't have been the same without them. Someone would always be making a cup of tea or dinner or popping out to get some beers from the supermarket. Even though Shanghai is renowned for its nightlife, I had some of the best fun just hanging out in our flat.
This is where Projects Abroad really comes into its own. Although it would be theoretically possible to just arrive in Shanghai and experience the fascinating paradox that is life in the city - it would be a fairly lonely experience. Having people - usually of the same or similar age - who are going through a similar experience to you and are finding it as amazing as you do, or understand when its difficult, really does mean a lot.
There is also the reassuring fact that you have someone there to help you with any problems you might have, or to introduce you into the Projects Abroad circle. Kay, Jade and Elaine were all great to us when we there - as willing to come for a few drinks as they were to call the electrician or the water man. In addition, the network of Projects Abroad means you make friends for life (I hope) and they are friends who really understand what it was like for you. Because Shanghai isn't just a city - it's a paradox, an exception to the rule of China and yet a fascinating insight into the mindset and the lifestyle of Chinese people. It will also become, as I think it did for most people who have been on Projects Abroad placements there, an unforgettable period of your life.