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Martin Green - Law in China

Enjoy local food whilst volunteering in China

In late 2009 I took a month off studying my degree and working to do a law placement in Shanghai with Projects Abroad.

Arriving in Shanghai

Shanghai was both vigorous and peaceful; unrelenting and meditative. I was met by an expansive culture that filled my senses - old men flying kites in the squares, bullfrog on the menu, haggling, tea shop rituals, waving cats that make your fortune, the contrast between rich and poor, Umami street food smells, bamboo scaffolding, Tai Chi in the park, nightclubs in shopping centres, dust in the night air.

Accommodation & orientation

I shared an apartment with four other Projects Abroad volunteers, located in a central part of the city near a metro station and buses. The apartment was spacious and complete with long bamboo poles to dry washing. On the first day someone from Projects Abroad showed me around the area on foot and then took me for lunch – I liked this personal way of being welcomed to a new country. The Projects Abroad staff also helped you to settle in by organising weekly events so that all the volunteers in the city could get to know each other. The day after arriving I chose to walk around for hours and hours, through all sorts of strange dilapidated districts with bustling markets and overpowering smells. It felt good getting lost and finding my way again.

My Law Placement

Visiting the Water Town in China

Being placed in a law firm was an opportunity to see how the law works in a different country; but for me it was more than that. I wanted to go to China, and law was a way of seeing the country from the inside.

My placement was in a Chinese law firm. I was lucky in that the lawyers would often take me out for lunch to different local restaurants; they were really friendly and welcoming, and very curious about the Englishman. My supervisor was very interested in learning about English law and enthusiastic about teaching me some Chinese. It was quite a small firm with lots of young lawyers and a relaxed atmosphere.

Law wise they did a bit of everything. The firm was aiming to branch out into the international market, so part of my work involved researching UK company law, particularly intellectual property, and then presenting my research to the senior lawyers. I also held a Q&A session on Fridays with the younger lawyers about the English legal system, and sat with them individually for some English training. Along the way I sat in on meetings with clients in criminal cases, and with international corporate clients; for example, I participated in a meeting with a client from the US who had problems with their exporter breaching international shipping regulations. Local civil work was also on the menu, such as employment law and personal injury – lawyers are swamped with personal injury cases because people generally don't wear seat belts.

Voluntary Law Placement in China

In short, law firms around the world are very interested in China; hence why I chose a placement in Shanghai, a chance to learn some Chinese, and gain a sense of international business – the different ways of doing business. The experience in Shanghai enabled me to see what international clients want when seeking legal advice in China, which can often be fairly straightforward. Learning about Chinese culture through my colleagues was really fascinating; you can expect to find a meaning behind every detail – like the meaning of five bats on a red background, or the goldfish in baths outside shops.

Making friends

Luckily, as well as being in a place renowned for doing business, I found Shanghai an easy place to make friends. I'm still in contact with one of the lawyers who I taught some English to, and with other friends I made there. I went to Shanghai Museum with a lawyer from the firm, and remember that we asked some people for directions outside the museum and they invited us to have lunch with them. People aren't suspicious of strangers. I was writing English sentences on a tissue for them to type into their phone to translate into Chinese. Just like I'd read, even when you are on your own in China you are never alone.

One evening I was invited to the home of another young lawyer, where I was greeted by the whole family – three generations turned up for the occasion of a westerner coming for dinner! Many different dishes were prepared, including Chinese dumplings to mark the occasion. They were a really welcoming family; good people. I was asked: “What do you think of Shanghai?”, and after a dramatic pause I answered, “piao liang” (beautiful), and they erupted with glee and clapped, shouting “piao liang” over and over.

Discovering China

Volunteer Law Placement in Shanghai

Even the tiny part of China that I saw had many faces. Looking from a bus heading west from Shanghai the landscape became very industrial – building materials strewn around the carved-up fields along brown canals. Sporadic houses in lonely settlements amidst the construction work. The odd piece of farmland lies between the rest. This bumpy bus trip took us to Hangzhou (170 km inland) with its tranquil lake, temples and traditional buildings.

With my flat mates I also visited Zhujiajiao, a 'water town' 30 km outside of Shanghai. The town itself was very rustic, with whole families living in one room. We found a local restaurant there; the menu was only in symbols, but in Chinese we managed to order a chicken, snails, rice and beer. It was a real contrast from the verve of the city.

Lasting impression

Being in Shanghai for one month gave me a semblance of a lively, growing city, a potion of modernity mixed with traditional values – in people's minds I was happy to see an emphasis on the importance of nature and health. Combining Shanghai and law is something that will certainly stay with you whatever you decide to do afterwards, and Projects Abroad were consistently professional, friendly and down-to-earth. I'd highly recommend them.

As the saying goes: “Asia is so good for the heart and so bad for the nerves.” The most beautiful and lucid questions I've ever been asked came from Chinese people I met in Shanghai – people who constantly surprised me. It's an insatiable place, lots of fun and you'll be made very welcome.

Martin Green

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