A Chinese Summer – My Aditya Birla Group Internship Story
Ever since I got to know that I would be interning in China (at the Columbian Chemicals Weifang Company Ltd, a unit of Birla Carbon: a flagship company of the Aditya Birla Group), a mix of excitement and intimidation gripped me. On the one hand, there was the pure adrenaline rush of interning at a place where perhaps none of the previous batches, let alone my classmates, from my college had ever interned in; on the other was the anxiety reinforced by many uncles and aunties: “What will you eat there?”, “How will you communicate?”, “Will you be safe?”.
Being the take-things-as-they-come-and-plan-on-the-fly type of guy, I consoled them and myself saying that I would find a way to do everything once I got there. So while my dormitory neighbours made plans for how they would spend their summers in Singapore, London, Bangalore and Mumbai, I made no plans whatsoever, because I had no idea what was in store for me in the Binhai Economic Development Area in the Shandong Province of China.
One of my friends who had studied in Singapore and knew a bit of Mandarin taught me this greeting: “Ni haao!” which means “Hello, how do you do?” Armed with this killer phrase and a suitcase with some sweaters (Yes, I spent most of my summers in sweaters because the temperature here kept to a range of 8 degrees to 20 degrees, with occasional warm days sprinkled in between), I boarded Air China flight number CA 430 from aamchi Mumbai to Chengdu in Sichuan Province. The guy next to me was an Indian living in Shanghai, and we had some small chit-chat on Chinese air hostesses. 😀
After a nap in which I dreamed of riding dragons, I woke up to the pilot’s message in Chinese (translated by my neighbour) announcing that we were about to land in Chengdu. I looked out of the window and below me I could see the Chinese landscape sprawled out: miles and miles of green, with the distinctive cone shaped trees, and in the distance the strangely-shaped hills, which I learnt were characteristic of China. Soon we landed, and I stood at the immigration counter while the official examined my visa. There were a fair number of Indians who got down here, as this city acts as a connector to Shanghai, Hong Kong, Beijing and other areas in the prosperous Eastern part of China. Later I would get to know that the popular Chilli sauce, Schezwan sauce, Kung Pao chicken, and other dishes we think of as staple Chinese food are consumed only in this one province in the south-western part of China. It is the only province in China where one can find spicy food: the other parts of China have much blander tastes.
From Chengdu I had a connecting flight to the Shandong peninsula on the East Coast of China. There was a four hour gap between the flights, and this gave me some time at the airport; and I must say, the airport was HUGE. I would later find out that airports were an integral part of the renowned rapid infrastructure development in China, with 20 new airports being planned to be constructed every year till 2020. The connecting flight had me as the only non-Chinese passenger, and soon I was in Jinan. Luckily the company arranged for a pickup, because as I learned, the English penetration in the mainland in way too low. On the way from Jinan to Weifang, I marvelled at the wide, smooth, bump-free roads: another sign of the infrastructure marvel of China.
After a two hour drive at almost 150 kmph throughout, I reached Weifang, where I met my to-be manager Mr. Yubao. The plant was 70 kms from Weifang city in an industrial development area called Binhai. The plant had been part of the Columbian Chemicals Company that had been bought by Birla Carbon in 2011. The plant wanted to increase the production of a special grade of carbon black. There were a variety of ways to do this, and we were to debate on which way was the most desirable and feasible, and then implement it.
Going through forecasted balance sheets and equipment design took up most of the time in the day, while in the evenings I tried to explore China. Getting used to chopsticks was the first step. The noodles here are quite different from the noodles we are used to. A typical noodle dish is served with the noodles swimming in a large bowl of hot soup, with the dish containing everything from vegetables to all kinds of meat (which Indians would do well to negotiate about before the dish is made!). Chicken is perhaps the least commonly found meat, except at the American joints of KFC and Pizza Hut, of which there are (thankfully for many foreigners not used to Chinese food) many.
There was an international team of American, Spanish, German, Korean, Italian and Indian employees at the plant for a particular (different) project, and this led to a multicultural environment which I could enjoy. On one of the long weekends when Friday was an off, I accompanied this group to Beijing which is 3 hours from Weifang by high-speed bullet train (300 kmph). Beijing was in many ways different from the carefully planned newer areas around Weifang. It was an old city, steeped in history and culture alongside modern marvels like the 2008 Olympic stadia. The three day trip saw us visiting the Forbidden City (the residence and office of the emperors of ancient imperial China), the Temple of Heaven (a world renowned place of prayer where the emperors used to go to pray for a good harvest), the Tiananmen Square, and the Great Wall. Climbing the Great Wall is an experience, and it certainly takes some amount of stamina to reach beyond the third gate. The Indians and Americans in our group, used to sedentary lifestyle and fried food, stopped when the steep stairs began after the third gate. However, I could see lots of local Chinese families spiritedly climbing. Perhaps we can borrow some health tips from them.
On a work related front, the employees had some basic understanding of English, however, I found that it is better to use simple language without big words, as most people here have not learnt English in school but as an additional learning, much as we may take up Coursera courses on weekends. But the people are not arrogant and are modest and helpful by nature. The most challenging part of the job was communicating with the lower level employees who had no exposure to English. Arguably, this was also one of the most enjoyable parts, because the employees really looked up to my English skills, and were amazed that I had such good command over the language despite it not being my mother-tongue. It is not normal for them to learn two or three languages while growing up.
The day starts and ends pretty early in China. People wake up at around 5, lunch is around 11:30 and dinner around 6 in the evening. (I did not get dinner once when I went down to the hotel dining room at 9. They arranged for some ready to eat noodles later.) Most places begin closing down by 9. And of course, this is according to Chinese time, which is two and a half hours ahead of Indian Standard Time. So I used to fall asleep at 7:30 PM by Indian time (10:00 PM in China), and miss calls from people back home who took time to get used to the time difference.
While the press generates some apprehension in our minds regarding relations between the two countries, there is hardly a trace of any hostility towards India among the Chinese in general. They look up to India, especially as the birthplace of Buddhism.
For anyone who wants to work in China, it is advisable to show some respect for the local culture: Chinese people are welcoming and not at all arrogant, but they have a deep respect for their ancient culture. They are not used to opening up very easily and they tend not to voice their opinions too frequently. However, if you treat them with respect, they reciprocate in much greater measure.
A funny but relevant observation I made is that Chinese people are trained to defer gratification. Thus they will generally refuse any offer or gift. For example, while treating guests at home, they will generally keep refusing any extra helpings. However, it is wise to offer them a second time, because it is generally out of culture and training, and not lack of hunger, that they are refusing.
I am now on the way back after two months in this beautiful land; our project went smoothly, and the plant can now produce much more carbon black to meet all the demand in nearby areas of China. While I return back to India, I cannot help but marvel at how two ancient neighbouring nations know so little about each other despite existing side by side and having recorded histories dating thousands of years back. The observable features of the two cultures are so different, but the underlying values are so similar: a respect for elders, a welcoming attitude towards guests, fierce resect for the ancient culture. Indians are far closer to the Chinese in their values than any country in the West. All in all, people are bred on discipline and looking up to their seniors. Entitlement is largely absent among the people, and they are ready to work hard for lower wages, a fact that surprises most people coming in from the West. As I see Mr. Modi waving to crowds and taking selfies in Beijing (the Indian PM had an official visit to China during 14-16 May 2015, which happened to fall in my internship period), I hope that they become much closer strategically and economically, and remove whatever barriers of misunderstanding have cropped up on both sides of the snow-clad Himalayas.
While I learnt about the interesting aspects of Chinese manufacturing (that propelled their economy to its present impressive level), perhaps the most important learning I am taking away is that in an increasingly globalized world, barriers of nationality and culture count for little when countered with mutual respect, hard work, integrity and common goals.
(This is an official entry to the Summer Saga 2015 Competition. If you have an internship story that could compete against the best in India, give it a shot! Read the instructions here and start writing!)
This is also an entry for a competition among ABG summer interns – My ABG Summer Internship which is open only to Aditya Birla Group summer interns.