It's been over a year since I went to Guangdong to do an engineering internship at a factory, and I finally decided to make an AMA about it.

I've been studying Chinese for a bunch of years, and in order to give it a boost I decided to find a summer internship in China. What I ended up finding was a local factory that worked with a foreign company, and there I mostly worked with component testing and quality control, but for a week or two I was working on the actual assembly line.

While there I was living in the regular factory worker dormitory, meaning I shared a room with two other factory workers in a large building shared with other factories, ate at the dormitory cantina, used the squatting toilet and shower head-less shower, in general just experiencing the same daily life that the local workers go through.

I won't disclose the actual company, but feel free to ask me anything about what it was like working there, China in general, what it's like being a foreigner in China (I had previously lived in Beijing for a year), studying the language (Mandarin Chinese), sleeping on plywood, or just anything you want to know that I could reasonably answer.

Proof! (ignore that the paper is out of focus)!'

Comments: 48 • Responses: 15  • Date: 

Jumlee7720 karma

How do you like factory work and Chinese culture?

Cahootie28 karma

Factory work: Incredibly dull. The factory I worked at was very good compared to other factories, with proper lighting, relatively ergonomic work stations, good safety measures and good socializing between the workers, but it's still not something I would want to do long-term.

I did some basic assembly (just taking piece A and putting it onto piece B), but most of my time was spent soldering and connecting cables to components, and I was able to listen to podcasts while doing so, so time passed and it was pretty nice to just turn off my brain and do basic tasks for a while.

Chinese culture: Incredibly fascinating. It's a huge country with tons of different local cultures, but there's something in the clash between modern Western-style evolution and a traditional society that creates something captivating.

I've truly enjoyed my time spent in China and the people I've met there, so it's quite sad that the government (both national and local) is trying to erase a lot of the local culture to become more developed and "civilized". Naturally there are cultural clashes, but I just think they add to the experience.

Beowulfthecool13 karma

As someone learning chinese as a westerner, do you have any tips for helping get rid of my american accent when I speak and to better hear tones? They're my only major barriers at the moment. I'm studying in Taipei this summer and I want to do my best to get my fluency as high as I can.

Cahootie7 karma

I have a pretty easy time getting good pronounciation regardless of what language I study, so I haven't really put much effort into it, but the easiest way is to try to expose yourself to the language as much as possible. If you find some TV show you like or just YouTube videos with people speaking Chinese you don't even have to actively listen and try to understand. Hearing the languages makes you pick up what the language is supposed to sound like, and that can help. Otherwise I can't really help since that comes naturally for me (I once had a woman blurt out "Wait, aren't you a foreigner?" when I started speaking Chinese to her).

ecniv_o6 karma

Chinese is a weird language in which the tone in which you speak dramatically changes meaning, where it doesn't really in English (other than some emotions/etc.). Emotions/etc are handled differently in Chinese.

It's a common problem that many non-Chinese speakers run into, and a problem that Chinese speakers run into learning English, as they don't know what tone to use, and their English comes out a little strangely.

Cahootie7 karma

It's important to pay attention to tones from the start when studying Chinese, because it really becomes easier once you don't have to think about the right tones for every word you say. Since my native language is pitch-tonal I think I had an easier time than a lot of other people studying Chinese, but regardless it's very important to get right from the get-go.

stevenwlee2 karma

I find alot of foreigners that learn Chinese tend to sing Chinese rather than speak it.

soul_of_the_thing1 karma

Second this. Singing is when Mandarin (and then Cantonese) really clicked for me. Westerners may not learn tonal languages early, but due to the music culture most of us are actually very well trained at hearing tones. It’s just using a different part of the brain than for non-tonal languages, imo.

Cahootie1 karma

I've played music all my life, and I genuinely believe that it's part of why I have a relatively easy time learning languages. While I haven't really used music to learn Chinese (especially since the words lose their tones when siniging) I'm entirely convinced that there's a connection between the two.

louderstill10 karma

Do you look Asian or did everyone assume you were a spy? I'm my experience any foreign person who could speak fluently was suspicious.

Cahootie18 karma

I'm as white as they come. The factory was located in a sea of other factories, which meant that I didn't see a single foreigner even once when walking around the area, and the only one I met at the office happened to be ethnically Chinese.

BradLinden4 karma

How has this experience informed the way you think about the everyday products you use that come from Chinese factories?

Cahootie12 karma

If every factory was like the one I worked at I wouldn't have any worries about Chinese products, the factory workers seemed pretty happy with the conditions where I was, but things were vastly different just looking at the factory they shared a building with. In there there was no lighting in the roof, so you had a group of young people sitting hunched over their work stations with only crappy fluorescent tubes to illuminate them, and they would sit still there for hours upon end.

Generally I don't think the experience change my view on Chinese manufacturing. I was fully aware of the situation and how the conditions can be appalling in certain factories, and when I lived in China before that I got accustomed to just repressing all the shady stuff going on with food, so most of what I got out of it was seeing how a factory that deals directly with foreign companies works from the inside.

I_Adora_Fedoras3 karma

A factory in China is a lot different from a Chinese owned factory, no?

Cahootie7 karma

There's probably pretty substantial differences between factories that sell directly to foreign companies and factories that mostly cater to the domestic market since there's more strict laws and regulations abroad. I'm not sure exactly how the ownership situation is for the factory I was working in, but it wasn't a direct subsidiary of the foreign company, and it was run entirely by locals.

babyitsgayoutside2 karma

I'm 2 months into a university course studying Mandarin Chinese! Do you know of any good resources for helping learn, or of any music or shows in the language? Nobody I know has any recommendations.

Also, is there anything that really culturally shocked you, or was it more just slight differences that you didn't expect?

Cahootie1 karma

I've heard from a lot of people that Hacking Chinese is a great resource, even if I haven't used it myself. The guy behind the website happens to be my teacher right now and he really has extensive knowledge of the Chinese language.

Another thing that I felt helped me personally was reading the book Empire of Living Symbols. It shows how the characters evolved from their original form to how they look today, and it helped me actually understand what I was writing (on top of being an interesting book in general).

Since I had been to China multiple times before this I don't think there were any major culture shocks. One thing that surprised me though was how the factory workers didn't do anything in their spare time. There wasn't a ton to do around the factory, but they spent most of their time just sitting around in their beds browsing the internet on their phones.

When I moved to China for the first time though there were a lot of thing I wasn't expecting. The constant spitting, peeing and shitting in the streets (the latter two mostly done by kids), the complete lack of the concept of standing in line (it's not that they cut in line, they don't seem to have the idea that you're supposed to stand in line), and generally just the mentality that you have to get what you can before someone else takes it, which is probably a leftover from the mass starvation during the Great Leap Forward and to a smaller extend the Cultural Revolution.

luchoz2 karma

hi! thanks for the AMA. some questions :

  • how was the food?? really spicy and crazy ingredients?

  • how many hours did they work? is true the 9 9 6 ?

  • do you see super rich people in the city? like driving a ferrari or a tesla?

  • they smoke a lot right?

  • did you travel to other cityes??

Cahootie8 karma

  • The food in Guangdong is generally not spicy. I went out eating with my colleagues one day, and they asked me if I liked spicy food. I told them that I love it, and so they ordered something that they told me is usually a bit too spicy for them. I took a bite, and it was honestly pretty mild. For spicy food you wanna go to the Sichuan cuisine, and IIRC Yunnan also has pretty good spicy food.
    I didn't really eat anything crazy there. When I was living with a host family in Beijing they served me what I identified to be pork stomach, and they were pretty disappointed when I wasn't shocked by it (they told me what it was after I had already tried it), but here I had pretty basic Chinese food.
    Generally the food wasn't very good where I lived. The factory was located in an area where everything caters to working people with little money to spare, so it was more about being cheap and filling than being a culinary experience (most of the stuff I tried near the factory was worse than when I make it myself). I had some good food in Shenzhen and Guangzhou, but naturally that cost more, and to be honest Guangdong doesn't have my favorite local cuisine.
  • The 9 9 6 thing is mostly about office workers doing IT jobs. At this place it was a flat eight hours Monday through Friday, starting at 8 and ending at 5 with a one hour lunch at 12. Other factories that are more about mass producing do shifts that can often be around the clock, but at this factory they were making a quality product that was sold in smaller quantities through a foreign company that focuses on having a good image, so that wasn't needed.
  • Around where I lived there was not much of that since it was just factories. I did go out clubbing one night with some people I met at a pub when watching the football world cup, and there you could find richer people, but the city in general isn't a place where rich people live. Both Shenzhen and Guangzhou had that to a larger extent, but neither came close to Beijing where you just had to go to the club district to see luxury cars wherever you looked.
    As an anecdote, in Beijing my friend was an au pair at a family that I suspect were billionaires. They lived in an apartment that was maybe around $8m, and they also owned the other apartment on the same floor, as well as a third apartment in Beijing and two similar apartments in other cities. They owned multiple stores, and when they went there the host mother just asked her if she liked a piece of expensive clothing, and after she said yes she just took it off the rack and gave it to her. You didn't really see people like that near the factories.
  • Oh yeah, they smoke a ton. I didn't see a lot of it around the factory to be honest, but cigarettes are dirt cheap and easily available everywhere. It's also allowed to smoke indoors in most establishments, so if you go out drinking you will come back smelling like death.
  • I tried to go traveling each weekend, so since I was there for a month I did Hong Kong, Shenzhen, Dongguan and Guangzhou. Out of those Shenzhen was my clear favorite, it had sort of a Singapore vibe while still having the Chinese charm, and I met a whole bunch of interesting people there. Hong Kong was honestly average since I just did the basic stuff, and even if it was slightly better when I had recommendations from a guy who had lived there it didn't blow me away. Guangzhou was fine, but again I didn't really know any great spots. Dongguan is a dump, the most exciting thing in the city is a museum dedicated to rocks that look like things.

progress101 karma

Was it a large bathroom with multiple unpartitioned squat toilets? I have seen pictures of those.

Cahootie1 karma

Those are common all around China, but here each dorm room had its own squatting toilet. I only used the toilet in the office.

progress101 karma

How was using the squatting toilet?

Cahootie1 karma

I can't do the Asian squat, I blame it on the big ass I've inherited from my mother's side of the family. No matter how hard I try I just can't get the heels to touch the ground, so it's terrible for me.

heavy_metal1 karma

Assuming you're a man, have you dated Chinese women, and if so, how do you like them?

Cahootie4 karma

I am a man, but I did not date any Chinese women. There is this idea that many men go to China because they have "yellow fever" or can't get laid back home, and let's be honest, that is actually the case for a lot of them. China has become a refuge for white people where they can start over from scratch, find a job that gets you by simply because you're white, and find women who like you simply because you're white. My impression is that with the increased globalization and development in large parts of China this is being pushed out, and many people instead choose to move to other parts of South East Asia instead, but it's still prevalent. I have many friends who have gone to China or Taiwan for a year and come back with a girlfriend.

As for why I didn't date any Chinese women, it's not because I don't like them per se, but what I'm looking for in a relationship is usually very different from the existing dynamics in many Asian relationships. Naturally every person is different, but there are general gender roles that simply don't appeal to me for a relationship. I've met great people in China and the rest of East Asia where I've travelled a lot, but when you have vastly different expecations of what you want in a relationship it simply won't work.

CassBarr1 karma

Did you notice as a Westerner that you were shielded from any particular things? Anything you tried to do or see but were told you couldn't?

Cahootie3 karma

You can pretty much always pull the stupid foreigner card. Almost any social faux-pas can waved away by pretending you don't understand the culture or misunderstood something, and people are generally pretty understanding, so in a way you are often shielded from consequences that Chinese nationals would suffer. I have a friend who was driving a scooter on the highway in Taiwan, and since that is illegal they were stopped by the police. They took them to the police station, took their information, offered them some tea and basically just had a little chat with them about stuff completely unrelated to their infraction, and about a week later a policewoman even texted my friend and asked him out on a date.

The biggest issue you face as an obvious foreigner is that no matter how well you speak the language and understand the culture you will never be seen as Chinese. You are still an oddity in a largely homogeneous society, and so you will face a difficult time having normal social interactions. If I walk into a restaurant in a non-touristy area heads will be turning, if you can speak passable Chinese people often act like it's a miracle, on the street you see little kids staring, you constantly hear people mentioning that foreigner over there, and while I just find it amusing it wouldn't be as fun if you're actually trying to establish yourself in Chinese society.

I don't think I ever encountered situations where me being a foreigner physically stopped me from doing something, the closest would probably be bank accounts and memberships and stuff where things got really complicated when they suddenly had to input a non-chinese ID number, but that tended to work out in the end. I enjoyed hanging out in areas that catered more to local people, because to me that's where the attraction to any city lies, and I felt welcomed no matter where I went.

It was usually the other way around, many night clubs let you in for free and offer you free alcohol if you're a foreigner, and if you also happen to be female (or wearing a fancy princess dress like I did on Halloween) you can just bypass security checks. So this all depends on what you're trying to experience in China. If you're there to drink and have fun, see China from a more broad perspective and see what it's like living somewhere else for a limited period of time then being a foreigner can give you some perks, but if you're really trying to get deep into Chinese society then you'll face many obstacles as a white person.

CassBarr1 karma

Thanks for that reply. Yes, as a tall blonde female, I know what you mean about never being able to blend into Asian society! I had the same experience in the Philippines.

Cahootie1 karma

My teacher told me a story about a European guy who had studied Chinese language and history for a very long time at a very high level, he was basically one of the leading experts in the entire world in his specialty. Once when he was buying some food from a cart in the street he heard the guy running it joking about how this foreigner probably didn't speak Chinese just like all others, and he replied to this speaking perfect Chinese. The owner then goes on and says how he probably can't read Chinese anyways, so the guy gives him a detailed rundown of the history behing a few characters in the menu. The owner is not impressed, and just says "Well, you're never gonna be Chinese anyways".

sapitron1 karma

considering how horrendous are factory conditions in china, if good standards were applied and workers were given decent pay and off days, health insurance, etc

how much more expensive would be everything in the west and europe? 10% more ? 20% more

this issue has always fascinated me.

Cahootie1 karma

I'm not too well versed in the production chain, I didn't get any financial insight, so I can't really tell. One thing though is that these factories are generally very inefficient, which is just how stuff works in China. You will have a lot of people employed that don't do much, because that's how business is supposed to be in China. You gotta keep the massive population working somehow.