Published: 14.10.11

China, here I come …

ETH-Zurich student Leonardo Schneider is currently doing an industrial internship in China. The budding mechanical engineer reports on the trials and tribulations of everyday Chinese life and (to him) incomprehensible bus timetables.

Leonardo Schneider
At the market: chicken prepared in all manner of different ways.
At the market: chicken prepared in all manner of different ways. (large view)

A dream comes true: here I’m in Changshu – my very first time in China (in Asia, actually). I feel fighting fit and am enjoying the enormous culture shock after the stressful final exams for my Bachelor’s back in Switzerland.

After the marathon journey via Dubai and Shanghai, I finally landed safe and sound. Back in Dubai, I was waiting to board along with rich Arabs and their completely veiled wives, Iranian carpet salesmen, a woman from Ghana and a Brit with his blonde wife dressed in a mini-skirt. Of course, there were a lot of Chinese, too, and an Indian delegation. So the plane was a real melting pot of cultures!

Chaos on the motorway

The trip from Shanghai Airport to Changshu was a bit like a race. Everyone drives however they want on the motorway: without signalling, overtaking left, right and centre, driving down the hard shoulder if the other three have ground to a standstill, or even stopping and reversing if they miss their exit. The side lanes are not respected at all and the one driving the bigger vehicle doesn’t even bother to look left or right before changing direction. Let’s just say my adrenaline level was higher than after a ride on the Silver Star! I was more than glad that there was someone to pick me up from the airport because I couldn’t make head nor tail of the bus timetable.

I arrived in Changshu – a small city in the Jiangsu province near Shanghai with a population of over two million and maybe fewer than 100 westerners – almost two weeks ago. A stroll to the supermarket can make you feel like an animal at the zoo, just without the cage. People stop and stare, and as they go past they turn their heads and keep watching you! A strange feeling, believe me! I’ll need a long time to get used to it. I know they’re just being curious, though; not unfriendly.

Algae mixed with rice

In the same street as my guesthouse, there are many small restaurants and takeaways. Mostly family-run, the meals are really cheap (one or two Swiss francs) and are not bad at all. The whole family helps out while the younger children play around the tables. Granddad, grandma, the parents and older children, all of them roll up their sleeves and do their bit. The kids at the place where I first had dinner were fascinated by me. They kept smiling at me and showed me how to eat the meal. The seaweed has to be mixed with the rice, not eaten separately. The Chinese also drink a lot of soy milk and slurp their soup as loudly as possible! For breakfast you can have a typical noodle soup with two fried eggs floating inside – which I’m still struggling with so early in the morning …

In the city centre, the Fangta tower is a symbol of the importance and power this place had several thousands of years ago.

The first weekend, I walked through a local fresh market and marvelled at all the things you can buy there. Rice eels, frogs, a lot of chicken (alive or prepared in every imaginable way), various fish and seafood, a lot of vegetables and much more. There were so many different smells – both good and bad! One of the market sellers was so excited about me taking a photo of him. The noise he made and the laughter of the people around him made me feel bad at first, but then I realised they were just happy. I must have been one of the first westerners – if not the first – they had ever encountered.

The city has a big wall around it. It protected it from the Japanese pirates who came along the Yangtze River centuries ago. An enormous construction – well worth a visit.

Language a major hurdle

My internship at Novartis got off to a good start and all of my colleagues are trying to help in any way they can. The plant is quite interesting with all the reactors, centrifuges, pipelines and laboratories. They produce a lot of raw material for further refinement in Basel. The working day starts at 6:45 in the morning. I have breakfast at one of the small restaurants nearby before taking the shuttle bus to the industrial zone outside the city. In the beginning, everyone on the bus gazed at me but since I take the same one every morning, they’ve got used to me. The journey takes the guts of fifty minutes and the driver is not quite as heedful as his Swiss counterparts…

The language forms an almost insurmountable barrier between me and the locals. At the company, I can speak English to almost everyone in the offices. But as soon as I enter the plant, I have no way of communicating with the operators, who only speak Chinese or their local dialects. When my associates start speaking Chinese, it’s game over for me. No Chance! I hope to learn at least a smattering of the lingo, but I suspect it’s going to be a lot of work, what with the tonal system they have. The same word has completely different meanings depending on the intonation! Wow. The moment I leave the company premises, I’m very much left to my own devices. The locals really don’t understand a word of English and I’d be lost without my ohne Woerterbuch (an illustrated dictionary for travellers).

You might have noticed that there hasn’t been a lot of news about yours truly lately: Well, Facebook is not allowed here in China and Skype is restricted. But no need to worry. As grandma would say: no news is good news!

About the author

The 24-year-old Leonardo Schneider is in his seventh semester at the Department of Mechanical and Process Engineering. He is currently doing an industrial internship at Novartis in China.