'Homeless for a month': U.S. interns in China learn to reset expectations

Mark Rowland, an accounting major at Washington University of St. Louis, quit the South China Internship Program after it placed him at a Chinese amusement park, where he was expected to work in the park's zoo.

A photo Mark Rowland took on his first day on the job at the zoo of Chimelong Paradise, China's largest amusement park, in Guangzhou. Rowland later quit after he discovered staff of the South China Internship Program had misidentified him and other American interns as hospitality students.

Keenan Madson’s internship in China this summer has taught him an important lesson. "I’ve essentially been in China homeless for a month, living day to day not knowing what I am doing," says Madson from the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou. "So I’ve definitely learned a lot more about myself and what I can take."

“Homeless in China” wasn’t a line Madson had planned to add to his resume. Earlier this year, he and 13 other Americans were selected by the Hong Kong America Center for its first annual South China Internship Program.

Mark Rowland, an accounting major at Washington University in St. Louis, was another student on the program. "One of the big features of this internship was that you would partner with Chinese interns, and with them you’d be conducting a bilingual research project in marketing, finance or accounting," Rowland says, remembering the description of the internship on the program's website. "Something that would benefit the company we were placed with."

Rowland, Madson, and three others found out where they were going to be placed: Chimelong Paradise -- China’s largest amusement park in the city of Guangzhou. "It's got a zoo, a circus, with 'Cirque du Soleil.' It’s got SeaWorld. it’s like all the great American theme parks rolled into one," he says.

Rowland was a little nervous. Was this the sort of place you could do an accounting internship? He says the program officer assured him it’d be a good fit. "I was just envisioning a kind of corporate job in their headquarters or whatever," remembers Rowland.

Keenan Madson, who plans to major in physics at Gustavus Adolphus University in Minnesota, says he was told he could do an engineering and design internship at the park.

But the amusement park boss had another idea.

Once the group of Americans arrived, they were handed costumes. They were ordered to put them on. "Don’t know if you’ve seen 'Mary Poppins,' but when Mary Poppins goes into the dreamland and Dick Van Dyke is wearing that white and red jump suit with the top hat? That’s exactly what I looked like," says Madson.

And that’s the moment Madson realized he had traveled 10,000 miles around the planet so that he could greet visitors at the front gate of a Chinese amusement park. His job was to wear a candy cane striped suit and collect entrance tickets from Chinese tourists. Intern Mark Rowland -- the accounting major -- was given a safari costume to wear. He was told he’d be working inside the park’s zoo.

After two days of this, all but one of the American interns at Chimelong quit. Amusement park staff told students the South China Internship program had misidentified them as hospitality students. And they were now on their own -- four American students, stuck in China, homeless, crashing on the couches of other expatriate Americans who felt sorry for them. "We were just couchsurfing after we left the employee dorms," says Rowland.

In the end, two students flew back to the U.S., Rowland left for Shanghai, and Madson roamed around China staying with friends until the South China Internship Program found a new placement for him. "Was there not enough oversight? Yes. Were their mistakes made in the initial communication process? Yes. We’ve already tried to address this matter," says Glenn Shive, director of the Hong Kong America Center.

His center received a $200,000 grant from the Ford Foundation to partner with the United International College in the city of Zhuhai to run the South China Internship Program for three years. It was part of the Obama administration’s 100,000 Strong initiative, which aims to bring more U.S. college students to China.

Shive, who was responsible for running the program alongside Fulbright scholar Raymond Tran and United International College's Gifford Searls, says he’s sorry about what happened. But he says the problems could’ve been ironed out had the students stuck around. When you come to China to work, says Shive, the first thing you need to do is reset your expectations. "Anything that’s in their minds that they have coming off the airplane, to say 'I’m here, I’m ready, you told me this this and this, and it’s not there,' and I’m saying this person is going to have a hard time in China," says Shive.

If there’s an expert on U.S. students doing internships in China, it’s Jeremy Friedlein. He’s managed an internship program for CET Academic programs for five years. The trick, says Friedlein, is managing expectations. Even though China is the world’s second largest economy, it’s still very much a developing one. "In America, when you have an internship with a company, people are used to having interns, generally speaking, and they know what their end of the deal is," says Friedlein. "In China, internships are more or less free or cheap labor and foreign and Chinese companies will make use of that however they want to."

Friedlein says much of China doesn’t yet have a culture of internships, and, for better or worse, this first wave of young American interns are guinea pigs.

But not if Mark Rowland can help it.

After leaving the South China Internship program, he tapped his university alumni network to find a real internship in Shanghai. "I have started working for four days now and I’ve already done more meaningful stuff in those four days than I ever did at Chimelong," says Rowland.

And in doing so, Rowland learned the most important lesson for any foreigner living in China: Life here is a thrilling yet chaotic adventure -- you’ll need connections to help you along the way.

About the author

Rob Schmitz is Marketplace’s China correspondent in Shanghai.

A photo Mark Rowland took on his first day on the job at the zoo of Chimelong Paradise, China's largest amusement park, in Guangzhou. Rowland later quit after he discovered staff of the South China Internship Program had misidentified him and other American interns as hospitality students.

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