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Two Years of Experiences as a French Expat Urban Planner...

Two Years of Experiences as a French Expat Urban Planner in Shanghai, China

What young person with a diploma in urban planning has never dreamed of the opportunity to start his or her career in the heart of an emerging economy where urbanization is a key factor of two-fold growth? “Everyone!” you would respond. I, Christelle (Chris in English), was a planner/urban designer in Shanghai for two years:

Chinese Pavilion Expo 2010

What young person with a diploma in urban planning has never dreamed of the opportunity to start his or her career in the heart of an emerging economy where urbanization is a key factor of two-fold growth? "Everyone!" you would respond.

I, Christelle (Chris in English), was a planner/urban designer in Shanghai for two years: two enriching years, as much from a professional as from a cultural point of view, but also very astonishing, at times - even disconcerting.

In 2011, while I was a masters student, I received an offer to do an internship with an American company established in Shanghai. After a visit to its website, an interview with the big boss and my agreement signed - take-off, destination China, a country in full emergence, which evolves according to the rhythm of the thousands of urban planning projects that come to fruition daily. Excitement, and now I can admit it, light apprehension. During the 11 hours of flight, departing from Paris, a flight where 75 percent of the passengers were Chinese, you already started on a cultural adaptation. Crushed in the aisles, loud discussions, the smell of noodle soups ... In short, so that it's out there, traveling with the Chinese is not really restful!

Historical Shanghai, China

With the plane having barely landed, the Chinese were all standing with their cell phones lit up in their hands. Welcome to China! Beep, departure for an adventure that promises to be captivating.

First impression in the taxi, which drove me to Shanghai's city center: here, everything seemed to move extremely fast!

Not only the taxi drivers, who give you the sensation of being in second place in a Formula Uno track - I am obviously referring to the numerous projects under construction, which I rapidly noted all along the trip. Passing in front of the site of the Universal Exposition, the shifu (taxi driver) slowed down a bit in order to show me the building that all the Chinese are extremely proud of: the Chinese pavilion, one of the 70 national pavilions build for the Universal Exposition, which took place in Shanghai in 2010. The work of the Chinese architect, He Jingtang, this pavilion, nicknamed "The Crown of the East," is one of the most imposing in the history of international expositions, but also the most expensive ($220 million). A symbol and showcase for Chinese civilization. By the way, certain visitors have waited in line for five hours to visit.

People's Square Shanghai, China

After thirty minutes of frantic driving, the driver finally stops (Whew, I am still alive!). The first steps in Shanghai, in one of the most animated districts of the megalopolis: People's Square. Surrounding me, a feeling of disproportionality, of immense smallness in front of this multitude of buildings, in such different architectural styles. Is Shanghai the New York of the United States?   

Having arrived on the 15th floor of a building located in the middle of the city center of Shanghai, I discovered my work environment. A very spacious hall, decked out in building design and 3D models for projects. This hall looks directly onto a great room for meetings and conferences, with leather armchairs, transparent partitions, and with an unbeatable view of Shanghai and its numerous buildings.

Shanghai Pudong, China

One of my future colleagues called out to me, "Ni Hao Chris!" and offered me a short visit of the company. "Yes, sure! Let's go!" (As a French person who assiduously took English courses during her studies, I had reached a level that only allowed me to respond with very short phrases!) We crossed a small corridor at the end of which was a door that opened on an ... immense (I would say even immmmense!) open space, populated exclusively by Chinese people, at first glance, at work. Steve (my famous colleague, whose real Chinese name was Chong) introduced me (in Mandarin) to all my future colleagues. A feeling of ill-being when everyone examines in such a way a creature from outer space. A quick chat with some of them, those who "speak" English.

The days passed. The first obstacle: the language barrier. In China and as everywhere else, English is the language of business. With my boss, having a dual citizenship, American and French (and not speaking Mandarin), three translators were present daily in order to carry out the translation work on our projects and meetings. Like I said earlier, some of my colleagues had a rather good level while others did not speak a word of English. Being that we would work in project teams, it was thus necessary to adapt.

Shanghai, City Center, China

During these two years, I worked on urban and touristic projects of different scopes, from the creation of a city neighborhood to the realization of an entire city, including the creation of global touristic sites. I notably participated in the creation of a "Livable Healthy City" of 117 square kilometers, a project that I realized with the collaboration of five of my colleagues in two months. A small question: do you know the Chinese urban code? No? You can imagine that I did not either because it does not exist in China! Just some height regulations, density and spacing were communicated to us by the different provinces at the beginning of each project. Here you are saying, "Working on large-scale projects but on top of it without (almost any) regulatory constraint, the dream!" It's exactly what I told myself over the first few days; then I began reconsidering my judgment call the day that ... I figured out that neither of the remote cultures, Chinese or Western, had the same definition of the word "productivity."

In France, we often hear that the "Chinese spend a lot more hours working than the French." Let me give you some details! Very quickly, here is the planning of most of my old colleagues: Arrive in the office at the earliest at 9:30 am, give 30 minutes to eating breakfast in front of the computer (without forgetting the "discreet" burp indicating that it was delicious), work, lunch at noon, giving oneself to national sport: siesta with crossed arms on the desk or lounging on the sofas in the break room, sometimes even in the meetings room, lights off, watch out if you are going to disturb these precious moments ... These times of rest multiply themselves when the big boss is on a business trip ...

Shanghai urban planning exhibition centre, Shanghai, China

On this subject, here is a small anecdote that I experienced, which shocked me a little bit outright. On that Wednesday,January 16, 2013, I was supposed to have a meeting with my director a 4:30 pm in order to exchange ideas about a project. Around 4:45 pm, not seeing her at her desk, I contacted her, via our internal mail server: 5:00 pm: no return. 5:15 pm new messaging attempt. 5:30 pm, still no return. Toward 6:00 pm, I decided to write her a few words and leave them on her desk and reschedule this meeting ultimately according to her availability. It was to my surprise when I arrived at her desk and very simply discovered that she was ... sleeping ... and that, at least since 4:45 pm!

Finally, to come back to the day of most of my old colleagues: figuring out that his cell phone no longer has battery (the Chinese pass their time playing) and that it is soon 6 pm and that it will be necessary to think about being productive ... But to say to oneself that finally it is not so serious because you are employed with a company that encourages you to stay at your desk late (dinner and taxi covered after 7pm and 10 pm) ... Here thus some of the reasons why the Chinese spend a lot of time at work.

Outside of these cultural differences, sometimes disconcerting, I met numerous talented Chinese with whom I am still in contact, worked on multi-use projects at a large scale, through which I was able to develop my sense of creativity, my urbanistic and architectural competences at an international level. 

From a professional, but also personal point of view, beginning one's career as an urbanist through an international experience, is, in my opinion, the best way to acquire a real opening of the spirit and strong adaptation capacities useful throughout professional life.

Dzaï djienne!

Is planning a discipline that is particularly conducive to helping bridge cultural divides? Have you ever worked abroad as an environmental designer? Share your experiences and stories in the comments below.

Original article, originally published in French, here.

Credits: Data and images linked to sources.

Intern photo

Bora Mici has a background in design and online writing. Most recently, she has worked as an online contributor for DC Mud, Patch.com, GoodSpeaks.org and WatchingAmerica.com, covering urban planning and visual and performing arts in the Washington, D...

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