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Report: Diploma Thesis in China in 2002

by Dirk Mussenbrock in February 2002

"Ni hao ma?" the resounding call hits me as I came out of the arrivals area of the Shenyang airport. Among the many Chinese was Ronald, the German intern, easy to recognize. He was accompanied by a chauffeur as well as the translator from Shenyang XikeSiliciaLtd.. "Mamahuhu" I call to them and the smile already present on the faces of my reception committee extended further - my Volkshochschule, community college Chinese was effective. I was so happy! Arriving in one piece and on time in China - though to be more precise it was in Shenyang, the capital of the northern Chinese province of Liaoning.

But let's start at the beginning of this journey: "1.3 billion toothbrushes - China entices!" With these words Mahathir Mohamad - Prime Minister of Malaysia - described the economic chances of China in a nutshell. After the impressive experiences of a 6-month internship near Los Angeles it quickly became clear to me that my dissertation would also have to involve a residency abroad. But this time it would be in another area: Asia.

500 e-mails were sent to personnel departments all throughout Germany to apply for a degree dissertation in the area of Marketing and a corresponding sojourn abroad in Asia. "Office is too small", "no maintenance services on site", or "we do not offer dissertation work in Asia" was often the stereotypical answer. Yet this truly tiresome and tedious process showed a little success with some companies: the semi-conductor department of HeraeusQuarzglas, located in Hanau and Kleinostheim, had a suitable subject in regards to Marketing and was prepared to send me to its branch in the People's Republic of China for 2 months. Wow - I was excited!

HeraeusQuarzglas GmbH & Co. KH (HQS) belongs to the technology concern Heraeus, which operates with over 9,000 employees worldwide in the fields of precious metals, dental tools, silica glass, sensors and special lamps. HQS produces basis materials for silica/quartz glass and then fashions them into products for the most diverse of fields, such as lamp technology, microchip production and chemical applications. The Semi-conductor department is located in Shenyang, with around 200 employees. Shenyang XikeSilicia Ltd. (SSI) creates construction parts from silica glass, required for microchip production. The high-tech manufacturing corresponds to the German level, the location primarily serving microchip factories in China. Aside from the occasional German intern from the FH Aalen, the only employees there are Chinese.

After your first friends have been made, then comes the question: What do I even know about China and Shenyang!? Google came to my rescue and within a day I was much more informed. China reported real economic growth of 7.3% in 2012, and with 12.1 billion USD in exports to China it represents the second most important export market in Asia for German companies - after Japan. The growth rates for this rested at approximately 30% for the previous years.

The most important economic regions are the Shanghai area and the region around Hong Kong. Shenyang, however, is far removed from those - by approximately 1800 km. With 6 to 8 million inhabitants (nobody knows the exact figure), Shenyang is the most important industrial, commercial and cultural center in northeastern China. The big boom has not yet reached it, but more and more major companies are settling down there. Recently BMW decided to set up a plant in Shenyang so they could produce the 3 Series for the Chinese market. As came to be clear later, there were also some advantages to the economic boom not yet being so tangible in this region. The people here are not as snooty as the Shanghainese, viewed with distrust by many Chinese.

During my 4 weeks of preparation time at HQS in Kleinostheim I was already forewarned: In Shenyang it is cold, dirty and the smog is breathtaking in the most literal sense of the word. Well, all right, you will overcome this as well, I thought to myself. Flight and visa were no problem at all and quickly arranged, and I would be residing with the other 8 German interns from the FH Aalen who had already been there for 2 months. On November 18, 2002 I was off. Departing from Hamburg, on to Vienna, and from there a direct flight to Beijing (Peking) before Air China brought me to Shenyang.

And then in Shenyang, my first impressions outside of the airport, and honestly: The streets are filled with a multitude of cyclists, rickshaws and soaring dealers. The next thing you notice are the myriad red taxis: VW Santanas and VW Jettas - so far removed from Germany, but a piece of home is on the streets of Shenyang.

To start with, our chauffeur’s style of driving immediately inspires fear in me: If the traffic light is red for too long, it is simply ignored, and the opposite lane is used for catching up with traffic regardless of what is coming up. And cyclists are just as merciless as any other supposedly weaker commuter. Honks and blinkers are in constant use and are even utilized when the police car up ahead is driving too slowly.

My housing, on the other hand, exceeded my grimmest expectations. The two apartments, in which 4 of the German students were living, were equal with the rather lower Chinese standard. No warm water, no shower and 3 hours of heating per day - and that with an expected -13 degrees. This meant that during extreme outside temperatures and room temperatures of around 40 to 50 degrees, my blow drier served to warm the room up by a few degrees.

My stay with the company was defined by immense friendliness, curiosity and openness toward me. The fact that I, as a German, had not tried to show the Chinese "how it's really done", did not arrogantly put on airs, and also tried hard to integrate myself into daily life did not go unnoticed. I considered the daily arrival and departure with the company bus, the daily visit to the cafeteria and assisting with collective shoveling of snow with the office workers to be self-explanatory.

Otherwise, daily life in the WFOEs (wholly foreign-owned enterprises) is not all that different from where we live. One works between 38 and 40 hours, uses standard Microsoft Office applications and surfs the web from time to time. Yet there are many aspects that one must know in order to understand how the Chinese work. In contrast to us more objectively oriented Western Europeans, they are more focused on individuals and the interpersonal, e.g. bare numbers. The Chinese worker does not like direct communication, problems are usually approached and solved indirectly. Decisions are usually made collectively, and personalized decisions - as they are often enjoyed by Western managers - are unpopular among the Chinese. Because of this, decisions often take much longer to make and are justified differently.

Thanks to a few English-speaking colleagues, communication was nearly flawless. 3 German-speaking Chinese also worked within the company. However, such closer work with corporate data and documents has its difficulties. Should someone actually be quite gifted with the Chinese language, the 3,500 different ideographs present another problem. The result was that all required documents had to be translated. With a tight deadline, this caused a wrinkle in my or somebody else's forehead.

Along with daily research in the office, there were of course many other things to discover. Shenyang draws back on a long history. The imperial residence was once located in Shenyang before it was relocated to Beijing (Peking). And just like in Beijing, the Forbidden City in Shenyang is still very well maintained and is worth a visit. A world-famous warm water grotto is located in Benxi, and further north lies the city Harbin with its renowned ice sculpture festival.

But interesting experiences are not only offered by the tourist sights. Taking a taxi or a bus, visiting one of the many shopping centers and stores, the bustle of the myriad markets or an evening meal with Chinese students all reveal much more of the interesting culture and its amiable people than the picture often provided to a typical tourist.

For German students, China is certainly still considered a rather unusual destination, be it for an internship or a degree dissertation. However, it is clear - especially considering the narrowing economic relationships - that experience in this region could be worth its weight in gold in one's later professional life. Of course such a sojourn brings various austerities with it. Highly sensitive students who cannot abstain from their eating utensils or a daily shower every morning in a warm bath, or who take to their heels at the sight of a cockroach, should elect for a different country.

Yet whosoever feels the desire to take on a special challenge and explore cultures very foreign to our own will surely find an ideal destination in China. Even if learning the Chinese language with its many dialects and over 3,000 ideographs is a rather tedious undertaking, there are opportunities to move around in this country. Support from a German company operating over there makes a lot possible!