Tag Archive: china



In a professional era characterised by creative dynamism and lapped by the growing waves of globalisation, there is a distinct fascination around the world with Gen Y, those people in their 20s who are beginning to join the world of work. For some, their experiences beyond education begin even before entrance into university in what is termed the ‘gap year’.

Having rose to eminence in the 1990s, the gap year involves taking a year off, often before or after studying in university. The period is traditionally furnished by backpack travelling, volunteer work and adventure tourism with India, South-East Asia and South America among the popular destinations. There are infinite possibilities with the globe rested alluringly at your feet and, for the late teenager beginning to acquaint themselves with their own character, this freedom is both a gift and a curse. It is this fragile interchange that lies at the heart of the gap year.

Over the past five years, over a quarter of British students have opted to take a year off, last year 160,000 students leaving college alone went out in search of sun, adventure and moral fulfilment. Gap years have yet to take off in India, with students reluctant to fragment the educational process with a year off, however they are by no means non-existent.

Wasted Gap Years?

But what is the real value for Gen Y as they roam across the globe, and how can the experience be tailored for maximum value? Having opted to take a gap year between school and university, I was wary of the continuing debate over the value of a gap year. Recently a spokesperson for the gap year planning company, Year Out, lamented that the majority of travellers “just go off and travel independently without any real purpose”. This judgement was potentially influenced by the rise of the ‘gap yah’ brigade, named as such because ‘yah’ is a posh pronunciation and reflective of the disproportionate amount of public-school educated students taking gap years.

The focus on public school students is explainable when you regard the costs of a gap year. Market researcher Mintel found that the average gap-year traveller spent up to £4,000 on each trip. Subsequently, a trend has emerged whereby middle-class students with access to larger funds are the most likely to elect for a gap year. This flamboyant social group has become the subject of parody in recent years and a YouTube clip emerged entitled ‘Gap Yah’ that ridiculed the culture of students travelling abroad for the sole purpose of getting drunk, attracting over 3,600,000 millions hits in the process.

Gap Yah

Indeed, in areas such as South-East Asia and South America, these ‘gap yahers’ have earned notoriety for their pursuit of hedonism. Amanda Miller, who worked as a bargirl in the gap year hot-spot Vang Vieng in Laos summed it up when she questioned the moral value of some travellers’ experiences. “Most people come for the sole purpose of getting drunk and letting loose, there was absolutely no interest in local culture. I’m not sure how people are meant to ‘find themselves’ in the bottom of a vodka bucket”, she sighed. A true manifestation of this hedonistic take on gap years is the Thai party island, Koh Phangan, which hosts monthly ‘Full Moon’ parties. Credited as the highlight for some gap year travellers, these parties last throughout the night and are a notorious haven for drugs, sex and violence with deaths as inescapable as the tides that lap the beach.

Professional worth

It is perhaps the popularity of the full moon parties and the emergence of this hedonistic culture as the fundamental drive for some gap year students that encouraged Mary Curnock Cook, the chief executive of the British body responsible for applications to universities, to call for a recalibration of priorities for people taking gap years. In her view the time for people to use gap years for a break to see the world was extinct. Gap years should instead be used strategically to gain experience to support a university application.

A survey undertaken by gap year organization company Projects Abroad went further and suggested that gap years hold real value for potential employers. Their research found that 60% of business managers believed taking a gap year to be just as important as a university degree when regarding possible interview candidates. They recognized the non-vocational worth of the gap yearer as they travelled and experienced different cultures, which could help develop crucial business skills such as leadership and organization.

It is no surprise that, while some gap yearers opt to sip sangria and gaze at the moon, others have kept a firm eye on the potentially daunting future of universities and job interviews. As a result, ‘voluntourism’ has emerged as a popular choice for students wishing to volunteer in their gap year. It was estimated that 500,000 students participated in volunteer schemes last year. This sector has developed volunteer projects ranging from teaching in Africa to conservation in South America. The company Projects Abroad features a number of opportunities in India, including the promotion and development of sustainable agriculture in South Indian villages. The catch? Being a volunteer is not cheap, the company ‘Real Gap Experience’ offers a three-week conservation placement looking after wild life in South Africa for £1,279 with flights included.

Voluntourism in Africa

Decisions, decisions

With the chilling possibility of my own gap year descending into a global booze cruise whispering seductively in my ear like the demonic Mephistopheles with Dr. Faustus, I was determined to use the time to build professional credentials and widen my global perspective. This was indeed my aspiration when I found myself staring into a vast, 15-month gap year that floated ominously like a black hole, barring my entrance to university. To follow the ‘gap yah’ brigade, cavorting their way across the South American wilderness, I perceived as a wasted opportunity. At 18-years-old, I had the opportunity to gain professional experience and credentials as a tool for differentiating myself in the increasingly competitive labour market. Last year graduate unemployment rates in Britain rose to 20%.

As an aspiring journalist I concluded that work placements in local publications across the globe would be a good opportunity for me to develop and harness my skills, but also creating a unique insight into the countries I would be working at as I interacted with them as a journalist. The locations were perhaps the easiest decision. In this era of globalisation, China and India have demanded the world’s attention for their spiralling rates of growth and increasing role in worldwide politics and economics. China has sustained an extremely high GDP growth rate averaging over 10% in the past ten years while India’s population has soared above 1.2 billion people this year and is expected to harbour the largest population by 2025.

The Dragon…

China’s distinct culture rendered it an enticing prospect to work in and, through Projects Abroad, I found a placement at Shanghai’s largest English speaking monthly publication, That’s Shanghai. The office was run predominantly by expatriates so contact with local Chinese was limited. Despite this, I observed first-hand the impact of the Chinese government at micro level when, before print, a government representative arrived to censor any necessary articles. Government censorship, I learnt, is a crucial factor in China’s creative industries. For example, the movie industry is highly constrained and potential film-makers face banned themes such as time-travel, propagating feudal superstitions and portraying ambiguous moral lessons. In our publication, an article on haunted routes in Shanghai had to be vetoed for fear of government intervention.

As irony would have it, having jumped ship on the gap yah booze cruise, my main role was writing on Shanghai nightlife. Rather than chained to the office desk, I found myself exploring the city’s jazz digs and futuristic roof top bars. As I met bejewelled club owners and interviewing up-and-coming DJs I discovered the city far more than if I had visited the land marks, fuelled the desperate drive for sight-seeing that accompanies most tourist holidays. Mingling with locals I also developed an understanding of China’s unique business culture, such as the importance of one’s reputation and the development of contacts or ‘guanxi’ as they’re known. All useful knowledge when you account for the 132,000 millionaires languishing in Shanghai.

Interning in a publication there is a responsibility to be proactive and create opportunities for yourself. Under the energetic policy of ‘take anything’, I was tasked with transcribing an hour-long interview with a local who had the comprehensibility of White Noise. Four laborious hours later and I was told it was for a half-page article. Developing this mentality to actively seize work I found was priceless experience, especially in professions like journalism where nothing comes free. Working in the exceptional Chinese environment was an opportunity to develop flexibility and, as the Chinese economy hurtles forward, experience with Chinese business is an invaluable asset for potential employers seeking to assault the Chinese market.

… and the Elephant

India

Continuing the trend of globe-trotting, I then alighted in India to work in Mumbai’s largest publication company Spenta Multimedia and later the English language daily newspaper, DNA. At Spenta, to provide the nautical theme for my personal ‘booze cruise’, I was placed on the editorial team for ‘India Boating’.

Commuting on the Mumbai trains to work (I was told afterwards there was an average of ten fatalities a day on the tracks) and interviewing for stories, I had the unique opportunity to experience India from a more localized perspective. Travellers who wrestle their way through hawkers in Connaught Place or queue outside the Taj Mahal for that perfect photograph for their desktop screensaver only view India from a distinctly outsider’s perspective. During my work, I found myself scrambling across Juhu beach in the company of crab catchers and being led through the creaking passageways of Crawford Market by a wizened guide. All two months without seeing a tourist.

Living as a local and being immersed in the eclectic Indian culture, meant I appreciated the country, in my opinion, far more than a gap year student’s typical foray across the Sub Continent. For prospective gap year students, the experience of working in a city is the best opportunity to put your ear to the ground and tailor the experience for your personal benefit rather than follow in the foot steps of a well-leafed guidebook.

The English factor

The defining factor of my trip observing the Elephant and the Dragon was the influence of my English nationality on people’s perceptions. England still holds ties with India, especially through the hysterically popular medium of cricket, but the overwhelmingly welcoming and positive response I received exceeded all expectations. While working for DNA newspaper, this novelty of nationality took a temporary turn for the worst. While attempting to interview a television actor over the telephone I started, “Hi this is Christian from DNA”. Without skipping a beat the actor replied, “yeah sure, and I’m Julia Roberts!” before abruptly hanging up. He had been deceived by my accent into thinking it was a prank call.

In China, the permeance of Western culture over the last decades (fast food outlet KFC has over 3,200 outlets across China) has led towards ingrained and positive assumptions of people from the West. Last year an underground industry was unearthed in China, whereby Western actors are hired by Chinese companies to pose as fake foreign executives working with the company. This appearance of collaborating with Western companies is perceived to show the business as international, well-connected and prestigious. One such actor even had to pose as the vice president of an Italian jewellery company and had to deliver a speech onstage about his pride in working with the Chinese company for ten years.

This overridingly positive perception of Westerners extended, in the case of a 19-year-old, to assumptions on business ability. Interning at a Chinese business publication, the college student was approached by a local colleague who proposed they started a business together. The colleague was essentially pitching his future on the assumption that, being from the West, my friend was a sure thing as a business associate. By my reckoning, the West has contributed tremendously more than their share towards the bubbling cauldron of global problems. But shhhh, don’t tell the Chinese otherwise the gig will be up and I won’t get the temporary job as vice president of an Austrian plastic manufacturer.

In the light of an increasingly globalized professional environment, my prediction is that more students will combine the prospect of travelling on their gap year with gaining work experience. Working in a foreign city provides priceless experience, both in terms of demonstrating flexibility and the opportunity to cultivate an exclusive and personal relationship with the city. My advice is to use every assignment in work placements as a chance to develop your experience and be open to a globalized society of flexibility and diversity of skills.


As Facebook takes its place at the table of business high rollers, users will have to ask how their personal information is treated.


On the back of a successful 2010, including a silver screen debut, the social media goliath welcomed in the new year by accepting a $375 million investment offer from Goldman Sachs. Like sending the two Milliband brothers on a team building exercise in Cumbria, nothing good can come of this.

For one the deal estimates Facebook’s worth at a giddying $50 billion, a potentially inflated sum when you look at the company’s reported revenue of just $1.2 billion over the first three quarters of 2010. But enough with this monetary dandyism, what of the unwashed masses who use the thing? Well, the noticeably gaping numerical chasm between revenue and worth suggests that financial value is being uncovered elsewhere on Facebook. A bounty is slowly collating above the heads of its 600 million usership and more importantly, the keg loads of information Facebook has on them.

Addresses, birthdays, phone numbers. What’s to stop Facebook auctioning its users’ information and details to the highest bidder, flimsy privacy agreements? Goldman Sachs and co. has seen worse. After all, the parents of royal fiancée Kate Middleton were known to derive a sizeable chunk of revenue for their business, ‘Party Pieces’, by selling their clients’ contact details to relevant companies. With more extensive information at their digital fingertips, Facebook could do one better.

After seven years of loyal service; nursing our hangovers, publishing our ethereal musings and inviting us to join groups detailing the post-mortem of a phone lost to the supernatural clutches of a festival bog. Is Facebook preparing to throw us to the corporate lions? Are our witty wall posts destined to be salivated over by a wispy cheeked researcher, hell bent on proving the neo-Nazi tendencies of Generation Y? Not on my watch.

At this crucial juncture I acknowledge this may sound like the ramblings of an apocalyptic prophet, touring the country and living out of a caravan and stockpiles of tinned food. Or even Morpheus incarnate, offering the ‘blue pill’ of online salvation. Unfortunately for any leather suppliers, I am neither. I’m just not keen on the idea of my postcode being bootlegged across the web to any Tom, Dick and Hameed. So when China gets their teeth into global advertising and start sending Viagra discounts to my new address in the Shire, I’ll be Chairman LMAOing.

As a further measure, next time I see a status update saying “just off to the South of France in daddy’s yacht”, I will not be ‘liking’ it. Instead while they are enjoying the sun, I will round up a posse and march on the offender’s home address (conveniently located in the ‘contact information’ section), kick down the door and kidnap the new puppy they put photos up of last week. It’s for the best.

The socially transparent era of tweeting your bowel movements is over, long live privacy!


 
Now peddling his trade beneath the neon lights of Shanghai,  Christian Seiersen uncovers five reasons why local cinemas may never show a Latin American film.
 
1. They Are Thirty Times Cheaper on DVD
Being a traditionally tech-savy nation, China is more than acquainted with the art of knock-off DVDs. Should a LatAm film breach Chinese screens, you can guarantee the cinema owner’s cousin is in the audience, sporting a camera and waving on the late-comers as they cling guiltily to their popcorn. This is only required if the film survives being passed around the production office like a cheap bottle of Scotch. Sometimes temptation proves too great and said film makes its way into the realms of DVD prematurely, courtesy an entrepreneurial employee.
These films can be identified by the occasional flash of writing, threatening, evidently unsuccessfully, any employee who leaks the movie with crucifixion, or whatever it is they do in China. Being able to buy such films as La Cienaga, a cutting insight into middle-class Argentinian life, for the princely sum of 60 rupees is a cheaper option than visiting one of Shanghai’s cinemas, which can cost as much as 1800 rupees. The only snag is the powers that be have recently outlawed fake DVDs, as the Shanghai World Expo approaches, forcing them underground. Nowadays, to come by such services you have to enter into hidden chambers, which are located in rebel shops and concealed behind a row of unassuming shelves like a haunted mansion. Alternatively, resembling a recession-hit businessman in 1930s America, nomadic salesmen flog their wares from leather briefcases.
2. They Are Food and Drink for the Censors

In a country where Facebook and Youtube have fallen to the axe of restriction, it would be a coup d’etat to see the likes of the sexually-explicit Mexican film Y Tu Mamá También saunter onto the screen. Due to the Chinese quota of 20 foreign films a year and a ban on any sexual content.

In my opinion, in order to strike up a cordial relationship with the local government, LatAm films should take a leaf out of recent blockbuster 2012’s book. It cast China as humanity’s last hope against a barrage of worldwide floods and even showed an American officer saying that only China could build the arks fast enough. Take that Google, and the Chinese box office—2012 broke the Chinese record for highest-grossing film.

Unfortunately, Latin America has yet to incorporate such political shrewdness into their cinematic game. It would be difficult to see a China-friendly ending to Brazilian slum movie Cidade de Deus that pictures the Triads entering the favelas through a flurry of doves, restoring political and moral order. There is the possibility of Cuban leader Fidel Castro rediscovering his international insolence and seeing China as the new phoenix of communism, having emerged from Russia’s ashes. However, this time—due to trivial matters of world security—he would not be offering Cuba’s golden beaches to store missiles, but as exotic sets for communist propaganda films. It’s cinematic guerrilla warfare!

3. The Government would be left red-faced

Having lived in China for two months, I have arrived at the conclusion that it is a land of closet communists. Where, I ask, are the ranks of villagers partaking in synchronized exercise routines, or the Stalinist propaganda posters depicting a muscular worker with a sickle? Nowhere. The political gears are remarkably lethargic; there’s the odd policeman being accosted by old women about fronting a municipal crack down on chicken theft, but beyond that, not a lot.

 Though I gloat of my immunity, I have probably made a gross misjudgment, and, as I poke fun at their country, three of the CCP’s finest menfolk are tunneling beneath my desk to burst dramatically from the floorboards the moment I make another unsubtle communist reference.

 In Shanghai, the only political incitement I have experienced first-hand is a crazed cyclist, wielding a megaphone and campaigning down side streets, hollering political slogans. Therefore, I question what reception politically-charged films such as the Argentinean Diarios de Motocicleta, an insight into the early life of communist pin-up Che Guevara, would have in China. (I can feel the floorboards shuddering.) Though it was born out of brimstone and fire, Chinese communism nowadays is more discreet, and to show the unwashed masses, all 1.3 billion of them, stirring scenes of Che cruising through the South American countryside? Well, that’s asking for a revolution.

4. They’d Threaten the Peace

Shanghai is in the enviable position of being one of the safest cities in the world. Gang members here prefer to sing Bryan Adams in one of the city’s many karaoke bars than deal with trifling matters like extortion. It is a remarkably peaceful city. Unlike in India, you would have to literally put your foot through a Chinese cab driver’s windscreen to rouse him into beeping his horn.

 So, we have this peaceful and zen setting, comparable to a rural British town. Then throw onto this a Latin American movie like, oh I don’t know, Elite Squad. This Brazilian bash-up follows a specialist police squad who are tasked with fighting crime in Rio de Janeiro’s slums. There isn’t just a spray of bullets, it’s a monsoon! Suddenly the previously-mentioned crazed cyclist will trade in his megaphone for an AK-47 and the police will have more on their hands than karaoke bar rap battles.

No, I think playing it safe with national icon Jackie Chan being thrown into side-splitting movie scenarios is a safer option. One such sortie is the The Spy Next Door, where Chan plays an ex-CIA officer who has to babysit his girlfriend’s kids. Hilarity most certainly does not ensue.

5. They’d Scare the People

Despite becoming officially atheist in 2002, China has retained a strong sense of superstition. Because the number eight is lucky, phone numbers that are well-endowed with the lucky digit sell for ten times the price of unlucky numbers. Not that anyone would, but if, as a guest, you brought the gift of a clock to a Chinese family it is deemed a catastrophic insult, as clocks are associated with death. Perhaps the popular story of Peter Pan, and its prophetic inclusion of a ticking clock for Captain Hook, had more of a profound effect than had first been imagined.

Therefore, it is difficult to see such an audience taking kindly to Mexican-directed film El Laberinto del Fauno, which is wrought with fantasy scenes of talking fawns and a creature that holds its eyeballs in its palms. Sure, the film does portray the Spanish dictator General Franco’s right-wing Nationalist government as being ruthless, nice start, but an eyeball-palmed monster? That’s going to cause a riot, or really good business for opticians.

Having said that, a LatAm film which could have success challenging Chinese culture is another Mexican offering Amores Perros, and specifically one of its stories about dog fighting in Mexico. Having possibly the most effeminate taste in pet dogs, Chinese men could benefit from the idea that dogs can be larger than a ferret and have other appeals than be dressed-up to look like Paris Hilton’s canine entourage.

For the next two months, Christian Seiersen will be MIA as he travels around South-East Asia. Catch up with his travels on www.christianseiersen.wordpress.com.

In the Land of Closet Communists



Wandering through the metropolis, you could be forgiven for mistaking Shanghai for New York, or even Tokyo. Traditional buildings have fallen to the wrecking ball of modernity, replaced by the lethal smile of George Clooney and his Nespresso compatriot. Starbucks crown the corner of any street deemed sufficiently affluent, and the well-heeled scramble through the city, in search of the next big thing. Shanghai is a city of superlatives, the tallest hotel, the busiest port and in a few decades, if economic predictions are to be believed, the richest city.

Despite a veneer of Westernisation, established Chinese traditions remain. When selecting a mobile phone number, I was confronted by a cardboard sign with lists of numbers scrawled on. The phone numbers endowed with more 8s were being auctioned at ten times the price of numbers that were not gifted with such a lucky digit. Without wishing to anger the phone spirits into a storm of promotional texts, I went for the second cheapest number.

Elsewhere, the supernatural haunts the mind of many a local. Working for That’s Shanghai magazine, I have noticed that the government are happy to let all manner of profanaties swagger through the censorship net, but venture into the realms of ghosts and the axe of restriction is wielded. Whilst this may be a minor inconvenience, I count myself fortunate not to work in the magazine office of my German flatmate. Here, writers ply their trade under the mechanical gaze of a network of security cameras installed around the office, including the bogs.

Embodying the Chinese tradition of copying, Shanghai is known for its fake markets. Here, you can trawl through laminated booklets of Lacoste trainers, Prada handbags and Mont Blanc pens. After hearing my order, the shopkeeper barked commands to his daughter- and apparently his sherpa – who then ran the gauntlet to an offshore warehouse. After a twenty minute wait in the company of the owner, populated by sporadic head-nods and nervous laughter, I saw her return, clutching the sealed bin bag as if it were the last child on earth.

Others are more ostentatious with their wares. Equipped with a generic shirt template, a sowing set and a magazine of GQ, they have amassed a collection of luxury brand shirts that would rival the polished showrooms of Regent Street. However, with the lingering shadow of the law hanging above, brands that would attract the attention of the police- such as Armani – have to be fished out of hiding in a closet at the back.

A true spectacle of the fake market is the technique adopted by its female sales assistants. Having come from India, I was expecting a seething wall of gesticulating palms lining the doorway of each shop. Instead, with bowed heads, they view you nervously until you have passed their store before offering a lethargic murmur of ‘Shirts?’

The fashion offerings have their perks but, in order to fully appreciate Chinese talent, you have to engage with the pirate DVD market. The day a film is released onto the cinema, you can guarantee there is a concealed video camera amongst the audience. Stuffed into paper wallets, newly-released DVDs can be bought for a pound, and my find of the trip was the entire ten seasons of Friends for the princely sum of two pounds. There are, of course, roadside establishments offering cheaper prices, but the bargain-hunter risks falling foul of some moderate film-tampering. Said movies are played out in some unknown and lively dialogue, whilst others are entirely different films, with only a similar genre to connect them to the original.

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They may have stapled their name onto the export market and shown America the two fingers, but China still have some ground to make on the nightlife front, if they are to stake an effective claim on world supremacy.

Having lived in China’s flagship- Shanghai -for a month, and with a wizened liver to show for it, I have familiarized myself with the etiquette displayed by Chinese locals, when thrown into the tumultuous grounds of a nightclub. Unfortunately for said clubs, they remain the bastard child of the night, and any true Shanghainese is never seen anywhere else than a KTV Lounge, where you can rent out private rooms to perform classic crooners.

In their gilded hallways, these seedy numbers have resuscitated the dying breed of karaoke from the Wednesday nights at Glaswegian pubs. All to the euphoric reception of the Asian audience.

Befitting the ceremony that Shanghai pays to karaoke, I was led to our private room by the scantily-clad hostesses, whose faces were masked with practised abandon. A Chinese Bryan Adams wafted from other rooms and, peering through the door’s window, I could make out the diamond ear-pieces that marked their wearers as underlings of the Chinese mafia, a prolific client.

In the spangled grounds of a Shanghainese night club, you don’t require the blessing of money to come by a microphone and, if you have the backing of an authentic title, the mike is yours. Parading under the pseudonym of ‘ MC Natural Disaster,’ I was afforded a half hour monologue before being unceremoniously faded out by the DJ.

My set remained, thankfully, unmolested, and I was fortunate not to come into contact with the uniformed guards lurking in the shadows of the club. On the government payroll, they inspect the dance floor from beneath their commissar cap. A quiet reminder of their bosses standing.

Even with the benefit of a microphone, you would do well to lure a number of locals from the refuge of their tables. Under the erratic gaze of the club’s lights, they roll away their time with small dice games, where- with gambling illegalised -the stakes are a reluctant sip of whisky and green tea. No distinction is made between a restaurant and a night club, and you will often see someone tucking into a slice of watermelon- inches away from their dancing companions.

Not every girl has the benefit of this sanctuary and, with the terra incognita of the dance floor out of the question, they prefer instead to perch by the bar. Owing to their cold impassiveness, they morph into an extension of the table-top and, unless you are a mobile phone game of Tetris, there is no hope.

At the other end of the spectrum are those who’ve been educated in foreign fields. Some can be identified by a trophy nose piercing and others, by their familiarity with Chinese novelist Jung Chang- an outspoken critic of Mao. One who would disagree  with the general teaching in Chinese schools that Mao was 80 percent right, but fervent supporters of the chairman can still be found.

If this is a matter of contention amongst the Shanghainese, then something which does unite them is the shared curiosity of my Danish flatmate. All of 6ft 4 and gifted with a playful crop of blonde hair, in the warren of underground bars, he has become the apple of many a local businessman’s eye.

Regarded with the lofty bewilderment of a lesser-deity, he has a spot saved for him at a local bar, nestled between the wives of small business-owners. From this position, in the haze of cheap cigarette smoke, he can engage in dice combat with his Asian adversaries whilst dispersing, when he sees fit, small witticisms to the giggled delight of his female companions.

Shanghai nightlife is what you make of it, but it is never short of boring.