I graduated a semester early to spend three months in China

A story of doing some things I've always wanted to do, before entering the "real world"

Posted by Leo Lu on March 27, 2017

Senior year was over for me in December and I had eight months to myself before starting a full-time job. This was the time for me to travel and try what I might not get the second chance to, and so I spent three months in China where I worked two different jobs, traveled both within Shanghai and outside of the city, and spent a great deal of time alone in reflection. With my task of finding a job over with, it was time to focus on myself and my trip gave me just that.

Playing the next few months by ear

Finishing up school, I headed home on a well-deserved period of relaxation, celebrating the winter holidays with my family. That holiday week of Christmas and New Years turned into a month - since I had a job lined up and was going to go to Shanghai in February, I decided I might as well use January to chill. Holed-up in my house, I spent the whole month watching many YouTube videos, eating unhealthily, and just lounging around. For three weeks, I wholly endulged in these activities, but they eventually got old and it was time to grow. Luckily, I got the being-a-couch-potatoe phase out of my system, which enabled me to fully experience my time across the world knowing all too well the limit amount of satisfaction I got from staying inside to get entertainment from a computer screen. Progress is not made in a comfort zone, which can only expand by stepping outside.

Having gotten sick of planning from all of the interview prep and studying for exams of last semester, I did little research on mapping out what my next three months would look like. Fortunately, I stumbled upon a unique balance for me in preparation versus completely winging it on my journeys. Before arriving in Shanghai, I spent a few days in Sydney and a few more in Melbourne, marking my first time traveling by myself. I’d only looked into the Australia trip a few days in advance with no expectations, thinking that I'd eventually figure everything out when I got there. And it worked. I simply looked up the most popular areas and just wandered around them, playing everything by ear. This was also my first time traveling alone, which was scary at first but soon became amazing for me as I embraced the solitute to be alone in thought.

I did the same with my Shanghai plans by devising a rough plan of only a few action points, leaving the rest up in the air. With a part-time job as an English teaching assistant lined up a few weeks in advance of my arrival, I at least had some structure to my day, which left me a good time to myself given the tutoring job's time commitment of two nights per week. I was blessed in the amount of freedom I had in dictating my days but also challenged in trying to establish myself in a city where I knew so few people. I thus spent the first week and a half of my limited time just lounging around inside the apartment, hesitant to put myself out there. (I was living for free with my grandparents, if I had to find more ways to pay the bills I'm sure I would have stepped out of my comfort zone quicker)

Expanding my comfort zone

I didn’t let that deter me as I got back up to prospect for a job, eventually landing an internship at a magazine as an editorial intern. In applying, I realized that my online applications were gaining little traction so I sent direct emails to editors at multiple firms to get their attention. Out of the ten cold emails I sent, I got two receptive responses where I explored the opportunity, and managed to secure a six-week internship on the editorial team at City Weekend.

Originally, my plan was to intern at a startup in Shanghai, but that didn't work out because most of them required someone with native Chinese reading and writing skills. Little did I know how much transferrable experience I got out of this City Weekend internship. Ironically, I developed a newfound enjoyment in writing in English while in Shanghai, publishing six cafe reviews and covering various venue openings and events throughout the city (I had previously seriously disliked writing due to the struggle to get anything above a B+ in high school and college writing classes). When given the responsibility to execute, I just stepped up to the plate. The only previous writing experience I had was from my college writing classes - none of my notes contained any guidance on how to describe the taste of coffee, insert specific text to maximize audience attention to promotion listings, or report on a story. Instead of academic knowledge, I turned to the real-life examples of others, learning from the more senior editors while understanding the workings of a small company. In this sense, I achieved my goal of wanting to learn more about how a business operated, seeing it first-hand in two work environments with 50 or fewer employees - a stark contrast to the 50,000+ person bank I currently work in.

In addition to finding the work fairly enjoyable in a small-business environment, I liked my position of working in a new city. Unlike many that come to NYC after graduation, I’ve already spent four years there and have built a circle of friends already, which was not the case in Shanghai. Being Chinese-American, I felt like I was in-between two different worlds - I wasn’t an expat and so I didn’t fit into their lifestyle, as I lived with my grandparents. On the other hand, I grew up in America, which created cultural differences with the locals. I was also caught up between spending time with my grandparents as well as with new acquaintances, but I just had to make do. This meant having to sneak out in order to enjoy the nightlife of the city while "following my bedtime". I’d also use the internet for social purposes, attending meetup events and I even met up with someone from reddit!

Learning about myself from just doing

Essentially, my adult life began six months earlier than my peers due to me being out of school, and I had the fortune of having my background play to my favor. Both cultures of my upbringing provided supportive environments for me to expand my comfort zone - as someone who grew up in America, my familiarity with the Western culture allowed me to connect with the expats and travelers whom I met at the various meetup events, including swing dance lessons. Notable meetup groups included the weekly Shanghai Expat Coffee Shop group and a swing dance group called Deco Rhythm. It felt like we had a bond, a group of people with similar backgrounds convening in a different land, one of which I could no doubt be mistaken for a native until I open my mouth to speak. Most locals viewed me with curiosity and support, offering patience and teaching as I often struggled to keep pace with their conversations in Mandarin. All of these factors helped me try these new things, taking so much in with so little time. The fact that I wouldn't be back for a while also helped provide a sense of urgency to do more.

When not working two internships, exploring the city, or interacting with locals and foreigners, I spent much of my alone time in reflection. After securing a job offer, my mind was freed of thinking of how to get a job. I thought about more profound questions, such as how I could be best prepared to start my own business in the future, and what made me happy. I finally had time to read books that were not meant to prepare me for an interview, reading Nabokov's “Lolita” and feeling similar to the main character in conducting internal dialogue inside of my mind. “How to get Rich” gave me inspiration on Felix Dennis’ journey, learning about how he overcame the great difficulties of starting a company from nothing. A film recommended by my friend called “Dance of Reality” educated me on the difference between perception and reality.

A walk around parts of the city revealed two worlds co-existing on the same ground. The modern high-rise apartments, pinnacles of luxurious living and China's newfound wealth, stood almost side-by-side with the old houses, some from the era of the cultural revolution and some dating back to China's last dynasty. Just like these contrasting buildings, the different cultures of East and West live within me. This was the first time I got to fully experience life in Shanghai on my own, giving me a full taste of life in the East as I prepared to head back West. I'd previosly been with my family every time I came back but this time the experience is entirely my own. Experience through living like a local, speaking the language, and cooking the food put me face-to-face with my Chinese culture. Co-existing within me, my Chinese and American parts define who I truly am.

It’s been almost a year since I’ve returned from China, and as time progresses I believe I can retroactively piece together the answers to the questions I pondered over during that time. Yes, I did not step completely out of my comfort zone in China, but I was still young and inexperienced back then. Working has increased my maturity and drive to change, but the trip to China remains a shaping moment in my life. I graduated a semester early to travel to Sydney, Melbourne, Shanghai, Huangshan, Hong Kong, Shenzhen, Xi’an, and then Suzhou and Hangzhou to come back to NYC for my graduation ceremony. I got accustomed to being by myself and that helped significantly during my transition into post-college life.