Thursday, September 23, 2010

Breaking the “Expat Bubble”

So here I am, at last, in Beijing: my final destination in China and probably my home for the next few years. But making a new life here – one that allows me to become fluent in Chinese while also working in the clean energy sector – is much easier said then done.

In fact, I recently realized that my life for the past several years has been working toward this moment. Almost exactly eight years ago, at the start of my freshman year in high school, I walked into Sherman’s Book Store in Freeport, Maine and saw a book called The Hydrogen Economy. Intrigued by the title, I bought the book that would in the following months open my eyes to the ideas of climate change, peak oil, the conflicts in the Middle East, the rise of China, and the promise of renewable energy. My friends in high school will remember my constant obsession with hydrogen (many jokes were made about it around the lunch table) and my teachers will remember how I tried to tailor all my school projects to address this topic. During my senior year I did a project on the rise of China and the country’s quest for energy resources to fuel its economic development. When I got to Tufts, the natural course of action seemed to be to start studying Chinese so that I could one day go to the Far East to work on one of the world’s most daunting environmental challenges.

Studying languages has never come easy to me. I had quit French half way through high school to study Latin, and because Latin at Freeport High School is painfully easy, I never learned any good language study skills. So the first few years of studying one of the hardest languages for a westerner to learn were tough, to say the least. It was often difficult to remember why I had started and a few times I was close to giving up. But studying abroad and working in Beijing after my junior refreshed my memory and strengthened my language skills. As some of you will remember, I lived with a family on the outskirts of Beijing, an area dominated by one of Beijing’s largest steel mills, which is surrounded by coal power plants that extend all the way into the surrounding mountains. I wrote an article about the area’s environmental problems for an online news publication called GlobalPost, which you can view here.

So now I’ve graduated and finally returned to China to begin doing what I set out to do eight years ago: bringing the green revolution to China. But how exactly do I get started?

Since I arrived in Beijing I’ve encountered a few realities that have constantly challenged me to reassess what I need to do in order to meet my goals of becoming fluent in Chinese and getting to know the Chinese clean energy sector:

1)    The Expat Bubble. The community of foreigners, or “expatriates” in Beijing is very small in comparison to the city’s overall population, making it feel as though you are living in a small town when it comes to meeting expats. Furthermore, expats all like to do the same things, such as go to bars, attend lectures and networking events, play Ultimate Frisbee, go hiking, etc. So its very easy to meet other expats, and bond over the funny English translations that you see daily, or the Chinese peasant man that you saw pulling a cart down the street, or the part-time English teaching/ translating job that you just landed. But aside from a few Chinese people I met through my internship and a student-run conference last summer, it’s been difficult to meet any Chinese people, or hang out with them with any frequency. And the ones you do meet often speak English. I was warned about this phenomenon before I came here, but now dealing with the realities of it has proven challenging.
2)    A saturated market. It seems like everyone has gotten China fever every since foreigners really began to realize the vast potential of the Chinese market in the last 15 years. The energy and environmental sectors in particular have become a popular area for foreigners to work, as China is poring massive amounts of money into stimulating this area. This combined with the economic crisis that has driven many young Americans to China where they become “economic refugees,” has made clean energy jobs for foreigners in Beijing much more competitive.
3)    While my Chinese language ability is conversational, it is still not up to a level where I can use it in a professional setting. As the job market for foreigners becomes increasingly competitive here, Chinese language ability is becoming a critical skill that is required for most good, high paying jobs.

The fact that five of my classmates from Tufts are also in Beijing only intensifies the bubble. On the other hand, it also adds a level of familiarity and comfort to know that a little bit of Tufts came with me to Beijing. It has also made it much easier for me to live here while I search for an apartment and Chinese roommate(s). The first week I was here I staid with my friend Sam Goodman, whom I worked with last summer at JUCCCE, and who I brought to Tufts last year to talk about his new book, Where East Eats West: The Street-Smarts Guide to Business in China. This week I will be staying with my friend Alex Ornik, whose roommate is back in the US for a few weeks. I’ve also managed to get back in touch with a few other friends I made last summer through events like the Beijing Energy Network, Green Drinks and the International Youth Summit on Energy and Climate Change.

While they are still part of the expat bubble for the most part, rejoining these networks has helped me find several job opportunities so far. The Beijing Energy Network is a Google group that hosts regular speaking and networking events at venues in Beijing, and people posts lots of job opportunities on the group page. Green Drinks is an environmental networking event that has chapters in cities all over the world. Through these events I found a job opportunity to work as the Communications Manager for an NGO called the China Carbon Forum. In this role I would be helping to plan high level meetings and discussions among the Beijing energy communities top executives, do event follow up, work with sponsors and maintain the website. This sounds like a great opportunity, but the downsides are that I would be speaking English most of the time, and the pay is next to nothing. I also interviewed for an internship position with a firm called Sindicatum Carbon Capital, which develops clean energy projects to be registered under the Clean Development Mechanism, a global framework set up under the Kyoto Protocol that allows countries to meet their carbon reduction obligations by purchasing credits created by projects in other countries. Since China has no commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions under the Kyoto Protocol, but is now the world’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide, there are dozens of companies that have sprung up in China solely to develop these projects.

It was a bit of a wake-up call however, when I was asked to conduct part of the interview with Sindicatum in Chinese, and I realized how much my Chinese skills have deteriorated in the last year. There is still a lot of advanced vocabulary that I haven’t learned or forgot since I stopped studying Chinese about a year ago. It’s going to be a steep learning curve to get my Chinese up to a professional level within the next few months.

The internship that I just accepted however is probably the most interesting among these and for the time being doesn’t require a professional level of Chinese ability. Before I came to China, Professor Gallagher at the Tufts Fletcher School introduced me to one of her colleagues, Professor Pan, who heads the Research Center for Sustainable Development, which is part of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and is also connected to Beijing University. In this role I would be working for an arm of the Chinese government (also at a very low salary) to put together a policy brief on energy policy in the US and Europe, and to help edit the Institute’s English language publications. While my work will be mostly in English, I will be exposed to the workings of a Chinese organization, and working pretty much exclusively with people whose native language is Chinese. The internship will last for a month, with a possible two-month extension and pay raise if things go well. This will pay me just enough to cover living expenses and will give me time to continue look for a full time job.

And speaking of full time jobs, I went in for an “informational interview” at Bloomberg New Energy Finance a few days ago. Of all the companies working on climate and energy in Beijing, this company is the one I want to work for the most. Bloomberg is an internationally recognized media and financial information company, which conducts in-depth research on the “new” energy market in China and sells it to leading investment firms and project developers. The Chinese office manager with whom I interviewed was very nice and enthusiastic, and was interested in considering me for a position at some point in the future if something should open up. It would probably require a higher level of Chinese than I have now, so this will give me a stronger incentive to find a way to break this expat bubble and start immersing myself in Chinese language and culture, the only sure way to learn.

Yesterday the Chinese celebrated the Mid-Autumn Festival; a holiday where many Chinese people go home to be with their families, and everyone eats small pastries called “moon cakes.” Yesterday was also one of the cleanest days I’ve ever seen in Beijing. The sky was perfectly blue and a cool breeze began blowing in from the Northwest. As I went for a run in Ritan Park near Beijing’s Central Business District (CBD), it was hard not to be optimistic. But I’ve still got a lot of challenges ahead.

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