Aaron Gingrande, ILR '08, Cornell Presidential Research Scholar
Notes from China on my Internship Experience Abroad
I have had a truly international experience this summer. I have been working at SK Telecom China, located in Beijing, since May. I learned about the intern position at SK through my friend in ILR International Programs, Robin Remick. I told her that I was looking for a job in China because I spent this past semester studying abroad in Beijing and wanted to stay there over the summer.
She told me that SK Corporation--the third largest company in Korea whose vice president of HR is an ILR alumnus--has operations in China. She offered to check with Tae-Jin Kim, MILR '93, about the possibility. As luck would have it, their Telecom branch started doing business in Beijing four years ago so Mr. Kim contacted the Telecom branch on my behalf and before long I was called for an interview.
The interview caught me somewhat off guard. Up to that point, all of my communication with SK's representatives had been done in English through written correspondence. Once I stepped into the interview room, the environment changed: the entire interview was conducted in Chinese.
At first I was a little nervous. I have only been studying Chinese for about a year so far. I started learning Chinese through the rigorous summer FALCON program at Cornell last summer. I then took Chinese 201 first semester of this past academic year, and spent my junior semester abroad this past spring at the Beijing Foreign Studies University.
Although I managed to place into the 300 level in my semester abroad program based on my (what at that point had only been) 6 months of studying Chinese, I was still unsure as to whether or not I would be able to adequately express myself in an interview. I took a deep breath and focused on the questions. Luckily, I understood everything she asked me (why I was interested in HR, what I knew about the Telecom industry, what I could bring to the company, what I would learn from the experience, etc.). I was able to give them a good impression of myself in Chinese. I got the job.
Because SK is a Korean company, half of my coworkers are Korean, and half are Chinese. I am the only non-Asian person in the office, and the first and only American intern SK Telecom China has ever had. I do not speak any English in the office here; I do all of my communication in Chinese. The Korean employees of SK Telecom China are also learning Chinese, and their Chinese level is about the same as mine. This makes communication with them convenient, since we use most of the same vocabulary in conversation. At any given time in the office, I can hear Korean and Chinese being spoken.
A good number of employees are from a Chinese province just north of North Korea called Ji li sheng where the people can speak both Korean and Chinese. Hence, the employees from this province serve as the unofficial interpreters in the office, helping higher level Korean managers communicate at meetings if their knowledge of Chinese prevents them from saying what they need to.
My job here has been to conduct research about other multinational companies doing business in China, and in particular, what benefits these multinational companies provide for their expatriate employees and local employees. The reason I received this assignment is that the HR managers here perceive that the unequal benefits packages given to Korean (expatriate) employees and Chinese (local) employees is causing resentment amongst the Chinese workers. The department therefore currently seeks an answer to this problem, and my research will help them resolve this issue.
My other larger assignment has been to create a survey to give to SK Telecom China's employees to gain an understanding of their attitudes toward their jobs, communication with their coworkers, benefits packages, training, and other job-related matters. Through analyzing the survey results (for which I used the knowledge I gained through ILR Stats), I found many interesting findings about what workers perceive as the largest problems in their working environment and about their attitudes toward work. Conducting my analysis gave me a deeper understanding of the problems that multinational companies face due to globalization.
My job was only completed once I had made recommendations based on the survey results regarding how SK could change their corporate culture to solve problems of communication, unequal treatment of Korean and Chinese workers, structure of job training, etc. I presented my results to the entire HR team (about 20 people) at a meeting, and conducted follow-up meetings with my direct supervisor and the HR manager to discuss my recommendations.
Another exciting part of my internship this summer was getting the chance to go to Korea. The company flew me out to Seoul on an all-expenses-paid trip to visit SK's headquarters. While in Seoul, I got to meet with SK senior executive HR manager Tae-Jin Kim, who is an ILR alumnus. My assignment while in Seoul was to teach SK's employees about American Labor History and Labor Law. The employees to whom I gave my presentation are going to be attending Cornell’s masters program starting this August, and my presentation was meant to give them an introduction to what they would be learning at Cornell. To make my powerpoint presentation, I used the notes that I had taken from my freshman year Labor History classes as well as my Labor and Employment Law notes from sophomore and junior year. The employees all seemed to appreciate my presentation, and voiced excitement about coming to Cornell in August.
While I was in Korea, I experienced Korean culture and gained new perspective on American and Chinese culture through conversations I had with my Korean coworkers. My coworkers were all very nice, and would often take me out to traditional Korean restaurants where we would take off our shoes and sit cross-legged on the floor eating Kimchi and Galbi (Korean pickled vegetables and beef). I got to enjoy a meal with Tae-Jin Kim and his family at a restaurant high above Seoul: top of a tower on a small mountain which is only accessible via cable car. The view from the restaurant was incredible, and the food and company was excellent.
While in South Korea, I also attended a global interns' training session two hours south of Seoul (near Ulsan) where I got to meet SK interns from countries including Iran, Vietnam, Bolivia, and Kazakhstan. Speaking with people from such different backgrounds further broadened my understanding of non-Western ways of life, and made me realize the ways in which my American ethnicity and perspective affects my everyday life and opinions in ways of which I am often not aware. I also attended an ILR alumni reunion at which over 20 people were in attendance, all of them Korean (excluding myself).
It appears that the Korean ILR alumni have all done well for themselves: the Korean Vice Minister of Labor, HR managers from SK and LG (the #4 Korean company), and professors from the most prestigious Korean universities were all there. I felt very welcome, as they were excited to see a current ILR student in attendance.
Since beginning my internship at SK, I have gained new insight everyday about Chinese and Korean corporate and traditional culture, and the challenges that a multinational company faces in adapting to a foreign market. The international perspective that I have gained through my experience has permanently changed the way that I view life. The connections that I have made with my coworkers, and friendships I have formed outside of work are strong bonds that I will maintain even while overseas. As my internship in China comes to an end, my only regret is that the summer is not longer. While I am still working out my plans for after I graduate, I am now convinced that a return to Asia lies in my future.
- Aaron Gingrande