My Credit Internship in China: A Work Experience, Not a Job

Helen Yang, BS ILR '07, describes her internship with the ILO in Beijing
Helen Yang ILR Credit Internship in Beijing
Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Helen Yang, BS ’07, spent the Spring 2006 semester in Beijing as ILR's first credit intern in Asia. There she worked with the ILO's International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour, joining an ongoing project to prevent trafficking in girls and young women for labor exploitation in China. Helen’s participation in this important project was made possible in large measure by a gift from  Jay (ILR ’68, Law ’71) and Harriet Waks and the Waks Family Fund. This is Helen's story.

My first experience with duck blood was not pretty. I had some for lunch and by dinnertime a friend was dragging me to a Chinese hospital where I spent seven hours vomiting. That was my reward for being adventurous that day.

The remainder of my first experience in China went down with more panache. My ILR Credit Internship with the Project to Prevent Trafficking in Girls and Young Women for Labour Exploitation within China (CP-TING) in Beijing was a four-month eye-opening experience. I arrived as a quiet 'outsider,' unsure about how far my Mandarin abilities would take me. How would I survive? Did I have the ability…?

My concerns were largely unmerited. Working in the ILO CP-TING National Management office—2/3 Chinese and 1/3 all other countries—was both challenging and fulfilling. From the first day I received meaningful work in the office. Hans van de Glind, chief technical advisor of CP-TING as well as my supervisor, engaged me in meaningful research and projects from the first week. The CP-TING project's main objective is to help prevent girls and young women from ending up in exploitative labor by reducing their vulnerability to trafficking. Many are school drop outs between 15 and 29 years old. CP-TING works through advocacy and mobilization, direct assistance for girls, and influencing policy and implementation. On the first day Hans stressed that the internship would be a "two-way street" to allow for the most meaningful contribution on and off assignments during my stay.

Right from the get-go I found that initiative in the office was crucial. Office assignments included web-based research, helping to develop the up-and-coming project website and designing a child participation manual. Whenever I needed help or support, it was there in the collegial office. I often e-mailed my supervisor to ask questions and seek general guidance, and speedy and detailed responses aimed me in the right directions and kept me going. Each week I gained increasing respect for the ILO officials in the office. We worked with a 'team flavor' culture—help each other out for the best end result, regardless of individual project assignments. I will remember the combination of collegial after-lunch strolls with the same officemates and hard-working attitude of workers who stayed well after hours on a consistent basis to do their work. ACFTU, ACWF, and China Daily periodicals fresh off the presses in China arrived in the office and I used these as supporting research. Similarly, the latest office materials from the ILO headquarters in Geneva were in the office in hard copy. CDs of past IPEC practices in Thailand were available for my interest and to research for projects.

Needless to say, I absorbed so much while interning with the ILO CP-TING project in Beijing. I gained exposure to the dynamics and patterns of trafficking in girls and young women in China. I saw how the international project office operates as it included coordination with local and national partners, such as the All-China Women's Federation, in developing interventions to prevent trafficking. I researched unfamiliar topics such as issues covered during the China’s 11th Five-Year Plan during the annual sessions of the National People's Congress (NPC) and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), education in rural areas of China, and child participation techniques used to engage girls at risk of trafficking during CP-TING interventions.

Learning experiences extended beyond the office doors. For a few weeks, an ongoing demonstration took place right on the street right outside the office building, and in the thirteenth week of the internship U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan arrived for his annual U.N. picture in Beijing where I was fortunate to have a photo taken with him.


A special highlight of my Beijing experience was meeting Jay and Harriet Waks, together with their daughter Alison, ILR '08. The Waks family, on behalf of the Cornell Law School, invited my supervisor and me to an alumni dinner with other Cornellians participating in the Law School's  Explorations in Law and Culture trip through China in May. The Waks Family Fund for International Education and Research helped make my internship possible by covering a large portion of my travel costs. It was wonderful to finally meet them in person to say thank you. 

I attended an all-day seminar on Rural Education for Women at Beijing Normal University. It quickly dawned on me that this was a remarkable experience unattainable in most classroom settings. I took notes on my own laptop (much of the seminar was in putonghua) on the latest Chinese research on educational shortcomings in rural China. A nearby Chinese attendant bemusedly asked where I was from, and I responded in Chinese, "I’m American." She asked, "Do all Americans type so fast?" I grinned in response. Professors, officials from the Ministry of Government; representatives from UNESCO, UN-AID, and other managers all gave their two cents on developments, either through newly gathered statistics, video documentaries or informally in the lunch room.

On another occasion, I attended a website development training—all in Mandarin. And finally, on one Friday, I took notes from and chatted with legal training participants during a weekly Rural Migrants Women's Center. Here I'm pictured with a woman that I interviewed and surveyed for research. What she lacks in size she more than compensates for in legal knowledge and self-protection awareness, as often helps to conduct these trainings in the Center. Her experiences as a migrant worker since the early 1990s have helped younger generations avoid similar mistakes while seeking decent employment in Beijing.

I would recommend to future interns who embark to China to take initiative and plan ahead. Ask around. Research the most updated Lonely Planet Guide to Beijing or the That's Beijing website for housing and housemates. The rest is up to luck, wits and the humility to say, 'Help.'

Once you get settled, opportunities abound to meet people from all backgrounds, countries, and views on life (and football). Beijing is an international city with a knack for bringing people together from all over the world. These strangers had different reasons for coming to Beijing, but were similarly receptive to a curious mind and often eager to share their stories. Some of my closest friends met through other friends, often quite serendipitously over karaoke, dinner, Cornell networking events, charity events such as the Sneakerball fundraiser for Special Olympics Shanghai 2007, and others unexpected places. Taxi drivers were surprisingly outspoken on various topics, and would go on if allowed about the history of sandstorms in Beijing, the influx of foreigners and migrant workers and international politics! Restaurant service was always great—even better with the delicious food and good friends. What brought us together was an appreciation for cherishing the city in every way possible, be it sharing insights from our different jobs and backgrounds, karaoke, cruising the parks, chats in jiubajie (pubs and bars) at Sanlitun and Gongti Yibai. And of course, touring places such as Summer Palace, The Great Wall, Lama Temple, Houhai, old Beijing hutongs, Temple of Heaven, Tiananmen Square, Forbidden City, and others. 

Friendships and memories from my ILO CP-TING internship in Beijing will undoubtedly remain footsteps permanently etched in my heart.

Special thank you to Brigid Beachler, ILR International Programs, and the Waks family for making this a fun and rewarding experience (duck blood and all) a real adventure through the ILR Credit Internship Program!