The Experiences of an American Working in China
by Justin Libra, Student ASLA

In my final year as a landscape architecture student at Michigan State University (MSU), I was looking for career opportunities all over the country. However, since the economy meltdown in 2008, it has been very difficult to begin a design career. At MSU, we have a study abroad 8 to 9 week program where the 4th year students travel with faculty, meeting students and people from other countries. I had heard of many great opportunities in China through colleagues and guest speakers at MSU. I had made it clear to my professors that I was highly interested in working in China. And it was a professor who put me in touch with an MSU alumnus with connections to the owner of the firm, BJF Plan Landscape Planning Design and Consulting (BJF Plan). The firm is widely recognized in Beijing as expert in private villa residential development, which is very similar to the suburban American developments. Most of the projects are 2-4 square kilometer vacant sites on which the developer wishes to build about 1,000 private villas, 200 town homes and duplexes, and about 20-40 apartment towers ranging from 6 to 28 floors. Other projects involve small commercial landscape designs, waterfront developments, resort planning. The firm was looking for a design student who was about to graduate. When I found out about this opportunity, I began emailing the BJF Plan about the position. After weeks of emails and discussions of living arrangements, I accepted the full time internship for a five month period and planned my move to Beijing.

BJF Plan was extremely generous in covering my airfare, providing me with a furnished apartment on the north end of Beijing next to the new Olympic Forest Park as well as a bicycle. They also helped me obtain a new cell phone so I could call internationally, set up my internet and TV service, and showed me around the community. The principals of the firm live in the same community as I did, so they would frequently drive me to and from work, which is approximately nine kilometers south in the center of the city. It was also comforting that they were close by in case I ever needed assistance.

The move from the sheltered suburbs of Grand Rapids, Michigan to East Lansing, Michigan for college was quite a change in life style for me. I had participated in a two-month study abroad program in Europe and the United Kingdom during my senior year, which helped somewhat with international travel. But moving from East Lansing to Beijing, China was a whole new world—significantly different from Western culture.

While the modern skyscrapers and streetscapes designed for the 2008 Olympics are reminiscent of a large American city, all the signs and voices are in Mandarin. I had no formal training in Mandarin so I found the language to be the most difficult issue. I moved here assuming that most of the people in my office would speak English and that many of the locals could speak or at least understand English. That was not the case. There were only five out of the forty people in my office with whom I could easily communicate. The rest I would look at and smile. I could get around fine when I was with my office friends. But when going out on my own, I was clearly picked out as a tourist and was sometimes heckled and stared at. This did not really bother me, but shopping for groceries and everyday items was a whole new challenge. For example, I found it difficult to buy conditioner for my hair and I kept getting shampoo by accident. The food was great, but I am somewhat of an adventurous eater and would have enjoyed more diversity in my diet.

On the weekends, I traveled to as many sites as I could. Mostly, I traveled alone and would ask other tourists to take my picture with these great backdrops (and of course, I would reciprocate).

Libra Image 1
Photo of me in Beihai Park in Beijing. The famous White Dagoba is behind me.

Libra Image 2
Here I am walking on Great Wall.

In the office, one big difference from the U.S. is that my co-workers tended to start work a little later (maybe 9:00 am or so) and work late (till 9:00 or 10:00 pm, depending on deadlines). But they did not necessarily work hard the entire 12 or 14 hours. Many would take a stroll through the park, enjoy a long lunch and dinner, and relax and try to have some fun while in the office. I understand that most professionals in Beijing also work similar hours, with many not eating dinners until 9 pm.

Libra Image 3
Drawing a master plan for a luxury residential villa community on a reservoir in Ordos, Inner Mongolia. My partner for the project is Baijie. (I call him Mr. White.)

Libra Image 4
The almost-complete line drawing of the master plan is approximately seven feet long. In the photo with me is Mr. Young.

I was also the only foreigner and the youngest designer there. My role was also a little different from the rest of my co-workers. They are very talented and experienced in hand graphics and the use of software—more so than most of my contemporaries back home. Thus, they prepared most details for design and construction documents, and any other graphics. However, they appeared to be less proficient in design. I believe I was hired primarily because I had a reputation of being a creative thinker who could envision a more comprehensive “big picture” view of a finished site. Also, I think that I was the only one with business cards, on which I was described as a "Senior Designer."

The firm owners encouraged me to travel to the projects to review the site, meet the client, and present concept designs. On these trips, one of the owners, who are both fluent in English, would always travel with me to translate my ideas to the client. Back in the office, I would work with others to develop concept master plans and assist in creating graphics. On average, I made two Sketch-Up models a week and used AutoCAD to design plans. But sometimes it was frustrating to communicate with my co-workers because there were just a few who spoke English. Those few, however, were very valuable in helping to translate my ideas to the others. But because my role was unlike others in the office, I sometimes felt a little out of place.

On the whole, I would rate my experience in China as truly exceptional, and I am very grateful to my Chinese colleagues for their guidance and help. I also hope that others with international experience share their experiences, adventures, and projects with other members of the ASLA Professional Practice Networks.

Justin Libra is a 2010 landscape architecture graduate of Michigan State University and can be reached at librajus@msu.edu.

 
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Erik Mustonen, ASLA, Chair
(780) 423-4990
esmustonen@yahoo.com