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China Co-ops: East Meets West Both Coming and Going

Opportunities for University of Cincinnati students to co-op in China are becoming more common. For instance, architecture student Michael Sundrup is just back from a Shanghai co-op and other students are about to take off this summer for similar opportunities in China.

Date: 5/7/2007
By: M.B. Reilly
Phone: (513) 556-1824
Photos By: Dottie Stover
UC ingot The first University of Cincinnati student co-opped in China in the year 2000. By 2005, that number had risen to seven UC students.

That upward trend continues with UC College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning students – one of whom is just back from China and others who will be leaving in June for six months of work experience in Shanghai.

Trinh Nguyen and Michael Sundrup
Trinh Nguyen, left, and Michael Sundrup, right, review materials Michael brought back from China, including this map of Shanghai.

Just back from an architecture co-op in China is Michael Sundrup, 23, of Montfort Heights while fellow DAAP student Trinh Nguyen, 21, of West Chester, is one of two UC students who will soon leave to similarly work in Shanghai.

Michael specifically pursued a co-op in China from his first year in UC’s top-ranked architecture program. “I wanted one [a co-op in China] very badly. I definitely wanted to work in an eastern culture, and China was at the top of my list.”

Come summer of 2006, Michael felt he was ready after having worked four previous cooperative-education quarters throughout the United States. He recalled, “I walked into the co-op office and let my advisors know what I wanted. They said they’d gotten an e-mail that very day from Haipo Architects in Shanghai seeking a UC co-op.”

Michael quickly sent off his portfolio and got the co-op position. He stated, “I didn’t have much time to get ready. Within a matter of weeks, I was off to work in Shanghai for the fall 2006 and winter 2007 quarters. All I had by way of preparation was a previous elementary Chinese course I’d taken. I remembered about 15 words from that. So, I’d gotten what I wanted, but I was stressed too.”

As is typical with co-op work assignments, Michael arrived and was immediately handed real responsibility. His first work assignment for Haipo was helping to design a golf driving range amidst the dense (and growing) urban fabric of Shanghai, where buildings are going up or coming down, literally, round the clock through the efforts of three shifts of workers laboring 24 hours a day. He later helped to design office buildings and hotels and was completely responsible for designing a hotel on the resort island of Hainan just off the coast of China.

He also designed an immersion experience for himself taking Chinese lessons while living in a working-class section of Shanghai. Michael explained, “International residents live in the center of Shanghai which is very expensive. I lived on the periphery of the city, in a working class neighborhood. I became a regular at the local tea shop, learned mahjong and Chinese checkers…and gave U.S. coins to the little kids who were fascinated by a foreign currency. All the kids would say, ‘Hello, Hello’ to me, which is all they could say to me in English. While, obviously, my vocabulary improved a lot, I still often had to communicate with people via drawings if I was outside of work.” (At the Haipo work offices however, a number of employees spoke English.)

Michael Sundrup and Trinh Nguyen
Michael Sundrup, left, demonstrates a 'singing' alms bowl to Trinh Nguyen. A distinctive sound is made by moving a small rod around the interior of the bowl.

Trinh Nguyen hopes to match Michael in terms of immersion, and likely, means of communication when beginning his own co-op work experience with Haipo in June. Like Michael, Trinh jumped at the chance for this international co-op because he views design as a cross-cultural, international “language,” and he wants to both test and improve his skills.

To prepare, Trinh admitted, “I’ve been studying flash cards of Chinese terms that I made, phrases like ‘Do you speak English?’ or ‘Is this right?’ It’ll definitely be a sink-or-swim experience to communicate via design within a culture that is so different from ours in the U.S. It’s both a nerve wracking and exciting.”

Trinh is confident in his design skills however. He has worked on international projects during his previous co-op jobs. In one, he had to design a logo for a company in Turkey. He remembered, “I had to study Arabic culture and terms in order to create a logo that worked for them. This will be similar to that, but I’ll be immersed in the culture at the same time.”

Among Trinh’s plans are visiting the Bund River, which runs through Shanghai, in order to practice tai chi with the locals. He also plans to explore the city and to travel.

Michael had some advice on that score: “Living, working and traveling in China was the best experience of my life…. . But, always, take a map of Shanghai with you everywhere.”

Michael Sundrup and Trinh Nguyen
Michael Sundrup, left, show Trinh Nguyen, right, a Tibetan snuff bottle hand painted on the inside.

That’s because, upon returning to Shanghai from a trip to Tibet, the bus dropped Michael off outside of Shanghai. He obtained a ride from some locals but explaining just where he lived was a challenge with only his limited Chinese and his drawings to rely on: “The bus ride back to Shanghai had been a 24-hour trip because the bus – one for locals – had broken down in the night. Then, it dropped us off in a place where everyone else seemed to know where we were, but not me. I was very tired and needing to get back to work. Both those factors made it more difficult for me to communicate and be understood. I was very much kicking myself. If I’d only brought my Shanghai map with me on that trip, I could have just pointed to my section of the city. As it was, I had to draw my own map.”

But that’s what UC co-ops do – draw maps and make tracks for others to follow.

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