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I'm curious what are US architect's general opinions in working in China. Currently there are lot of job offerings in cities like Shanghai and Beijing while the US, even though things are getting better, its still complicated to find jobs. Do you find that working in China is worthwhile? I know this is an extremely open ended question and would love to hear many opinions and thoughts.
Also, the type of projects is extremely different. While an architecture firm in the US does office renovations from SD to CA and getting extremely detailed...the chinese experience may be podium and several towers up to DD or large scale master plans that do not lead to the type of project resolution as in projects in the US. How would this type of experience be valued in the US?
Beijing's architecture scene is exploding, We'e all pretty close, most people from every major international firm (OMA, Zaha, MAD, OPEN, Steven Holl, UFO ...) all seem to know each other and once youre in the group its fairly easy to switch between firms or find out when they are hiring.
Even if you dont know anyone coming in its really easy to get started here, especially if you have no previous experience, my roommate for example came here with out a job, and had three offers in a week - hes only been out of school 2 years and worked a one year internship.
The trick with most of the international firms here is knowing Rhino, Grasshopper, Digital Project or Revit. the toughest thing is just getting your foot in (as elsewhere in the world) - MAD for example gets 100+ emails a day for their job postings - i was told they just randomly pick three each day and see if they find something - not real reassuring if you seriously want to work there, im sure all the major firms are absolutely flooded with applications.
the salaries very - greatly - depending on you're experience, school you graduated from, and your skills. my first job was only like $300 a month, I now make roughly $1500 a month (I am 2 years out of school with a bachelors degree from the U of Minnesota) - once you have your masters and a few years experience you can expect to make $3,000-4,000 a month. Still a little low compared to EU or the US - but you have to remember this is China, a beer is $0.14, rent is $300 and you can live like a king each week for $200 a week or so.
probably the best place to look if you're interested in working in china would be http://www.chinese-architects.com/en/
otherwise here's a list of most of the international firms here:
http://www.obraarchitects.com/ (from NYC)
hope this helps anyone that's interested in china work
Also, the kind of projects you get to work on are amazing, skyscrapers, museums, train stations, subway stations ... i mean the list goes on ... china is building 400 cities for 1 million plus people in the next 10 years - that's insane growth!
For me I have mostly been involved in the conceptual design phase, and once I am done a bunch of chinese workers do all the construction documents (lucky for me since I find all the boring anyway)
A lot of international firms have trouble finding skilled Chinese workers since they are taught from a young age to not be creative and push boundaries, so they are desperate for foreign workers who have studied in US and EU schools. They will usually pay their foreign workers literally 5 -10 times as much money as their Chinese workers. I have a bachelors degree and a year experience and make 5 times more then my phd licensed chinese coworker
I have been reading all these threads about working in China and I am familiar with what is going on there...
I graduated in May 2010 and worked in Japan for Sou Fujimoto while working on my Masters and then after graduating in Egypt until the revolution hit. Anyhow, both my positions were highly conceptually based and this is what I am most interested in pursuing. My portfolio is a bit on the artistic side having a background in Fine Arts. I am really good at coming up with ideas and developing them. It has proven difficult for me to find positions here in the US with the way my portfolio reads. It just seems like most places here are looking for more traditional approaches to architecture where I am more experimental. I am curious to know more about what you are doing and how you went about landing work in China. As well as the experiences of just living there. I keep thinking about it.... I have lived abroad. Egypt was obviously very difficult to get accustomed to, but I can at least speak the language.
China is a wonderful place to be if you're on the right projects working for a firm that knows what they are doing. Andrew alluded to what I would consider the biggest problem with working in China, you can end up only doing schematic design, for developers and competitions that never go beyond a few pretty renderings and some haphazardly thrown together floor plans. China's development laws and processes are a huge gray area and often involve many layers of concept and schematic designs before something is approved, this goes with out even mentioning the required local architect. A typical development usually goes through a competition to win the land from the government, then perhaps several more after the land is won because the original design was just meant to appease the bureaucrats. Then the client either loses funding or drastically changes their requirements because they assumed they could skirt the zoning or far. Then maybe just maybe you get to hand your design off the the local architect who usually ends up changing half of it anyway. So if you are into doing conceptual work this is a great opportunity however if you want to learn more about how a building is actually put together, how to work with consultants, local codes, pricing etc you may want to think twice.
Thanks andrew for all the info here and on the previous thread.
I still would like to know how all this works out VISA wise. do you enter as a tourist and get sponsered while in China by an architectural firm?
Also, how does this scenario fit a 30+ yrs old architect. Is the vibe over there oriented towards recent grads that spend 16 hours/day in the office?
Posted this in the other thread:
Hey great post, Andrew. As a recent graduate (BA in Arch) I'm also considering relocating to Asia to find some work as the job market is seriously bleak here in the SF Bay Area where I am. I had been thinking of applying to firms in Japan as I can understand and speak basic Japanese, but I am beginning to think about working in Korea or China also. Would you say not speaking Chinese is a huge disadvantage for foreign applicants and is it actually required in your experience? Also, did you start applying even before you moved to Beijing or did you move to the area first before putting yourself out there? I guess I am asking if it's realistic to expect anything by applying from long distance without even organizing housing, any visa issues, actually getting there, etc.
And ditto on the visa requirements in China as da_la asked. In the case of Japan, they require you to get a working visa which will last up to 3 months in which case you'll have to renew again.
I've applied to places in Japan, and it seems they don't help to obtain a visa or cover costs or anything like that.
I recently got my MArch and am going to do two internships abroad (I'm from the US) before finding a real job. I also turned down some job offers and a bunch of interviews. Two were in the US and the rest were in Europe and Asia. All of my leads came from just emailing out portfolios except for the example below which was through a contact. I don't know how that happened considering the shitty economy.
One job I turned down was from a huge office in China. I interviewed over Skype with someone who was friends of a professor. Our interview lasted over 90 minutes and we covered a lot. It ended up being more of a conversation than interview. The guy in China is American and has something like ten years of experience both in the US and China. He said that the Chinese education system doesn't encourage creativity or critical thinking, so yes, many places in China are looking for Western trained architects. This particular place was going to pay for all visa costs and pay for housing. Add that to the cheap cost of living and I would be making similar income as I would here in the US.
The pros were that I would either be working with the interviewer on huge urban projects, so basically designing new cities, or I could lead competitions and have my own team. There is the opportunity to gain lots of experience quickly. Another pro of course is the chance to experience a new culture.
The cons would be if you've never been abroad or can't handle rapid change or sensory overload, then maybe China wouldn't be for you. So that depends on your personality/character. Another con was that the way things work there is different, so the process of designing, the way people and trades, clients, interact and work together isn't as clearly defined or smooth as in the US. You need to choose your battles and you'll reach your goal but the whole process will be a total shit storm. You need to very flexible and cunning. Much more so than in the US.
As for hours, they are long regardless of age or seniority.
I also have friends who are working in China and they all say similar things.
A lot of my advise is mostly for young architects like myself who are fresh out of school and without much experience, so i cant say exactly what contracts, visa's or other relocation services a company may offer someone who has a lot of experience and gets hired.
There are several kinds of visas you can enter china with.
The first is a tourist visa (L Visa) - this is good for like 30 days or something and CAN NOT be changed into a business or working visa once you are hired. You would need to leave the country and re-enter once you got hired and a new visa.
The second is a business visa (F VIsa) - this is what most people have since they are easier to obtain, free for the company that hires you and most flexible for who you can work for. They are usually good for 3 months, 6 months or 1 year. Technically you are supposed to not be paid any cash with this visa, and instead just given food and housing. As with everything it seems in China, a LOT of business is done under the table and in cash. So don't be surprised if you get a business visa and get paid in cash. How you obtain a visa is the company hiring you will give you a letter of invitation that you would need to take to your nearest Chinese embassy in the US and apply for the visa.
When applying for the business visa it is best to ask for only a 3 month, 1 time entry visa, even though they offer 6 and 12 month multi-entry visas they are usually tougher at letting you in. Be sure that the invitation letter from your company shows exactly the time that they want to hire you for (be sure it says three months or less - even if the contract is for a year or something) and that it is an unpaid position. Once you get this visa you can enter the country and your company usually will either get it transferred to a working visa or extend it to a 12 month business visa.
The working visa (Z-Visa) is a pretty tough thing to work out. Firstly it costs a company hiring you something like $1,000+ to hire a US Citizen, which is about 10 times more expensive then any other citizen in the world. So from the start a lot of companies may not consider an American for the job. When you apply for the visa you need to submit ORIGINAL copies of your college diploma and your passport. The company you work for will handle all of this for you, or they will hire a middle man to do it for you. The visa office will keep your passport for a month or two to process the new visa, so dont expect to be able to travel or leave China once they have your passport for this time.
Assuming you obtain a working visa (Z Visa) it now ties you to that company and only that company unless they give you something called a 'letter of release'. So if your company decides to only pay you half of what they said they would(contracts, as legally binding as they may look, really mean nothing more then a gentleman's agrement in China, foreigners rarely win any case brought in court) and you want to quit, it doesn't mean you can just get hired at the next firm down the road. You would need to get this letter of release, that you would give to your new company so they can include it in the papers they have to file to change the status of where you work. Its really hairy and tough to explain, so just know that Z Visas hold you to a company. If you encounter problems - you probably wont if its an international firm or big Chinese firm - contact a visa service company (google for one) and they can usually use their contacts within the visa office to allow you to change companies ... for a price im sure.
As for people asking about the language. Most people in China know English, but very few are willing to speak it because they are too afraid of embarrassing themselves. But don't really worry about that. Any good, international office will have the main language be English, and if there are problems communicating theres usually someone there that can communicate for you. I've lived here 2 years now and only know like 10 words and I get by fine.
As for hours here. It varies. I only work 9-6 M-F and rarely later. My roommate got an offer from BIAD UFO and they told him to expect working 10hrs a day 6 days a week. My friend works at OPEN and she usually works late and on some weekends. Several friends work at MAD and they work usually 10-11 hrs a day 5 or 6 days a week.
Yes for foreigners we mostly work on the conceptual design, but there is soooo much grey zone when it comes to laws and blue prints here that understanding it would be too much. It seems that if something isnt code someone somewhere can be bought off and it can be built anyway though.
For me, personally, I don't like that stuff anyway, and if you're young and want to get more experience then laying out the position of outlets in some random american suburban apartment building like everyone else our age, China is the place to really build up your portfolio and work on a lot of major projects. I have been able to design on my own: facades for an entire new 60,000+ student college campus, 20 new subway station entrance designs for a new 1 million+ person city in southern china, and co-design the master plan for an entire experimental city near Hong Kong. So having only a bachelors and being 25 hasn't kept me from learning a lot, gaining experience and getting so much room to experiment and play.
I think i answered most the questions, if i left some out let me know, but just remember that China is a whole different game then working in the US or EU, or most of Asia for that matter, so be ready if things dont go smoothly in the hiring process and just keep sticking at applying and doing follow up emails to applications, those seems to be essential here.
Also at the time of writing this (October 2011) China just passed a new social security tax on foreign workers. So it now charges employers a 20% tax for every foreign worker they hire, as well as a 9% tax each employee has to pay as well. This new law has been a little confusing for international firms to understand and work through, so a lot of hiring has been postponed until the new law is better understood. I would probably expect a lot more hiring under the table with payments in cash and with a business visa then actually getting hired with a full working visa.
Its a pretty ingenious tax by the government, because it discourages the hiring of non Chinese (the unemployment rate for Chinese college grads is fairly high and the last thing they want is a situation like the jasmine revolution in Egypt) it generates huge amounts of tax revenue (foreign workers usually make 10x more then Chinese workers) and a foreigner isn't able to claim the social security benefits unless they lived here for 15 years! That Chinese government may be awful polluters, oppress millions of its own minorities and stifle the creativity and free expression of its people - but they sure can run an economy.
So I've gotten a couple of offers from firms in Beijing. The first is one of the studios of (supposedly) the biggest architecture+planning group in China and the second is a young firm without a website. Neither are from any of the firms I applied to (many of the ones listed here by andrew.haas or from chinese-architects.com), but they said that a partner of one firm, a friend, recommended me to them. I'm excited because I've finally gotten a job offer, but a little saddened that they are not the firms I was hoping to work at. And I'm not sure if I should bide my time or take the offer (most likely the first firm). Nevertheless, I guess I shouldn't be picky and will inquire more details from them for now.
I' m asking this more out of curiosity than any personal interest, but I'm curious as to whether the LDIs (like BIAD) employ foreigners to work on downstream work (DD, CD etc). The intl firms are obviously more active in concept and maybe early schematic before handing off to LDIs.
Urbanist: The firm I interviewed for, an LDI, does it all in the house but I guess they're one of the bigger design firms in China.
andrew.haas: I have a question. The company I interviewed with requested that I apply for the tourist L visa. From your post on visas, it looks like applying for a tourist L visa is technically illegal if you're actually doing a paid internship in the country. I'm also worried what the officials will ask once I return to the US after 6-12 months. ("Oh, I was in China sight-seeing for a year but I'm about $10,000 richer")
Should I try to convince the director that I instead get a business visa and and request for an invitation letter?
kubo, a lot of LDIs will claim to be the "largest in China" -- dont fall into that trap! However, it will surely be a good experience.
if they are an LDI they should be able to get you a z visa no problem.
sorry for the late reply kubo, but be sure to ask them for an f visa invitation letter. a tourist visa is just to difficult to try and change into a working visa later. as for worrying about hiding your finances, i have had no trouble and the main thing to worry about is your taxes back in the US. its tough because you dont really receive receipts when your get paid here, so there is no way to prove how much you make here. what i do in the US is just say I made less then 10,000 and didnt file for taxes for the last 2 years. thats what I was advised to do by H&R Block when I tried to do my taxes last year.
Advice for people looking for positions in China:
1. u wont regret it, all the younger architects I met here are positive about making the move
2. make sure ur folio is pretty!
3. try to first find a position from overseas and interview over the phone/skype so u can negotiate a higher salary. If that doesnt work, then double check ur folio is pretty
Bumping this thread as a return to China is very likely after graduation in May. I recently got back from a thesis research trip where I visited several cities from Hong Kong to Beijing. I met with several firms along the way and found a couple that I'm really interested in. And with every "interview" the topic of money came up. I'm a couple years removed from working in China, I was offered a job there last summer but that was temporary employment, so I'm not quite sure what the current market is for graduates with a couple years experience. Most of my architect friends in China are locals and I'm never really comfortable talking about money since us laowai get paid far more for the same job so I thought I'd post it here.
The two offers that I'd consider are both with international firms...the first in Chongqing and the other in Beijing. The job in Chongqing pays more because foreign architects are still a hot commodity in CQ. The other is in Beijing in a medium-sized Chinese-owned office with foreigners in design management roles.
Back to my question, what's the market for recent/soon to be MArch grads with a couple years experience with passable Mandarin? I'm aware of the change-over later this year and several companies mentioned that may effect business as guanxi will be reset, so there is a level of uncertainty with future projects. I also have to factor in student loan payments of 2,500rmb/month and hoping to save quite a bit would be nice. I know it's difficult in Beijing but I live pretty comfortably on less than 100rmb a day excluding housing costs.
Probably worth noting, Beijing is a second home and I have no problem taking less to live somewhere I love. Everywhere I went in Chongqing people would whisper 洋鬼子, not the most welcoming environment for foreigners.
Thank you in advance!
I would say definitely go to the Beijing firm. Foreigners in management roles or as co-workers are an amazing thing to have. So many times here the Chinese bosses or coworkers just want you to like throw a voronoi tessellation on a project, or like try to copy the birds nest or something, often times its very hard to explain to them why not. i find that the 3 or 4 foreign designers at my office are the only people that try to push interesting ideas. It can be very frustrating sometimes in my experience if you work in an office of only Chinese designers.
Plus, honestly, China can get you down a lot. I've been here nearly 3 years now, and being in a large city, with a large expat community and decent places to go out to eat and drink is a must ... otherwise you'll get too depressed. The honeymoon period of loving a new place and 'experiencing a new culture' seems to end with everyone I've known after 6 months or so, and then you find your self just constantly getting frustrated and depressed with the Chinese way of doing things.
Its western things you can find in a city like Beijing or Shanghai that keep your head on right. Theres times when Ive never appriected a good cup of coffee, Gueiness from a tap with proper head, a proper steak or a good burger as much as a friday night after a long frustrating week of government beuroracy, rude uncivilized subway ediquet, traffic like anywhere else, people spitting in-doors, and dog and yes, human shit on the sidewalk to avoid as you walk anywhere.
Dont get me wrong, I love being here, and it has helped my career unlike any other move I could have made, but I am just trying to explain that being at a firm with less money, but in a good city is a better choice then some other city.
I would say only look for jobs in Beijing or Shanghai. Beijing is a lot of new money, the Beijinger's here seem like they have something to prove and try to flaunt their wealth just too much. Shanghai is a lot of old money, so the people there seem a lot more comfortable and it doesnt seem like everyone is fighting to get the hottest coolest thing to show off, but get something because they enjoy it. So the culture down there I like more then here in Beijing. Shanghai seems much more westernized and I think a lot more fun. The subway system there is better and more spead out, although Beijing's is on the way to being the largest in the world, there are still major parts of the city still not covered properly (as of early 2012).
let me know if you have anymore questions
Agreed about Shanghai and Beijing being the top places for foreign architects in China right now. My firm has offices in both, each employing about 200 people locally. Beijing probably has more opportunity than Shanghai, but they're both good. Shanghai is a bit more foreigner-friendly, but Beijing has got a lot better since the Olympics.
Almost all the big US firms have offices in at least one of these cities. Check their employment listings to see where the openings are. If you're willing to travel a lot, you might even find a US job with China responsibilities. That makes the visa issue a lot easier to deal with.
May I ask two questions that may be funny to some of you:
How is like the health system in China?
We are all young and healthy architects, but you never know, what will happen to you.
I injured my leg, last summer on an internship in The Netherlands, and it cost me quite good (too much).
So any experiences regarding the Chinese health system?
And second thing - smog! I do not know about Beijing, But Shanghai is the most polluted city in the world when it comes to smog!
How do you stand this air, and does it effect on you?
Thank you for all the replies.
Hey as for health I have travelers insurance with Seven Corners:
its pretty good deal, i paid like $650usd for a year of coverage which covers any country outside of the US, and one month coverage in the US (if I am home to visit or something) It covers up to 1 million USD in medical bills, and up to $25,000 USD for emergency evacuation (earthquake, nuclear situation, etc...)
Its pretty good, ive gone to one of the several foreign ran hospitals in Beijing and didnt have any problems at all. I would really suggest getting some sort of travel insurance though so you can actually go to a foreign hospital instead of a chinese hospital. My friend got H1N1 back in 2009 an was brought to a Chinese hospital by her employer and she had a temp of 104F and they only used Chinese medicine to cure it instead of actually being taken care of.
Another friend went in for a broken thumb and the doctor just told him to drink lots of hot water and to 'concentrate his chi to the pain' to fix it.
Another acquaince who didnt have travelers insurance was leaning against a window at an apartment and the entire window frame detached from the wall (china has the best construction and safety regulations by the way) he ended up falling 4 floors and was rushed to the nearest hospital by taxi (calling an ambulance is a lost cause given they take so long its faster to just go on your own in and emergency.
He had brain damage and was in a coma for months, meanwhile the bills added up, which he and his family cant pay, and since he has no insurance they cant bring him on a plane home to a US hospital. Pretty tragic story.
Most travel insurance will cover emergency evacuation, body retrieval, and emergency treatment if you were like hit by a car. Its not supposed to cover just going in for a check up or to get a prescription for a cold. Although with mine, when I have gone in, they haven't been emergencies and I still wasn't charged anything.
The air in Beijing is worse then the air in Shanghai in my opinion, but both are pretty bad. I talked to my doctor about it in the US and he said its nothing to really worry about too much. There haven been many conclusive studies on the long term side effects of smog. I would be more worried about raising a kid here, with their bodies and brains still developing I wonder how bad that is for kids.
Smog will give you headaches when you wake up, make you lethargic and tired during the day. Some friends with non-architecture jobs who make a lot more money buy in-home air filters for their bedrooms at night (night time smog is worse because that's when they allow large diesel gas trucks into the city area).
Smog is really a lot worse during the cold months in Beijing. The Chinese call it the '100 days of clouds' (interesting its not '100 days of smog') because the government allows coal factories within the city to run in order to heat buildings.
The smog is also very bad in the dry months (October-March) because since Beijing is land locked and there is little wind the only way to really clean the air or get fresh air is when it rains. The government has been known to make it rain with silver oxide missiles shot in the air days before major events like a parade during the national holiday, or during the Olympics. this way there are perfect blue skies for the international media to see.
The really only bad thing with the smog besides unknown health is it really can alter your mood since there rarely are any blue sky clear days when you can see the sun. most of the time it is always just grey and overcast. it is actually so rarely a clear day i remember several occasions where i could actually feel the sun on my skin and realizing how weird it felt.
Beijing pollution is worse than Shanghai. Which is a little bit like saying pancreatic cancer is worse than lung cancer.
Beijing's fabled "perfect" feng shui gives it a geographic location perfectly suited to capturing every stray molecule of particulate matter in the air and holding it right over the city. Plus, it seems like every little neighborhood has it's own coal-fired power plant. It's a little disconcerting to see a big smokestack belching smoke right between a cluster of residential towers, but that's the case nearly everywhere you look.
The pollution is way worse in the summer in my opinion. All the construction activity kicks up unbelievable amounts of dust to add to the general pollution levels.
Wow, so it is not just talks.
The smog really is a problem in Beijing.
Thank you for such a splendid and precise replies both of you.
Sorry I haven't posted a proper "Thank You," just finished up midterms. If I end up choosing to go China post-grad it I will definitely be Beijing over Chongqing despite the latest reports of smog cutting 5 years off your life....
Dirty, smoggy, people hawking all over the streets, over-priced foreign "delicacies," acid rain, random illness from coal inhalation...I still love Beijing.
I can however sympathize with what andrew.haas alluded to about depression in BJ. I've spent about a year there over 3 stints for work/travel and many of my friends who have stayed certainly get worn down. Same goes for any major city in China, you can assimilate to the point of wearing a mask and eating hot pot every day but China is a grind. Long hours, dealing with the backwards system, asinine exercises and always being "that laowai."
Here's a few articles you guys may find interesting:
From the NYtimes 'Building the American Dream in China' :
Architects blog of working in China:
i want to catch up with my 4×6 photo love album. i was doing great until april then fell by the wayside!
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May I ask how you got your first job. I am currently doing my Masters degree in LA, got a long summer holiday so decided to look for interns in beijing! I've been emailing number of firms, but still no reply yet. Just wondering if you could share with me the trick of getting first intern/job?
Thanks so much!
Nice firm list, Is there one for foreign offices in Shanghai?
First of all thanks everyone for making this thread so informative. Ive been following this and reading up elsewhere, and would like to ask some questions...
@Andrew.Haas. "Dont get me wrong, I love being here, and it has helped my career unlike any other move I could have made, but I am just trying to explain that being at a firm with less money, but in a good city is a better choice then some other city."
you mentioned that working in Beijing was a great career move, do you say this because it was work in an otherwise slow economy with high unemployment, or because there is something specific about the work you were doing in Beijing that will lead to better jobs down the road? I'm asking because I have an offer to work there in Beijing, but am worried that the focus on schematic design experience won't relate to the workforce in America. I think it will be interesting to see if your perspective has changed since moving back home from Beijing and now developing your career elsewhere, whether you continued with the schematic design roles or are doing other things...
I also felt somewhat sour about a salary offer of 15,000rmb/mo. but judging by your and some others' comments this may be pretty decent salary in China for a fresh MArch grad with less than a year's experience. Im currently in a giant corporation in the states, pulling in about 37,000usd/yr, which isn't too much, better than some I suppose, but I was trying to factor in cost of living in Beijing to justify the move for myself...If rent is only 300usd/mo that in itself is huge...
Also, somebody mentioned that there's a lot of hospital projects...are these typically inaccessible to foreign designers, considering the massive amounts of regulation or restrictions and a huge communication gap between foreign and local designers? It would be great to get my career started in healthcare.
thanks in advance..
hey, a few quick things,
when i moved to beijing in 2009 as a recent undergraduate job prospects in the USA were beyond impossible to get in the USA. so china offered me actual work experience that I couldnt get in most other cities.
beijing and shanghai offer the best opportunities for foreign firms, with interesting projects, especially beijing since all the government agencies are in beijing.
15,000 is decent for a fresh grad. 20,000 would be expected if you have 3-5 years experience. you can live quite well on both salaries.
not sure about healthcare projects there. a majority of the work is large scale master planning and money making office buildings, with a few interesting projects here and there.
the main thing is to just get to beijing, spend like 6months understanding how things work and look for more interesting work that you would want to do once youve been there.
best of luck