Learning to Overcome Unpredictable Obstacles

By Bronwyn Vaisey, McCall MacBain International Fellow (China) 

Before arriving in China, I planned my year in a similar fashion that I always have when I have travelled or set out for a new place. I kept my plans brief and open-ended, knowing that it is often hard to control your trajectory in an environment before you fully understand its dynamics.

While I thought my plan was open-ended enough to be achievable, ultimately, the only part of my plan that ended up actually happening was attending university in Beijing. Upon arrival in China, I rapidly learned that I would need to adapt any even very open-ended plans I had made prior to departure as everything changes at the speed of light in China.

About a month into my time in Beijing, a friend offered to refer me to his company working in cross-border business consultancy. At first, I rejected the idea. It was way too soon in my year to start working. In addition, it would mean almost all my downtime would be consumed by work. However, upon reconsideration and talking to the network of people that I had gotten to know in Beijing, I re-evaluated how I should be approaching finding employment while in China. As a country in which companies, to a large extent, base hiring largely on connections and referrals, I could not go about finding an internship as I would back home. Thus, I ended up applying for the job and ultimately received the position. While it was true that my downtime rapidly decreased relative to if I hadn’t taken on the job, I learned so much from my co-workers and by working in a local company than I would have without the job.

This reinforced a valuable lesson in adaptability and not letting opportunities slip by just because they do not fit into my timeline. While especially applicable when living in the unpredictable environment of an unfamiliar country, this experience reinforced my belief in challenging myself to be adaptable in all parts of my life. Some of the best things in my life have happened because I have stepped off the path I was on and taken a leap at an opportunity whose outcomes I could know little about.

Another moment of adaptability came to me leading up to my second term of my McCall MacBain International Fellowship. While living in Beijing, I had learned a great deal more about how employment works in China and quickly realized that if I wanted to find paid work, starting in February would be far easier than in the summer, when we usually think of internships being available. Upon applying to a couple of companies, I received an offer to work at a social impact venture capital firm in Shanghai. This job was exactly in the field and city that I wanted. It was a position that I would have been thrilled about even back home. However, it was not to be. This was at the height of the Chinese-Canadian diplomatic spat and it suddenly became potentially dangerous to be working in China as a Canadian.

Thus, I was forced to make a very sudden change of plans. I had to turn down my job offer in Shanghai and quickly find a language school that would be able to sponsor a new visa in a short period of time. While at the time I was very upset by this turn of events, ultimately one of the best parts of my year came out of this situation. I ended up moving to the south of China to a comparatively small town and got the opportunity to just focus on my mandarin. I learned a lot more about Chinese culture. The experiences I gained while living in south China was undoubtedly completely different than the one I would have gotten had I moved to yet another large city. My perspective of China as a whole was broaden. This experience also gave me the downtime I had lacked in Beijing to focus more on myself and to really appreciate the culture and environment around me.

Finally, as my year came to a close, I made another about-face decision. Concerned about visa issues I began to look at Taiwan or Hong Kong as alternatives to returning to the Mainland for my final term. However, this time around I had no contacts in either of those locations and was not as familiar with local hiring practices. I tried applying to positions online but was only faced with rejection. It was around this time that I stumbled across a university-sponsored professional internship program in Taiwan open to international applicants. I was unsure of my eligibility as they were asking for submissions from Masters students, but I decided to give it a shot anyway. Almost out of time before my second Chinese visa would expire, and with still no plans yet for the rest of my year, I finally received a positive answer to my application to work in Taiwan. The timing could not have been better and because I put myself forward even when I was unsure of my own capabilities, the next segment of my year finally came together.

While my year in China was full of twist and turns, all as unpredictable and unplanned as the next, that is precisely what made the entire year on this fellowship so valuable. The experiences I gained are so special precisely because they have all been unique and not things I could have gotten to do at home. Things were not always easy, and I definitely occasionally felt lost and stressed out, but it always worked out in the end. If I could give any advice to the me before I had set out on my year abroad, it would be to relax the reins and leave ready to adapt and jump onto the opportunities that can all too often suddenly come your way.