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Volunteer AbroadVolunteer Overseas

George Thomson - General Journalism Projects in China

Bungee! My reasons for going to Shanghai were fairly predictable. I wanted to explore a city and culture alien to me, meet new people and have a good time. However, as a university graduate with plenty of previous travel experience, I wanted to come home with more than just fun memories. My main priority was to gain valuable work experience that would prove useful in the future. Arriving home three months later with a heavy heart (and head), I looked back happy in the knowledge I’d achieved the lot.

My placement was with That’s Shanghai magazine, an English language monthly covering lifestyle and culture in the city. Having arrived in China unsure of what exactly I wanted to write about, it soon transpired that the answer was everything. By the end of my internship I had contributed to the Nightlife, Travel, Arts and Sport sections of the magazine, usually writing four or five articles per issue. Writing about such a variety of subjects proved engaging and a welcome challenge, while I gained experience in many aspects of magazine journalism. Apart from the researching and writing of articles, blogging, website maintenance, sub-editing and attending press conferences were all part of the job. Whenever I needed help, the editorial staff at the magazine were only too happy to oblige. The office atmosphere was always relaxed and informal, with everybody trusted to get on with the work required.

Dinner with other volunteers

A typical day would begin with a quick scan of Shanghai Daily, the state-run English language paper. More often than not pressed into the corner of a crowded subway car, I would frantically pour over the typically bland articles hoping to find a morsel of interesting news. Despite its rather sombre tone, Shanghai Daily provided a constant reminder as to just how dynamic modern Chinese society is. The announcement of multi-billion dollar construction projects – big news in the UK - would be burrowed away in the back pages as if inconsequential. After arriving at the office, I would be straight on to local blogs like ChinaSmack and Shanghaiist, valuable sites that offer a grassroots view of Chinese society rarely seen in the west. Inevitably, something interesting or simply bizarre would jump out, and I’d start to write.

Island Lake

With only a limited time at the magazine, getting my byline in print as often as possible was the priority. Showing enthusiasm and an independent spirit was essential, as I found out to my cost at one editorial meeting. Having booked a week in Hong Kong over Spring Festival, I offered to make the short trip to Macau to help out with a travel piece being prepared on the former Portuguese colony. Given Macau’s reputation as the Las Vegas of Asia, I was expecting to spend a few gruelling hours assessing the merits of the various casinos scattered around the city. Instead, a few days later I found myself bound at the feet and edging towards a ledge as a crowd of excited Chinese tourists looked on with cameras poised. I was at the top of the Macau Tower, a 233m high mast that hosts the world’s highest bungee jump. My freefall lasted eight seconds, which was more than enough time to vow to stick to bar reviews in the future.

Oriental Pearl TV Tower

Other perks included a night at a brand new five star resort on the holiday island of Sanya. Having spent the previous few days in the significantly more modest surroundings of a backpacker hostel down the road, I felt a little sheepish arriving in my flip flops and jeans. Unperturbed by my dishevelled appearance, my hosts soon whisked me away in a buggy for a tour of the private bay the hotel occupied. Driving round the luxurious complex, the guide was all apologies: “I’m so sorry to rush, but I want you to be able to have a swim in the pool at sunset”.

Seeing more of China and the region had always been one of my priorities, and in three and a half months I was able to cram in trips to Guangzhou, Hong Kong, Tokyo and Sanya, as well as day excursions to nearby cities Hangzhou and Suzhou. The bosses at That’s Shanghai couldn’t have been more relaxed about me wanting to see more of the country, especially if it meant I could find something to put in the magazine.

Organising travel in China was cheap and straightforward, Shanghai’s Hongqiao airport is a major domestic hub and all major cities can be reached on the futuristic train system. Unlike Europe, prices remain fairly low until the point of departure, which allowed me to plan flexibly and book at the last minute if necessary.


Projects Abroad placements take people out of their comfort zone, and consequently attract open-minded, enthusiastic and interesting people. During my time in Shanghai I spent time with people from South Africa, France, the US, Australia, Germany, Holland and, of course, China. The shared experience threw us together, and the pace of life in Shanghai allowed close bonds to be formed in no time at all. Socialising as a group was non-stop, and a night in with the terrible Chinese TV felt like an evening wasted.

Shanghai’s nightlife is fast paced, varied and suits all budgets. There is something for everyone; memorable trips include bowling, cringe-inducing karaoke nights and go-karting at midnight. What I loved the most was that while Shanghai is, as I’d expected, vast in scale and relentlessly in flux, growing accustomed to life there proved easy. Projects Abroad helped immensely, pointing out places to go and giving out advice on the day-to-day customs that can seem so unfamiliar in a foreign country.

Yuyuan Gardens

Indeed, despite being a city of eighteen million inhabitants, I found it remarkably easy to familiarise myself with Shanghai. Each district has its own unique feel, and a brief scan of nearby skyscrapers is an effective way to orientate oneself. It’s the taxi drivers who get lost most, and I often found myself directing a novice cabbie back to my apartment. Most taxi journeys include a drive along the Yan’an elevated highway. Traversing the city from east to west, much of the road is perched on stilts high above street level. It was from this vantage point, sitting in a taxi as the highway weaved through Shanghai’s countless towers and neon signs, that I was able to get a rare sense of perspective in this massive and enigmatic city. The Yan’an leads out to the airport, and as the taxi crawled out of Shanghai on my final morning I remember vividly looking out over the city below and feeling satisfied and, above all, grateful.

George Thomson

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