How China changed me: Culture, Careers and Confidence

Posted on the 28th November 2016

Catherine Sneath volunteered with Lattitude in 1999. Unsure about her initial decision, Catherine has returned many times since, having grown to the love the country during her time there. Catherine reflects on the long-term benefits of her Lattitude placement.

catherine's work placement in China changed her life
Catherine Sneath in China, 1999

 At the age of 18 I was lacking in confidence and wanted to do something that was completely different from my friends. Having studied Chinese history as part of my GCSE, and feeling enthused by what I learnt I applied to Lattitude to go on a five month placement to China.

In 1999 there were few foreigners living in China so we attracted a lot of attention. I remember whole buses going by with the passengers staring in fascination at me and my partner.

Few people spoke English or indeed had had any exposure to anyone from outside of China. For example, we found that many people had a conception of the UK being a foggy place with men wearing bowler hats. As part of our work there we set up an ‘English Corner’ which focused on sharing our culture with the pupils. I remember there was a massive obsession with David Beckham and Titanic with lots of questions about popular culture.

“It was the people who really made my placement”

It was the people who really made my voluntary placement. A teacher at the placement took us under her wing, and in fact we are still in contact. I used to eat at her house and we took it in turns to visit. I also remained in touch with my fellow volunteers. There are six of us who meet up a few times a year. One of the volunteers from the previous cycle extended his placement and we ended up starting in the same year at university. I am now godmother to his son.

After returning from my placement I decided to change courses to study Chinese. Whilst I didn’t end up completing the course (that’s another story!), I am glad I did the year. I graduated in natural sciences and finished with a particular interest in development geography.

I decided to go into emergency relief work so joined the army and went to the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst. However, due to an injury I was medically discharged and took a job in programme management for the UK programme of an international NGO. I returned to China in 2011 to take up a job with the British Embassy Beijing.

My work experience with Lattitude changed me as a person. I grew in confidence and became more comfortable in myself.  I enjoyed the fact that I was one of the first people to spend time in this unknown country.

I valued the cross cultural exchange. I developed skills in communication, negotiation and project management – all of which have benefited me throughout my career.

Since my placement I have been fortunate to return to China many times and have met other people connected to the programme. My advice for anyone going to China is to go with an open mind. Whilst it is not an easy country to live in, I would encourage anyone who wants to experience a different culture to spend time in China. It is a fast changing environment with lots to offer. Now’s the time to go!

“It’s a fast changing environment with lots to offer. Now’s the time to go!”

Find out more about volunteering in China

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