Internship in Malaysia is About ‘More than Just Working’

Dan Lawler, a senior majoring in mechanical engineering, is currently working for Plexus Corp., based in Neenah, Wisconsin, as an international mechanical engineering intern in Penang, Malaysia. Lawler, who plans to graduate in December 2011, began his internship in late May and will be working there until about the third week in August.

He reports on his experiences in a blog and agreed to talk about his internship for Wisconsin in the World:

What attracted you to this particular internship?

I have had a strong interest in working internationally after studying abroad in Santiago, Chile, for a semester. Being submerged in another culture, learning a new language, making new friends, and frequently being placed outside my comfort zone were the major challenges of the six months, but also what made it an all-around great learning experience.

“After returning with graduation on the horizon, I began considering the idea of working internationally. After all, being a student in a foreign country is not much different than being a professional; you must learn how to adapt, work with people who may behave and think very differently than you, and learn to find solutions by looking at challenges from different perspectives.

“In the fall of 2010, I heard about this unique opportunity offered by Plexus in Penang, Malaysia. Although I had never been to Asia, I was very interested in the position. It was both an opportunity to work in a great learning environment and for a very good company, as well as a way to get a taste of working internationally. After the application and interview process, I was fortunate enough to receive the position, bringing me to where I am today as I write—Penang.”

What were your initial impressions upon arrival?

Upon arrival here in Penang, a few things really grabbed my attention. Firstly, driving is ‘freestyle.’ Traffic lines and speed limits are optional, motor bikes flood between larger vehicles in any opening they can bust through, and traffic lights are ‘green’ for about 5 more seconds after turning red. Also … they drive on the opposite side of the road, with the steering wheel located on the right side.

“After getting over the driving, it was the food that came next. Since Malaysia is home to lots of different cultures, I was told to expect many different types of food. Yet I still was unprepared for the variety of selection Malaysia boasts. I am now finally getting used to spicy foods. Dang, are they spicy! I have had all sorts of food I never would have pictured myself having: eel, jellyfish, different varieties of squid, durian, dessert mixtures of red beans and sweet corn, fermented egg, frog, and much more to come.”

Was there anything particularly surprising/different from your expectations?

“So far, the most surprising thing for me has been the people. Instead of ‘surprising,’ I should instead say ‘impressive.’ Hospitality is truly a noticeable aspect of the Malaysian culture. I have rarely ever felt so welcomed.

“My colleagues will literally go out of their way to make sure I have something to do every weekend and, if it can be helped, I never eat alone. Not only them, but people on the street are willing to help point you in the right direction, and furthermore, even share advice or recommendations. They openly desire to share their culture with you, be it through food, traditions, stories, or directing you to famous cultural sites of their city.”

What has been the most challenging adjustment?

“Besides often being outside of my comfort zone, in a city where I rarely understand the spoken languages (although 90% of people are able to speak a fair share of English), there have been other challenges as well.

”First, the heat can be quite suppressing at times. From sunrise to sunset, the temperature fluctuates from about 80 to 100 degrees on a daily basis with nearly 100% humidity. The other main challenge for me has been the air quality, since a large front of polluted air from annual crop burning in Indonesia settles in the Malay Peninsula this time of year. Also, there is the common challenge of being a half-a-world away from family and friends. Thank goodness for Skype and its dirt cheap international calling rates!”

How does your work differ from what you had been accustomed?

“The working life in Malaysia does differ from that in the US. First, the working day is significantly broken up. Since our design center has its own cafeteria, which is common among other companies in Malaysia as well, most employees arrive on-site around 8 a.m. and eat their breakfast in the cafeteria. As food is relatively cheap in Malaysia, lunches are almost always taken off- site for about an hour.

“Teatime, stemming from the British colonial influence, is also taken around 3:30 as an afternoon break. In the US, we don’t typically enjoy these breaks throughout the day, However, as a result, the Malaysians don’t leave work until 5:30 to 7 p.m., or sometimes later. Coupled with the social breaks and the very common post-work group outings, work is a very integral part of Malaysia life.

“In conjunction with the large pool of engineering positions, one possible result of this is that Malaysians change companies very often, perhaps every 3-5 years for a young engineer. From what I have seen, it is relatively uncommon to meet someone who has been with a company their whole career unless they are in high-level management.

“All in all, it has been a very rewarding experience. Being an international intern is more than just a ‘working’ internship; it is also a challenge to learn to adapt to different situations and new people—something that can’t be taught in a book, but instead by doing.

“As the world is shrinking and companies are increasingly going global, it is becoming more and more important for professionals to be open-minded and to have a broad cultural ‘vocabulary.’ They are then able to more effectively understand a colleague’s actions and perspective. I am fortunate to be given this opportunity to start developing these skills, and I look forward to honing then in the years to come.”

— by Kerry G. Hill