For some expats, the switch to working in a primarily Chinese office with Chinese coworkers, bosses and business practices is more of a shock than the 10 RMB DVDs on the corner. Those used to working in the Western world may have a bit of trouble adjusting to working for and with the Chinese. Whether it’s the constant movement of coworkers coming and going from the company, the arbitrary tasks that seem to have no point with no real accomplishments, or everyone speaking loudly and never being short of words, office life has its differences here. Whether you were hired for your credentials or to bring the “international feel” many Chinese businesses are looking for – the token foreigner in the office, a “pet lao wai,” if you will – you’ll still need to know these tips before taking the plunge into the paradox of the Chinese office.
Being the laowai
Being the foreigner in the office has its pros and cons. Instant popularity, warm welcomes, improving Chinese language abilities and even free lunches are only a few of the ways that make the adjustment to life in China more enjoyable. For some, the excitement can be just the way to make China and your workplace feel more like home. However, take caution when fulfilling your role as the new laowai. Being mindful and respectful is obvious, but especially because your wages are likely significantly higher than your coworkers. With the higher wagers comes an expectation of you to perform to a high standard. The Chinese may see you as an expensive investment, and they need to know they’re getting their monies worth. Some foreigners tell stories of basically being a prop during business meetings and dinners, where the only purpose you serve is to make your boss look better because he has a foreigner working for him. Don’t assume that this will be the case, or if it does, give you the big head. Your cooperation and good performance will earn you points with your boss and coworkers.
Here one day, gone the next
As many will tell you in the Western world, leaving jobs too soon can be detrimental to your resume and credibility as an employee. However, in China it is fairly common to see employees changing jobs in only a few months time. Whereas in the U.S. someone takes their first job and ideally stays for a year or two (or longer), in China you may find someone of a comparable demographic already on their second or third job within that two year time span. According to some Chinese, the quick turn around could be a result of lower wages, other available opportunities or dissatisfaction of the job. It is not uncommon to see some entry-level positions that pay Chinese nationals only 1500 RMB a month. When you’re starting out so low, it’s a motivating factor to find something better. Whatever it is, don’t get too comfortable with the scenery, because it is likely to change more quickly than you think.
A whole lot of nothing getting done
While every job has its moments where you think “Ok, what is this going to accomplish?” it seems especially true in China. Being a foreigner in a Chinese office has its challenges with language and cultural barriers, but it can feel at times as if the communication lines broke down and the project you spent a week, two weeks, or even a months time putting together didn’t even have a point to begin with. It can be an aggravating feeling, but it comes with the territory. If you need to vent frustration, it’s best to do it with a friend outside the office. Chinese coworkers are not always a suitable resource to voice complaints. When approaching these kinds of situations when you don’t know what exactly you’re supposed to do, flexibility is key and knowing that the project may fall by the wayside can help with the let down later on. Just don’t take that attitude in the effort you put forth.
Loud noises and loving your own voice
Expats all have their qualms with living in China and the cultural differences. These can be magnified in the work place. Where working back home comes with six-inch voices and meetings that can, not always, be quick and to the point, those kinds of conditions are few and far between when working in a Chinese office. Get ready for what can sometimes be unnecessarily loud talking, maybe even what seems like shouting. But be careful when complaining, as criticizing loudly can cause a coworker to lose face – a major no no (see below). And as for meetings, what should be a quick meeting on updates that lasts 20-30 minutes can often turn into an hour or longer. Just don’t drink a lot before the meeting and up your patience level for the day. Think of it as an hour (or two) where you’re getting paid not to work. And while this writer isn’t encouraging you to use a mobile phone during a meeting, don’t think your Chinese coworkers haven’t brought their phones along with them.
Of course every expat should know when first coming to China the importance of not “losing face,” and this is especially important in the workplace. Despite the ups and downs that come with working in China, it is never a good idea to get overly angry, upset or anything else that will be seen as “losing face” for you and especially your coworkers. Public outbursts, and sometimes even disagreement, should be kept to a minimum. Once you’ve been at a job longer you’ll have a better sense of what is and isn’t permissible but in the beginning it’s always better to err on the side of caution. Especially in the first few months of working in China, avoid being overly vocal on opinions, disputes or other office issues. While it may be tough to bite your tongue, it’s better than the effects of offending coworkers or, even worse, bosses. If you’re caught in a situation where you’re really pushed to the limit, it’s imperative to just let it slide. Don’t forget that your employer holds a very important key to your stay in China: your visa.