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Rolling up the sleeves
By Yao Minji

YOUNG expatriates often encounter culture shock and other unexpected challenges working in China. Company owners and experts in human resources offer some advice so they can blend in better with locals. Yao Minji reports.

Matthew has decided to go back to California after his summer internship in Shanghai. When he arrived three months ago, the 24-year-old was hoping to land a two-year contract after the internship.

"I might have been too ignorant and na?ve before coming. I thought I prepared myself well, but it was not good enough," he tells Shanghai Daily, on condition his family name and other personal information are not used.

Matthew had visited a few Chinese cities, including Shanghai, when he came to watch some sporting events during the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. He enjoyed the trip so much and it was a major reason why he decided to come again, but for longer. However, "visiting here and working here are so entirely different," he says.

Before coming, he sought advice from his uncle, who worked as a senior executive in a Shanghai branch of an international company in the early 1990s, when it was not necessary for expats to learn Chinese and he was the boss. His suggestions didn't help much, according to Matthew's experience.

"The city's culture, art, nightlife and food have all been fantastic, but my internship experience really sucked," he says. "I can't understand or get along with my Chinese colleagues and my boss doesn't like me. They didn't even come to my farewell party."

"And worst of all, I don't even know how and why this has happened."

Figuring out the "how and why" is very important for young expatriates, especially if they work in a mainly Chinese environment, such as Emilie Bourgois, a 26-year-old from Bourdeaux, France, who once worked in a start-up Chinese wine company as the only foreigner among 50 employees.

Bourgois reported to two bosses - one Franco-Chinese and one Chinese - and she has observed a big difference between Chinese and foreign executives.

"I was surprised to see that taking the initiative most of the time was seen as rude and as a failure to respect the executives' authority," she tells Shanghai Daily. "At work everyone had to perform well in their own tasks, but permission was required for anything other than what was expected."

She adds that "Western-style bosses tend to develop a closer relationship with employees. The hierarchy is much more clearly divided in Chinese-dominant companies than it is in foreign ones. Hence it is easier to talk to a senior executive in a foreign company rather than in a Chinese one."

Bourgois enjoyed a good working relationship with her Chinese colleagues, "but beyond that, there is still an important cultural gap." Her farewell party was not attended by many Chinese colleagues either.

She has learned from the experience and says she has a good relationship both at and off work with her current Chinese peers at Antal International China (Beijing office), where team building between Chinese and expatriate workers is an important part of company culture.

"Young foreigners are great at brainstorming and executing ideas, but they should learn to be more humble," says John Wang, a 42-year-old Chinese entrepreneur in the trading industry who hires both Chinese and foreign professionals.

"Creativity and efficiency are good, but doing so in a discreet and non-threatening way is what they should learn," Wang says. "Otherwise, their Chinese colleagues will just feel the foreigners are implying they are not smart or not working hard enough and see them as arrogant and threatening."

Wang has about a dozen young expats, both full and part time, working in his various companies, mainly in charge of marketing.

He adds that young expats, especially those fresh out of school for under two years, should really re-think their salary demands.

"It makes me feel ridiculous to have kids asking for US$4,000 or US$5,000. They don't even get that back in the States," Wang says.

"It's not like the 1980s or 1990s, when you can ask for a lot just because you speak English!" he adds.

That was a time when working in China was considered a hardship and came with a package that included many benefits to compensate for the "hardship."

At the time, most expatriates were assigned internally by international companies to China offices and they enjoyed a good hardship package that often included a housing allowance, car and driver, stipend for spouses and tuition for children. They were experienced and came to teach and lead Chinese staff about big enterprises and global markets.

That is still true for many high executives assigned to Chinese cities today, although the package may have a more positive name.

Expatriates are still needed for both big and small businesses in China as more foreign companies have entered the Chinese market and more Chinese enterprises seek to expand abroad.

"The Western mind contributes and compliments to the mainly Chinese thinking in our company. And it makes our clients happy to see foreigners negotiating with them in Chinese. They feel better about our company when they see foreigners at the table," small company owner Wang says. "It will be great if foreigners can learn some Chinese, at least basic conversational Mandarin, before coming here."

Alibaba Group, one of China's biggest Internet companies, has also been recruiting foreigners for their offices both home and abroad.

"Foreign workers have distinct backgrounds, habits, work methods and ways of thinking, and that definitely has brought greater energy and fresher perspectives to the company," the company's HR department says. "But we don't really give them any preferential policies."

Marshall Friedman, from North Carolina, USA, works at Alibaba's Hangzhou office as campaign manager and is one of less than 10 foreigners among 8,000 employees. The 25-year-old American reports to a Chinese boss and worked on setting up a high-end wine club in Sanya of Hainan Province before joining Alibaba.

He prepared for the position by learning some Chinese, reading "The End of Cheap China" by Shaun Rein and "One Billion Customers" by James McGregor.

"In the workplace, the Chinese are very goal-oriented. You always have to keep in mind that colleagues may be approaching a certain problem with a different goal in mind. It's important to find out what their goals are to avoid conflict down the road," Friedman says. "The best piece of advice is to above all else, stay positive."

On weekends, he hangs out with Chinese colleagues, many of whom are curious to go out with his Western friends to try new things.

But the supply of foreigners has also risen in the last five years, according to Cao Zhangliang, a recruitment process outsourcing consultant at British firm Antal International China. He adds that young talents from America and many European countries, where unemployment has risen, have come to Asia to work.

"Before the 2008 financial crisis, the keywords for expatriates in China were 'experienced, specialist, short-period and high costs'," Cao explains.

"Since the crisis, many international companies have been trying to cut back costs. Along with the rise of the local talent pool of sophisticated labor, many companies have started localization at management levels. The work space for expats is now very different from before."

He adds that expats are starting to lose some of their advantages in English, professional ethics and experience.

"Foreign young talents must be prepared to see themselves in the same pool, competing against sophisticated local young talents, including many young Chinese returning from studying abroad," Cao says.

In the past, expats were the experts and bosses. Now many have to work as equals with Chinese, if not under Chinese bosses. This means some may face greater cultural shock and challenges than their predecessors.

Authorities have also taken it more seriously to check their documents such as visa and resident permit, so it is advised to ensure such files are kept valid and non-expired.

Cao suggests young expatriates come to China to study first and seek a part-time job working alongside Chinese before considering long-term employment here.

"This can give them a feel of the different culture and time to learn the Chinese language and Chinese way of thinking and working," he concludes.


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