(NOTE: This article was first published by me on my Medium blog on June 26, 2018)
In the 21st Century, the Asia Pacific became a hotbed for economic activity, technological advancement, and general social and cultural boom. In fact, it is quite likely that East Asia is currently the most quickly advancing (or even advanced) region on the entire planet.
Following this rapid rise in the past 10 to 20 years, China especially started to attract many foreign talents, as a place that granted ambitious young professionals the manifold opportunities they were looking for to advance their careers or to start exciting new businesses. However, the path to greatness in China is not easy, and many cultural and political obstacles can hinder one’s progress. Of all the ambitious young expats that came to chase the China Dream, more have headed home bitterly frustrated than have stayed on long enough to prosper.
I hereby would like to point out a few things that expats working in China should keep in mind, in order to maximize the effectiveness of their time spent working in the Middle Kingdom. It is important to note that there are sacrifices you must make, and things you disagree with that you must accept — because at the end of the day, if everything was easy and comfortable like back home, then there would be no edge to be gained here in the promise land.
1. Make an Effort to Fit Into Your Chinese Team
It is easy and natural to walk into China as a foreigner and feel a bit entitled and think you can do things your way because you are special — I had this phase at the beginning myself. However, I quickly noticed that this type of behaviour and making no attempts to fit in with the local team led to no positive results. It’s a quick route to alienation and being isolated in the company, and with no allies among your peers or bosses it is really hard to do anything or have any meaningful influence on the work.
Fitting in is of course helped by having Mandarin language skills. But even without fluency in Mandarin, it is important to make the effort to learn the little intricacies of Chinese culture and style of communication, and to adapt accordingly.
For example, the Chinese are notorious for not communicating directly or clearly, and often resorting to quietly going about their business until it’s time to suddenly tell everyone something happened. This can come as a real frustration for Westerners, as we are used to communicating clearly before tackling a task, and having some sort of plan in place. However, you alone is not going to change the culture of working in China, no matter how hard and how long you try, so instead you must adapt to their way. This means that if you want certain information or need to do something a certain way, you MUST take initiative and be proactive in asking, prodding, following up, and exerting your influence. You must be the instigator of communication and you must do it repeatedly, in order to get what you want. Sitting idly and expecting your local co-worker or boss to tell you what the plan is will only lead to frustration.
Another aspect of fitting in involves interacting with your Chinese co-workers (off-work topics) and participating in company activities such as dinners and team-building. Some of the events may not be as exciting for the average foreigner as Friday night at a Bund club, but nonetheless you should attend and at least show face. Simply by showing up, it shows that you are willing to be a part of the team and that you do not feel your time is more valuable than the others’, and this is extremely important for gaining trust from your coworkers and bosses. Think about it — for them, a foreigner is typically not a very permanent fixture and can disappear from the company or the country at any time, therefore they are reluctant to put trust in you, and it must be won over time.
2. WeChat 24/7, Accept It
China runs on WeChat, and there are no boundaries. In the West we are used to having work-life separation and personal privacy outside of work hours, but a few weeks working in China and you quickly realize that this is not the case here. It takes a lot of resisting and annoyance, but eventually you realize that this is a battle you cannot win. WeChat is used for everything and you can bet that a large portion of work-related communication is done via this all-encompassing app.
When I first started working in China I hated the constant WeChat communication, and opted to not reply or ignore messages and tags. But eventually I realized that if I am involved in the work and team tasks, it is often the only way to stay in the loop and to delegate tasks effectively. Emails often go unchecked and even when people do reply, they are not done in a timely manner. China is all about the pace, and things need to happen fast — coordinate on the go with WeChat is the answer.
Of course, sometimes there are too many messages and the important points get lost in a WeChat conversation, and this is when other channels like Slack or Email come in handy. WeChat though, is the bread and butter of workplace communication, and the sooner you accept that it is an inseparable part of your daily life, the better.
3. Know Your Role and Do Not Be Soft
Chinese people especially respect strong and competent leaders — under no circumstance should you appear to be overly appeasing or weak. As a foreigner, you already start from an isolated position, and you will really struggle if your staff do not respect you off the bat.
Even though the culture and mentality is gradually changing with the younger generations (Millennials) now joining the workforce, there is still a strong embedded culture of conformism and discipline ingrained in Chinese society. Generally when leading your staff, it is almost always better to make firm decisions and be firm with your demands/expectations rather to be indecisive and appear uncertain.
Of course, by no means should you be disrespectful or condescending — bring the Western politeness and respect to the workplace, it’s what people like about Western colleagues. Just make sure to draw the boundary between being nice and being soft.
The toughest thing to do for most expats is often to simply accept the way things work in China and adapt. The more consistent effort you make with adapting and fitting in, the more trust and decision-making responsibility you will gain. The worst thing an expat can do is to walk into a Chinese workplace thinking that he/she can run the place in her special foreign way — that is bound to lead to a very short and ineffective tenure followed by a hasty divorce. The mounting frustration experienced by said expat often tends to snowball and lead into a negative feedback loop, which eventually (and sometimes very quickly) drives the person out of China altogether.