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English>>Life & Culture

Blend in better with locals

By Yao Minji (Shanghai Daily)

11:10, September 05, 2012

Emilie Bourgois (second from right), a 26-year-old from Bourdeaux, France, enjoys a light moment with her Chinese colleagues in China. Learning from her previous experience, she now has a good relationship both at and off work with her colleagues.

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 naive 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."

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