Making sense of the challenge

Updated: 2013-12-13 09:34

By Robert Parkinson (China Daily Europe)

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Understanding and appreciating finer cultural nuances can help expatriates succeed in China

China is the world's second-largest economy with growth that would leave many countries salivating. In my view China is a fantastic place to live and work in. Since everyone's experience is not mine, let me share some feedback on what I think is important about a career in the country.

It's important to clarify that my target audience is people who have had at least three to four years of work experience outside China and are not of Chinese or oriental decent (which of course changes things a bit because issues of heritage and family come into play).

I believe one of the major success factors for my expatriate life in China is that I had already worked in a country (the Netherlands) other than my own for a significant period. OK, you might say, Amsterdam is a 50-minute flight from London whereas Beijing is about 8,000 kilometers away, but still it is a different culture; and I believe that truly understanding that we all see the world in a different way is something that only happens with time and experience.

I have seen many examples of expatriates in China landing in Beijing or Shanghai with the "I'll get 'them' to do it our way (!)" mentality, and then slowly but surely their confidence wanes. Successful laowai realize that you will never change a culture thousands of years old, no matter how convincing you are. It is far better to understand and appreciate it.

The second, but perhaps most important tool for foreigners to do well in China is language. I can list at least 10 examples of people I know well who have enjoyed accelerated careers (in China) simply because they've made the effort to get to grips with Mandarin at a fluent or semi-fluent level. When I was at school in the 1980s and early 90s, there was tremendous emphasis on the European Initiative (basically, pupils from the age of 10 upwards were all taught German); which has since been quietly replaced with Mandarin.

Making sense of the challenge

Interestingly, learning English is also the most important advice I give to young Chinese people. I know many Chinese professionals who've done very well simply because they speak English fluently.

Staying with the practical and financial perspective for a second, the next most important element for foreigners - both early and mid career - is to be sent to China. Packages for the talented are still good, and managers in disciplines such as finance, law and general management can expect tax equalization, paid apartments, and schooling for children on top of hefty base salaries and bonuses (Of course you have to perform, otherwise you'll certainly be replaced).

I compare this with foreigners who move jobs within China who almost certainly will not get perks such as schooling and housing, and will probably be awarded a "local+" package, or just a comparable package to a person from the local market.

Alongside expatriation, of course one has to understand that the expectations set at the beginning of an expatriate assignment in terms of timing have very little bearing on reality: three-year assignments quite often turn in to 10/15+ year relocations. Why? Because for the vast majority of people working here, it takes at least two to three years to get used to life, and at that point, most companies want to see a return on these investment so usually they prefer their managers to stay longer (if they're good).

Consider also that life in China offers a very high standard of living, buzz, excitement and rapid change when compared with the relative mundanity of cities, certainly in western Europe. There aren't many people I know who look forward to going home, and indeed, Westerners I know often retire to more developed Asian cities such as Hong Kong or Singapore.

Finally, moving more toward the profound, one should consider such factors as: are you genuinely interested in Chinese culture? Life is much easier if you are. Are you coming because you believe China is something of a magic cash machine? It isn't. Are you prepared for the cultural differences? Read. Have you anticipated the problems? Ask. These are all questions which need addressing, and will make whichever decision you eventually take far more concrete and assured.

I've worked in China now for almost 10 years. I never expected to be here this long, but I love (nearly) every second and have made my life here. I would encourage anyone who's intrigued to seriously explore a life in this gargantuan country, as there is no mistaking the significance of China in today's world order, and for the right people there are some very serious opportunities here.

There is a lot written about China, which is valid and useful, and equally a lot, which is based on prejudice, hearsay and speculation. Above all, do yourself a favor and come here for a week, there are thousands of travel options now, so come and explore, meet people and decide whether or not the challenge is for you, because above all else China is without doubt exactly that: a challenge.

The author is founder and managing director of RMG Selection, an Asia-focused human resources and recruitment consultancy.

(China Daily European Weekly 12/13/2013 page11)