Tag Archives: Chinese culture

Working for a Chinese Company

Author Gary Moreau

Sino-US trade continues to get a lot of attention in Washington, particularly in light of North Korea’s relentless missile testing. And trade between China and the US continues to be characterized as a unilateral issue—from Chinese factories to US consumers.

In reality, however, Chinese companies have now made direct investments in every US state and most congressional districts. From 2000 to Q2 of 2017 Chinese companies have invested $135 billion in the US, reaching $3.4 billion in 2012 alone. Most of these investments have been in US manufacturing assets and have resulted, by one estimate, in more than 140,000 US jobs on American soil.

While it has become increasingly common to hear of American friends and family who now work for Chinese companies in the US, moreover, American companies continue to reap the benefits of China’s economic miracle.

McDonald’s has 2,200 stores in China and sells 1,600 hamburgers every minute. Walmart has close to 450 stores there, employing roughly 100,000 people. (wal-martchina.com), and that’s not counting Walmart’s extensive sourcing operations there.

General Motors, which has, in many ways, been the poster child for the declining US middle class, has 60,000 employees in China (gmchina.com), roughly 1/3 of its total global workforce. It plans to open, moreover, five new manufacturing plants in China in 2018, and sell close to 5 million vehicles there, almost half of its vehicle sales worldwide. (https://www.gm.com/company/about-gm.html)

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It seems quite unlikely, therefore, that American industry will line up behind any attempt to start a trade war with China. And while there may appear to be some poetic justice in giving American companies that moved production out of the US their due, the trend has gone on for too long for a correction to do anything but further compromise the interests of American workers. Imagine what would happen to the GM jobs that remain in the US if the company were to find itself unwelcomed in China today?

The more likely scenario, once the heated rhetoric out of Washington dies down, is that there will be more and more direct Chinese investment on American soil. Wage rates are not as punitive as they once were, largely for the wrong reasons, energy is cheaper in the US than anyplace else on the planet, and local governments are lining up to shower new investments with taxpayer largesse in the form of infrastructure improvements, job training, and tax avoidance.

And what if you are one of those Americans that find you are working for a Chinese company in the future? Well, generalities are always risky, but here are a few pieces of advice:

1. Your Chinese employers will be laser-focused on one thing: results. They will care far less about programs, processes, and general initiatives that are often accompanied by acronyms, posters in the cafeteria, and tee shirts.

2. Your benefits may actually improve. Chinese companies, for example, provide far better maternity benefits than most US companies.

3. Words carry less weight to the inductively minded Chinese than they typically do in the West. Keep this in mind when you find yourself on either side of a communication.

4. The rules of socially acceptable personal questions are quite different. The Chinese will not hesitate to ask you how much you make or how much you paid for your home. They will not expect you to ask them personal questions about their marital status or family size, however. And they will certainly not expect you to invite them to your home.

5. Any questions you may have on issues of work/life balance will be accepted politely but are unlikely to register.

6. The investment horizon for those involved in capital projects will be measured in months, not years.

7. Cash is king. They are likely to have little tolerance for throwing good money after bad, no matter how confident you may be in the ultimate payback of your idea.

8. The inscrutable expressions you are likely to encounter among your Chinese colleagues can be very misleading. The Chinese are far less retentive than perceived and quite comfortable in being downright silly.

9. The Chinese consider Americans to be excessively polite. We’re always saying please and thank you. They are not so inclined and sometimes interpret our behavior in this regard to be a bit suspect.

10. Don’t expect a lot of “hi’s”/”hello’s” in the hallways. They are often baffled by our willingness to acknowledge total strangers. They generally divide people into two groups: Those they have a relationship with and are thus obligated to,and 2. Those they don’t. In essence these people don’t exist.

As luck would have it, I just got off the phone with a gentleman about to interview with a Chinese company. He is of European background and I summarized my experience as thus: I have worked with businesses around the world and the parallels I would draw are that in terms of personal culture, the Chinese are closest to the Latin cultures, particularly Mexico. In terms of business culture, however, I always found the Chinese to be closest to the Dutch. Both are very forthright and matter of fact.

On balance, I believe the Chinese and American economies will continue to mutually integrate. And that will be a good thing.

Keep an open mind. And remember what Confucius said: “Wherever you go, there you are.”

You may contact the author at gary@gmoreau.com
Visit my personal blog at www.gmoreau.com


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The latest in the Understanding Series is now available.
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Lessons Learned

I have traveled internationally all of my adult life. And I’ve found that, without exception, every time I visit a foreign land I end up learning more about myself than my destination. For the nine years I lived and worked in China, the lessons I learned profoundly changed the way I live and evaluate my life.

Here are a few of the key lessons I learned:

  • Trust v Obligation

How we live our lives, and the stress that flows from our choices, often comes down to our ability to predict the behavior of others. And in Western cultures, more often than not, that ability of prediction often comes down to trust. Westerners put great stock in trust, which is why we put such great cultural emphasis on telling the truth.

Chinese culture, by contrast, turns on obligation. Trust plays a secondary role. And, as a result, so does telling the truth, at least in the Western sense. Without a concrete expectation of obligation, in fact, the Chinese trust no one.

And I think they are on to something. Perhaps I’m just fed up with the 2016 presidential election, but I’ve come to believe that obligation is a much simpler and more practical way to determine behavioral reaction to the behavior of others. The rules of obligation, in a conceptually structured culture like that of the Chinese, are very straightforward and easy to understand. A child is obligated to his or her parents. You do me a favor and I owe you one. You respect your elders.

Trust, on the other hand, is a much more challenging judgment. There are many variables at play, including the ability of one party to act out the tenets of trust. With trust, you often have suckers.

I’ve concluded that the beauty of obligation, beyond its simplicity and predictability, is that obligation is naturally a two way street. If you demonstrate obligation to me, I am naturally inclined to feel obligation to you. It’s just how we’re wired.

Even if I trust you, however, I may not be able to assume that you will put your interests above my own when the two are in conflict. That’s a crapshoot that requires a fair amount of guesswork.

  • Result v Process

Deductively – minded Westerners typically put great emphasis on process. A job well done is to be praised even if the objective is not realized. Businesses, in particular, spend much of their time codifying processes in the belief that this will lead to more predictable results with minimal risk.

The Chinese, in contrast, typically focus exclusively on results. A job performed according to a pre-defined process brings little satisfaction if the desired result isn’t achieved.

And doesn’t the Chinese perspective make more sense? There have to be boundaries to the process, of course. If everyone cheats or breaks the rules, you have anarchy. Nonetheless, it’s the W that really matters.

Which is why the Chinese would surely applaud the women’s Swedish soccer team for knocking out the Americans at the 2016 Rio Olympics with a slow down strategy of conservative play. America’s goalie, Hope Solo, on the other hand, mocked the Swedes for leaving their womanhood in the locker room and not giving the Americans more chances to win. (I have to go with the Chinese on that one.)

  • Speed v Longevity

Everything happens faster in China. Buildings go up seemingly overnight. Online purchases often arrive the same day. Elaborate houses can be gutted and totally refinished in a matter of weeks.

In Beijing, a city of 22 million people, they recently replaced (replaced, not repaired) a 10-lane overpass, complete with lane markers, in 43 hours. (You can watch it in time lapse on YouTube.) The state of Michigan, by contrast, recently announced a construction project to improve one of the main arteries into Detroit that will last 16 years. Yes, almost two decades!

Speed is money, of course, at least in the short term. Longevity, on the other hand, can be money in the long term. If a building needs to be replaced in X years, it may not be cost effective in all cases to cut the corners that allowed you to build it quickly.

But the world is changing more rapidly every year. Who knows what our needs will be 20 or 30 years from now. That, in my mind, increasingly gives speed the edge.

  • Acquisition v Fulfillment

While the millennial generation is changing the game, Americans typically like to acquire things. It’s no wonder that personal consumption drives 70% of the US economy.

The Chinese acquire, too, of course. Newly acquired wealth, in fact, often leads to conspicuous consumption. China now represents the biggest luxury market in the world.

The Chinese, however, use acquisitions to define their success, not who they are. I’ve met some very wealthy Chinese. Many have gained and lost multiple fortunes. Seldom, however, do they define themselves by their things. In their minds, that’s just business; that’s not life.

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I’m not suggesting the Chinese are ‘better’, or even right. I do believe, however, that self-reflection is always a good thing. And there’s no better way to promote it than to immerse yourself, even temporarily, in a foreign culture. That assumes, of course, that you can do so with an open mind. If you can’t, save your money. You’ll just get frustrated.

For more about the lessons I learned in China, read my book, China – There’s Reason for the Difference. It’s available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle editions.

Contact: You may contact the author at understandingchina@yahoo.com. I am available to share my China experiences at corporate or other group events.

There are, of course, exceptions to every rule. A lot of Chinese architecture, and much of its culture, has endured for hundreds of years. That is part of the beautiful duality of China. You can never figure it out completely.
There are, of course, exceptions to every rule. A lot of Chinese architecture, and much of its culture, has endured for hundreds of years. That is part of the beautiful duality of China. You can never figure it out completely.

The Long Tail of Culture

I am intensely proud of my American heritage. To me it will always be the shining city on the hill that the ever-optimistic Ronald Reagan so powerfully referred to.

China, as I’ve so feebly attempted to articulate, is a very different place at every level. The people look and behave differently; they speak a different and difficult language; their very worldview is in many ways the polar opposite of the one I held for more than half of a century prior to moving here.

There is no escaping it.  You walk out the door in the morning and it hits you smack in the face - the difference.
There is no escaping it. You walk out the door in the morning and it hits you smack in the face – the difference.

And at first, like most Western ex-patriates living in China, I found that to be the source of great stress. There was never a break. As soon as you walk out the door or even turn on the television there it is. The difference. The difference, as I often note, between the straight line and the circle; the difference between deductive and inductive logic; the difference between Aristotle and Confucius.

After seven years, however, I must admit that I now find the opposite to be true. When I return to the U.S. I relish the clean air, the ability to drink water straight from the tap, the ease with which I can communicate with other people in my native tongue. At the same time, however, I find myself increasingly out of place. America has lost its feel of familiarity. But more than that it has lost its – what to call it – simplicity, innocence, predictability?

That’s it. Predictability. America, for me, the land of my birth, has lost its predictability.

But why?

Part of the reason, of course, is simple familiarity itself. Much of my firsthand knowledge of day-to-day America is outdated. Culturally speaking seven years is a lifetime in this day and age. I seldom even turn on the television when I go to the U.S. now, despite the seemingly infinite choice of channels, simply because the faces and the drama I find there are completely unknown to me.

Part of the reason, however, I think gets down to the fundamental issue of predictability. It’s the other side of the coin of stress, which psychologists tell us is not a function of pressure, but our sense of control, or lack thereof. People in very high-pressure jobs who nonetheless feel that the task at hand is within their abilities and the tools at their disposal may feel relatively little stress. People performing very simple and repetitive jobs, on the other hand, are often overwhelmed with stress due to their total lack of control over the work they do.

When I first arrived in China it was exotic and intense and exiting. But stressful. Because I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t understand the worldview. I was like the figurative leaf rushing through the white water rapids; exhilarated and scared and totally out of control.

It is strangely reassuring to know that everyone is going to ignore the queue you are standing in.  And if you do something about it that's perfectly okay.
It is strangely reassuring to know that everyone is going to ignore the queue you are standing in. And if you do something about it that’s perfectly okay.

Now, however, when I’m waiting in a queue and I see an old Chinese woman half my size approaching I know with calm certainty that she is going to try and cut in front of me. But I also know that if I stand my ground, and I do, that will be the end of it. A little grumbling about the size of my nose perhaps, but nothing more. Nothing personal. No hostility. I am, once again, in control. My world is predictable. I have regained a sense of order in what, at first, appeared to be sheer chaos.

Western behavior used to be equally predictable for me. Westerners are linear and absolute in their worldview, of course, so they tend to be idealists in the sense that they project ideal behavior in the face of uncertainty. They give people the benefit of the doubt. Predictability, as a result, was less urgent, less necessary.

If someone approached you in a crowd you didn’t need to give it much thought. You could generally assume they meant you no harm. They probably weren’t about to cheat you out of your spot in line. Heck, they were probably friendly.

At least that used to be the cultural norm. I wonder, however, if America isn’t losing some of that idealism, however, and, in the process, some of the predictability that goes with it.

If I’m waiting in a queue in the U.S. today I can’t be at all sure that someone won’t attempt to cut. But more importantly, when they do I’m not at all confident how to react. If I stand my ground will they react in the same way that a Chinese person would, or will there be a confrontation or conflict? And will the people around me support my move to enforce justice or will they look the other way?

I know that the price will be higher for me.  That's okay.  Because I also know that I can bargain it down and there will be no hard feelings.
I know that the price will be higher for me because I’m a foreigner. That’s okay. Because I also know that I can bargain it down and there will be no hard feelings.

Part of the change is simply a reflection of added mobility and the anonymity that enables. I grew up in a small town of a few thousand people where people left their car keys in the ignition and many homeowners had long forgotten where they left the keys to the house even if they were inclined to lock the door while away on a trip. (What if a neighbor needed to borrow some eggs?)

Those days are gone, of course, and I don’t lament them per se. The world is smaller.

The Internet, of course, has made it smaller still. You may well be reading these words at the same time as someone you’ve never met on the other side of the planet. Such is the wired world.

And one of the by-products of that connectivity is the ability for relatively small groups of people to bond over some shared passion or interest – good or evil. Marketers refer to it as selling to the long tail. The customers for your product or service may be relatively small in number and scattered across the globe. And you can, due to connectivity, create a viable commercial market that would have been financially unsustainable when connectivity was largely limited to the physical movement of goods and information.

But connectivity has also created another long tail – the tail of micro-cultures. Always the Melting Pot whose ability to assimilate diverse ethnicities and cultures was one of its great strengths, America’s extreme connectivity now enables sustainable diversity of every kind. Your physical neighbor no longer represents the community in which you live and with which you identify. They are merely someone who shares the same day for garbage collection.

Time magazine recently republished an article by Sierra Mannie entitled Dear White Gays: Stop Stealing Black Female Culture.” The point of the article was powerful and well articulated but I was horrified nonetheless. I had no idea that black women or gay white men had their own cultures. Affiliations, yes; interests, yes; shared political agendas, yes; but cultures?

When I was growing up in America your culture was generally defined by your ethnic heritage or the region of your birth. There was French culture, and New England culture, and so on. But even they generally shared a common worldview. The very reason people came to America, for the most part, was to share in that deductive worldview of cause and effect, hard work and success, talent and opportunity.

I am a foreigner in a foreign land. I don’t just believe in cultural sensitivity; I live it every day. But how can I be sensitive to so many cultures with which I have no familiarity? What do I say to a Mid-Western Buddhist black woman of French heritage with a passion for skateboarding? “Don’t worry, I’m not gay and I can’t stand up on a skateboard. I won’t steal your culture?”

China, as I’ve noted many times, is home to 56 officially recognized ethnic groups. And it is, in my experience, a people and a country that truly embraces diversity. They accept differences as a simple fact of life. I am a foreigner with a big nose and always will be. But that’s okay.  It’s who I am.

There is, nonetheless, a homogeneity to the Chinese worldview and the inductive, holistic logic on which it is based, which is genuinely reassuring in its predictability. I get it. I understand the circular cause and effect that creates logic that is, dare I say it, deductively logical.

Cause and effect. “Wherever you go, there you are.”

It makes sense. It’s predictable. And that, in itself, is quite comforting to me.

Predictability brings order even to chaos.
Predictability brings order even to chaos.

Copyright © 2014 Glassmaker in China

Notice:  The views expressed in this post are strictly those of the writer acting in a personal capacity.  They are not in any way endorsed or sanctioned by his employer or any other individual with which he may be personally or professionally affiliated.