A Chinese friend and colleague of mine and I were chatting over lunch not long ago about our childhoods and where we had grown up. I grew up in a small town of 3,000 in the foothills of the Adirondack Mountains of Northern New York State. Nobody ever locked their doors or took the keys out of the ignition. We had more racial and religious diversity than you might assume but little in the way of economic diversity. Some were better off than others but no gated communities and private schools were limited to those who had discipline problems and needed the strict environment of a ‘military’ school.
My Chinese friend said that he also grew up in a very small town near the Inner Mongolia region of China. There was no running water and he did not even see a train until he was 16 years old. (He learned to drive a car in his forties.) He referred to it as a ‘three shower’ village. When I asked what that meant he explained, “One shower when you are born, one when you get married, and one when you die. In between you just washed up out of a wooden bowl and went to bed hungry.”
By coincidence I had a ‘three shower’ event in my own life recently. After 8 years of running China, and then Asia, for an American multi-national company, I decided it was time for a change and turned in my resignation. The timing was right. In my experience 8 years is long enough for any company to be run by one person, I had built a management team that was a real team in more than just the modern jargon of Western business – we really had each other’s back, the China division is doing very well despite a challenging environment, and having turned 60 years old last year the hours, the evening phone conferences, and the long commute were starting to wear on me.
I started my first job as a newspaper delivery boy when I was 11 years old. That was back before your parents drove you on your route and at 5 a.m. each day I climbed aboard my bicycle, rain or shine or snow, and set off to deliver the morning news to the 70 homes on my route. And I’ve been working ever since.
Not at all a hard life compared to my Chinese friend, but a life, nonetheless, of pressure and hard work. I want a rest and plan to take some time to write and see more of China before I decide on next steps.
On that note, however, I recently had the chance to speak with a counselor. I suppose, more than anything else, I was feeling guilty about wanting to take some time off. That isn’t the American ethos I was brought up with. So, as I’ve learned is always a good idea in life, I sought some advice.
He is a Chinese doctor, educated in both in China and as a visiting scholar at Harvard. And when I explained my dilemma about what to do next in my life he listened attentively and ultimately responded, “You are thinking about this in the wrong way. You shouldn’t be thinking about what you will do next. You should be focusing on what you want to do next. People can only be happy in life when they find something that brings them joy. You left because you had lost your joy. That is understandable. China is a stressful place for foreigners to do business today and you have done it for a long time. Most foreigners last only a few years.”
We then went on to discuss options and he asked if I wanted to stay in the corporate world. I thought for a moment and noted that, “I wasn’t sure.” I explained. “When I entered the corporate world in America almost 40 years ago our mission as a company was to make better lives for our employees and their families. Our stated objective was to pay our employees more and to provide better benefits. Those were good things – signs of our corporate success.”
After a pause, “But without in any way referring to my now former employer the world has changed. The mission is now only to make more money for the company, create more shareholder value, and executives sit in meeting rooms trying to figure out how to cut costs – including wages, benefits, and jobs – to increase the stock price, which usually provides them with a better income but seldom trickles down to the lower levels of the organization.”
A further pause. “I understand how we got here and I don’t generally blame them in the least at the personal level. That is the job they are given to do and I was one of them. Still, if I lost the joy I lost it because that is not why I joined the corporate world to begin with. I joined to help families put their first child through college and perhaps have enough money to own a small cabin in the woods where they could go on summer holiday.”
He thought for a moment and after rendering a pensive smile he replied, “Unfortunately, we inherited that from the U.S. as well. Forty years ago, he noted, the skies over Beijing were as blue as blue can be. And while we were all quite poor I’m not sure we were any less happy. I believe in many ways we had better personal priorities. Life moved at a much slower pace. We spent more time with friends and families. But, alas, my business friends tell me, this is the price of progress. Now we have plenty to eat, many of us drive imported cars, and we can afford to send our children to foreign schools.”
Children, I’m sure, who have never even heard of the ‘three shower’ village.
This, I’ve decided, is why I so love China in general and diversity – gender, racial, economic, and religious – in particular. It gives you perspective. And perspective always gives you wisdom.
Which is why I plan to stay in China for as long as I can. I have served on the board of directors of four public U.S. and Canadian companies and I know that if I return to the U.S. boardroom I will never again have the honor of working alongside a man or woman from a ‘three shower’ village. And I will be less wise as a result. I will not find joy.
View the author’s literary work written under the pen name of Avam Hale. Both books are available at Amazon and most major online retailers in both electronic and print formats.
Copyright © 2015 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.