When I started my adventure in 2014, working in China for the German ad agency Jung von Matt, I did a lot of research. I spent countless nights reading everything that other expats and coaches had written about their experiences, their mistakes and other funny cultural incidents.
Luckily, I had also travelled for three weeks through China with my wife five years beforehand, when the idea to move to China first struck me, which brought me to Beijing, Shanghai and Hongkong. Ahead of the move, I called all of the people I had met online and offline during this first trip. So you probably believe me when I say that I thought I was really well prepared. But guess what? Not well prepared at all.
After a typical first 6-12 months, when my mind was blown away by all the little daily adventures and the crazy workload, I started to feel the first frustrations creeping in. Not because I was not prepared to avoid all the cultural sand-traps I had researched beforehand - but rather because nobody had told me how to learn to understand Chinese thinking. I spent another year using trial and error and a lot of discussions with Chinese and local friends to figure out what I was missing – apart of my lack of speaking fluent Chinese.
Don’t Just Avoid the Sand-Traps
Finally, after around two years, I stumbled upon the solution to my problem in an interview I read online. At the time, I was researching for books to read during my next vacation. In the article, which I unfortunately cannot find today, a university lecturer was complaining that most expat managers he meets do not know any basic facts about the history of China and, as case after case reveals, cannot understand the Chinese soul when it comes to any kind of decision-making. Well, I realized that I myself must have missed some important fundamentals since Chinese history is not something that’s much talked about in German history classes. Furthermore, all of my expat friends were pretty much weak on that topic too. So, I’m sure you can imagine what kind of book I decided to buy for my vacation!
After setting my challenge straight, I started to dig deeper into Chinese history and, little by little, I began to understand more. In those first two years, my leadership skills would have been much better - only with this historical context. And so, this is my general advice to anybody starting to work in a foreign country, especially one where the culture is so different like China is from Germany: Spend one day researching the usual cultural sand-traps to avoid and then take at least two weeks to read about the history of your new country. You will not only see the country in a different light, but your standing and interaction with local colleagues will improve tremendously.
Now I expect you may be quite curious about some of the interesting details from my findings? While it won’t be possible to put my own weeks of historical research into a short article, I would like to share two facts and pieces of advice. I hope you find them helpful and worthwhile at the same time.
You Cannot Argue with Unification
An all-time classic for me is the Western understanding of the status of Tibet (also of Taiwan, but that’s a bit more complex). Please, do not get me wrong – I’m a big fan of the Dalai Lama and also of human rights, but from a Chinese perspective, there is nothing to discuss. Chinese people are very proud of their country and especially of what they have achieved in their long history. That counts for their scientific achievements (like paper and gunpowder) as well as for the unification of China as a whole. This unification was such a bloody sacrifice of lives that still today, one of China’s biggest goals is to stay united, no matter what. A destiny like that of the former USSR is a nightmare for Chinese people. My learning is: Keep in mind that Chinese people will always put the integrity of China above even seemingly logical arguments. You can find a good analogy in the film, Hero, with Jet Lee, in which the protagonist, an assassin, is sent to kill the first emperor of China – who founded the Qin Dynasty (221-207 b.c.). In the end, he chooses to abandon his mission and to spare the king in order to keep the new empire together.
The Order of Problem Solving
You have probably heard of Confucius, the teacher and philosopher who has had an enormous influence on Chinese society and political thinking. I don’t want to go in-depth into his teachings, but there is one that I will mention. One of his doctrines is to have order in life as a condition for (personal) freedom. This philosophy has led over-time to a very strict cultural dynamic of “boss and subordinate”. Simply put, you should deliver what is demanded from you. However, over-time this dynamic ended up rather limiting in terms of personal freedom and decisions.
As a result of this, professional client-relationships are very often not about reaching the overarching company goal, but rather to solve the problem of your direct superior in this context. And usually, these goals are not the same. As a simple example, imagine that the best solution is the actually opposite of the brief that your project manager has received from their superior. In this case, the project manager would embarrass their boss by proposing the better solution. The boss would lose face and the solution would be rejected even if it is the best one. A better option, in this scenario, would be to deliver two solutions. One that was briefed by the boss and, as a second option, the better solution. Of course, you cannot directly state that the second one is better, but you can suggest that they consider some of the advantages of this solution allowing the boss to decide independently that this is the better choice. Sounds complicated? Well, you better get used to it.
To get you started on your own deep-dive into understanding China, I can recommend two books. Please be warned that neither of them are an easy read but will reward you with knowledge most people do not have when they start a new life in China.
China: A History, by John Keay
Contest of the Century: The New Era of Competition with China, by Geoff Dyer