SmartIntern China Career Case Studies are designed to provide students, interns and young professionals with first-hand knowledge and actionable advice on how to build a career in Shanghai and other cities in China.
Eric McGraw is the owner of Laonei Global Trade Consulting and is also a lecturer at The Ohio State University in cross-cultural business skills. Eric is fluent in mandarin and has many years of experience in Shanghai, Wuhan and Mainland China. Check out the following interview for some concrete advice geared towards those looking for more tips and inspiration in starting their China career!
SmartIntern: Why China?
Eric: I always say that China chose me. It was all about fit really. I was studying conflict resolution and negotiation in graduate school when I went to China for the first time. I luckily realized there are a lot of opportunities for Americans (and other non-Chinese) who could speak Chinese and who could understand the China business environment.
How did you get your start working in China?
I started as an English teacher at Wuhan University but always maintained the focus of stepping back into the business world. I helped a number of companies in Wuhan develop good sales and marketing pitches for foreign audiences and built on that. At a speaking event I met someone who was already doing what I wanted to do and introduced myself. I told them I would learn Chinese and be a good resource a few years down the road. Fast forward 4 years and I received a call asking if I could help with a couple of projects. I moved to Shanghai in 2010 and started working full time.
How important is it to speak Mandarin if you want to secure a job in China?
There is a continuous debate about this and my vote is for very important. You could probably get by without it, but it’s just getting by. In every work setting you are going to run into all sorts of conflict, especially in a multicultural setting, and it will be very useful to be able to handle differences, understand different perspectives and work through them. From a relationship perspective it can only help you build trust and rapport with native Chinese. Language and culture are married together in a multitude of ways so any opportunity to learn Chinese is going to assist you in your day-to-day life in China.
What industries would you recommend a young expat in China look into?
The medical industry is booming in China and the US so I would start there. A lot of foreign investment firms are in Shanghai so if you’re into numbers there’s are many opportunities. But really, if you have a good grasp of computer programming or design you’re going to get some chances in China because both big and small firms are around. I’m a big believer in trying a variety of things to find out what you like so take a few opportunities and build on that. You might not like them all but you gain something from them all.
What industries do you not recommend for foreigners? Why wouldn't you recommend them?
Well a lot of the State Owned Enterprises (SOE) own the market so if you’re working in those industries (telecom, petrochemical, transportation, etc) you’ll always have that shadow over you, even if you’re working for a joint venture. The construction and real estate industries are also heavily regulated and protected. The China Stock Markets are still very unstable and shady so I’d avoid them. Industry aside, remember that many companies aren’t accustomed to having foreign employees, so be sure you ask a lot of job-specific and goal-specific questions during your interview to flush out how much structure you’ll have in your job.
What Tier 2 cities would you recommend a foreigner check out?
I started in Wuhan and always say it’s a great reference point to really understand China. Nothing too flashy but it’s about as Chinese as you can get. Chongqing has a similar reputation and is upstream. After visiting Dalian, Xiamen, Nanjing and Kunming I all thought they would be great environments to study and live if I had to do it all over again.
What are there differences you discovered in Chinese vs. Western office culture, and how can a young American or foreigner prepare for this?
Every day in an office brings ambiguity, especially as a young intern learning the company culture and the company system, so dealing with that is a big issue. In a China office you will often be told to “handle it” with no clear direction on how to do it. Asking more questions only leads to more ambiguous answers. This can be very frustrating when you’re used to a Western environment where there is more collaboration during a project (email updates, more feedback, etc). The best way to handle this is to stop and think about the context of the work required. Also, realize that Chinese bosses don’t want to lose face in front of other staff, so asking direct questions about something, when in truth your boss or supervisor doesn’t know the answer, can create a tense situation. If you are truly confused, go one on one with your boss or co-worker to see if you can get more information. Work the side channels.
Also, realize that it takes a while to be included into the social circle of a Chinese office, especially if you’re the lone foreigner. Do your best to meet everyone, learn their names, and be a good sport when they invite your out to karaoke.
What is a skill you developed in China that couldn’t be easily obtained back home?
I think having direct experience in a foreign language and culture allows me to see things differently than the average American, especially when meeting and interacting with people from different parts of the world. I think with that type of background you are better at solving problems and handling other viewpoints and ideas.
How do you balance a China-specific skillset with one that translates overseas?
It’s all about how you sell your skills to various cultures. There was an article a few years back in Fast Company magazine that discussed the idea of Generation Flux, meaning after the financial crisis period business has changed and adaptability is key. Since then I’ve continue to hone my skills in a way that would translate to other markets, one from an output perspective (creating content specific for that culture) and two from a personal network perspective. If you have contacts/mentors who can appreciate your China experience then they’ll be your advocates.
How can the skills and experiences you gained in China transition back to the US?
Slow and steady. If you’re not lucky enough to land a job in New York or DC right away, you might find yourself in a job that might not be China-centric or global enough. This is an opportunity to help that business or organization obtain more of a global mindset. A lot of people in the US are curious about the world and you become one more person in the circle capable of doing it.
Why is it important for young foreigners to gain job experience in China?
To live and work in country while the whole world is watching is always going to be something to experience. You’ll experience first-hand the sights and sounds, as well as have the opportunity to meet and network with Chinese and non-Chinese alike, which can only help you in your career plans. In addition, foreign companies cannot discount the China market in their global expansion plans, so it’s vital to have someone with experience there. And finally, a lot of the market trends in China are actually happening in US markets now, so you could take that insight and help apply that back home or somewhere else.
What are two or three major things you’ve learned in China that others can use to start or further their career?
Hard work and hustle is essential in the business world in China, and that hustle will help you no matter where you go. You have to be very disciplined in both Chinese study and acquiring cultural intelligence, which is time consuming and frustrating at times. It will pay off. And finally, do not forget to be kind to people, no matter where they are from and what their native language is. Talk to and learn from the people you meet abroad because your life will be all the better for it.
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