Four Chinese Cities, Part 2

Shanghai shop

Jerri’s story

Part one deals with Jerri’s experiences in Shenyang and Zhengzhou. Here she talks about Shanghai. Jerri kindly provided all the photos.


In Shanghai I worked with a language training company that contracted teachers out to multinational corporations. I was sent to company which was a joint venture with Shanghai Alcatel, a big French and Italian company, and Bell, the American company. We were told, “Our Chinese engineers are some of the brightest we have globally, but they’re not being recognized. In fact, we’re even considering downsizing our department because the engineers won’t say anything in our weekly video conferences. We’ll give you three months to get them participating at a level with their peers.” I immediately discovered the problem was absolutely not the language. They could all talk about engineering all day long, but because of their culture they would never disagree even indirectly with someone they perceived as being superior to them or even equal. It meant such a loss of face both for themselves and for those they were disagreeing with. They would never interrupt. Their foreign counterparts were from Italy, France, Germany and America. They could understand the Americans fairly well, the Italians less, and they really struggled to understand the Germans and the French.

It was very much against their culture to ask someone to speak slower or repeat something. So the first thing I did was give them different ways of doing that. I really went overboard with the politeness because otherwise they just wouldn’t have done it. “Excuse me, please, could you repeat that?” “I’m sorry to interrupt, but I didn’t understand.” Then I taught them how to repeat back what they understood and ask if they had it right.

Shanghai view

Then we described national stereotypes and discussed whether they fit their peers—most of the time they did—and actual business practices in each of these cultures. For example, the Americans would interrupt and disagree no matter who was talking. The Italians would be very emotional, talking with their hands and shouting one minute and perfectly happy the next. The French were also very passionate about what they were saying but not nearly as dramatic. The Germans were very serious and controlled. Then we role-played. We’d have four teams, one from each nationality. They’d act out their colleagues’ behavior, laugh hysterically and afterwards talk about what they’d learned. The Chinese team would work hard to interrupt, to express their opinions and to ask for clarity on things. The class got much better very quickly.

But they still struggled trying to understand their colleagues with thick accents. They would be so embarrassed about having asked once that they wouldn’t ask again. Finally, we asked the team leader to have someone take minutes which could be reviewed after the meeting and checked for points they might have missed. Then the Chinese had another meeting among themselves to see if one person got something the others missed.

Shanghai neon

It was a fun class, but intense because they knew they had a lot riding on it. They were very intimidated by the video camera, so we even did the role-plays with the camera running. In the end the engineers could participate more, and the bosses were pleased. Although of course the students would never behave like the Americans or the Italians.

I worked with employees from an Irish investment bank, which I enjoyed because of my background in finance and economics. I worked with six analysts, each studying the stocks of a different industry all over the country. They flew out to the mines or out to the factories for interviews, and in class they discussed how they thought the stocks of a particular company would do. Their English was quite good because they had had a year’s training in Ireland, but their vocabulary was limited. I gave them some more stock market terms so they could make their reports less repetitive and more interesting. In a lot of Chinese companies people don’t have the experience and background to understand financial fundamentals, like what makes their stock go up or down in price. But these guys did, so I enjoyed getting information about different companies within China.

I didn’t buy any stock. I was never able to figure out the best way to buy on the Shanghai Stock Exchange. It was difficult just to set up an account. A lot of companies traded on the New York Stock Exchange or NASDAQ, but those were the more established ones. The up‑and‑coming companies were—I’m not sure I would buy them because they were usually owned in part by one of the big state-owned companies. Accounting was not very strict. The losses were siphoned off and given to the big parent company, and all the gains given to the little public company. It looked like the public company was making large profits when in fact it might be losing a lot. All this is even less open now than it used to be because they’ve been subjected to international pressure to become more transparent. Now they hide it better. I asked an economist at a big investment bank, “How do you make predictions based on information you know has been exaggerated one way or the other?” He just said, “We have mechanisms to take that into account.”

Shanghai at night

I worked for a big shipping company that brought heavy equipment into and out of China. Those employees loved their jobs except for the fact that when they reached a certain level they couldn’t advance any further without spending two years in Norway. None of them took their families along. That seemed to be the norm for companies requiring their executives to go overseas, I think because the Chinese wanted to be near the extended family, the grandparents. There were some who didn’t go, but there were others who did everything in their power to go overseas or get their children to go. It seemed once they had good jobs within multinational companies they felt confident enough about their future that they didn’t need to go abroad.

What started happening in China—and maybe it was happening all along but the corporations were just realizing the extent of it—was that it became really difficult to keep key Chinese executives. Everybody’s dream job was to work for a multinational, but after they got the job they only stayed for a year or two. Then they either went back home to start their own business or did it in Shanghai or Shenzhen or Beijing. Maybe while they were working they’d given inside information to a brother-in-law with a similar business nearby. So the big companies were really struggling to keep their senior management. The multinationals went from having all expat managers to hiring more Chinese managers, and then they were considering going back the other way. By the time people learned all their ways and methods, they were gone.

A lot of former executives were moving back home because their families were there. While they were working in the city they were able to buy a big house, maybe set up a factory. They were able to do a lot in a short period of time on the higher salaries. Of course that was changing too as inflation took over. A couple of years ago when the economy was slammed, a lot of factories closed down or cut the hours back. Ordinary workers couldn’t make as much money. At Spring Festival a lot of them went home and stayed there. Even low-level workers had been able to take enough skills and enough money back to their villages to start their own businesses—maybe with friends. As the economy picked back up, the companies had such labor shortages that they would drive out to the villages, offer people good wages, put them in a bus and bring them back to the city. It really changed the dynamics to some degree. Now there were more jobs inland, outside of the really developed coastal areas, it was harder to get workers in the cities.

In 2006 I taught mid- and senior-level Chinese executives at Motorola. I was teaching English, but I was mostly teaching culture and how to deal with their foreign bosses. I got to be good friends with a man who was just a delight. He wanted me to help him find some investors for a business he was trying to start, so he took me out for a dinner and tea at a really high-end tea house. We got there about six o’clock, and we stayed until about one in the morning talking about all kinds of things. In class I had asked the students to talk events which had shaped their lives in unexpected ways. He’d said that in 1989 he was one of only a handful of students who’d been granted permission to go to England to study. Then the pro-democracy movement in Tiananmen Square took place and the subsequent crack-down, and he was unable to go. He said that had shaped his life more than anything. He got a job with an economics development group, then became one of the first mainland Chinese to work with Motorola. He was sent to Hong Kong for five years. Hong Kong was more Western then, and at that point, it was the most Western experience he’d had. Afterwards he returned to Shanghai. He always regretted not being able to leave and experience the rest of the world, which his parents had encouraged him to do.

During the Cultural Revolution his parents were university professors. He said it was terrible. Everyone was encouraged to speak out and to criticize, but his parents never would. They just kept their heads down. They were able to keep their jobs, but none of their friends were. Some of them died, and some were sent for relocation and reeducation. His parents taught the sciences—nothing about philosophy, nothing political. They lost a lot of esteem during that time because they wouldn’t speak out for or against anything. I think he was ashamed that his parents hadn’t spoken out, but it was more internalized shame about that whole period of time. By the time it was all over none of his friends remained in Shanghai and none of them continued with their education. They were all relocated somewhere else.

As this conversation progressed, he hung his head lower and lower. I watched as this sophisticated, well-educated, successful man withdrew physically into himself and closed down with shame and fear. It was amazing. I changed the topic right away, but during that evening he never again completely regained his confidence. It was as though after almost twenty years it still shook him to that degree. That experience of watching him was my most memorable from my time in China. He was the only mainland Chinese who ever spoke to me about Tiananmen or the Cultural Revolution. Other people knew there had been a student revolt, but no one knew much about it until years later. Later I talked to another guy who was actually at Tiananmen Square.

It was interesting to compare him to the students I’d taught at the university just three years before. They couldn’t comprehend that anything bad had ever happened in China. The pro-democracy crackdown and the Cultural Revolution were never taught. Their parents had been through the Cultural Revolution but they didn’t talk about it. A friend of mine at an international university in Thailand had students from all over Asia. He taught sociology. Every semester he showed a clip of the 1989 events in Tiananmen Square. He said the Chinese students never failed to come up to him afterwards and say, “Teacher, did those things really happen in China? Are you sure those things really happened?” “Yes, that was the actual news of the event.” He said some students left in tears, and that was without knowing what their parents had experienced during the Cultural Revolution.