Monthly Archives: January 2017

Chinese New Year; 5 Basic Points

My first Chinese New Year was all about fireworks. I got drunk with my friends and walked around throwing cherry bombs and lighting roman candles. I was young and dumb and it seemed like a good idea at the time.

Now I realize the importance of CNY. It is the biggest holiday in China and a time for Chinese to see their families, make dumplings, and pass out red envelopes full of money.

Like many things in China, this holiday is very difficult for outsiders to understand. However, the longer I have stayed and worked in China, the more I have fully grasped the importance of the holiday. To understand CNY and its relationship to Chinese culture is important for anyone wishing to understand or do business in China.

The following five points provide some good background information about CNY. While reading them will not replace actually experiencing it, it is a useful resource nonetheless.

Lunar Calendar

Chinese New Year is the Chinese festival that celebrates the end of the start of a new Lunar year. That is why Chinese New Year and the western new year fall on different calendar dates in the Roman Catholic calendar. Chinese have up until recently followed the lunar calendar.

Ghost Town

Chinese cities become ghost towns during this festival because many Chinese make the journey back to their ancestral homes. The word lao jia, Chinese for hometown, takes on a special meaning for this reason.

Jiaozi

One of the most popular traditions during the Chinese New Year festival is to make jiaozi, Chinese for dumplings. If you are lucky enough to attend a Chinese friend’s party, then there will most certainly be plenty of jiaozi.

Annual Bonus

Traditionally Chinese businesses hand out yearly bonuses before the Chinese New Year. In this way, employees have a nice red envelope to present to their parents when they go home. This is usually between one to three months worth of wages.

Many ESL teachers and other foreigners new to China will not be included in this system. In a standard ESL package, teachers receive the equivalent of a cheap plane ticket back home, (around 6-7 thousand RMB). Of course, it is better to work within the Chinese system because you will earn much more.

Therapeutic Festival

Chinese New Year is a much needed cooling off period for those working in the middle kingdom. Often you will find that bosses and such will quarrel with one another the closer the holiday becomes. This is because it is the time when employees receive their annual performance reviews.
An old China hand once told me, “Just leave it for now. Everyone will be more chilled out after the New Year.” and he was right. My boss was fighting with her boss and I was somehow stuck in the middle of it all. In the end, the vacation and therapeutic nature of the festival cooled everyone down.   

Pros and Cons of Teaching ESL Abroad

It was the summer of 2013 and I had just graduated from the local university. My job prospects were bleak, a sales position at a paint supply company, a call center job, and an unpaid internship with the local radio station.

I was young and optimistic. Years ahead of me and no certain plan. Ready for something more than my small town could offer. Somewhere in that hazy memory of my college days I remembered a professor that had gotten her start teaching English abroad.

I did some online research and applied to a number of different schools around the world. In the end I got a job offer to work at an English training school in Beijing, China. I applied for a visa and bought a plane ticket. So in late August, when my friends were enjoying their last days at the beach, I was landing in the China’s capital city for the first time.

Since that time a lot has changed. I don’t teach anymore but I do work in education. I don’t regret my decision today, but there have been many times in the past when I doubted it; the types of questions that pop up on cold and lonely nights in a foreign city.

Anyhow, when I look at the decision rationally it’s pretty easy to see that it was right for me at that time in my life. However, I don’t hold any illusions that teaching ESL abroad is the right choice for everyone. The following are some pros and cons you can read and use to reflect if the decision is right for you.

Pros

  1. Good work life balance.

Teaching ESL offers a comfortable work like balance for competent teachers. For most people, it seems that it takes between six months and one year to go from a novice to a halfway competent teacher. Once you understand the basics of your school’s curriculum, methodology, and expectations, then you will have a fairly cushy job.

The most important thing is that your students are showing documented progress and the parents are happy. If you can get these two things correct then your school will love you. Actually, it’s quite possible that just the second criteria will do, depending on the school.

  1. Integrate with locals.

Teaching ESL provides you an opportunity to make friends with the locals and integrate into their culture. This is great because normally travelers don’t have many opportunities to experience the authentic and contemporary culture of the place they are visiting.

While in Beijing I have met and made friends with many Chinese from both Beijing and other provinces in China. This has given me a much deeper understanding of China. Furthermore, the locals don’t move around as much as your fellow foreign teachers, and therefore some relationships have had the potential to develop into deep friendships as I have stayed put.

  1. Develop transferable skills

Developing your skills as an ESL professional also develops your transferable skills. Good ESL teachers know how to prepare a class, plan a lesson, develop curriculum, conduct assessments, and coordinate parent teacher meetings. You will also learn how to take care of yourself in a challenging environment and develop cross cultural competency.

  1. Professional opportunities

Working in a foreign country means you will be privy to many professional opportunities that others would not have available to them. Although some people may think that “being a teacher” limits where you can move, I have found this not to be the case.

A lot of ESL teachers use the profession as a way to change their physical location. This is different from teaching in the traditional sense of a career profession. If you are willing to work hard, develop a network, and commit to one location for a longer period of time than you will improve your chances for moving into another profession.

  1. Valuable Life Experience

Teaching ESL is both a challenge and gift that will provide anyone with a valuable life experience. Think of Bilbo Baggins from Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Bilbo, the comfortable hobbit, wanted nothing of the adventure that Gandalf was pushing on him. He resisted and resisted, until one day, he became the hero. Many ESL teachers’ growth trajectories mimic this same pattern of resistance and growth.

A lot of people fail. A lot of people give up, break their contract, and move back home. The challenges to living abroad are many. However, the ones that persevere and take ownership over their decisions are the ones that take away the most from the experience.

Cons

  1. 6-12 month integration period

It will take 6-12 months before you feel decently integrated in your host culture. All of the time in the beginning will be focused on learning how to teach ESL, developing relationships, and understanding how to properly navigate your host culture.

When I first moved to China I would sit in my bedroom and write Chinese characters over and over again. Chinese, I would think, is basically impossible to learn and I would do so much better studying something useful like stock analysis or building a business. I should just quit, accept I was wrong, and go back home.

Luckily I didn’t quit. I didn’t want to admit I was wrong. Yes, it was very hopeless for me in the beginning. However, it did get better.

  1. Cultural differences are hard

ESL teachers that move abroad to teach must deal with cultural differences every day. Every country and group of people has their own set of rules and customs. It can be quite difficult to understand and live under alongside these rules.

Chinese spit and cut in line. They don’t say things straight to your face because they think it’s rude. They yell at waiters to get their food faster. These are all examples of the cultural differences that I have had to understand and adapt to.

  1. Homesickness and separation from family

ESL teachers that move to foreign countries to teach will most likely miss their family, friends, and native culture. Oftentimes we don’t realize these things until we are abroad, and we literally can’t call someone without the internet or meet someone for a meal. For many people, this is a deal breaker and will hold them back from moving away. You need to do what’s right for you.

  1. Learning a language requires a lot of time

A big part of cultural integration is learning how to speak your host countries language. However, learning a language, especially for adults, requires a serious commitment of time. There is no way around it. A lot of adults find this too difficult and end up not learning much of the language at all. While this is understandable, it is also stressful when you can’t do basic things like set up your phone or internet without calling in a favor from a friend or coworker.

If you aren’t willing to put in the time, be prepared to ask someone to do stuff for you all the time, or get nothing done on your own.

  1. Legal Challenges

As mentioned in point 2, teaching abroad means you will be living and working under a new set of rules. More than just cultural differences, ESL teachers will also need to operate within a completely sepereate legal code. Not understanding your host countries legal system is costly and stressful.

(Sidenote- you also need to understand the people’s attitude towards the law in your host culture.)
“But it wasn’t in the contract!” yells the stereotypical ESL teacher asked to speak with a parent last minute, as the training school’s sales rep stares at him with narrow eyes. No, it wasn’t in the contract, she thinks. But neither was that iced Frappuccino I bought you earlier in the morning, and I didn’t hear you complaining then.

How to Develop Good Relationships in a Chinese Company

 

Guanxi (关系) is the Chinese word for relationship. In China, relationships are everything. The word Guanxi, is as nuanced and deep as an American’s attachment to the idea of Freedom.

The topic of relationships in China is a big one. For the purpose of this post I will just discuss it within the context of the workplace. Specifically, how to understand and manage your relationships with Chinese coworkers while working in a Chinese company.

I have worked full time in China since 2013. During this time I have made bonehead mistakes which made me want to buy the first plane ticket home. You don’t have to make those mistakes, well, at least not as obtusely as me.

Why Your Guan Xi Is Important

Did I mention relationships are important in China? Let me reiterate… relationships are very important in China. You need them to secure pay raises and better jobs. You need them to bypass troublesome corporate bureaucracy. Having good relationships in this context is like spraying a rusty nail with WD-40 before removal.  

I am not suggesting that relationships in China can replace your actual work output (although you could make that argument…). It is merely a strong suggestion that paying attention to this area throughout your China career will help to make you an effective and productive member of the workplace.

The following five points are suggestions to help you develop better relationships with your coworkers. 

  1. Choose the time and place to disagree. Know when to stay quiet and speak up.

When you disagree with a coworker, think very carefully about how to present this to him or her. The worst thing you can do is to make him or her lose face in front of everyone. One on one discussions and talks over messaging services are a great way to present your point respectfully.

You also need to understand hierarchy and your relationship to it. If causing a co worker to lose face is a bad idea, think about what it would mean to your boss. I have seen many foreigners put themselves in very awkward positions by calling out their bosses in front of everyone. Don’t try it. You are not different.

  1. Know when to say no. 

As a general observation, working in a Chinese company means that your job description is much more flexible than if you were at a western company. This means that you need to set your boundaries early on about what you will and will not do.

Early on in my career I thought the only way to get ahead was to work more than everyone else. Therefore, I always accepted the extra jobs my bosses wanted to give me.

I gained a lot of experience, but I also worked for five months straight nonstop. My personal life suffered and I almost went mental. That was how I learned the importance of setting boundaries in the context of working as a foreigner in a Chinese organization.

The silver lining here is that because you are a foreigner it is easier to duck out of these supposedly “mandatory” commitments. This is called using the “Chinese no” and I will talk about it in the next point.

  1. Learn how to give the “Chinese no”.

In America people, for the most part, understand and respect a firm no without any other excuses. However, in China it is often considered rude to simply state that you won’t or don’t want to participate in something. This goes back to face. People lose face if you tell them their activity is not worth the time.

Learning how to say no in Chinese is the best way to deal with this. Basically what I mean here is to simply make up an excuse that both of you know is not true. One that I often use is that I have a date with my girlfriend and she would really kill me if I don’t go. Another good “Chinese no” is, ironically, to say you have Chinese language class.

It is important to note here that you are not being rude. Sometimes people from the West are confused about this. That is because truth is relative to culture. Giving these kinds of excuses is just the proper way to say no in Chinese culture.

  1. Help your coworkers with English.

As a foreigner, a lot of times I feel my bosses don’t know how to manage my workload properly. This means that I need to take a more proactive approach towards helping my team.

What your boss and coworkers really want is for you, as the Foreign Expert, to help them develop their global reach. 

What your boss and coworkers really want you, a Foreign Expert, is for them to help the company develop more internationally. They don’t want to change the actual working process.

A good way to help a Chinese company develop more of an international flavor is to help your department with their English (assuming you have a good handle of the language). After all, English is the language of commerce. So, when coworkers ask you language questions or to help them edit documents, help them! That is why you are there.

I emphasize this point because often foreigners don’t feel like they need to help with this. After all, it wasn’t written specifically in their job description when they were hired. (Believe me, I am  no saint here). However, a little good faith and twenty minutes out of your day is not going to kill you. After all, these little transactions are the basis for how all relationships begin to grow.

  1. Share your snacks.

Speaking of small transactions as the basis for growing all relationships…. In China, these transactions are often skewed towards the edible.

One curious habit of working in a Chinese office is that your coworkers will constantly share their snacks within the department, and with a more select group of “friends”. This is a subtle, yet important detail to both know and employ.

Participating in the communal sharing of food will improve your relationships by showing both your understanding and fluency in Chinese culture.

Although I still find it odd to share my own treats, I do make an effort every couple of weeks to pass around a small snack likes cookies or something else. The neutral territory of snacks shows that I both understand Chinese culture and am interested in being part of the community (albeit on my terms).  

A side note is that in my early days I was very gungho about being seen as a Sinophile. One evening, when my department and I were working overtime, I went downstairs and bought everyone fancy drinks from Starbucks. When I offered the drinks to my coworkers I was dismayed to see a mixture of both embarrassment and confusion.
Reflection on this event has led me to the conclusion that my coworkers thought the gift was too extravagant and, most likely, they didn’t like coffee in the first place. When passing out snacks it is a good rule of thumb to keep it low key. Fruits, chocolates, or cookies work nicely.

Nian Hui; Annual Parties in China

Nian Hui( 年会)  is the Mandarin word for a company’s annual party. They are big company parties that happen at the end of the Lunar Calendar, right before Chinese New Year, the largest and most important festival in Chinese culture.

This means that they normally take place in second or third week of January. Close enough to the new year that it feels relevant, yet with enough space before so that those leaving for vacation are able to attend.

What Happens?

The Nian Hui is basically a company show where everyone goes to a conference center, sits with their department, and watches about three to four hours of speeches and acts. The CEO, along with other figureheads, will pontificate about what great progress was made throughout the past year and all of their great plans to come. After and throughout all of this everyone is encouraged to cheer and support the company in quintessential Chinese style.

Those higher up will also dress up and participate in silly performances. This is one of the most curious aspects of the Nian Hui. For example, Jack Ma, CEO of world famous Alibaba, once dressed up as a woman for a performance. Although most executives do not go as far, participation in song and dance by higher level employees is ubiqiutious.

Those on the lower rungs follow suit by coming together and creating smaller performances. Women have a tendency to lean towards more sexual dances. Men enjoy drama productions of their favorite reality TV shows.

Why Do They Have It?

It is important to understand the Nian Hui if you want to understand Chinese culture. Like many things here, it’s all about face. The company can gain face by showing all the employees how strong they are through a number of different criteria, such as location, facilities, presentation, and quality of food.

A Nian Hui that does well in these areas will give the company a lot of face. Employees will feel that the organization is strong enough to weather a storm and will be able to provide a good future. If it does not do well in these areas, well, mutiny- or at least abandonment- could be imminent.  

The longer I work in China, the more I dread going to these events. And it’s not just about being a foreigner either. Chinese and Foreign Experts alike both experience the same feeling of being dragged to a stuffy location and twiddling their thumbs for an evening. Most of the time, everyone feels like they are being indoctrinated by company propaganda.

Often at a Nian Hui, you will hear lines such as “We are the best company in the industry this year. Next year we will be even better. Who is with me? Our company is the most innovative and will out work all the others!”

The thing is, though, that employees don’t care about the long term portfolio performance of the company they work for. It just doesn’t effect them in any tangible way. The thing that is really important to them is their salary, benefits, and daily work lives. It is not so complicated. But these events often go so far into the bigger picture of the company that the worker bees are entirely left out.

If the food is poor and the words are stale, well, these events more often than not become quite a drag. It’s not that the staff doesn’t enjoy their jobs; it’s just that this type of event is very out of date in a workforce that is increasingly educated and self-aware.

Not to suggest that the Nian Hui is all bad. Seeing your bosses and coworkers get a little silly makes them more human. During the performance, the executives will comes around and toast everyone. Not because they enjoy it, but because it’s what they are supposed to do. The workers drink with them for the same reason.

The core tradition is strong, however it is becoming obvious to everyone that the format is more outdated every year.

6 Mandarin Learning Aids for Noobs

6 Mandarin Learning Aids for Noobs

When I first started learning Mandarin back in 2013 I had no idea what I was doing. I was preparing to move to Beijing in the fall. I had gotten a job teaching English. I lived in a small New England town and everyone was white.

The only thing I knew about China was that they liked the color red.

Now I speak Mandarin with my colleagues at work. I have passed the HSK 4 and I am preparing for my HSK 5. I have lived in Beijing for over three years.

Sometimes I forget how hard learning Mandarin was in the beginning. This post is for those noobies just starting out, just like me back then in that small New England town.

There is no magic pill when learning a language. Actually, in a lot of ways it’s more similar to developing muscle memory than anything else. However, quality learning aids are still essential in helping the learner to understand the rules of the language.

Here is a list of six quality learning aids for those beginning to study Mandarin.
  1. Chinese Forums. Chinese Forums is perhaps the most popular resource for Chinese language learners today. Specifically their forums offer a wealth of information on language, cultural, and other practical matters.
  2. Chinese Grammar Wiki A lot of people say that Chinese grammar is simple. That simply isn’t true. Chinese Grammar is complex in it’s own way and you NEED to understand the rules. Otherwise you will sound like a fool.
  3. Yellow Bridge. You can use your mouse to draw characters in this online dictionary. Highly useful if you don’t want to fork out the $35 dollars to upgrade your Pleco App.
  4. Memrise. Memrise is a flashcard website that also has a great App. It allows you to enroll in courses that other users create, create your own courses, and compete with your friends.
  5. Hanban The official website of the Confucius Institute, the Chinese Government’s organization for Mandarin language learning and the HSK (the most internationally recognized test for Mandarin proficiency).
  6. CUCAS. Short for the Chinese University and College Admission System, this is the online database and application form for studying in China. While this site is notoriously finicky, it does have a solid database and online application service.

I have wasted a lot of time sifting through the internet in search of quality learning aids for studying Mandarin. This short list contains most information you will need as you progress in your studies.

It should be noted that these are learning aids. They are only useful after you have put in the work. I, for example, found the Grammar Wiki extremely useful while studying for my HSK 4. It helped to explain specific grammar points better than any teacher or Chinese friend.

So, get out there! Go through some textbooks and underline all the words you don’t know. Use those words to make flashcards. Take a Chinese friend out for lunch. Only after you start dealing with the language will you need these resources.

KPI’s and your CNY Bonus

China, the land of tests. The end of the lunar year is approaching and everyone in China is busy readying themselves for their annual performance reviews. Since being in China 3+ years I have gradually become accustomed to the peculiarities which come about at this time of year.

For one thing, grading an individual’s performance in a corporation is very difficult. That would mean the person doing the grading actually knows what you are doing. Possible, yes, but in these large cubicle farms where most of us spend the majority of our lives it does prove to be quite a difficult task.

This means that for a manager to actually give you a fair grade they would need to understand your job, perhaps not as in depth as you, but thorough nonetheless. In this way they would have a standard in their mind for which they could grade you against. However, as we know, managers are often placed in their positions bilaterally rather than “working their way up”.

Moreover the sheer number of people in one’s department can contaminate the grader’s valuable brain bandwidth. Groups of 10, 20, 50 people per group must all be graded. How are the leaders of these groups supposed to execute a task using the same methodology in the same time.

Well, from my experience in China the answer to this question is to simply cut all the formalities out of it and go on your gut. More pessimistic people might say, political or social capital. Whatever the case, Chinese managers spend more time thinking about how much the individual has done for them the past year, than for their job in relation to the KPI.

So, it’s smoggy out and everyone is nervous, biting their fingernails about how much money they will have to bring home to their in laws, stash away at the bank, or blow on nights at the local KTV over the holiday.

The ones who are not nervous are the ones that have been waiting in the shadows all this time. Side stepping useful decisions in favor of ones that make them look good. Going out to lunch with the boss. Working overtime for free. They are happy because they know that all those hours and repressed rages they have put in over the year, it will finally pay off.

And why shouldn’t it? They played the game, now they should be rewarded. All of the others made a decision that their free will was more important than the shackles of a grade.

It seems a bit ironic that even out of school we are cowering at the site of a grade. Chinese in particular were brought up this way and it almost seems as if the corporation is just a continuation of the original system in which they were indoctrinated.

You want to go to college? Make sure you do well on the tests. You want to get a good New Year’s bonus? Make sure you have a good relationship with your boss.

I don’t necessarily think either of these two things are wrong in themselves. Both standardized tests and relationship management is a valuable skill in a persons life. However, it would seem to me, that these two things are very easy to distract a person from life’s real goal, whatever that may be.

I guess I am biased. I was even tempted to use the word holistic in that last sentence. But I didn’t. I stuck it out.

Whatever the case is, I still live here and participate in their system. As foreigners, I believe that it’s important to remind ourselves that it’s neither our country nor our rules. We need to keep that in mined if we are to have any semblance of sanity in 2017. 

My New Year’s Resolution

Happy New Year everyone. Hoping your 2017 is better, or at least as good, as your 2016.

As for me, many things stay the same this year. My resolution, if you want to call it that, is to continue to build skills, understand myself emotionally, and commit to lasting friendships.

The older I get, the more I realize the importance in building skills. It is the first step to anything great. The ability to write, paint, keep the books, dance, all are valuable skills in their own right.

Nowadays we want everything so fast. We want the fancy car because it looks nice. We want the girlfriend or boyfriend because we feel lonely. We want to be rich because, well, we deserve it. However, it would seem to me that this automatic satisfaction is not only unrealistic, but unwise.

The most important thing is to focus on the little things. Whether it is career oriented skills, emotional understanding of yourself, or simply friendships. That is the beginning, yet it is so humble that I myself haven often forgotten it’s importance in the past.

In 2017 I will continue to focus on these three areas of my life. Skills, emotional understanding, and simple friendships. Is this a resolution? Well, not quite, but I guess you could say that if you wanted to. It is more like a promise to myself that I will continue to back my own understanding of the world. Belief in hard work and helping others. Nothing fancy.

China is polluted today. I woke up on the first day of 2017 and saw gray soup outside of my window. It even read 500+ PM2.5 on the meter. The challenge is, as it always has, to remain positive in light of all these external factors. Stay the course and stick to the fundamentals.

Faith, it would seem, is at same time both the most illusory and least dispensable factor in our lives.

Wishing you and yours health and prosperity in the New Year!