Prepare for takeoff

Updated: 2014-09-20 11:14

By Paul Tomic(China Daily)

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Prepare for takeoff

Barry Cathey, a former senior manager of Boeing company, is an adviser on the construction of China's first major commercial airliner, the COMAC C919. [Photo by Gao Erqiang/China Daily]

Interview | Barry Cathey

Although "Citizen of the World" is one of the most overused modern phrases, it's entirely accurate when applied to Barry Cathey.

During his 64 years, the native of the US state of Louisiana has lived in Thailand, South Korea, Vietnam, Israel, The Netherlands, and France. Two years ago he decided to up sticks from his base in the US and move to China, more precisely to Shanghai where he's employed as a senior adviser on the construction of the country's first major commercial airliner, the COMAC C919.

The invitation to work in China came after Cathey succumbed to another of his frequent bouts of wanderlust and began searching for a foreign posting. Despite his extensive experience in the aviation industry, including 16 years as a senior manager for the Boeing Corporation, Cathey was initially less than hopeful of securing a job because he had been away from the industry for nine years.

However, having regained a foothold in the industry by working for the US-based manufacturer Spirit AeroSystems and updated his resume, Cathey was contacted by the Shanghai Aircraft Manufacturing Company, the owner of the Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China, or COMAC, and asked to fly to Shanghai for an interview. Having accepted a job offer, he worked on the later stages of the company's ARJ21 model, before transferring his attentions to the C919.

"I wanted to get in on the ground floor with the C919, one of the first commercial airplanes China has produced. My role on the ARJ21 was to put in place a management-operating system that would support the airplane's schedule and delivery. After that was implemented, they decided to use it in the production of the C919," he says.

Despite his enthusiasm for the role - "It's a good job. To me it's not work" - Cathey's first impressions of Shanghai left him wondering if he'd made the right decision: "I was the first American at the company, the first foreign expert, and it was a little disappointing because I couldn't speak Chinese and very few people could speak English. But as time went on and I found places to go, met people who could speak English, and we got another American here, things got a lot better. We started meeting people and now it's a 1,000 percent better. My best experience - and this is a business experience - has been putting the management system in place and training the leaders and directors in how it works.

"I guess the most exciting thing is you're coming in on the ground floor and helping China do something it's never done before. It's challenging, very challenging."

Once his initial misgivings had subsided, Cathey began to enjoy the cosmopolitan atmosphere of China's financial center: "Shanghai is a big city with a lot of people. You can do something different for a whole year and never do the same thing twice. I've now met many other foreigners, so at weekends we meet up and drink a few beers, have some chicken wings, maybe eat onion rings. We enjoy the nightlife because there are many, many places to go in Shanghai. You can go to a place every night and it will be different."

Although only a moderate, weekend drinker, Cathey has grown fond of some of the city's best-known haunts, including his three favorite bars, The Shanghai Brewery, Big Bamboo, and The Blue Frog, all well known for their eclectic mix of clientele.

"I guess it's the atmosphere - at the Shanghai Brewery you can get all types of beer they brew themselves, and you can get all the Western beers. I guess what attracts me is the people who go to those places and all the people you meet. You don't have to know them - you can just be sitting there and there will be a Chinese man or woman and you can strike up a conversation and get chatting. Pretty soon, you're chatting with them on WeChat, and you can make a lot of friends that way. There's always good mix of Chinese and Western people," he says.

However, Chinese cuisine - real Chinese cuisine as opposed to the modified dishes prepared for Western palettes overseas - was initially something he was unsure of, but the taste has grown on him: "I didn't like some of the food when I first got here, but it just takes a little bit of trying this and trying that to really get the taste of the food and understand how it's cooked, and now I enjoy Chinese food. There are some things I don't eat, but there's about 80 percent that I do."

Although, he will be 65 next birthday, Cathey is looking forward to an extended stay in China. "I'd like to stay at least another five years, if I have the opportunity to extend my stay. That's the goal I have, as long as my health holds up. I've lived in other Asian countries and I've always liked Asia. Asian people are just so warm-hearted and the job is very rewarding. I like China and I'd like to stay here," he says.

When his China odyssey does come to an end, though, he won't be heading straight back to the US. Instead, he plans to buy a sailboat and cruise around the Asian countries for a few years, especially his old stomping grounds in Vietnam and Thailand.

But for the moment, and possibly the next few years, China will be home to the man from New Orleans: "The Chinese are very warm hearted. They'll do anything for you to make you feel at home."