Understanding the differences

Updated: 2013-05-17 09:47

By LeonTina Heffernan (China Daily)

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Creating a happy, welcoming environment is crucial for attracting more expatriates to China

"Women xiang ge banfa ba." Armed only with this phrase, a tourist visa and $300, I arrived in China in 2001, fresh out of university and ready for a new adventure.

I had not undergone an aptitude test to determine whether I was up to the challenge of life in a new country. My only preparation was an introductory course in Mandarin and my teacher's advice that the phrase "Let's think of a way" would have the power to turn an all-too-frequently heard "meiyou" (don't have) into a "you" (have) or a "no" into a "yes".

I had no idea how essential those few words would become as I negotiated the cultural challenges and bureaucratic obstacles that came with living in southwestern China, Guangzhou and later Shanghai.

Over the subsequent decade they helped me to secure casual jobs to supplement my meager student allowance, to obtain permission to move cities during SARS, and eventually to leverage my language skills and fast track onto a career path that would never have been possible back home. Those words also reflected the flip side of challenge and hardship in a China that was becoming an increasingly important world player: opportunity.

And where sacrifices can be exchanged for a decent measure of opportunity whether for career advancement or financial reward there will be expats willing to make them.

Young graduates are arriving in China's first-tier cities in droves: "self-initiating expats" (otherwise known as "half-pats") willing to take a chance and work hard in return for low wages and the promise of self-advancement.

China's new status as an attractive destination for expats has led to claims that China is no longer a hardship posting that can justify the hefty remuneration packages traditionally offered to expatriate professionals. But with 12 percent of international expatriate assignments considered to be failures, academic research suggests that, in China, desire does not necessarily translate into success.

This seems to be for two main reasons. First, a lack of appropriate support to help newly posted expats to establish a social network crucial for their psychological wellbeing can lead to an employee ending their stint in China prematurely. The ability of expats to adjust to a new environment is vital.

Secondly, deep-rooted China-specific cultural considerations like connections and face can influence the outcomes of negotiations and the success of relationships.

Expats are more likely now than ever to travel to farther-flung parts of the country, and as they leave first-tier cities they find that much of China hasn't evolved at the same pace. Traditional values and ways of doing business still dominate, giving rise to the mantra among expats that "Shanghai is not China".

Many young "half pats" simultaneously envy "real" expats for their remuneration packages and deride them for their lack of cultural and linguistic understanding, but I was forced to recognize the reality that, while language skills might offer a foot in the door, they did not make up for a lack of industry or management experience.

My view of hardship and my incentives to remain an expat have changed dramatically since 2001 as my personal goals and circumstances have changed. As a student in a backwater town, I almost savored financial insecurity and daily inconveniences as character-building experiences.

Today, my idea of major inconvenience is a domestic flight without wine and I'm sure I would no longer cope well with being hounded by members of English Corners eager to improve their English.

But the nature of expat life has changed, too. At a trendy coffee shop in Shanghai, my colleague laments: "I have been in crisis meetings all day because of the recent bird flu scare. We have an order of 250,000 units of down jackets and the factory can't provide the down. How are we going to get these jackets to market?"

"Xiang ge banfa" is the way to succeed as an expat today. Being able to "find a way" still commands a premium. Whether based on hardship, risk, health or homesickness, allowances and remuneration should be determined at the point where experience, skill, incentive and sacrifice converge to create value and the greatest chance to succeed.

The author is an Anglo-Dutch textiles industry professional. She was based in the Chinese mainland between 2001 and 2012 and now lives in Hong Kong. The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

(China Daily 05/17/2013 page7)