Our family's stay in Shanghai, China

Here is a rare post from Dave.

I get asked a lot about what is it like to work in China.  The first obvious question is why?  There are many reasons that I volunteered.  With Laura starting high school this fall, the window of opportunity for an expatriate position was closing fast.  I was about her age when I first traveled outside the US.  Spending 4 weeks in Europe completely altered my worldview, with the realization of how large, diverse, and exciting the world is.  Our girls have traveled a bit, both in the US and once to Europe, but living overseas provides the chance to experience a culture in depth, and to see America from another vantage point.  They may not develop my wanderlust, but I do want them to see the world and open themselves to the possibilities for their lives.  And to realize how incredibly blessed their lives are, both materially but also their freedoms and the ability to control their destiny.

And honestly, this will be a great addition to my career experience.  I have traveled internationally for the past 15 years- by last count to over 30 countries.  But international business travel is common, being an expat will make me stand out, regardless of what I do for the remainder of my career.

Map of cities David has visited in China and Asia

Finally, the longer period of time allows me to develop deeper relationships and learn more of what and who China really is.  With the time I spend with my co-workers, we get past superficial small talk and I am able to get unique insights into their views on subjects such as:

  • the Chinese Communist government (cynical, and many think it will become democratic in their lifetime);
  • America (mostly admired but also self-centered);
  • Tibet (they think the Dalai Lama is a terrorist); and
  • Christianity (have heard of it, but most impressions are only from visiting the US).

But the Chinese are very patriotic and love their country, just as we love ours.

As much as I jumped at this opportunity, China was not my first choice.  It is a very much a developing nation and living here is a challenge.  Paris, London, or Munich would have been far higher on my list.  But there are few such opportunities (the only other time I came close was a job in Poland, but it fell through due to the global recession in 2009).  I feel extremely fortunate to have gotten this one.

Panoramic view of Three Gorges Dam and Reservoir in central China

China is having an increasingly significant impact on our world.  It will soon be the world’s largest economy, the sheer scale of its population and eagerness to join their rightful place among the leading nations of the world make it a country that we need to understand and get to know better as our cultures interact.  There are over 300,000 expatriates living in Shanghai, making it the largest expatriate community in the world.

Some who read this may think that I am contributing to the exporting of American jobs.  Whether job losses are caused by customers seeking low prices or companies seeking excessive profits is a different debate, but my role is focused on building a brand new business in China.  I am responsible to hire and train Chinese engineers to integrate our products into customer applications, for products sold in China.  In fact, my job is a newly created one; if not for the opportunities in China, there would be one less American job.  In effect, Chinese customers pay my salary.

I am responsible for launching our Technical Center for Hybrid and Electric vehicles here in China.  China has extremely poor air quality- though coal-fired power plants are the main contributor rather than car exhaust.  In most large cities such as Shanghai, we almost never see blue sky.  Even on clear days, it is a hazy brown.  The Chinese government- like the US government- is offering incentives to encourage the development of hybrid and electric vehicles, both for cars but especially for city buses and trucks, which are much better uses of hybrid technology.

A river gorge near the Three Gorges area in central China

I have a team of 7 engineers, working directly with customers and suppliers.  It sounds mundane to most of you, but it is exciting!  We must start from scratch, learning what customers need, trying to use our existing products to build business quickly but also to develop specific products for the Chinese market for the long-term.  Working in a developing country in emerging technology is unique and challenging.

If you are wondering about the skills of the Chinese engineers, generally I am impressed.  They are smart, hard working, and incredibly eager to learn and contribute.  My team ranges from a few years of experience to 20+ years, including a PhD. electrical engineer.  For them, there is a certain prestige in working for a western company vs a Chinese one.  The difference is that success is measured by what you accomplish and contribute (western), vs who you know (Chinese).

Since 2009, China has become the largest car market in the world, selling 15-20 million cars per year.  The US is now #2 with 10-15 million, after being the largest for decades.  But in the US and Europe, 75-80% of the adult population owns a car, so the market is saturated.  In China, that number is less than 10%.  There are 300 million cars in the US, an average of more than 1 car per adult.  In China, there are more than 10 adults per every car on the road.  So there is a huge growing market, as the Chinese middle class develops and more people buy a car- most of them for the first time in their life!

So what is a typical day?  That depends on whether I am traveling.  If I’m in Shanghai, I start the day around 5 by checking urgent emails from the US as their day winds down.  I head out for a morning bike ride and enjoy a cup of coffee with my family as their day starts (a nice departure from life in the US when I rarely see them before I leave in the morning).   I leave for the office about 8-8:15, and get home around 6 for dinner and a little family time- often planning trips in China.  Then I catch up on any work deadlines, talk to my US colleagues by phone many nights, and get online for personal email and to keep up with US happenings, before calling it a day around 10.

The company provides a car service, so my daily commute is 20-30 minutes in a Buick minivan, on the phone or doing email (never an idle moment here).  I am fortunate, most of my co-workers commute by bus and subway for 1 to 1.5 hours each way.  When I was first living here in hotels, I commuted on the subways- they are cheap and efficient but jam packed.

If I’m traveling, the day starts about the same time with morning email and then a workout.  Then it’s off to visit customers for meetings to discuss new hybrid vehicle projects, and do email on my blackberry as I head to the airport or train station on the way to a new city.  Dinner is with my Chinese co-workers and customers, talking business and trying to keep up as the conversation swirls around me in Mandarin.  Back to the hotel, I catch up on work, touch base with the girls, have a little computer time, and often a conference call.  By 10-11pm, I’m ready to crash.  And of course, if a flight is delayed, it can be midnight or later.  As a co-worker put it sarcastically yet succinctly just last week, as I traded emails with him from a taxi at 1230am on the way home, “Travel for work is such a glamorous adventure”.

While the days are long, I push hard to make the most of our quickly passing time in Shanghai and China.

Taipei 101 skyscraper in Taiwan, the 2nd tallest building in the world

And truthfully, it can be on occasion.  Once in a while, we will have an hour or 2 free late in the day, and I take advantage of those brief opportunities whenever I can, to go explore a new city.  Taipei, Taiwan was the most recent example, to see the Taipei 101 skyscraper.  For many years, it was the world’s tallest building, though it is now 2nd (and will soon be 3rd, a taller one is going up just a mile from our apartment in Shanghai).  Another was to the world’s largest hydroelectric plant, the 3 Gorges Dam.

My participation in customer meetings is mainly for appearances.  They are mostly in Chinese, with a little translation (we take Mandarin lessons once a week, but it would require years to become conversational).  But I am primarily there to show respect to them as an American manager taking time to visit, and to provide some small guidance for the team.  I don’t feel like I contribute much, but I do understand the need, both for our customers and my colleagues to make them feel important and that their work is valued.

Robot sculpture made of auto parts outside a bus factory in Hefei, China, west of Shanghai

Work in Asia is driven largely by the concept of “face”.  In the US, I go to meetings fully prepared with good data to back up my proposals, knowing that if I am not, I will get ripped to shreds.  It is tough, but it is the American way.  In China, there are still the same expectations, but you never let anyone “lose face”.  In public, you cannot let someone feel like they have made an error.  Those situations must be handled delicately and in private.

“Face” makes regular conversation- difficult enough already with the language barrier- extremely challenging.  You can never ask “do you understand?”  The answer will always be “yes, sure”.  The person cannot admit that they do not, to do so would be to lose face.  You must ask them to explain back to you, and listen intently to be certain that they do.

A common example is when I ask about the status of a project, everything is always “fine, it’s ok”.  But then I ask if a deadline was met and find out it was not.  So things are not fine.  It takes a whole series of questions to get the facts.  And then the real work starts.  Why was the deadline missed?  How do we get back on schedule?  Etc.  Entire books are written on this subject, and this aspect of Asian culture challenges me daily to provide leadership and technical direction.

So the variety is great, the days are enjoyable but tiring, and when we repatriate to the US, I can’t imagine how good it will feel to be home in Indiana.  And to have a comfortable, relaxed conversation in English without straining to understand every word and the speaker’s true meaning.

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Comments on: "Working in China – By Dave" (2)

  1. Amanda Chilvers said:

    Hi Dave, this great insight has helped me a lot with our China projects. Thank you. Hope you guys are well, when do you travel home for more US adventures?

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