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A Foreigner In Chinese Culture

Popularity 15Viewed 7518 times 2016-1-14 04:55 |System category:Economy| Chinese, management, business, western, thinking

There are so many things that I've learned about Chinese culture in my time here in China. Many experiences in the short 4.5 years that I've been here have taught me much. There are also many questions that I have which have yet to be comprehended. I've watched things happen and I've seen how people react and approach certain things that are quite different than my experience as a Westerner. 

I've learned to examine things when I encounter them and truthfully answer the question as to whether a situation is just my way of doing things that is different from Chinese culture or, is it my Western way that is different. I always try to be fair and honest about such things when I'm assessing them. Another aspect of my sorting things out is to try my utmost not to judge them as to being 'right or wrong', 'good or bad', but, I strive to recognize that they are just 'different' to me.

Two years ago, I was working with a company that has a cooperation with several schools throughout Henan. It is an educational company that supplies foreign teachers to Chinese schools and study abroad programs. It is owned by a highly intelligent Chinese professor who lives in the USA, Dr. Lee. Dr. Lee has a Ph.D. from one of the top and most respected Ivy League universities in the USA. His doctorate is in industrial management which he has taught in the USA for more than 25 years. He maintains a home in the USA and one here.

I had been asked to cooperate with him and his company in giving presentations and lectures in several schools in Henan and as far away as Sichuan Province.  I would go there with a team who would also participate in the overall presentation. We were looking for interest and support in possibly cooperating with these various schools.

As we were preparing our PowerPoint presentation, something very interesting happened. In fact, it was quite perplexing to me as I was about to encounter 'culture clash' in the most intriguing way. 

I was working with 3 other Chinese employees (all spoke fluent English) in preparing the PPT. There was really no designated leader and there seemed to be no real clear instruction on what we were to include in the PPT. That seemed curious to me especially in light of the fact that our biggest leader in the company had a Ph.D. in management.

We proceeded to do what we guessed was the right way in putting together the presentation. 

The day came that Dr. Lee would come and review the presentation. He was rarely in the office and only had a few hours set aside that day to come there.

When he started reviewing the PPT, he seemed to get very agitated and frustrated. This finally grew into very obvious anger over his disapproval of the PPT that we'd put many hours into preparing. All of his disgust was directed at the 3 Chinese employees and none of it was directed at me. All of his communication was in Chinese and none in English.

After I observed the scene for a while, all of the time wondering what I could do to help resolve the matter, Dr. Lee took a break to go the restroom. While he was gone, I saw my chance to intervene. I asked the others why they didn't do what Dr. Lee had instructed them to do. Then, I realized that Dr. Lee had given them no direct instruction for the presentation and had not even voiced what he wanted included in the presentation.

As a Westerner who is used to a lot of communication and clarity, I was a bit puzzled. When Dr. Lee returned, I asked him, "Dr. Lee, what do you want in this presentation?" He quickly told me what turned out to be 7 different things he wanted covered in the presentation. I wrote them down as fast as he said them. Then I asked him the order of priority he wanted them presented. He quickly told me that.

I suggested that we go back to work on the presentation and give Dr. Lee what he wanted. It seemed simple and quite obvious to me. However, I was lost in understanding why it wasn't communicated what he wanted in the first place. Why go through doing the presentation twice and why not clearly outlining what you want before you begin? Very perplexing to me.

Since that time, I've experienced very similar situations where it seemed as if the underlings where suppose to read the mind of the leader. I've also discovered that often, the leader doesn't know what he/she wants. It is more of an exploratory endeavor with no clear vision of what is required or what is to be done.

This is very different than the way I've approached things in the West. We believe in efficiency. We believe in it so strongly that we find ways in which to handle something once without having to return and redo it as we had to do with the PPT. Of course, I'm wondering if this is the primary reason why we seem to make a lot of progress in technology, science and other areas of research and discovery. I've asked myself the question, 'is this why so much innovation comes from the West and not as much from the East?'

We finished the presentation and Dr. Lee was delighted with the outcome. When we'd redone it, he asked us to rehearse our presentation in front of him (I thought this too was a bit odd and a bit high schoolish). We did and he loved the outcome and seemed quite pleased. I didn't understand all of the emotional upset that he'd gone through with the initial period of disgust he obviously felt before we got it the way that he wanted it. It took more than twice as long and a lot of frustration for him in order for us to succeed at giving him what he expected.

I've shared this story several times with business leaders and educational leaders in the eMBA program at Zhengzhou University. Each of them has described to me how Chinese think about such things. The thing that I learned right away was that the leader kind of expects the employees to read their mind in knowing what they want. This is something that I've never experienced in Western culture. We are more about open and direct communication. These leaders have told me that the idea in China is to be more vague in order to see if the employees know the leader well enough to give what he/she wants without ever being told. One of the educational leaders even told me a story about an aid to an ancient emperor who could read the emperor's mind in knowing what he wanted. The aid would do it without the emperor ever having to speak to him.

We don't think like this in the West. We value communication and specific instruction from leaders. It is definitely a challenge for Westerners as we quickly grow impatient in approaching tasks and projects in such ways. 

I'm happy to learn all I can about Chinese culture. I'm happy that this particular situation wasn't directed at me and that I could provide a solution to a problem. I was happy that our presentations were quite successful in doing what we'd set out to do. I'm sure I'll experience more situations like this in future. I've worked with people and am understanding enough that I'm sure I'll be able to make a positive contribution to the outcome.

(Opinions of the writer in this blog don't represent those of China Daily.)


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Reply Report voice_cd 2016-1-14 09:34
Thanks for sharing your story here, we have highlighted it in our blog homepage.
Reply Report Igo 2016-1-14 11:23
Not only the leaders in business companies, but also the leaders in government organizations should read this, I mean, in China.
Reply Report springcastle 2016-1-14 17:20
I dislike it that just because you are a leader that the employees have to possess the ability of reading his mind? Its bureaucracy.
Reply Report dusty1 2016-1-14 17:32
I'm in China in two weeks
Reply Report BlondeAmber 2016-1-14 18:29
How are new employees expected to know what the boss thinks or wants if they don't ask?
When doing some work for another person, of course you ask questions to ensure that you understand fully what is needed.
Even after working with someone for a while, there can still be things that need to be clarified.

It is only after working with someone for a while that you learn about how they think and the information that they want.
There may be a period of trial and error, which may even show your boss/manager that you have some interesting ideas of your own.

it is similar to one university that wanted me to work for them.
I asked what curriculum I was expected to follow - not an unreasonable question as I like to be as prepared as possible.
All I was told was 'make them love English'.
Again as I asked for clarification and I received the same reply.
I turned the position down because I felt I was being set up for failure.
Reply Report MichaelM 2016-1-15 17:53
BlondeAmber: How are new employees expected to know what the boss thinks or wants if they don't ask?
When doing some work for another person, of course you ask que ...
Yes. A common assumption for foreigners. I've thought the same thing. I've wondered if this is perhaps why they feel they need to be in classes nearly twice as long per day as their western counterparts.
Reply Report MichaelM 2016-1-15 17:54
We need to offer courses in clairvoyance.  
Reply Report BlondeAmber 2016-1-15 21:50
MichaelM: We need to offer courses in clairvoyance.   
you read my mind  
Reply Report MichaelM 2016-1-16 03:36
BlondeAmber: you read my mind   
I know. I should be the chief instructor.    
Reply Report mbursian 2016-1-16 07:00
As an administrative assistant with our school, one of my responsibilities is making PPTs.  Quite often I make PPTs for my lessons and then put them in a directory for the other teachers to use... the are free to edit the content to fit their particular classes.  (I've been using MS Office since it was first introduced in 1990, I know what I'm doing.)  I've been asked numerous times to make promotional / teaching presentations for staff, parents or government leaders.  These requests have come from the Chinese management of the school... and usually with very little time to prepare.  I've encountered the exact same thing as you.  The usual expectation is for the presentation to be informative and interesting, that's a given... however, very little support or direction is given as to the "meat and potatoes" of the content in spite of my requests to be specific as possible with what they want.  Sometimes I've been given a script with the information prioritized and bulleted... a simple copy and paste with window dressing, then they'll come back and say "that's too much / little information".
Reply Report jinmingchen 2016-1-16 11:03
I especially appreciate your rational attitude toward different cultures as you say in this blog:
   “I always try to be fair and honest about such things when I'm assessing them. Another aspect of my sorting things out is to try my utmost not to judge them as to being 'right or wrong', 'good or bad', but, I strive to recognize that they are just 'different' to me.”
     With this attitude, I am sure, every foreigner is welcome in China.
     Always try to be fair and honest, and avoid to judge things by simply saying “right or wrong”, “good or bad”, without considering their specific circumstances.
Reply Report HenLaoLaoShi 2016-1-17 14:22
When I was teaching at the high school level here, I often asked the other (Chinese) English teachers what area I should emphasize in my English classes.  I wanted my material to complement what they were teaching.  I wanted to be as useful as possible.  However, the most common response I received was "teach whatever you want!".  I didn't find this response very useful.  But, in the end, I did just that.
Now teaching at the college level, I am a having a  experience similar to that described in the blog.  Specifically pertaining to grading.  I had very little guidance in grading and what paper work needed to be submitted at the end of the semester.  After I submitted final grades to the college, I received repeated requests for syllabi, grading criteria, grading formulas, etc.  Fortunately since I was "doing my own thing" more or less, I had developed all of those things for my own use.  Sometimes the lack of upfront guidance  is a little disconcerting.
Reply Report AndrewCraven 2016-1-17 20:20
our department leader does this way more or less. He told us to work all day long but we can finish the work within half a day. why he wants us to work all day? just want us to stay in office?
Reply Report BlondeAmber 2016-1-17 20:27
AndrewCraven: our department leader does this way more or less. He told us to work all day long but we can finish the work within half a day. why he wants us to wor ...
Some managers in China I have met seem to think that the longer you work, the more important you are.
This has nothing to do with the quality of the work - which usually is abysmal.
Reply Report MichaelM 2016-1-18 01:56
mbursian: As an administrative assistant with our school, one of my responsibilities is making PPTs.  Quite often I make PPTs for my lessons and then put them i ...
One thing is that some love to point out a fault whether there actually is one or not. It seems that the more of a critic that a person is, the more intelligent they are suppose to look to others. A very naive, presumptuous tactic that only impedes progress. I've seen several times. Looking or appearing a certain way, (whether it's believable or not) is far more important than actual progress. Even when it's not believable, you are expected to pretend that it is, when in fact, every rational and intelligent person knows that it's not.
Reply Report MichaelM 2016-1-18 02:02
BlondeAmber: Some managers in China I have met seem to think that the longer you work, the more important you are.
This has nothing to do with the quality of the w ...
'Hard-working' is a presumptuous catch phrase that many like to toss around. One way I've seen this in schools is when a teacher will ignore the bell at the end of class and continue teaching or trying to engage students, one on one, in further discussion. It's an attempt to show others how hard-working you are and how much your students love you and your class. In my western way of thinking, I think it is rude, disrespectful to the next class, naive  and actually shows inadequacy of being able to finish your class within the allotted time.
Reply Report BlondeAmber 2016-1-18 18:21
I am always time conscious as my class is structured to the time allocated.
Should a student request a one-to-one, I have a time slot allowed for that - hence the necessity for punctuality at both the beginning and end of class.

I instituted strict time-keeping for my classes in that anyone more than 10 minutes late could not enter my room, as this disturb the class and is disrespectful to everyone.
3 late entrances meant being barred from class.

I have had other teachers want to use my class time (usually without asking me first), and had polite but strong words with them.
I even had a teacher barge in and want to use my class-room when I was half-way through my class.

Respect works both ways - don't demand respect from me if you don't show me any.
Reply Report MichaelM 2016-1-18 19:27
BlondeAmber: I am always time conscious as my class is structured to the time allocated.
Should a student request a one-to-one, I have a time slot allowed for that ...
Damn, you're tough. (but I like it!)   
Reply Report BlondeAmber 2016-1-18 20:56
MichaelM: Damn, you're tough. (but I like it!)   
I am tough but fair.
In a university the students should be adult enough to take responsibility for basic things like time-keeping and simple rules
Reply Report stargardern 2016-1-19 10:32
    Chinese people like guess people's mind .haha

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MichaelM

Michael is the author of the transformational book, Powerful Attitudes. He is a professional educator, an educational consultant, an author. He lives in Zhengzhou, Henan Province. He enjoys playing guitar and writing poetry. He loves China.

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