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Foreign Young Professionals in China Mini Series #1: Interview with Ms. Marie Cheng

April 13th, 2010 · 6 Comments

Today I have a special treat for everyone.

China holds a special appeal to many ambitious young professionals in the United States and around the world. But, many people are unsure or apprehensive about going to work in China, given the cultural, language and other barriers. I recently conducted an interview with Ms. Marie Cheng, who was born and educated in the United States and Singapore, but chose to pursue her MBA study at the prestigious Tsinghua University School of Economics and Management (Tsinghua SEM) and has been working in China’s high tech industry.

I first got to know Marie when I saw her insightful comments on the blog. I was very impressed by how Marie has chosen a unique path to pursue her MBA study at Tsinghua University and pursued a career in China. Enjoy the interview!

What’s your background?

I was born in Westchester, NY, and raised in Ridgewood, New Jersey.  When I was 14, and when my brother, the last of my 3 older siblings, had just graduated high school, he packed up and prepared for college (also Berkeley!) while my parents, grandmother, and I packed our house up for Singapore, where my parents grew up before moving to the US after they got married.  I finished high school at a British international school called United World College of South East Asia (UWCSEA).  There are quite a few UWC’s around the world, all of which tout a version of the British system and, more importantly, the IB.  I graduated with the IB and went back to the states.

I went to the University of Michigan and got a degree in Economics, had a couple of odd jobs and such then.  Since a degree in Economics isn’t exactly a ‘direction’ in life, I went to Denver to help my dad start his medical private practice, setting up the internal computer network, running the back-of-house operations and backup and such, and doing some insurance claims.  It wasn’t my dream job, but it was ok.

What made you decide to move to China?

The summer between high school and University of Michigan, my parents decided to take me on a little tour of Greater China.  My mom was on business in Hong Kong, so we went there first, staying in a nice hotel.  Then we went to Shanghai, then Taipei.  I was blown away by Shanghai.  Even then, 10 years ago, it was bustling and smelly and what I felt seemed like a sense of a Chinese self, something I’d never thought to have before.  So I promised I’d go back sometime, just to explore.  I left my dad’s office in 2004 to take an English teaching position in Nanjing, just to try both teaching and China for a year.  Then I never left.

My reasons for going was a growing curiosity for what it meant to be "Chinese". While I grew up in a large family that was happy to celebrate Chinese holidays together at home, we were in the US and seeing Shanghai was outside of what I had ever imagined.  I saw trendy, busy, working, functioning people.  I saw something more than the Model Minority.  Right or wrong, I saw people who looked very in charge of their destiny.  And they knew how to be Chinese, and I didn’t really get what it meant.  So, I went to find roots, make roots, understand roots.  Post college sometimes felt like a let-down, and I didn’t feel ready to just join the rat race and work on professional development, but I did want to work on my personal development.  And, admittedly, I ran away a bit.  All of us who are here have "ran away" to some extent.

I also feel there is a natural follow-up to this question.  Why did I want to stay?  I stayed after the first year because after so much time I didn’t feel I had learned much Chinese, and this time wanted to see if I could turn my time in China into "direction".  I still didn’t know what I wanted.  But I could tell that staying in China was going to be a boon for me.  Later I stayed because I loved it, the gritty China that was always an adventure, even if it was just going out to buy groceries at the wet market.  Then I stayed for the work opportunities, for the freedom, and because I met my boyfriend who also loved being here.  I stayed for the MBA, the MBA opportunities, and now we stay because we have good jobs that serve China, serve global business, and meet our needs.  It sometimes takes its toll on you, but overall we still love China.

How did you get your first job in China?

My first job in China in 2004 was with a prominent high school in Nanjing.  Many other foreign teachers there said they went through friends or paid agencies to help them find positions and make all the visa arrangements.  I had a family friend of my mother’s who had been playing teachers in China and she had heard of a vacancy and had me contact them directly.  I remember thinking that the contact didn’t look quite so professional (it was in English), but I figured they were not very professional.  Turns out this can be the case for a lot of Chinese companies in terms of document conversion into English.

My MBA internships and jobs have been obtained in different ways.  Most of the time someone I knew had info on an opening and could introduce me, and as opposed to me asking them for help (because i didn’t know to), they approached me to see whether I was interested.  That was because they have seen my hard work and attitude in the MBA, and to them that was enough reason to introduce me to their contact.  The interviews were always interesting because they wished to test both my Chinese and English, and were surprised to hear my Chinese accent; my Chinese is pretty good now if I do say so myself, considering I learned it as an adult.  I was told that my multiculturalism would be a boon in the office, and indeed it seemed it was.  In my most recent interviews, that has been repeatedly cited as an asset, as well as bilingualism, and a demonstrate passion for the industry. 


What are some of the biggest challenges of working in China?

This depends on who and "what" you are.  If you are a Caucasian coming to China to work for the first time, language and culture will certainly be big challenges, but so long as you come with an open mind, and demonstrate yourself to be this way, you can be "forgiven" for not having great Chinese or for having no understanding of culture.  Why?  This is because it isn’t expected of you; after all, you’re white.

If however you are an ABC/overseas Chinese, your challenges are greater on all fronts.  You are expected to have a good grasp of Chinese, or at least a steep learning curve, and some inherent understanding of culture.  Fair or not, the local Chinese can’t help but see you through this lens because you ARE Chinese, look Chinese, and whatever passport you have, you are of Chinese origin. 

There is even more to consider if you are not white, not Chinese, but from somewhere else in Asia.

I wrote my MBA graduation thesis on the importance of building trust in the multicultural workplace in China, and find that the two biggest challenges, from my perspective, are:  1)  Knowing what is *really* expected of you as an employee and a person, and what assumptions have already been made about you based on your background, and 2) knowing how to navigate language and culture to build real trust.

One thing I notice from own MBA experience is that MBAs tends to hang out in their own circles. Do you find yourself hang out mostly with your fellow foreign students? Or there are a lot of interactions with the local students?

During the MBA, yes, you could argue it was easier to hang out with other foreign students than local Chinese, because of shared upbringing.  Often though, what mattered to me more was a shared outlook and attitude, and that did not consistently come from any one nationality or ethnicity.  I count among my closer friends 2 local Chinese, one Taiwanese American, a girl from Hong Kong, and a dear friend from Kenya. 

Recalibrating my attitude towards my time in China often helped me have better friendships with the Chinese.  Group projects, proven reliability, etc, were also the lubricants in fast growing friendships.  Going out to KTV was also a great way to interact. 🙂

How about language and communication? How did you pick up the Chinese language?

I’ve been studying Chinese on and off since high school, and even had a semi-functional level while taking the mandatory classes in college.  I largely lost it after that and promised to improve it after moving to China.  It has been a hard long process, but essentially I took a year to study it full time; 4 hours in the mornings, working on my own business in the afternoons.  By the time I hit 4-5 months of study I hit a critical mass in my vocabulary, level of comfort in conversing, and I learned so much faster in the remaining 4-5 months.  I have been trying to learn as much as possible in the last 3 years since I finished the 1 year course.  I took a 1on1 course for a while, focusing on reading of the news and talking about every day events, activities, and situations.

Piece of advice:  Learning Chinese is like tackling projects at work.  There are 4 major components of Chinese:  Speaking, Listening, Writing, and Reading.  If you are pressed for time, you prioritize, but ideally you learn them all.  You devise how much time you devote to it a week, you determine necessary resources, and you work on it alone or others, and with diligence and serious dedication.  You have to really focus on learning. 

Is the Tsinghua MBA application process pretty similar to US/EU MBA programs? I read from the Tsinghua MBA web site that foreign students tend to live off campus while the locals live in the dorm. How did you like your living arrangement and social interactions while you were a student at Tsinghua?

The application process was different when I started, but I think it has changed now.  Chinese student applications always involve examinations of some sort, regardless of school or major.  They took a Chinese version of the GMAT and sat through special interviews, often with other Chinese candidates, to have a mock debate in English; our IMBA is in English after all, and they needed to have a decent command of English in order to join.  Foreign students had to take the GMAT and sit individually for an English interview with a panel of professors and administrators.  All students had to submit the requisite application materials.  One thing that was unusual was the requirement of a copy of my undergraduate diploma.  I think that is normal for Chinese candidates for post-graduate study.

The difference in living arrangements among classmates is akin to the difference in pay among colleagues.  When Chinese came to my apartment, they never said anything outright, but I wondered what they thought of my accommodations in comparison to the dormitories.

I should note that foreign students living on campus live in different dorms than the local students.  There is no way we could all share the same dorm; there are special foreign student dorms for the university’s entire foreign student population, and they are expensive with limited amenities (except the daily cleaning lady, admittedly that is a luxury).  It is thus not economical for foreign students to live on campus; they can find much more affordable and better accommodations off campus.

It is understandable and yet unfortunate that the difference in dorms reinforces a difference between local and foreign.  that was a slightly uncomfortable elephant in the room that we never quite knew how to address.  We just tried not to focus on it our put ourselves in situations where that would be brought irrevocably to light.  Much like one might if differences in salary were apparent.

Our MBA director is a great woman who tries to strike a balance between uniting us all in our professional development, and showing how we can all draw on our individual skills and experiences (foreigners who know global/western business practices, locals who know China and China’s business revolution) to help each other grow.

What’s your post MBA plan? Do you plan to return to your home country? Or you plan to stay in China indefinitely?

I plan to stay, not only because my fiancé and I are both here and like it here, but because the only way to really drive home the purpose of doing my MBA here is to apply it.  An MBA on Chinese soil is a great starting point, but it won’t give you the real experience of what happens when you sign deals with local partners, or combat piracy, plan Chinese PR events, go to KTV with potential clients, or negotiate cooperation with employees in another department, or what you really should do if your boss is Chinese and you are foreign, or vice versa.  So, I plan to stay to work.

At this point, my fiancé and I are here indefinitely.  We find that we can not only function in this environment, we rather enjoy it.  China is on the up and up, so naturally it makes professional sense to stay here, but we find we are also very excited about supporting China’s expansion.  Many back home see the "rise of China" as a threat, and indeed, journalists use that phrase to no end and create a zero-sum relationship between East and West.  But what about the rise of China for the sake of the Chinese people?  What about the rise in education standards, or in standard or living, and the opening up of a culture that for the better part of the last 5000 years has been closed?  Any nation has citizens who feel proud to be citizens, and the Chinese are almost feeling that collectively.  We find that rather wonderful, and hope to be a part of that.  I am American and Chinese now.

A lot of young professionals in the U.S. and other part of the worlds are considering to move to China. What advice do you have for them?

The Chinese are a wary bunch, and with just cause; just look at their history.  If anyone comes here to work, understand that whatever your actual intentions, you are assumed to be here as a career move, and just to have fun.  If that’s what you want then no one will argue with you, but they might not trust you.  China is looking for team players, people who can join in the pursuit of their goals, and you should try to "care" about these goals.   Ask yourself before you get here if you have anything in your past that indicates you can do that.  Why?  Because the best way for local teammates/managers/direct reports to trust you is to see that you have this kind of character.  So, be prepared to take time to build trust with others, demonstrate trust, and demonstrate dedication to China’s goals. 

Work on Chinese.  It is such a beneficial tool in working in China, and is a great demonstration of your willingness to meet the Chinese halfway.  Even if you are in the Beijing office of a European multinational company where the working language is English or French, if more than 60-70% of employees are local Chinese, learn Chinese now.

Lastly, manage your expectations about China.  All the movies you’ve seen about China are not China, they are stylized versions of China that is easy on the eyes, ears and heart.  Think about how you measure the following things:  Success, Ease, Difficulty, Logic, Cheap, Expensive, Fairness, Effort, Improvement, "Good" and "Bad".  Now consider that what makes cultures different is the way they view, measure, and value those same things.  Be prepared for different views and standards, he willing to change your expectations, and roll with it!

No one’s asking you to fake your personality and character in order to have a good time and good job here.  So, hopefully you can self-select by asking whether you are open enough to try to love living abroad and respect another culture. 

Anything else you want to share with us about your experience in China.

In bullet points:

  • I’ve been here for just over 5 years now and I’m still learning new things about China.
  • Real Chinese food is truly, truly wonderful!  You have no idea.
  • Coffee from the Yunnan province is pretty darn good.
  • I hit another growth spurt in Chinese when I was working by trying really hard to speak Chinese with colleagues all the time.  Even more of an impetus was having Chinese bosses/managers.  if they are at a senior manager or director level, chances are they have worked REALLY hard to get there, and/or are extremely talented, and it would behoove you to learn from them.
  • Beware of haircuts in China – take a friend with you who speaks Chinese!  They are so into fashionable hair styles that it gets a little out of hand sometimes…
  • Try not to just recreate the standard of living in your home country here without adapting.  You won’t experience as much about China, and it is something that will exacerbate the differences between you and local colleagues.

Related posts:

My favorite books about China:

Tags: Career Fast Track · MBA

6 responses so far ↓

  • 1 mscheng // Apr 14, 2010 at 1:15 am

    Hi Bill, thanks again for posting this and including me in your interview series! And btw, I loved “Waiting” by Ha Jin as well!

  • 2 GeekMBA360 // Apr 14, 2010 at 3:57 am

    Thanks, Marie. Talking about Ha Jin and Waiting, I went to his book signing at Kipler's Books in Melo Park, CA many years ago. He was a very humble man and a gifted writer.

    By the way, have you read Red China Blue? I thought it was a very interesting book.

  • 3 ChinaJobSeaker // Apr 16, 2010 at 4:34 pm

    Very interesting article! I have read a lot about Westeners (or American/British born Chinese) moving to China in order to work and live there. Seems a bit like Chine really is the “new US”. In fact I consider myself part of that generation. I have already worked in Greater China for 2 years and have also studied the language for a long time, so that I am fluent by now.
    It still seems to be not that easy to convince firms in China that one is looking for permament employment in China if one is not in the country (which is the case for me right now). Therefore I would appreciate any word of advice, either from Ms Cheng or the author of the blog himself!

    Thanks

  • 4 GeekMBA360 // Apr 21, 2010 at 11:02 pm

    Since you have already had work experience in China and you speak Chinese, what prevent you from going there now to get a job? It seems to be much easier to move there first (even temporarily) to get a job. I know some people who get job first before they move back to China. But, most of them are Chinese returnees who studied and worked in the United States.

  • 5 ryu249 // Apr 23, 2010 at 1:48 am

    The Chinese returnees moving back to China already have an established network (family, friends, classmates and other returnees) so their hurdle to enter the China job market is a little smaller.

    I agree with Bill's suggestion to see if it is possible to physically be in China to look for a job. More importantly, be able to demonstrate and communicate, in both English and Chinese, not only your China knowledge but most importantly your added value to the firm.

    Another route would be to work for a multinational and then apply for a China based job within the company. This road may be a little longer as you would first need to establish your reputation and capabilities within the company before being assigned to support the China market.

  • 6 mscheng // Apr 23, 2010 at 3:05 am

    Agree with both Bill and ryu249. It's much better to be here to look for your job since in-person impressions are very key in interviews. Saying you can speak Chinese on paper is different from them testing you in an interview! Plus, I should add an addendum to my comments above about the importance of learning Chinese: it is not that learning Chinese is a sure fire way to get a good job. It's the impressive icing on the cake. As they say in the MBA, needing to understand some (or a lot) of Chinese is now the order winner – the added bonus you bring to the firm. The value you add to the firm is the order qualifier – you have to make sure that is clear; your Chinese ability will be the added kicker, for you as a candidate, that makes you worth hiring over other similarly able-bodied and capable candidates.

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