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Foreign Young Professionals in China Mini Series #2: Tsinghua MBA at Big Pharma

April 20th, 2010 · 1 Comment

Today, I would like to share with you part II of Foreign Professional in China series.

I recently interviewed Mr. Robert Yu, who is a fellow Cal Bear and received his MS in Biology from Northwestern. Like Marie Cheng, Robert also took the road less traveled, and got his MBA from Tsinghua University. Robert is currently working at Pfizer China.

Robert was very insightful and generous in sharing his journey.  I’m sure you’ll enjoy this interview.

I was born in Hong Kong and moved to Vancouver, Canada when I was 6 years old.  I spent K-12 in Vancouver before moving to the U.S. for my undergraduate and graduate education.  I majored in molecular and cell biology at UC Berkeley and did my my master’s in biotechnology at Northwestern University.

After graduate school, I moved back to the Bay Area to work at Recombinant Capital (now Deloitte-Recap), a small boutique consulting firm specializing in structuring deals and alliances for the biotechnology industry.

After 4.5 years at Recap as an analyst, I decided to move to China initially to study and improve my Chinese.  While studying Chinese at Tsinghua, I found out that the university had an international MBA program partnered with MIT-Sloan.  I applied, was excepted and after graduation, started working for Pfizer China in the strategic planning and business development team.  I am presently transitioning over to a new role within Pfizer China to support one of the business unit/commercial functions.

Why move to China?
My move to China was more initially for more personal than professional reasons.

For starters, my parents are Chinese and I grew up in a fairly Chinese household (my parents mostly speak to me in Cantonese).

Secondly, I came to the realization that having a poor command of the Chinese language for someone like myself was just unacceptable.  I just felt that I needed to know more about my family’s cultural heritage and of the stories and places that my parents spoke so fondly.

Thirdly, I have been visiting China since 1992 and have been enthralled and completely swept away with the pace of change in the country. I just wanted to be witnessing all these changes personally rather than be reading about them thousands of miles away.

One could say that my reasons for coming were personal/emotional/cultural and that ultimately, I had the fortunate luck of having a career here in China.

First job in China
My first job in China stemmed from a summer internship.  Between my first and second year of my MBA, I interned at the Pfizer China office.  I was not expecting them to invite me back but 6 months after my internship ended, Pfizer called me out of the blue to ask if I were interested in returning to support the strategic planning and business development team.  After a few rounds of interviews, I was offered a great role with the team.

Biggest challenges of working in China

Language and culture are probably the biggest challenges that I can think of off of the top of my head.

I have the advantage/disadvantage of being both a foreigner and Chinese.  I walk the delicate and fine line of both worlds.  I am expected to have perfect Chinese and understand all cultural subtleties (anything less and I would considered a sell-out) while acting as the “bridge” and conduit between the language and cultural divide.  Much of what is important is implied and not stated.  Nothing is ever 100% concrete so a large amount of flexibility is required.

The changes in China are so rapid that it is indeed a challenge to quickly adapt.  Be flexible and try to enjoy the ride.

Post MBA Plans, etc.
I am, for the most part, living out my post MBA plans.  I am working a great job in China for a multinational.  I don’t know if I will stay in China indefinitely.  This very much depends on what my job prospects are here in addition to my family needs.  I will be getting married soon and I do have to think about raising children in China.  I am not sure if I am willing to put my children through the grinder of the Chinese education system.  In a country with so many people, what is believed to be the most efficient way to assess talent is through rigorous examinations.  The pressures are immense and the fate of a child is often determined by a set of exams.

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?

My advice is to learn Chinese and learn it well.  No employer will say exactly how much you need and often give vague requirements like “strong command, proficient” etc.  Ideally, it would be very helpful to be able to participate in discussions in Chinese. Having a good command of Chinese is not just for communicating within the office but also to live and really understand the day-to-day of China.  I would argue that one only gets a partial experience, at best, of China without having made a concerted effort with the language and culture.

As I have mentioned above, if you look Chinese, then your language requirements are a lot higher.  Granted, my observations so far have indicated that if you are sent from HQs to China, then your skills far outweigh the need for Chinese language fluency; however, if you are asking to come to China as oppose to being asked to come, be prepared.

Second piece of advice is to be flexible.  China is an ever changing place that requires a lot of flexibility.  Be prepared to adapt quickly.  At times, it feels like a roller coaster ride but that is part of being in China.

A lot of foreigners are working in China now while a lot of oversea Chinese have returned to China. How competitive is the job market in China? Do you think there are still a lot of opportunities for foreigners to go to china, given the fierce competition?

The job market is very competitive here.  Not only overseas Chinese (hua ren or hua qiao) are coming to work, but also returnees (hai gui: mainland Chinese born, bred and raised in China who left for overseas education and work experience) are also coming back.  They bring with them a high degree of professionalism and a broad and in-depth skill set as well as the language and cultural understanding on both sides of the divide.  The bar for entry is definitely getting higher every year.

Still, China is an ever growing place (GDP numbers have been in the double digit and is estimated to be around 8% for this year) so opportunities do very much exist.   Although the level of sophistication and professionalism is going up quickly, there still remains a big talent gap and shortage in China.  Just be very clear and focused on what you offer and are able to deliver.

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

The days of the expat packages/lifestyle are quickly dying.  They do exist but it’s reserved for the high level executives who are sent here from headquarters abroad.  If compensation is that important, then by all means, work a job at HQ for a few years and then be posted or assigned to China.  Keep in mind though that China is changing so quickly that by the time you return, your knowledge and understanding of China may not be as relevant (the pace of change is something like 1 year in China = 5-7 years in the U.S.).

Be prepared to manage your expectations.  Not all streets are lined with gold and just living in China is a true test of your committment to being here.  From basic things like setting up a bank account to ordering food, the simple daily and mundane tasks may push you re-evaluate your reasons for coming to China.  Yes, the major cities like Beijing and Shanghai have many of the comforts of an international city; however, once outside of the more developed Tier 1 cities, don’t be shy about witnessing and experiencing China in its true colour and light.

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Tags: China · Learning and Growing · MBA

1 response so far ↓

  • 1 Suzy Lounge Bar // Sep 5, 2010 at 7:11 pm

    I am also thinking of moving to China to start a business or to get a job. I am glad i read this post.

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