Why did you choose to work in China?
I first worked in China as a teacher trainer for the British Council fourteen years ago. The training took place in a poorer, semi-rural district of Wuhan in Hubei province. I arrived with my fellow trainers at the training centre very late on an incredibly hot and humid July night, having trundled along barely finished and poorly lit roads for two hours or so. On arrival, we found what seemed like all the staff from the training centre standing outside it, despite the heat, mosquitoes and lateness of the hour, with a banner which read, “Welcome to British Experts”. Our initial reaction was to look over our shoulders to see where these “British Experts” were but of course they referred to us.
In the month that followed, I was deeply moved by the kindness and hospitality of all the people that we met, and above all of the eagerness of our trainees to spend as much time as possible in our company and absorb everything they could from the experience. Their thirst for contact with people from overseas and for knowledge were at times both touching and humbling. I was so impressed by my month in Wuhan that I returned to China three more times as a consultant and then moved there full time as a representative of a UK university.
How did you prepare for the move?
I took some one-to-one Chinese language classes before I moved there but didn’t find them particularly useful. Teachers tend to focus on getting the tones of words right but I found that if I needed to communicate I could do that quite well without worrying too much about the tones. The result probably sounds awful to a Chinese speaker but I managed to communicate quite well with a limited amount of grammar and vocabulary.
How did the visa process go?
I initially went on a business visa (“L Visa”) and changed to a residence/work permit later. The latter involved getting a “Foreign Experts Certificate” before the visa could be issued. In those days, it was much easier to get a one-year multi-entry business visa. However, shortly before, and then after the Beijing Olympics, the whole visa process for foreign nationals in China became far more difficult. The one-year L Visa became a thing of legend. Now, I think it would be necessary to have all your work residence and work permit documentation before arriving in China. One anomaly is that it is still possible (to the best of my knowledge) for some nationalities to enter China, through Shenzhen from Hong Kong, on a short tourist visa which is issued at the ferry port in Shekou.
What was it like in the first few days/weeks?
I arrived in Guangdong, which is sub-tropical, in late March and the weather was already hot and steamy. It was a particularly rainy year and it seemed to rain heavily and relentlessly for the first few months I was there. I was initially in a temporary apartment, in which my clothes and shoes seemed to go moldy very quickly.
I was made extremely welcome by my Chinese colleagues and others and settled in quickly. Being in one of China’s largest cities, I didn’t find it too hard to find the things I needed in the shops etc. Getting around by taxi is very cheap so I didn’t miss having a car in that respect (it is difficult for foreigners to get driving licences in China). The biggest frustration was my lack of Chinese and trying to explain to taxi drivers where I wanted to go. Most of the drivers did not take advantage of my inability to communicate but one or two definitely did.
What sort of work were you engaged in? How many hours did you work?
I was involved in marketing and recruitment for a UK university and also the management of some of the University’s in-country academic delivery. My working hours were very flexible and involved weekends and evenings sometimes. Travel took up a large proportion of my time.
How did you find the Higher Education sector in China?
The academic staff I met took their work and students’ learning very seriously. I found the university environment much more paternalistic towards students than in the UK. Students live in dormitories and in some cases there is a “lights out” rule. One of the consequences of this, I think, is that Chinese undergraduates seem a little less ‘worldly’ than their UK counterparts.
How does Chinese university teaching differ from the UK and the EU?
Partly due to class sizes, teaching tends to be very teacher-centred and not very interactive. Autonomous learning and group projects are also far less common. The traditional approach seems to be: “here is the answer which you need to learn”.
What is the social life like?
The social life for expats in the big cities in China is excellent. You can find a wide selection of fantastic restaurants, both local and international. Prices are invariably much lower than in the UK. Most Chinese socialising revolves around eating out but karaoke (KTV) is also very popular. The large cities also have western style bars.
Formal dinners (banquets) with business partners tend to be very elaborate with many courses. These usually involve a large number of toasts, often involving bai jiu (pronounced “by Joe”), a very strong Chinese spirit served in small ceramic cups. The seating arrangements are usually decided by the hosts, with the most senior guest seated next to the most senior host.
What have you enjoyed most about your time in China?
The wonderful hospitality and the endless activity; the streets are always alive with people and no matter how long you spend in China, you invariably see something that you haven’t seen before.
Did you face any particular challenges?
The main challenge for me was the air pollution in Beijing, Shenzhen, Guangzhou and Shanghai. If you are unfortunate enough to develop a chest infection, it may well linger for some time; I had a respiratory problem which lasted several months. In those cities, I would recommend investing in a good quality air purifier for your home and office and keeping doors and windows closed. In terms of doing business and travelling, the biggest challenge is patience in both cases. The main way to travel around China is by using domestic airlines and there are frequent and very long delays. Air travel can sometimes seem like a metaphor for your business dealings!
Have you got any advice for other academics planning to work in China?
- Employ your own translator / interpreter / assistant, making sure that he/she has excellent language skills. This can be very cheap and will ensure that you are kept properly aware of what is happening and that you function well on a daily basis; in terms of all the small daily things which are hard if you cannot communicate in Chinese. If you rely on an interpreter supplied by a partner organisation in business discussions, you may only be told things on a “need to know” basis and the interpreter may feel nervous about communicating your questions or comments accurately.
- Learn some Chinese as soon as possible. Few people in China speak English and daily life can be very frustrating if you cannot order food or ask for directions.
- Observe and try to copy the way that Chinese people do business and deal with each other.
Hospitality is very important. However, don’t interpret good hospitality and flattery as signs that you are making great progress in negotiations.