Thursday, February 17, 2011

Bring on the new generation

Some week or so before I got sick I met with a fellow female expat: a middle-aged, immaculately dressed business queen, that had already climbed much higher than me on the career ladder.

As we sat there, drinking our coffees, I realized how little she in fact knew about China. She’d been here for quite some years, but not by her own choice, and that came through in our conversations. She didn’t say anything racial against Chinese people, but it was just the way she spoke of Chinese, as if they were a lower class of citizens. And when I gently tried to turn the conversation, or share some good stories of some of my great Chinese friends, she wouldn’t listen. In her world, having local friends was not even something she’d consider.

Fair enough. Her choice. Her loss. And she’s more successful than me. At least at this moment.

But when I left the café I couldn’t help but thinking that women, or people like her, are going to become a distinguished breed in China. Think in 20 or so years time: when all those youngsters that are now rushing to schools and universities to study Chinese language and Asian culture, have graduated, gained some work experience, maybe spent some years in China. Then this market is going to be tough for those who doesn’t wanna be here, doesn’t speak and language, and doesn’t care one iota when it comes to learning about the culture. I see so many western men and women on top positions in China right now, some with very little knowledge, or even interest in understanding how China really works (note: I'm not generalizing here. I said I've seen a lot of those kind of expats. On the contrary, I've also met some really cool CEO expats with an amazing China knowledge and experience, who speak fluent Chinese and who I really admire and look up to).

Not saying that I do. Oh no, allow me to be humble. But I’m not a CEO, neither am I running my own business, and I am definitely not walking around thinking that I’m better than everyone else. I seriously don’t understand what those kind of people are doing, living in China.

18 comments:

조안나 said...

It's common here in Korea too. In some ways, even more so. Since Korea is such a small country, most expats don't see any need to learn the language. I'd say 80% at least learn the alphabet, but I'm disgusted when I meet those people who have been here for over a year and still couldn't find a few hours of their time to figure out how to read a menu.

others claim to be experts because they know some foods and can order food like a champ. But, it's hard to find anyone who can hold down a conversation. Even those who have studied a lot often default back to English as soon as the Koreans start speaking to them in English.

I think the key point is that understanding the language gives you insight into the culture. There are so many words in Korean that don't exist in English because they are not part of our culture. As you learn words for new things you understand the culture that revolves around them. Its easy for someone to just write off whatever they want about a culture, like that woman you spoke with, because they never took the time to understand it.

Anonymous said...

My husband to be has been quite the same until recently, when he realized that ignoring Chinese culture and people will not get you anyway if you run your own business in China. And even, and I must say this, that Chinese regulations can make it harder for foreigners to start a business here, he now at least tries to learn the language and understand the culture. So everything is going smoother, even though that lesson cost him half his fortune.

ewaffle said...

A very strange way to live although it isn't that uncommon. The woman you describe must think she is stuck in China but to live anywhere for years and not want to take advantage of it by learning (or at least learning about) the language and culture of the area seems like a complete waste.

And to go through the years feeling one is surrounded by inferior or second-class people would seem intolerable.

webwombat said...

Well, this is actually quite common for foreigners who live in China. Most of the time, only the financial situation is a big enough gap between he/she and the ordinary Chinese people, I think one reason you can dive into the 'REAL' life here in China is: you are not so financially superior compares to those people(CEOs, senior managers..etc), and of course, more important thing is you are younger and much more open-minded, love to learn or at least get to get and understand the culture here.

mantse said...

Superior is due to knowledge and bias...

sometimes they don't understand or even trying to know more about others.

this is not about Chinese or Westerner.. but just how to live with someone not familiar with us..

Anonymous said...

In 20 years, China might be what Japan is today, a country with a high unemployment rate and declining economy plus old people. Twenty years ago, circa the late 80's and early 90's, Japan was thought to dominate the world in economy. Every American student in college who learned a second language was learning Japanese. China has a much bigger problem than Japan. China has a big wealth gap and a massive populattion of under-educated people in the rural area. I have the best wish for China as I am Chinese living overseas. However, I feel China will not turn out to be a very disappointing place to work or to live. In the future, foreigners will leave China behind as they did with Japan.

As for the expat lady you described, she is a pathetic loser. She was probably facing unemployment or being sent to work in China, and she had to choose the latter. Hence she resented it and took her anger out on the Chinese people. I have seen some of them up and close here in America.

Anonymous said...

i can only think of a few things to say about this post....

these people are probably on top of the food chain and generously supported by their organisations/ wealth, why would they give a shat about trying to get to know chinese culture/make chinese friends to find their way around ... they're not at survival level.

Kitchen Sink Realism said...

It's such a shame that this keeps going on in these days. Haven't we grown up from thinking this way. I'm so very happy to see that you are having a fun time in China. I'm saving up and soon to be moving there by 2012. What part of China did you move to? How much is rent on average there? Was it hard settling in at first? Lol I have so many questions sorry about that.

Hopfrog said...

"she’s more successful than me

No she is not. She may make more money and have a bigger title, but in the game of life, you got her beat by miles. I couldn't imagine living overseas as an expat and being that culturally bankrupt.

TimN said...

Hi, Jonna, I totally agree with you on this point. This world has been changed too fast, or China has moved too fast.
People outside of China or even someone living in China for years like you do not understand a lot of things.
Cause I think you and that woman do not get idea what is the definition of richness. I can tell you most of westerners whatever job they are doing, is poor in my eyes. Why?
Even though this woman holds a job which brings her 300,000 yuan after tax, which will be considered very high even in Sweden, she will never afford to buy a two-room apartment in the central areas of Shanghai.
Most of local Shanghai residents are holding at least one apartment, which worth millions in the market, and moreover that the price keeps going up at least 30 percentage each year.
My cousin lives in an apartment worth three millions in the Hongqiao area, though he only has a 50000 yuan income. Why? because his mother was a local farmer in the place, and Hongqiao, Gubei area was rural area 20 years ago.
Shanghai government gives out each local resident a new apartment to live, which also allow them to sell in the market. Jonna, you can ask your friends what i am saying is truth. It's not unusual that a local resident in Shanghai holding several real estate.
As someone living in an advanced western country, I can tell you, most of westerner have no money, they spend up their all salary each month, no saving, no investment, no real estate, moreover lots of them have loans from banks, which they have to pay the high interests.
In Sweden, normally, one third of salary pays for the rent, one third pays for the loans and bills, rest buy food and other things. Never go to restaurant, cut hair by oneself, buy glasses by installment.
Who's rich, who's poor?
Jonna, you and that woman should be completely appreciated that you can have much better living standard than your country fellows who's living in back home, thinking that they have best living standard in the world.
What I am saying is true or not, you should think it over yourself, Jonna.

Jonna Wibelius said...

TimN -Ehhhh... I am not sure why u keep getting into things that this blog is not about? I am not saying anyone is poor, am I? I am simply saying this woman is poor when it comes to judgement!

Stop throwing out these strange comments that are completely off topic as if you're some know-it-all. None of my friends in Sweden cut their hair by themselves and they go to restaurants every now and then. You are generalizing a country that you obviously do not know so much about.

Johan said...

Eh, I'd guess at least 90 % of the poplulation here in Sweden make more money than I do, which doesn't keep me from getting my hair cut or eating out every now and then.

Sarah said...

they are making money, that's what those type are there for!!!Some people just aren't into other cultures. It's like Chinese and Polish people who come to Ireland. They don't come here for our wonderful weather... or culture their soul purpose is to come here and make as much money as possible and then leave

Sarah said...

oh and also most of those polish and Chinese who come here to work often rarely learn English, or try to integrate into Irish culture. They buy there food in polish and Asian stores and live together

Jess said...

I completely agree with your post. As I and like minded China hands at my school look for work in China related fields, we see a lot of work environments that don't understand what a boon real Chinese knowledge is. Here's to hoping the tendency to bring in foreign human capital without the willingness to learn about the cultural environment will peter out. Bring on the new generation of real China hands! Ones that are open-minded, respectful and curious!

黃愛玲 said...

It's unfortunate there are people out ther who are like that. I've met people who have that very same attitude in Taipei. I agree with what 조안나 said.

MKL said...

Funny how some people chose to discuss some completely different things in the comments, stuff that has nothing to do with the topic above.

I personally believe that one needs to learn the language of the country they migrate to. Language barrier is usually the biggest barrier between people. All other barriers are easier to overcome, once you are able to communicate. I think it's really a pity, that she can't enjoy all the strong aspects of the Chinese culture. She's missing a lot.

Mike said...

Wow, was this older women also Swedish? As an American, I am amazed by the fact that most Europeans are multilingual.

I am disgusted by this woman's attitude. At the same time, I do realize that there are many people out there that are linguistically-challenged (i.e. people who come from English-speaking countries and/or from the older-generation).