Do we really need our Mandarin in the workplace?
Is Chinese really useful in work? Is it helpful to one’s career? I mean, why else, at the end of the day, do we take the time to master the language?
I’ll spill the beans now: in my view, one gets more value out of his/her Mandarin if they work for themselves. Not if they work for a company. But most of us are unfortunately pushed towards that direction. It’s not something we desired. Read on.
I’ve spent my entire adult life working in China, or studying here. To me, learning Chinese was not just a cultural pursuit, or something I did out of curiosity, but something I fully intended to use. The problem was after completing my initial studies, I really didn’t know how I wanted to leverage my new found abilities.
My first desire was to be an international lawyer. Luckily, I came to my senses.
During graduate school, I interned in China with a very large American company. I was expecting an offer. Didn’t get one. I was rather surprised. They did offer another intern, though. A Chinese native. Someone who in my view wasn’t as talented as myself. Obviously, I was rather upset by this. In hindsight, I think they were upset I refused a transfer to Shenyang. My original offer was in Shanghai.
All the same, it left me rather discouraged. Why had I studied Chinese? Than I remembered my previous experiences in Asia, dealing with Korean and Japanese companies. Many of their senior managers spoke reasonably decent Chinese. None of the American managers meanwhile at this Fortune 5 US company I worked at did. To this day, I rarely come across an American manager that works in China for an American company, that speaks Chinese.
I’m literally more likely to come across a hippie at Starbucks throwing down the Mandarin than a nice white collar, clean cut American manager doing the same.
After completing graduate school, I did have a couple of offers. One each from a Taiwanese company and one from a Chinese company. Both large, and well known organizations. Yet from graduate school, beyond the US govt, I had hardly any interest from an American company. This bothered me greatly, as I thought my Chinese ability itself would set me apart, and as most companies recruiting graduate programs have Asian operations, they would in turn be interested in myself. Wrong. Very wrong.
In the many years since than I have finally been able to work for several US companies, using my Mandarin, to manage their respective supply chains. Granted, one obviously has to have other skills as well. Which I had. I’ve brought a lot of value.
Financially, I’ve done better than most. However, I’ve found the ability to speak the language, know the culture, and to have the technical know how gained over many years, to not really be a key to a successful career track within an American company. Esp mid size companies. Maybe my personality is to blame? Possibly. Only special personality types go to China just to learn Chinese anyway, right?
Instead, I’ve found myself increasingly “silo’d”. That is, “he’s our China guy”, or “we don’t want him doing anything else”. Quite often, I’ve had my boss ask me if my China team could speak English. I found out right away that some bosses would scheme to replace me with an English speaking version of myself in seconds if possible. This would be especially true if the boss wasn’t very competent, or was new, and whose only claim to “adding value” was by cutting costs. Also to use as leverage against me in order to keep me in line. Imagine the tension in the room during my performance review.
I headed this off by deliberately hiring staff that could not speak English.
I often reported to people who never had even visited China. I had one boss who didn’t even know who Deng Xiaoping was! I ask…how can I not look down on that guy? The graduate of a very prestigious school. Of course my bringing up who Deng was(I work in Shenzhen, and everyone here knows there is a huge billboard of him here), would be seen by my boss as being arrogant.
So over time, either wrong or right, I certainly began to feel a bit underappreciated. And despite my obvious impact to the corporate bottom line, I increasingly felt like a “cost”, rather than as an “asset”. Why is that? A fellow that spends a lot of time working overseas incurs expenses. And is thus an easy target.
Finally, I decided things just were not going to change. That this is just the way American companies are. So I decided to utilize my time in China, to slowly put myself in position to work for myself.
After many years, my mindset evolved as to where I realized that if I really wanted to be happy, than I’d have to rely upon myself, and not the whims of yet another boss who couldn’t find China on the map, and who quite frankly, didn’t think it important to do so, either.
There was also the financial slant: Having seen all the money I was saving my organization, it was only natural that my thinking would evolve towards the point that I could make more working for myself. Why should I be the key to success and not get a larger share of the spoils?
But what really boiled me over was when I found out how much my boss was making in bonuses, at my expense. More on this lucky guy in a separate post.
So I started out on my own. I can only blame myself now for the failure or success of my professional career. I’ve finally now realized that in my view, US companies mostly just don’t care if one of their own speak Mandarin. There are simply too many local Chinese around, that speak English. After all, if no one in senior mgt speaks the language in the first place, how can it truly be appreciated? As a collective, they thusly do not see having language ability as an asset. And to be fair, why pay an American a nice salary when we can hire a whole team of local Chinese to do your job? I have no short answer for that.
No more being looked at from a distance within the office as a curiosity. No more having to deal with those few managers looking to “put you in your place” lest you think you are special. No more dealing with a silo’d career.
No more explanations. No more excuses. No more dreadful performance reviews with a moron. And for godssakes no more having to explain who Deng Xiaoping was.