Reader Request....starting your career in China.

(I'd like to ask you to write a post for 20-somethings who start their career in China or for other age brackets as well. Below I send you two links to some articles (one is from 2015 and another from 2008. You could also compare the data with any "china salary report". I'd be really curious to hear your say about this topic.

First of all, thank you for the reader request.  My apologies for having taken this long to reply.
I can sum this up in one medium length sentence:

“Going to China is still worth it, but you need to speak Mandarin and have a skillset built up over time.”

While it helps to have a skillset that foreign companies appreciate, all the same one should do what one wishes to do in life, and not what market demand dictates.  Be happy with what you do, Future China Expert.

First a rant:

Expats, laowai....all leaving China?  So what!  What does this have to do with you?  The more that leave, the better!  Makes you all that special.  Many of them are leaving for the simple reason their wife doesn't like the place.  I see no problem with that.  China is a place for young people.  All these kids that speak Chinese and pat themselves on the back cause they got laid again last night, and very much have that air of superiority over you, what are they doing in China?  Golf instructor?   None of these punks have a mortgage.  They don't have children ready for school.   What self respecting laowai wants his kids to attend the Chinese school system?   You know any?  Throw a Long Island Iced Tea in his face.   The reason he's in China with his kids is he can't find a job back home.  He's stuck there.  Don't be that guy! advice:

Learn Mandarin, and do it in China.

By this I mean not in Taiwan.  Don’t be a pussy.  Visit Taiwan, enjoy Taiwan, but do not learn your Mandarin in Taiwan.  Or Hong Kong.  Or Singapore. If you want to be involved in China you must study in China.   

(It would be helpful though if you learn Mandarin in America, or your own native country first.  Don’t forget the rule of thumb is 4 years of university study equates to one year in China.  I find this to be correct. But take at least one semester of Chinese if not more before taking the plunge.)

You’ve all read my very hard earned insight on “how” to learn Mandarin.  (right?) And you’ve read my recent somewhat jaded post on just how useful one’s Mandarin may or may not be in the workplace.

Still, if you decide to learn Mandarin, than you sure as hell better do it right!  Don’t be wasting Mommy or Daddy’s money in Beijing.   Much less government student loan money (which was my route).

Now there are LOTS of people that will tell you “one can easily learn Mandarin in Beijing” or any other big city and I would of course respond with a hearty “absolutely”.    But’s it’s just not as easy as it was before the flood of laowai arrived.  There are so many students in Beijing and Shanghai that one must fight NOT to speak English.   And that is hard to do.  And then you will find that their Chinese friends speak English as well.

Can you learn Mandarin properly in those cities?  Yes, you can.    But you are not being honest with yourself if you think it will be as easy as in other less known cities.

Further, when the job search begins, some folks, especially the Chinese, may ask where you learned your Mandarin?   They won’t be impressed with Beijing or Shanghai, in particular as they will expect such a common answer.  But if you give them an out of the way place, that will show them your true passion for learning the language.

Lastly….I went to China cold turkey.  That is, I went to China without any notion as to whether I would like the place or not.  It was a tough place.  One year after Tiananmen.   和平演变 was in full throttle. I expected to go one year without sex, for instance.  If you are fortunate enough, it wouldn’t hurt for you to go to China for a few weeks before making any final decision.   After all, The Middle Kingdom simply may not be for you.

This part will be hard to swallow, but one year of language study IS NOT enough.   You need two years of study.   The First Year should be on building up your 口语。In my view Year Two should be more about 汉字.

And when you do study Chinese, it has to be in two separate cities, the better “to know” China.  This was the advice my professors gave me and it was correct.   I am a much better person for it.   One’s Mandarin is much better, in terms of listening comprehension and colloquial Chinese speaking ability, if one stays for two years.   I understand this is two years out of your life.  Use the time wisely.  Travel! But not back home.  Stay in China, Fool.  (Hook up!  Just don’t’ fall in love with a Chinese.  You’ll have time for that later in life!)

Staying for two years also shows any future employer your dedication and passion to the cause of “learning about China.”

Avoid the pissing contest syndrome

I sincerely hope you do all this BEFORE you get a real job.  So many people become addicted to making money, and as such see studying in China as a time of lost income than as a time of learning and enrichment.   We tend to forget when in country we just don’t nail down Mandarin but we gain great insight into the culture and way of thinking of 20% of the global populace. 

Never take your eye off the ball.  If you decide China is for you, never shy away from learning as much as you can.   China isn’t going away.  However, don’t fall into the trap of getting into a pissing contest with other Sinophiles, about “this movie” or “that book”.     You are in China to establish a foundation for the next 30-40 years of your life.    The strength of that foundation will not be altered because you are not up to speed on what went down during the latest Chinese Movie Festival or Book Fair, blah blah blah.  

Stay away from that scene.    I won’t look down upon you if you don’t know who won the latest Golden Rooster for best actor and your hiring manager won’t either.   (Don’t be ashamed if you spent the previous weekend listening to Joy Division or simply read a book having nothing to do with China.)

It’s more than just your Mandarin

Ok…so you’ve got the college degree (or very much in demand vo-tech skills)…and the Mandarin skills….what now?

There are two roads here:

One is somehow figuring out how to get a job in China with a company on a local package.  And that is not easy to do.  I remember when I lived in Shanghai, Intel gave me a call and offered me a job on the phone with a simple caveat:  local package. 

And you know what? If I was single and not one semester short of getting my graduate degree I would’ve said yes!  But you need that graduate degree Boy.(more on that later)

What is your major?   If it’s Engineering, I’d say you have a 30-70 chance of landing a local gig with a foreign company on a local package if you give yourself 6 months to look.  

If your major is liberal arts like mine was, I’d say you still have a chance, but less likely.   Keep in mind there are small foreign trading companies that would prefer to hire foreigners.   And this is to your advantage.  Why is that?  Because it is Chinese business culture to payoff the Chinese liaison of the company they are working with.   And foreign companies are increasingly aware of this.

Still, companies like Jabil, Amazon and Apple are hiring all over China at the moment.   However, it will be hard to get an entry level job in these firms.  Another big barrier is that HR is a Chinese, and they of course are more wanton to hire a local Chinese.  (No visa issues to worry about.) But the opportunities are there, and one should look at them.   Going through Chinese HR will be a deadend.   
Apply through the corporate website, where a foreigner will at least have a probability of taking a look. Take whatever you can get.  Stretch yourself.  You are entry level do not forget.  Your twenties should be nothing if not a decade of learning and soaking up knowledge.   Do all you can to find entry into a foreign company, however.   Remember a smaller company will be less structured and you will have more responsibility, but they tend to be less forgiving and more inclined to see you as a “cost” than as an “asset”.  Don’t fret.  It’s all about building your resume.

But what if you simply want to go back to your own country?  Fair enough.  Let’s talk to that.

Your goal should be to get a graduate degree.   But that can/should wait a few years.  It is infinitely easier to find a job via the job boards for entry level work than it was when I was a college student.  You are no longer restricted to only those recruiters that come to campus.  Not at all 

Ensure you have a LinkedIn profile.  If your major in college was Finance, angle for something related.   Preferably find a job with Chinese operations.   Why is that?  Because one’s odds of returning to China are greater through a larger company.

You’ve already built your China and Mandarin foundation.   Now is the time to build your actual skillset.  This is the most important thing of all.  It cannot be delayed.   Hopefully, while you were learning Mandarin you were also on the side working an internship with a foreign company.   Now is the time to build your brand.  Have patience and be humble.  What you do in the next few years will dictate your odds of returning to China.

Don’t let the Instagram pix from your friends showing them partying in clubs in China get to you.  While they are still there fucking around you are back home getting stuff done.  Don’t forget that.  It’s easy to think, “I’ll just get a job in China teaching English for a year and see what comes up”.   Don’t fall into that trap.  Yes, I admit one year in China is great for “learning” about the culture if you don’t plan on making China your life.   But you’ve already spent two years there, right?  Get the fuck out.  You’ve spent two years there nonstop already.  China will wait for you.

Chinese companies in America are always a great place to start the second step towards establishing a career in China.   But keep in mind there are two things Chinese operations have in common:  they are cheap and prefer their workers speak Chinese.   Still, places such as Haier and Huawei are fine examples of companies in America that should be looked into.   And those overseas in their own country should take a serious look at local Chinese firms as well.

The aim of working in these firms should be to interact with expat staff.  Chinese firms are notorious for hiring local Chinese at the expense of non Chinese.   They are willing to accept lower pay and there is no language or cultural barrier.   I have come across Korean firms in America where every worker is Korean.  Every single one.  From the front desk down to the shop floor.  (only in America would this be allowed to exist)

However, beyond that Chinese firms will never send you to China.  Your power to make major decisions within the organization will be close to nonexistent.   Don’t worry about those things.  Everything you do pre grad school is about learning and building one’s resume.

In the beginning American firms were simply taking manufacturing jobs and moving them to China. Assembly line stuff.  Tool maker.  Plastic injection machine operator.  But now I’ve found that the next level of jobs is also being moved to Asia.  Commodity manager.  Supply chain manager.  That type of thing.

Law and finance jobs still remain mostly in America.  As do some niche Quality jobs.
If I were to choose the one job that a large corporation simply cannot fill in China it would be a Six Sigma Black Belt.  Almost no Chinese firms, despite their size have an independent “Continuous Improvement Manager” or Six Sigma program in place.  To be able to speak Mandarin and lead the SS programs of major corporations would in my view be something one could do in China for a long time to come.

You should probably get a graduate degree

I highly recommend one gets a graduate degree, or a series of job specific Certifications(see above).   It’s all about taking the time to check off the box.  And it gives a company one less excuse with which to keep you from achieving your dream.  I doubled my income with my Master’s Degree.
Most major corporations have a Chinese office or operation, and certainly a Chinese supply base.  Still, keep in mind no matter what your field your colleagues will look upon you as a competitor.   Very few personnel within each corporation are involved with Chinese operations.  A select few.  Despite your obvious advantages, you will more likely than not be looked upon as an interloper, rather than as an asset.  

Many colleagues look upon their personal involvement with Chinese operations, regardless of your expertise, as their competitive advantage.  Their purview.  Their ticket to the top.  You are getting in their way.   Do not think for one moment that “Just Because” you speak Mandarin or actually understand how the Chinese think through a problem or that you have the necessary skillset your company needs that you will just be “The Man”.  Nope. 

I know a guy interviewing for a job that speaks Mandarin, has great experience and his hiring manager just got back from a 2 year tour in Shanghai.   Perfect fit, right?  Of course he was!   Did he get the job?  Of course not!  Who did?  A 25 year old fresh out of college with 2 years’ work experience.   Think she’s gonna be a threat to that guy that see’s China as his ticket to job security?  Fuck noShe was promoted from within.  Great company policy right?  Especially if the hiring manager knows she’ll never ask about China.

So above else, stress the quality of your graduate degree, the work experience you have and keep your Mandarin in the background.   Unless it is a job specifically asking for Mandarin.  If so, showcase it! 

Finally, some of you may have the opportunity to start your own business.  This takes a lot of time, as one needs to gain expertise in a certain field and one needs to understand just how he or she can add value.   Having one’s own business is inherently stressful, but it cuts through all of the above.   And it is less bureaucratic.   It is hard to come back from a free wheelin’ lifestyle such as China’s and walk into a structured corporate mindset in America.    

To summarize….your 20’s are your internship period.   Not a time to worry about how much money you make.  It’s a time to get as knowledgeable about your field of expertise as you can, with the goal of heading back to China.  But if you don’t speak Mandarin, it will be more difficult to do so.  And one must have the full expectation that even though you may be the perfect fit for a company’s China operations you must still pay your dues.  This is the long, steady path.  But I think it is the sure path.   
Those of you content to work for all those small companies out there needing somebody in China…fair enough.  But small firms don’t have mentors.   And they fire people on a whim.   Than when older, you find your boss knows half of what you do, but he’s your boss because…..he came from a larger company. 

At the end of the day, we all have our own path.  The above is just an outline of what your individual path will be.  Family, kids, etc will eventually impede upon that path.  My final advice is this: follow your heart, know your stuff, remain focused and persistent, be personable, and good things will happen.

Good luck.


  1. Hi,
    I'm 28 years old and Australian, I would really like if you could please email me at I have alot of questions I would like to ask you. I would be willing to pay you an hourly rate, so we could chat over skype. Alot of questions I want to ask regarding my Chinese girl friend as well as living in China. Many things regarding my gfs, she wants to marry and have kids i am really uncertain, and your advice would be much appreciated.


  2. Nice write-up for the younger set who would like to become Zhongguotong. A bit surprised people want to still move to China to make their fortune. I thought that bubble was already over.

  3. I think the good thing about the slowdown is it sweeps away the chaff. The Chinese, like alot of places, simply do not welcome the perceived "dregs" of other societies coming to their place to "camp out". And spend half of their waking hours boozed up and having sex with Chinese girls. Oh the horror.

    The only folks left will be the serious ones.


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