A Bull in a China Shop: Navigating Chinese Culture

Brooke Squires lived in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania until her family moved to Utah during her high school years. There, she studied Global Supply Chain Management at Brigham Young University. Upon graduating, Squires accepted a full-time position with Sunrise Technologies, where she works as a supply chain consultant. Sunrise Technologies assists organizations in implementing new Microsoft technologies, specifically ERP systems. Squires has worked on these implementations in New York City, New York; Sydney, Australia; and currently in Salt Lake City, Utah for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.


During her time at BYU, Squires participated in a few internships, including one that took her to China in the summer of 2018. China was a new experience for her, with its unique cuisine, squatter toilets, and massive population—all amazing in their own rights, but certainly acquired tastes. In this week’s podcast episode, Brooke Squires highlights her unique experience finding and navigating this Chinese internship, providing excellent advice for students and young professionals on ways to not to feel like “a bull in a china shop” when navigating new cultures.


Networking

Squires attributes her success in securing the internship to her network. Relationships are of the utmost importance to the Chinese culture, and she was lucky enough to know one of the VP’s at her host company who was able to make a position available to her. Others seeking similar opportunities in China can make those personal connections through the organizations and programs the students associate with. Finding the right program might include visiting a university advisement office or an experienced peer—utilizing one’s personal network to gain access to the organization’s professional network. “There’s a Chinese word called guanxi, and [that’s] showing the level of trust and connection that you have with people. And that really is what opens doors and business in China.”


This emphasis on networking also extends to leadership and growth opportunities within the country, though these opportunities unfortunately tend to be limited by interracial relationships—or a lack thereof. Squires observed that the Taiwan-owned company where she interned was led solely by Taiwanese professionals, while it was staffed at lower levels by Chinese professionals. The two groups even had separate cafeterias, which limited their social interactions and ability to develop that guanxi between themselves. When it came time for promotions, executives favored those who they related to on a personal level, restricting the ability of marginalized groups to progress in certain areas of the company.

How might this cultural division effect an American? Although there was conflict between the US and China during the summer of 2018, Squires never felt like changes in the macroeconomy impacted her personal relationships with colleagues. She was frequently invited out to eat, socialize, and visit people’s homes on weekends—often to give their families a chance to practice their English! Her one-on-one interaction with the locals was very personal and never experienced any sort of racial or political bias. Americans seeking to advance in the Chinese business world are first tasked with overcoming these types of social barriers to develop critical relationships and positive communication.

Communication

Squires had one semester of Chinese under her belt when she came to the country. This not only helped her to understand the characters and basics of the language, but also the history and culture of the country. She was surprised at how little English was spoken among her peers, which sometimes made networking across a language barrier a challenge, but people were generally good about explaining things and demonstrating understanding towards her being an outsider. On the other hand, most of the business tasks assigned to her were given in English because most of the VP’s were fluent, so the potential for miscommunication in that area was limited.

Working across cultures requires understanding both what is said and what is meant. In China, the communication style is indirect, so context is key. According to Squires, “If I were to do something that was completely crazy or ridiculous, [generally,] they would not tell me. They would beat around the bush…or say something that would help you deduce that [whatever I’d done] was incorrect.” In one instance, she showed proactivity by presenting an innovative plan to market their products on different websites. While her superiors were very polite, they didn’t ask any probing questions or show interest afterwards. When nothing happened, she figured out that wasn’t what they were looking for.


Hierarchical Structure

East Asian cultures are very hierarchical, so decisions generally need to come from the top down. In meetings, executives are seated according to their status and everyone listens attentively as the president speaks. There isn’t a lot of invitation to collaborate. By looking at her experience proposing a new marketing strategy through this cultural lens, Squires saw that she was an inexperienced outsider coming to leadership with advice they didn’t ask for. She was the quintessential bull in a china shop who hadn’t perceived the delicacy of her surroundings. In the U.S., we’re taught to speak out, come up with ideas, and provide unique value—we’re taught to disrupt. But Chinese businesses are not looking for disruption as much as unity. “I had to change my focus to learning and understanding instead of trying to come in and disrupt their current system.”


A large part of developing this sense of unity is learning to focus on the group as a collective. While each person serves their purpose as a cog that allows the machine to operate smoothly, we don’t measure productivity by the cogs’ function—we measure it by the machine’s. Squires had to switch her productivity style from creating a role that could be a resume builder for herself to doing the job that the company needed and expected her to do. Although this new task-oriented perspective does not put the resume first and foremost, this greater good focus can serve the same purpose as it sets the individual apart as a team player who will work hard on behalf of the group.

Work-Life Balance

Working hard is a way of life in China. Many of the workers lived on the company campus during the week, taking the weekends to go home to their families. They worked a lot of long hours, weekends, and were constantly keeping up with email correspondence. What was their motivation to work so hard? In the United States, we might work towards a personal promotion or impact, but that’s not their perspective. There, the act of work in and of itself is valuable, and working hard allows individuals to contribute to the greater good of the organization. The value placed on the act of working was interesting to Squires, since the U.S. is often known for its “workaholic” tendencies. From this perspective, the Chinese obviously “out-worked” most Americans, who tend to focus on efficiency as a means of minimizing our inputs. Rather than altering a system that works, the Chinese are willing to put in the time required for the internal reward work gives them and the external reward it gives the organization.


This intense work ethic begins long before entering the work force. In China, high school students spend 12 hours a day studying for their college admissions test for months on end. During her internship, Squires was being driven into the city for church, and the daughter of Squires’ driver came for a ride-along. She explained that this was her only day off that month, and she was spending it driving with the American, so she could practice her English. The work ethic of the Chinese people is admirable and unmatched.

Conclusion

Squires hopes than many more students can have life changing experiences abroad. As a final word of advice, she suggests doing some learning to prepare, and also preparing to learn. Before going to another country, study some of the history. China has a long, fascinating history, and learning about it can help outsiders to understand why the people act in certain ways. Be open minded when you go. Understanding that every culture offers different strengths and new ideas will prepare individuals to be life-long learners and thrive in new environments as culturally competent bulls.

To hear more about Brooke Squires’ experience interning in China, check out our Cultural Conversations podcast here.

LEARN HERE. GO ANYWHERE.

  • Facebook
  • YouTube
  • Instagram
  • LinkedIn