After being here for 3 weeks, I am beginning to understand some of the finer points of working for a local Chinese firm.
Authority and status is very important here. Its always crucial to know your place in the firm. For instance, every attorney here is referred to by their last name and the attorney title (Chen “lv shi”, Li “lv shi”, etc). Unfortunately for the accountant, she is simply referred to directly as ”kuai ji”, or “accountant”. Her name isn’t even mentioned, but she doesn’t seem to mind. The cleaning lady is referred to as “ah yi”, which means something like auntie. I have tried to ask everyone to simply call me by my first name instead of the full ”lv shi” title, but i now feel that in doing so, I may have reduced my status and authority in this firm from attorney to perhaps an assistant or intern.
Of course this all makes sense. The US is founded on individualism, and we like to be distinguished by our person rather than our current placement in life. We don’t like generalizations because we find them limiting. But China is a place of structure and tradition, and understanding your place in that structure allows everyone to save face, lest you tread upon the toes of a superior.
So the logical way to think about working in China should be to 1) know your place then 2) do your job.
Of course situations occur when doing your job may require you to abandon your station; such as when you are proposing certain changes to the current business model or concept. Well tread lightly when you do so. While in your mind you are only thinking about improving the company, your superiors may perceive it as an effort to undermine their authority by uprooting the work they have done. Chinese employers are often extremely defensive and very slow to change due to this.
I have noticed that Chinese employers often allow a certain leeway to a foreign who looks distinctly un-Chinese. I believe in this case the Chinese employer feels that because the foreigner is not really a part of the Chinese social structure and therefore nonthreatening. In this case the Chinese employer might even manage to get to know the foreigner as an individual person rather than just another minion. Its all about expectations. If your boss expects you to be a part of the structure but you don’t adjust well, then you are going to struggle. If the boss doesn’t expect you to be a part of the structure, then you are suddenly free to fully utilize your own creativity.