The Chinese Office

I’ve been doing my new job for about 5 months now and I’m mostly getting the hang of it. I have another problem though – Chinese co-workers. Our team is small, only 12 of us, including the boss and a secretary. It’s evenly split between men and women, but I’m the only foreigner. Initially, I didn’t see this as a problem, but now I hate it. Our department has another team in a different city that does the same stuff we do, and the managers are American, as well as most of the team members. Many of them started on my team in Shanghai (before I got here) and ended up begging to move to the other team. I used to think that was weird and assumed it was partly because their Chinese was bad. Now, I’m half way considering asking for a transfer too.

Reason #1: Having a Chinese manager sucks.

Our job requires that we work with a lot of third parties to try and make them do things they don’t want to do. Which means we deal with a lot of conflict, we’re bound to piss people off. This would be fine, except that every time I have an issue with someone (this one asshole in particular) he gets mad and calls my boss because he knows that she will capitulate to him because she wants to avoid conflict and he uses the “we’re Chinese, she’s a foreigner, we’re against her!” card. Even worse, she sometimes does this behind my back without communicating anything to me. How am I supposed to convince someone to do something when they know all they have to do is call my boss and it’ll be resolved? It’s impossible. The American managers on the other team all know better. When a third party calls them to complain about one of their subordinates, they either won’t engage or they tell the third party what they were told to say by their subordinate in order to back them up. I’ve tried talking to my boss about this and she always says she’ll change her approach to my face, but then doesn’t…in order to avoid conflict, I’m sure.

Reason #2: My co-workers exclude me from everything.

They have a WeChat group that I’m not part of, they go out together on weekends and don’t invite me, many of them have not accepted my WeChat friend request. We just had our annual dinner and they all went and got a table with 11 chairs…guess who wasn’t asked to sit with them? You know what? Fine. None of that would bother me because it’s not like I want to go to KTV anyway. Except for one thing. Several of them have gone to my boss to complain about me saying that I won’t take part in group activities and that I’m difficult to talk to. The best part is that my boss attends these group activities that I’m not invited to, hears the feedback, but then never thinks “maybe we should actually invite Whitey too.” How does she not make the connection to the fact that no one invites me, hence I have no chance to participate? Here’s the weird thing…it’s only the women who complain about me. I get along quite well with my male co-workers because they actually try to talk to me. I have a lot more in common with them than I do with the women. The women on my team are mostly what I would call airheads. They’re nice enough (except for when they’re gossiping about me…we’ll get to that), but they only talk about what they bought recently, what they’re going to buy next, their diets, and make-up. Not even kidding. I have nothing to add to any of that. “Oh you’re on a diet?! But you’re so skinny!” That’s all I got. I’ve tried to join in on their conversations, but I always get the feeling that I am not welcome so I give up pretty quickly. I have self-respect, so why would I sit there and try desperately to join a stupid conversation about things I don’t care about with people who don’t want to talk to me?

Reason #3: THE GOSSIP OMFG THE GOSSIP!

So did you know that I’m sleeping with one of my married co-workers? No? Me neither! I found out on Friday. I wonder how long this has been going on…my husband would be so mad if he knew…

One of my male co-workers and I get along really, really, really well. We’ll call him Bob. Bob is the only one of them who has made a genuine effort to get to know me and not make assumptions about what I’m about. We actually meet up occasionally in our down time just to chat. He’s aware of all the struggles I’m having and he does his best to try and make me feel better about it. I’m sure he sticks up for me when the others are saying unfair things. So of course, we’re banging. Because we’re all 5 years old and therefore we know it’s impossible for a man and a woman to have a relationship that isn’t about sex. *eye roll* This is another thing that my co-workers have complained to my boss about, the fact that I am sleeping with Bob. Funny how the complaints were only directed at me though, as if were it true, Bob would have no blame in the situation. But of course, I am a slutty white girl, so what else would I be doing with a man. Bob is being really cool about all of this. He found out about the rumors before I did, because they all approached him and asked what the deal was, but refused to hear his explanation. When he told me what happened, I was pretty sure the next thing he was going to say would be “I’m sorry, we can’t be friends anymore.” Instead, he came to see me in person and tell me not to worry about what others think and that time will prove them wrong. He’s made no effort to hide our friendship from anyone because we both know we’re not doing anything wrong. I think that if I didn’t have his support, I might just quit. At the very least, I would definitely be asking for a transfer to the other team immediately.

My boss told me I need to try harder to make my co-workers like me more. The thing is, I feel like they’re predisposed to not liking me no matter what I do. I don’t feel inclined to bend over backwards or to be someone I’m not to make people like me, especially when they’ve made no effort whatsoever. I’ve spent a fair amount of time with each of them, especially when I first started and they were helping me learn how to do the job. I really thought we were all getting along great. I never felt like there were awkward silences or anything like that…I’m admittedly bad at small talk, but I did what my husband always says to do – just ask them a lot of questions about themselves. I know way more about them than they know about me, I’m sure of that. Bob says that most Chinese and probably my co-workers just feel uncomfortable around foreigners, like they can’t be themselves. I can understand that because I feel that way around many Chinese too. If they just left me out of everything, but didn’t complain about me, I would be fine with that. I’m just going to start bringing food to the team meetings. Maybe I’ll take a cue from “The Help” and shit in a chocolate pie for them.

Anyway, I have this next week off to relax, so I plan on catching up on some posts that I’ve been planning. I hope everyone has a happy Spring Festival!

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18 thoughts on “The Chinese Office

  1. Regarding your post: wow, that’s so sad. Are you sure it is a Chinese thing? My ex colleagues in my previous job (all Chinese, I was the only foreigner) were fine with me, added me on WeChat, would invite me to join activities, of course I would be invited to company dinners… and the girls were not airheads. I think you have been very unlucky 😦 I think it’s kind of weird that they don’t want to get to know you, especially considering that you can speak Chinese. I would kind of understand if they avoided you because their English is not good, they can’t communicate with you, etc, but that is not the case…

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    • Maybe it’s a Shanghai thing. I have other foreign friends who have similar problems with their Chinese co-workers and they’re all in Shanghai too. I was out one night with an American and a Singaporean friend who both work together and we realized that the rest of their team was having a team gathering in the back of the bar we were in and no one had bothered to invite either of them! I would have assumed that this was all my fault if it wasn’t for the fact that I’m not the first foreigner on the team to have the exact same thing happen to them. Also, the fact that they assume there’s something naughty going on between me and the only one of them who tries to be my friend kind of makes it seem like they think he shouldn’t bother trying to befriend me for some reason.

      I don’t think the women I work with are actually dumb, I think they just act like it or they’re just shallow. Maybe talking about that stuff is their version of discussing the weather when they’re trying to be social with co-workers who aren’t really their friends. I have plenty of female Chinese friends who aren’t like that at all.

      I kind of wonder if it isn’t partly because I do speak Chinese that they’re not so interested in me. I’m not the foreigner that they can show around and take care of and show off to everyone else how good their English is (some of them have good english) so maybe I’m just not that interesting to them or something. Or maybe they just think I suck. Lol.

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      • I don’t think it’s you. If other foreigners have experienced the same in your team, then it is definitely them (the Chinese)… And the gossip? OMG, what are they, 15? So I agree with your friend, I guess it’s not worth it to try to befriend them as they are obviously stupid. But that puts you in an awkward situation in the office… What to do? 😦

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      • Well, I guess all I can do is be as friendly as possible, maybe organize the odd happy hour that no one will show up to and hope it doesn’t affect my peer reviews too much next fall.

        Sent from my iPhone

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      • It’s likely a Shanghai thing… In fact, it’s probably a first-tier city thing. Many Chinese people in cities like Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou now have an “I don’t care if you’re white” attitude and make a point of not associating with white people; this of course stands in stark contrast to the enthusiastic — fawning, even — behaviour toward white people by the Chinese that we’re used to seeing.

        Or maybe it’s just as Marta suggested… It’s because of your white privilege. It’s all well and good to want to be “one of the guys”, but are you willing to be paid as much as one of the guys?

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      • Of course I’m not willing to leave America, come live in a polluted Chinese city away from my family for a Chinese wage! That’s a ridiculous question. I can see why they’d be butt hurt about that, but at the same time, it’s just not reasonable to expect that people from developed countries would move to China to work for western companies for a Chinese wage. The salary is not about “white privilege,” it’s about what passport you hold. There are plenty of Singaporeans and Malaysians in my company who get paid higher wages than their Chinese counterparts. There are also some white foreigners who are bad at negotiating and get Chinese wages. The Asian looking foreigners aren’t treated this way, yet my white friend who sucks at negotiating is treated the same as me. His co-workers may assume he makes a lot more, but they can’t know for sure since discussing our salaries is against company policy and is actually a fireable offense. I think the (assumed) salary is part of the problem, but I think it really comes down to racism and feeling uncomfortable about interacting with “the other.”

        Taking a pay cut wouldn’t help my situation anyway, since I’d have to announce it to everyone and be all “I’m just like you! I get paid nothing, so we can all chill and be homies!” Wouldn’t that be condescending in and of itself?

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      • Would you consider Hong Kong a developing country (or economy, rather) that is comparable to China? What about Sinagapore, where white expats are also well known for being paid more than the locals? The developed country-cost of living difference argument used to justify higher pay simply does not hold water when one takes into account the fact that white expats across Asia receive privileged treatment regardless of how developed the country is. Yes, it is indeed about racism, because Asian Americans/Westerners do not get the same treatment, at least not to the same extent, and nowhere is this more apparent than it is in the ESL/English teaching industry in China and Taiwan, where native English-speaking Asians are expected to get paid as “non-native” speakers.

        And the brutal truth is that many, if not most, of the white expats in China would be lucky to have a job flipping burgers at McDonald’s or serving coffee at Starbucks if they weren’t in China getting paid for being white — these people should be grateful that they have a job at all because they’re unemployable back in their own countries. (This is not a personal dig at you, BTW, just a statement of the fact in general. Further, the situation is rather more complicated when the Westerner in question is employed by a Western company.)

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      • You make it sound like getting paid more than the locals is a priority for me or something. I don’t care. I would move to those countries, but it has nothing to do with getting paid more than locals or anyone else for that matter. I’m not going to up and quit a job that I like just because of some issues with my co-workers, that would be short-sighted and immature. I’m not looking for solutions to my problems, I’m just writing about them so maybe other people who have had similar experiences can share, or maybe someone does have some advice, but don’t mistake it for whining.

        I didn’t use the developed country cost of living argument at all. My point is that for me to leave my own country where I enjoy a higher standard of living, get to breath clean air and be near my family, it’s going to take more than a Chinese salary. If a company in China wants to hire foreigners, that’s just what’s going to happen. Many Europeans who work in the United States are given crazy awesome expat packages to compensate for similar sacrifices. I don’t see what’s wrong with that.

        As far as the English teacher thing goes, I know that to be true as well, but at the same time, it also kind of makes sense. If schools hired Asian Americans for example, to teach English to Chinese students, then the parents are going to possibly think that the school is just hiring Chinese English teachers while charging tuition for a foreign teacher. Not every Chinese parent is going to be able to tell a native speaker apart from a local who learned English really well. I worked at a school in Yunnan that did that very thing, so it is a distinct possibility. It’s just too bad that the easiest way to put parents’ fears to rest is to hire someone who looks the part, no matter how crappy they are. If anything, I think that says more about the quality of the institution than it does the people they hire.

        Lastly, I think it’s unfair to say that “most” white expats are unemployable in their own countries. There are some real sleaze balls running around here for sure, but to say that is kind of racist and sort of makes it sound like you have a chip on your shoulder. During my time in China, as I’ve changed, so has the group of people that I spend time with. When I first came here, I was just a college student and I did what a lot of young people do – I took Chinese classes, I drank a lot, I behaved like an embarrassing asshole foreigner, and I also taught English because it was easy and because I needed the money. I was also 19 years old, so I’m not really sure what any school hiring me thought they would possibly be getting other than that. No 19 year old is really employable anywhere, you have no skills, you’re immature, whatever. However, I grew up, as did the friends I had who partied with me, we graduated college and now most of us are respectable adults with careers. I believe that many of the “most white expats” that you speak of are probably in that phase of life. It’s not like students who go to the US from China or wherever else don’t also go out and behave like young idiots. Here it’s an issue because we look different and people like to get mad about stuff. It’s a stereotype that people love to see fulfilled. Obviously though, there are people for whom there is no excuse. But again, you find those people everywhere and they can come from anywhere.

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  2. You are hilarious, but I guess how else can you cope with this crap? There are jerks everywhere but it’s so much more complicated when dealing with them in a foreign country. I hope you can find a way to improve the situation–a transfer sounds like a good bet!

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    • Ha, thanks. I will definitely be keeping the option of a transfer in the back of my mind. I’d really rather not leave Shanghai though if I didn’t have to. Bob is also trying to figure out what he can do on his end to encourage fairer treatment for any foreigners that end up on the team. Even if I do leave, it won’t solve the problem for the next guy and it really isn’t fair that the foreigners keep getting driven away. It’s not good for the people involved and it’s not good for the foreigners. Having a diverse team is always a good thing, in my opinion.

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  3. I guess it is really just bad luck for you. I mean I heard from other that they struggled from time to time when they were the only foreigners in a Chinese company but this now is just too extreme. For me it appears that they can’t even calculate 1 + 1 to see what they are doing themselves wrong

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    • I’m fairly certain I must have done something wrong at some point to motivate this kind of treatment, however unfair it is. Like maybe I made them mad or accidentally said something offensive at one point that they just haven’t gotten over. A Chinese friend suggested that maybe it’s because I don’t participate in the girl talk about shopping and whatnot, so they think that I think I’m better than them or something. That’s obviously not true, I just have absolutely nothing to add to that conversation and anything I would say would just sound ridiculous. Maybe I should say it anyway!

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  4. The other day, just a couple of days after reading your post, I met with a friend who works in Hong Kong for a Spanish company. She told me exactly the same story as you: the Hongkongers in her office organize dinners and activities without telling her, or they tell her and then completely ignore her the whole time. And then the HR manager tells her that “she needs to make an effort and integrate in the team”. But how can you integrate if they arrange something and don’t tell you??

    My friend thinks it is because she has only been in the company for 6 months and alredy is the Hongkongers’ boss, so they are jealous because she has an important position/earns more money than them… maybe that could also be your case?

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    • That’s an interesting point. I’m not anyone’s boss, but I do get paid a lot more than them for the same job. I’ve never told anyone on my team how much I get paid (luckily they’ve never asked either), but they probably have some idea. You might have something here! I can’t believe that never occurred to me!

      Sent from my iPhone

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