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!

The Red Carpet Treatment

I finally started my new job and I’ve been crazy busy for the last few weeks. I spend most of my time in smaller Chinese cities touring facilities and carrying out inspections of security programs at said facilities. For some of these facilities, a foreigner showing up is a big deal. I’ve observed some really interesting stuff the last couple of weeks that has lead to no small amount of embarrassment for me. Let me explain.

First of all, it’s important to understand that I am not high up in the company. I have a team of really fantastic Chinese co-workers who are all doing the same job as me, but they are more experienced at it, as I have just started. I have a background in what I’m doing, but I am new to the company and to their way of doing things, so I rely heavily on my co-workers for coaching and advice. Also, I am the only foreigner on our team. Well, the only non-Asian foreigner. However, in spite of being the same “rank” as my co-workers and far less experienced, I get treated very, very differently when we’re doing site visits. For example, at one point last weekend we had to go through a metal detector screening using hand held metal detectors. My Chinese co-workers went first, no big deal, but when it was my turn, I was asked to “wait a second” and they literally pulled out a red carpet for me to stand on while they did the screening. HUMILIATING. Later (this happened at multiple sites), when it came time to order lunch for me and my team, the facility staff ordered regular old cheap Chinese take out for my colleagues, but ordered something special for me…expensive pizza from Papa John’s. That was also humiliating and actually a huge pain in the ass because they’d already ordered a ton of Chinese food (that was thrown away) that looked fine and I was starving, but they made me wait an extra 90 minutes for the pizza because they didn’t want to give Chinese food to a “foreign guest.” Part of that was obviously their pre-conceived idea that a foreigner can not eat Chinese food or use chopsticks (it was mentioned). I am also starting to suspect that Chinese people think their own cuisine is disgusting (just kidding…). I don’t even eat pizza because it makes me sick! But them going out of their way to order special food for me left me with no option but to eat it because I felt guilty, but it also forced me into a situation where I was proving their point of “see? foreigners love pizza and hate chinese food!” Also, I got super sick from the pizza. Additionally, I don’t like having this divide between me and my co-workers. I’m sure they understand that I didn’t ask for special treatment, but I have to wonder if over time there would be any resentment caused by me constantly being given better treatment than them for the same exact job.

Ok, so I get that Chinese people just really want to be good hosts and make sure I’m taken care of. I get that. On one level it’s quite touching, but mostly it’s just super embarrassing. Nothing makes me happier than when Chinese people just treat me like everyone else. There was this restaurant that I used to go to and when I went in, they’d throw a menu at me and an order pad and say “write your own order down!” Just like they did to every Chinese person who went in there. I didn’t get babied, I wasn’t coddled and they even made fun of how ugly my characters were. I loved it. (My characters are so ugly.)

Another thing that kept happening is something that ALL foreigners have experienced. You open your mouth and say “ni hao” or “xie xie” and the world stops. Every Chinese person in the room is falling over themselves complimenting your AMAZING Mandarin. Even if that’s all you know. At times, the encouragement can be nice, but it can also reach a point where it’s just kind of insulting, even though I KNOW that’s not the intent. Knowing that Chinese people are just trying to be nice when they say things like this hasn’t really kept me from being annoyed by it. I think I finally came up with a comparison that explains why this makes me so uncomfortable: Let’s say you have a small child who goes to kindergarten and then comes home one day and tells you that they have a new teacher at school who teaches Chinese. Your kid then says “ni hao, xie xie, ni hao ma” whatever. Your kid is 5 years old, so you get really excited and you say “Wow! GOOD JOB! You’re so smart!” blah blah whatever people say to little kids who learn something. You’re excited that your kid picked it up so quickly. If we take that same scenario and your kid is an adult who comes home from work or college or whatever and says the same thing, your reaction is probably going to be not so enthusiastic, maybe like “that’s great, keep it up!” And you’ll go on with your day. In fact, you might even wonder if there’s something wrong with your child. Basically, my point is that we have different standards of success for small children and adults. When it comes to foreigners and Mandarin, we all get the 5 year old’s standard of success, which is somewhat insulting. I mean, we all sound like 5 year olds at some point in the learning process, but that doesn’t mean we actually only have the intellectual capability of a 5 year old (in most cases). I think one of the reasons why non-Asian foreigners have such a hard time learning Chinese is because of this. Chinese people won’t raise the bar on us and start expecting more. They don’t tell us when we’ve said something wrong because “awww, she’s trying, that’s cute” and some foreigners I suspect, believe the compliments and don’t realize that Chinese people are just being nice and maybe don’t push themselves as much as they would if Chinese people were less forgiving about it. How many of you have been told “Your Chinese is better than mine!” by a Chinese person? Come on! Who’s going to believe that? I’d almost think they were making fun of me except that most Chinese are simply too nice to do that. Again, even though I know it’s not the intent, I still can’t help but feel a little insulted when a Chinese person freaks out over me saying one word in Chinese. To me, it implies a combination of “we didn’t think you were smart enough to learn this language and we didn’t expect you to respect our culture enough to learn the language.” I think they owe it to themselves to expect that foreigners who come here long term bother to learn the language at least a little.