How to Work in China

“You are English? Is funny, I have this school…”


I figured I should make good on my promise of providing some practical information, instead of just chatting about vampires and complaining about the British government. Here are a few things that I would advise if you actually want to live and work in Beijing. Some things I have learned the hard way, others are just handy tips that I’ve picked up on my journey so far:

Remember who’s who
In the movie Braveheart, King Longshanks says “the trouble with Scotland is that it’s full of Scots”. This pretty much sums up England’s attitude towards international relations over the last several hundred years. English people tend to go on holiday wearing a St. George’s Cross, shouting about football, calling the waiter rude names and then wondering why they have an international reputation as red-faced, beer-swilling numpties. In a foreign environment, you are not ‘surrounded by foreigners’. You are the foreigner.

Don’t be lazy
Martin Luther King Jnr. once said that “if one is called upon to be a street sweeper, one should sweep streets as Michelangelo painted, or as Beethoven composed symphonies, or as Shakespeare composed sonnets. One should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say ‘There lives a great street sweeper, who did his job well.'” That’s the work ethic of most Chinese people right there. Most people here work very hard, even if they think their job is shite. Being a delivery driver for McDonalds or a barista in Starbucks (usually reserved for the student, the struggling artist or the chronically workshy in the west) are considered half-decent, secure jobs. Teaching – the one job that foreigners can pretty much guarantee securing here – is a highly respected profession. If you take on the responsibility to teach children then you will be expected (by parents, employers, colleagues etc.) to be good at it and to put in a lot of time and effort.

Try to find the right visa
A lot of companies will bribe the police or visa companies and leave you on a visa that is anything from slightly suspect to genuinely illegal. Don’t settle for anything other than a full working visa.

Do your research
Look into the company that you’ll be working for, as well as the area that you’ll be based in. Most companies will have a professional website with video content featuring happy Americans playing paintball and telling you how great Beijing is, so if yours won’t even Google Translate then that’s probably a bad sign.

The Beijinger magazine (free) and Time Out Beijing (free) are great resources. The English language newspaper China Daily is also very helpful (only ¥2, or about 20p) but it can be hard to find outside of ‘westernized’ areas like Wudaokou and Sanlitun.

Know the difference between a Chinese company and an international one
The laws are complex here, but if you’re a foreigner running a business, you can only own up to 50% of it and you must have a Chinese partner. This means, by definition, every company you work for is at least half Chinese. Nevertheless, a company run by foreigners will usually run to the beat of a drum that westerners will understand and be able to keep pace with (this doesn’t always hold true. For some companies, the fact that they don’t have to run to western standards is part of the appeal of setting up in China! )

If you sign with a Chinese company, then it is not without the realms of possibility that you might find yourself washing your clothes in the sink or dealing with fairly primitive plumbing or sleeping on a bed that looks and feels like a ping pong table.

Try not to judge by western standards
For the uninitiated, a lot of seemingly simple tasks can be extraordinarily difficult here: crossing the road, ordering food, buying cheese (it’s harder to find here than a copy of Seven Years in Tibet). This list is not exhaustive.

Privacy can be a bit of a foreign concept here. While you are wiping your arse (if you’re lucky to have got that far into the process) it is not uncommon to find a little old man peering through a crack in the door, looking over the door, or just staring at you because there is no door. Neither is it uncommon to find people in the street spitting or urinating or even squeezing one out on the pavement in certain quarters of the city. Recently on the Batong Line a woman let her kid piss all over the floor of the train without anyone batting an eyelid.

Factor in hidden costs
If your company is not providing accommodation then be warned: rents here (although comparatively cheap) come with hidden costs. Landlords expect you to pay three months in advance. Agents will charge a fee, and utilities are rarely included. If you need to change or renew your visa then it may require a flight to Hong Kong or back home, and not all companies will pay for this. Additionally, you will be expected to go for a medical check upon arrival and you may have to foot the bill for that one, too.

Find out the dress code
I hate wearing a suit. They make me feel like a pretentious, cat-stroking Bond villain. For me, black Converse high-tops are a shade formal. Luckily, most interviews are pretty lax here. If you turn up to a UK job interview with a hoodie and five-day old beard then you aren’t going to get very far, but Chinese interviewers usually only ask two questions “Do you speak English?” and “When can you start?” Always do your research though. Ask the agent or the employer if there’s a dress code. I once impressed a prospective employer just by turning up in a Hank Moody blazer.

Get WeChat
It’s one social network that isn’t banned here, so it has become a great way of keeping in touch with people. It’s like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn rolled into one: employers, parents, colleagues and friends all use it to schedule meetings, arrange nights out and share the same dumbass cat videos that everyone else shares with each other.

Drink lots of shuî
The Chinese panacea for everything, whether you’ve got a cold or you’ve been hit by a bus, is to drink boiling hot water. Water coolers come with two taps: cold and very bloody hot. After a suspicious spate of absenteeism around the western New Year period, companies might issue a little flyer about the healthy benefits of milk tea or pear soup, but I’d advise you to stick to the shuî.

There can be prejudice
(See: Try not to judge by western standards).

Most of the younger people in China are very forward thinking. They like the same shite as everyone else: Sherlock, Have I Got News For You, drinking. But the old rule of the human race holds true: some people are just bell-ends. Most prejudice is simply born of ignorance, because Information is not free-flowing here. Some of the previous generation, and people in rural areas, have never seen a foreign face except in movies or on the telly. China is not multicultural, it’s Chinese.

Some people will look at you like you’re an idiot if you can’t string a Chinese sentence together. Some people are disablist (taxi drivers, for example, will rarely stop for someone in a wheelchair). Some people are openly racist, particularly towards black people.

Korean people and their culture are usually embraced here, but there is still prejudice and racism against Japan as a hangover of the Sino-Japanese war. Japanese anime is usually enjoyed by all, though, as in any civilized nation!

Don’t even think about dating a Chinese co-worker
I jest. Get in there, my son! Add ’em on WeChat and invite them to the cinema or KTV. Most people tend to freak out if you want to pay for anything, though.

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