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The personal price we pay E-mail
Featured - Business
Written by David A. Dayton
I originally wrote this as a list of warning for those who are maybe a bit over excited about coming to work in China. I didn’t mean it as a bash, but just a list of things that are real. After I finished, I thought that it might be a tad derogatory, so I ingested a large amount of chocolate and wrote a second, more Pollyannaish version (and yes, you’ll be glad to know that “Pollyannaish” is an actual work that does indeed spell-check; the word “blog” does not, though. Go figure.).

This is not a rant or a complaint. It’s a real part of doing business in China and I list out the details for those who are expecting a move to China full time (more than a month) to be just like their previous quick trip to China for a factory visit. Nor is this all roses. It’s a real part of doing business in China and I list out the details for those who are dreading that a move to China full-time (more than a month) will be just like any other “business move” since all they’ve seen is China from quick factory visits.

Many will counter with “but when I come to China I get stuck in terrible traffic, I have to go out every night and I live in a hotel.” And I’m sure you do. But that’s not going to happen if you move here. Life of the ground for an expat can been down right plush if you work for the right company. And an equal number of people will say, “When I come to China I have chauffeured cars from the factory, expensive meals and nice hotels.” And I’m sure you do. But that’s not going to happen every time and if you move here it will very quickly stop. This is life on the ground for most expats not employed by huge MNC’s.

1. Time - International hours

One of the most exhausting things about working in China is the fact that the rest of your life is still often going on 12 or more hours “off-schedule” on the other side of the globe. This means that you’ll put in a full day of work at a factory here and then go home to a full day’s worth of emails, calls and meetings; meeting with the home office are at 11PM or 5 AM, calls home to family are at odd evening hours too. This can quickly become more than an emotional drain, it can hurt your physical health too. Balancing the demands of both time zones requires saying “no” and sticking to a schedule. Regular exercise helps as does “losing” your cell phone for an hour or so of private time each day.

What company isn’t already on this schedule? If you’re used to dealing with China from the US, you’ve now got a better schedule. Besides your life isn’t going on 12 hours off-track anymore; since your family is here with you in China. An added bonus is that when you wake up you’ve got a full day to answer the emails that came in over night. You can start you days early with conference calls in your bunny slippers and bathrobe too. Early to be early to rise…you know what happens! And leaving your cell phone on your desk for a catered lunch with your spouse means some quality personal time is easy to find.

2. Domestic travel

Extensive and exhausting. I’m typically on the road 3-4 days a week. For me “on the road” means that I’m flying, driving or on a train to a factory in one of any of the 7 provinces and 4 countries in which we manufacture goods. Outside of down town in the major east coast cities, most travel in China, even if you have a driver, is over rough roads and to out of the way places. I’ve used 19 different airports in China and, except for the old Shanghai airport, I’m convinced there isn’t another airport in the country that’s less than an hour’s drive from down town—and no factory is actually “in Shanghai” or “in Shenzhen” or whatever other city is on the business card either. Traffic is dangerous and rush hour is as bad here as anywhere else.

A “quick” factory visit for me will require at least two hours of driving one way—it’s rare that I can ever visit more than a single factory per day—even if they are in the same city. This makes long hours in the car/plane/train and regular stays in hotels an almost daily part of business in China. Things are certainly getting better and there are even a couple airports in China that are close to what you’d expect from a city of 10 million plus. A couple of specific tips—Shanghai (old and new) are notoriously bad for delaying flights. The commercial air-space between Shanghai and Taiwan is used by the military who do not file flight plans. Second tier cities (Yiwu, Wuxi, Guiyang, Shijiazhuang, Lanchang, etc.) often have little more than an airstrip and a baggage claim—don’t expect to find “services” at the airport.

2a. Domestic Travel—Convenient and comfortable

If you’re on the road 3-4 days a week like I am, China can be a dream. Many of the planes are new (Dragon has a great fleet) and the service is SO MUCH BETTER than in the US. The HK airport is the best in the world and Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam and Thailand are all less then 3 hours away. Domestic airports in China are improving daily too. Pudong, Shenzhen, Beijing, Taipei, Gaoxiong are world class and with a driver or cheap taxis you never have to find a place to park. My personal on-time flight experience has to be over 70% for the last 5 years. One of the best things about living in China is the time that I have to read in the car. On trips to factories I have time to read, write, catch up on finances and even meet with clients over the phone—since I don’t have to drive myself like I would in the States.

3. Pollution

If the recent food scares in the US didn’t make you cautious you need to realize that there are almost NO quality standards for domestic food sales. Outbreaks of disease (like the current blue-ear pig disease) are covered up. Most health scares reach China through Hong Kong media reports of the latest banned Chinese import. Add to that that 16 of the 20 most polluted cities in the world are in China. Most cities in China don’t have water, air or soil that meet anyone’s minimum standards. I’ve read that living in Chinese cities is the equivalent of smoking 2 packs a day of cigarettes. Believe it.

4. Low Standard Medical Care

If the pollution wasn’t enough to kill you the medical services will. People with money either go to Hong Kong or Bangkok for medical services. Quality medical services are limited to large cities, are massively over-crowded, dirty, and are plagued with fake medicines and under-educated and over-worked doctors. I’m convinced that its more dangerous to go to a Chinese hospital than waiting until you can get out of China for medical help.

4a. Medical Care

When was the last time you were able to see an emergency room MD in the middle of the night for less than $25?! For basic care major cities in China have good care for excellent prices. Of course, you don’t want to have major surgery here, but you can say that for just about any posting outside of Europe or North America. There are Western standard clinics in most major cities and many of the expat communities have clinics with western trained MD’s on staff (and Western prices to make you feel more at home too).

5. Confrontational communications

The Thai’s have a saying about the Chinese: “Chinese people talk like Thai people fight.” If you’re not used to loud and consistent confrontation China will be a slap in the face—literally. Everything is louder and anything can be an argument. Chinese people just shrug it off, “that’s how we do it,” I’m often told. Parking, shopping, QC, ordering food in a restaurant, actually resolving concerns—just about everything can be confrontational. As I got into a Taxi last night at the airport the driver and another driver almost got into a fistfight over the fare.

5a. Gracious Hosts

There are few places where people take such pride in an opportunity to welcome you into their homes. They are gracious, generous and honestly willing to share with you all that they have. I’ve been to homes where people will give up their bed and sleep on the floor so that I’m comfortable. Other times I’ve eaten meals that cost more than the monthly salary of the host family.

6. Loud, dirty, poor facilities

Unless you are the CEO of a Fortune Global 1000 company, you’ll probably spend much of your time in China in factories and facilities that are less than the standard you are used to back home—but that’s why we’re all here—the low prices. Factories are often not just dirty and loud but downright unsafe. Factory work is tiring even if you have a nice hotel.

6a. Huge, state-of-the-art facilities

There are factories here that are larger than football stadiums—that make bags or t-shirts. There are single-campus factories with more than 50,000 employees. The capacity here is out of this world—literally more space and people than anywhere else on the planet. It’s probably the only place in the world where you can have 400,000 backpacks made in less than 4 weeks—all at the same facility. Not all factories are world class, but combined the number of good and great factories with the sheer number of available workers and total number of facilities and you can see why China is the “world’s factory.”

7. Language—barrier and additional study time

There are three ways to deal with the Chinese language. You can hire a full time translator to accompany you; you can just say, “screw it” and force everyone else to learn English to accommodate you; you can learn Chinese yourself. Each has it’s own advantages and disadvantages. Miscommunications cost time and money—but so does learning Chinese. No matter which one you chose you will have times of frustration and it will take you longer to communicate than back home.

7a. Language - a look into a new world

Learning a language is an exciting experience. And even if you don’t turn out to be fluent you’ll make a lot of life long friends trying. But moving to China and learning Chinese gives you (and your children) the opportunity to be on the cutting edge of communications as we start the “Chinese Century.” There isn’t another language on the planet with as much opportunity as Chinese—and moving here puts you right in the middle of it all. But if language is not your cup of tea, there multiple quality options for translation.

8. Personal relationships

Lack of associates/family time during week and divorce. Because the hours are long and the culture and conditions are so different from the West family issues can be a major emotional distraction in China. Studies have been done about the higher than average rate of expat divorces and moving teenagers (ok, doing anything with teenagers) can be a nightmare. But I find the lack of daily association with others that know a joke from a Seinfeld episode or remember an obscure song from the 70’s or can talk about NCAA football or can just relate to me from a shared cultural understanding to be one of the things that I miss the most. If you don’t live in an expat community the associations with other expats will be a cherished return to the familiar.

8a. Personal relationships

The ability to spend time with your family, if they come with you, can be significant if you have the right opportunities—namely a driver and a maid. These two people can give you as much as 2-3 hours a day more time to spend on personal/family relationships. In addition to more time, there is sizable expat community in the large cities in China.

9. Chinese business hours—evenings and weekends

In addition to the fact that your home office is probably just getting to work when you want to go to sleep each night the Chinese seem to have endless amounts of time to entertain on nights and weekends—not to mention the fact that factories run 24/7. Late, long dinners and business meetings/trips scheduled any time of the day or night (except during the three “Golden Weeks”) are the norm. Most companies have a huge entertainment budget for client’s nights out (dinner, drinking, karaoke). While all this late night carousing may seem fun at first (or may seem like a waste of time) it will quickly get old and just as quickly become an invasion on your “personal time.” But to some degree, this is how business is often done here.

9a. Chinese Business hours

The ability to have huge shifts of workers online 24/7 is a major advantage over production in other countries. Chances are you can meet with managers or decision makers at just about any time of the day or night. You can also expect nights out at factory expense and good food and drink on a regular basis.

10. Petty crime and theft. Getting better?

Yesterday the Beijing police said: “Crime cases such as murder, rape, arson and explosions which have seriously threatened people’s sense of security have dropped greatly.” So glad I don’t have worry about explosions anymore; that’s a relief. But there is still a reason that Chinese all have bars on their windows, guards at all gates and doors and don’t like to go out into the nights alone. Plan on getting pick-pocketed or mugged. Don’t leave anything valuable out in view. Only park your car in a guarded lot. When we bought a car they told us to never leave anything valuable in the car or people will break the window and steal it—even just a phone. License plate theft is a big deal recently too—not sure how to hide those.

11. Poverty, prostitution and corruption

No matter how honest you are, these three things will find you in China. First, you can avoid the sex but a knock on the door or a phone call into your hotel room to offer a massage is common—often calls come multiple times as late as 1AM. The karaoke and nights out come with “companionship.” Shenzhen is said to have the most sex workers in Asia outside of Bangkok. Second, get out of the office, get off the Bund and get out of the exclusive expat villas and you’ll see the “other” China—800 million subsistence farmers and another few hundred million $80 a month factory line workers. You will be hit up for money in your car, at the entrances to subways, on walkways to shopping malls.

Stories about kidnapping and maiming children to work as beggars are not unusual. Even the biggest and most cautions companies (Apple, last year) find out that their factory’s that force overtime, don’t pay minimum wage and fire people for getting injured. Despite the decades of 8% growth, China is still a developing country. Third, maybe you don’t have to have back-door personal access to officials to get the rights to do things any more but corruption is still a huge problem in China.

Paying off officials to stamp documents that are required for opening an office in China goes without saying (you have no choice). Factories that start production before any licensing or registration is complete are the rule, not the exception. Kickbacks from factories to employees or third parties are openly offered and are expected in return. Buying or paying off 3rd party QC and strong-arm QC departments that force payments to approve goods are rampant.

Over the past decade the disagreeable aspects of living in China have been sanitized, if not eliminated, to a large degree. 5 star hotels, a higher standard of living for approximately have the country’s population and “modern” cities and amenities that rival any other world city. Beggars, prostitutes and corrupt officials are regularly rounded up and shipped off to less visible parts of the country. And while have indeed been a number of quality scares with Chinese products recently, the majority of products are, according to the govt, safe and do indeed meet international standards.

Again, this is the reality of doing business in China. Maybe these things are not unique to China, but China’s what I know and where I work. These aren’t just a list of personal bad experiences either—I feel like I’m not just average but probably pretty lucky. In the last 5 years: I’ve only been pick-pocketed twice, I’ve have had three phones and a bike stolen, I’ve only had to pay one official just to do his job, I’ve only gotten debilitating food poising once, I’ve flown more than 250 domestic flights and had probably 75% on-time flights (20% on-time out of Shanghai), I’ve only had to fire 4 of 25 employees (all QC) for taking money from factories, I’ve only gone to a Chinese hospital once (kidney stones).

And I live in “Chinese” areas of Shenzehn; I don’t live in an expat community and I don’t have a driver. I also argue with factories daily and I work 70+ hours a week. But I do choose to live here. I live here for a reason: there are opportunities here that I don’t have in other places—I choose to live here. But that doesn’t mean that it’s the best quality of life. You’ve been warned.

David A. Dayton is the CEO of Silk Road International (SRI), an U.S.-owned and managed international procurement agency based in China. Click here to visit SRI's Website.

Our valuable Editor David A. Dayton has been with us since Monday, 02 November 2009.

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+1 #3 Agostinho Silva 2010-09-09 12:58
This is really an excellent article. I am from Portugal and work since 4 years in Nanjing and Macao for a Portuguese-Spanish conglomerate and know the realities in chinese factories and with business partners as well...more than i ever wished for....I absolutely confirm David's views. We really do pay a price (1. Health). But on the other hand we enjoy economical advantages as well and the amount of money that we can save every month here is a prove for that....of course i do not live in a money wasting "expat-zone" too :-)
+1 #2 Peter 2010-03-13 23:05
i think i have found my mind here. i have to think less then ever, and i love it. if only i could put that less thinking to good use and think about learning more Chinese to speak :P
+1 #1 Hermann 2010-03-06 04:32
Excellent. I enjoyed every piece of it David. Thanks! And it is true true true. With some exceptions. I refuse to see all negative, but for god`s is hard to see something positive about life and doing business here etc. etc. etc. here. Don`t worry, be happy! Harmonious society. Grrrr..........I am losing my mind here. China enthusiast "soon-to-come-here-and-full-of-exotic-china-ritscha-thinking"-victim. You’ve been warned. :-D

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