How are we doing? What could we do better? What would our Chinese colleagues like those of us who have come from other parts of the world to know?
As a network of people from all over the world who live and work in China, we are a mix of languages, music, special foods, and other customs that enrich our community no end. We also face challenges, one of which concerns the relationships between local coworkers and those who come from the Americas, Europe, other parts of the Asia-Pacific region, and Africa. We often fall into an “us and them” way of relating, with foreigners being treated with respect, kindness, and patience even though at times we can be frustrating to our Chinese colleagues.
Wanting honest answers to questions of what our Chinese colleagues would like us, who are foreigners, to know without consideration for anyone “keeping face” or concern for causing offence, we conducted an anonymous small-scale study among our Chinese coworkers. Bilingual questionnaires were distributed through our networks, and all responses were collected and collated by a local colleague. It should be noted that most of those involved in this study were more concerned about what we contribute to communities than about personal gain. The responses we received from 14 local coworkers reflect the nature of our various organizations.
It was encouraging to be reassured that, by and large, we do add significant value to the communities in which we live and work. However, we need to keep actively learning more about Chinese culture. Interestingly, the importance of language learning did not rate a mention, but the need to keep focused on cultural learning was stressed over and over. Finally, our colleagues would like us to drop any pretence of “I have it all together,” and just be real and present in the communities in which we live and work. It is tempting to withdraw to our cultural bubbles where we can relax and be ourselves, but this study highlights how much it is appreciated when we make the extra effort to “be ourselves” in our host cultures.
The Three Questions
Question One: What benefits do foreign colleagues bring to your workplace and/or team?
Half of all those who responded specifically mentioned the role foreigners have in our teams. Our teams look very different to those of the secular Chinese world, and this is appreciated. Feedback included concepts such as respect, encouragement, boundaries, planning, honesty, problem-solving and integrating faith and work as being seen in our teams.
What foreigners have done in terms of building up our colleagues in the area of faith is valued. Six out of the 14 respondents commented on this. However, while this is very important and to be celebrated, a caution comes in section two with the advice that we should work hand-in-hand with local believers rather than start our own programs. Perhaps the most important thing we can offer is not so much what we do as who we are in our faith.
Respondents commented that foreign coworkers were “examples in matters of faith,” adding that, “They really care about us and pray for us when life isn’t going well.” In addition, they indicated that, “Their stable and solid spiritual lives are a great help to us,” and “They integrate faith into their everyday lives.”
We are valued as a conduit of resources. This includes professional skills, funding and personnel. Four of the respondents commented on the professional skills we bring and often pass on through training. Three respondents mentioned the value of foreign workers as sourcing funds. One respondent who works with the disabled is appreciative of the role of foreigners in visiting the disabled and teaching them English, thus boosting their self-confidence.
Other comments which did not fall into distinctive categories include the role we have in public relations, teaching English, and appreciation of our willingness to learn about Chinese culture.
Question Two: What advice do you have for foreign colleagues?
To continue working on a better understanding of Chinese culture was the most common piece of advice. Six respondents mentioned this. Some responses included practical tips such as continually filling up a guest’s tea cup with hot water, being tactful rather than direct in communication, and not splitting the check at meals. Some of our colleagues would like us to grasp deeper concepts such as the Confucian principle of “the golden mean” (compromise, avoidance of excess etc), the way society is structured around people being kind and generous to one another thus creating a sense of obligation and gratitude, the importance of building relationships with key people, understanding and practicing the concept of “face” and more.
Two of our colleagues would like to say to us, “Please interact with us more.” (This was repeated more strongly in the final section of the survey.) Another colleague added that interaction should not be just to practice language but rather to build genuine relationships. One respondent pointed out that foreigners are often busy with “foreign things,” but it would be good if we could work together more and complement one another. Another respondent noted the importance of foreigners attending team meetings leading to better mutual understanding.
Lighten up! We can sometimes come across as very serious and focused, but two of our colleagues encourage us to “lighten up” and even crack a few jokes.
Ask for help. Why is it that we foreigners like to be so independent? It is not easy for us to live in a culture so different from our own, and our colleagues recognize that. Two of our colleagues particularly plead with us to just ask for help when we need it and not be embarrassed to do so.
Two respondents commented on the need for flexibility in Chinese culture. “Listen to us and respect us” was the advice from one respondent who felt that we too often think we know best, yet the reality is we do not always know what is culturally relevant and legal in a Chinese context. Similarly, as mentioned earlier, encouraging local people to participate in local churches rather than setting up something outside the local structure was the heartfelt plea of one respondent who wants to see new believers thrive not only when their foreign friends are present but also after they leave.
Other pieces of advice included realistic expectations, appropriate clothing for local climates, seeing people as individuals rather than clumping all “Chinese people” into one category, and being aware of the changing role of foreigners in China.
Question Three: Is there anything else you would like to add?
There were two clear categories of advice offered here. First was the desire for more frequent interactions between foreign and local coworkers. Eight respondents commented on this, five of whom mentioned the significant role played by food! One also mentioned the richness that comes from our different backgrounds as we study the Bible together; another finds discussions with his/her foreign colleague helpful but is frustrated by the language gap, and one other particularly appreciates learning about how foreign friends view families and child rearing.
The second category was about foreigners “being real.” We need to actively love one another and knock down the walls of pride that can easily arise with our cultural differences. As one respondent so beautifully put it, we all need to “work openly together under the sun—in this way we can all relax.” If we can just “be real” with one another in a context of love, with every little thing, good or bad, being brought into the clear light of the sun rather than being hidden in shame, then our cultural differences will fall into perspective.
There are two strong themes that emerged from this small study. The first is the importance of “being real and present.” This includes being transparent in areas of faith, work, and even our neediness. We foreigners are appreciated for who we are and what we bring both personally and professionally. However, we sometimes withdraw to our own “comfort zones,” creating a sense of “us” and “them.”
The second theme which emerged is that of culture. What we bring from our own cultural and faith backgrounds is appreciated, but we need to keep asking questions, noticing things, and actively learning about local culture in order to enjoy richer interactions with local people.
Thank you, Chinese colleagues, for your patience with and care of us, your foreign friends who come from very different backgrounds. We appreciate you very much.
Foreign colleagues, let us keep on just being ourselves, professionally and personally, in this part of the world which is home to us for a season. May we do our best to knock down the walls of insecurity which we can easily erect. May we persevere and even intensify efforts to learn about the culture, being constantly humble and curious. We have local colleagues who are ready and willing to help us thrive here. We are blessed.