4 things I learned about life in the workplace in China

I moved to China in 2004 to work as an English and business teacher at a university in Tianjin, a coastal city near Beijing.

I’d worked in education back in the U.S., first as a peer tutor in college and then as a research assistant in university. Compared to those jobs, however, work in Chinese education was much less formalized.

Classes are often arranged in an ad-hoc fashion. One time I was asked to design a course for international trade majors, so I created a class on comparative economics almost overnight. My impression was that many Chinese-taught classes and even whole majors were sometimes thrown together the same way.

I soon learned that Chinese people have a word for this behavior: chabuduo, which basically means “good enough.” In chabuduo, the focus is less on process and rules and more on the result. At times it works wonders. Other times it fails spectacularly.

Here are some other things I learned about life in the workplace in China.

There’s a culture of overwork

Companies often expect a lot from their workers. There is a “Confucian work ethic,” which is often compared to its Protestant counterpart. One aspect of that work ethic is what Chinese call chi ku (literally “eating bitterness”), the act of persisting through hardship. Chi ku is a valued way to earn respect — and possibly a promotion.

Overtime work is one of most common forms of chi kuMany employees work overtime for more take-home pay or for more promotion opportunities.

But sometimes it can be too much for young Chinese workers. After a spate of suicides by Foxconn workers in Shenzhen’s “iPhone City” in 2010, many blamed the company’s overtime policy.

Yet when the company imposed overtime limits, many Foxconn workers were unhappy that the limits could affect their income.

Work efficiency and the social pressure to earn money quickly can also sometimes mean sacrificing health and safety — another variation on chi ku.

For instance, thousands of miners caught up in China’s gold rush contracted silicosis, a preventable but ultimately fatal lung disease. The mines did not protect the workers.

In other cases, however, workers may not protect themselves.

One friend who worked in EHS at a major pharmaceutical company told me that he struggled to get Chinese workers into safety gear.

I remember his complaints whenever I walk by a construction site and see workers welding without goggles or grinding metal without masks.

There’s still an old boys’ club

The Mad Men ethos exists in some traditional sectors of the Chinese economy including real estate and banking. Male employees are often expected to smoke or drink with customers, while female employees may be asked to entertain with a night of drinking and karaoke.

Women are further disadvantaged by hiring and promotion practices that often discriminate against unmarried women and mothers alike.

My single female students tell me they dread the question “Are you married yet?” in job interviews. If they say no, the employer may reject them because they may get married and take maternity leave. If they say yes, the next question is “how many children do you have?”

Scholar Leta Hong Fincher has explored these themes in her well-received book Leftover Women. The title of the book comes from a derogatory Chinese term for unmarried women professionals in their thirties.

There’s a focus on innovation

Shenzhen is known as China’s Silicon Valley. A city of 12 million opposite Hong Kong, its population comes from across China and around the world.

I’ve known Jared Psigoda, co-founder of Shenzhen-based Reality Squared Games, since my earliest days in China.

In a recent conversation, Psigoda told me that China — and Shenzhen — are poised to dominate mobile computing the way the U.S. dominated the desktop. There are a variety of mobile platforms where China is taking the lead, especially WeChat, China’s current popular messaging app.

“In the age of the mobile internet, China is developing a lot of amazing products that far outclass those developed in the West,” he said.

The tech industry is also one area in China that is more welcoming to women employees, which “keeps the work environment more healthy,” Psigoda said.

Psigoda said that half of the staff at Livestar, one of his startups, is female, a trend which mirrors tech giants like Hangzhou-based Alibaba.

Chinese tech companies and their VC backers are not immune to sexism, of course, but compared to traditional industries, Chinese women in tech are more often rewarded for “holding up half the sky.”

There are many superstitions

Superstitions play a conspicuous role in the Chinese workplace. Salespeople often decorate their desks with cabbage sculptures, since the word for cabbage, bai cai, sounds like making money. Among office plants, money trees and ferns are prized as symbols of good fortune.

Luck cuts both ways, however. My employer recently banned all sharp-leafed succulents from our office because they remind people of po cai — suffering financial losses.

Companies often pay a feng shui expert to survey a site location for a building or to rearrange the feng shui of an office. Bad financial performance and even workplace accidents will be blamed on “bad” feng shui.

I recently had the chance to facilitate some onsite training at a regional airline, where a group of Buddhist monks in saffron robes offered mystical guidance in the company’s business office.

It may seem odd to see so many expressions of religion and magical thinking in the workplace. But when you’re eating bitterness to get ahead, a little divine intervention can make the hard work easier to swallow.