Tips for working in China


One of the biggest opportunities today is working in overseas markets.

These jobs are rising fast as the trend toward globalization continues, and the Harvard Business Review estimates such positions will skyrocket as baby boomers retire; few of the younger generation are willing to take on the long hours these jobs typically entail.

This means lots of opportunity for people who want to work hard and in exchange benefit from a very steep learning curve that can pave the way for lots of career flexibility in the future.

For some these jobs will be too time-consuming and culturally challenging. David Everhart, regional practice leader for Asia at the recruiting firm Korn/Ferry International, warns that in order to succeed in overseas markets you should probably be a patient person with a high tolerance for uncertainty and ambiguity.

But Jamie Sugar-Butter and Morgan Sugar-Butter make the prospect seem like a big party.

The sisters – ages 23 and 25 — work at importing company Acme Merchandising and Apparel. They both do business overseas for the majority of their work. And while they live in Boston, they travel in Asia one third of the year. Here are their tips for working in Asia:

1. Expect weird names.
Funny coming from the Sugar-Butters, right? But in fact, their name, which is actually each of their parents’ last names combined and hyphenated, draws little attention in Asia. First of all, few people they deal with know what the name means. But on top of that most people the Sugar-Butters deal with have selected English words to use as names when dealing with Americans, to make it easier for them. So the Sugar-Butters run into people with names such as Cinnamon, and Apple.

The names are surprising, surely, but it’s a constant reminder how hard people are working to make sure the Americans are comfortable with them.

2. Put respect above everything else.
In China the Sugar-Butters are careful to tell everyone they don’t eat meat. Only seafood and vegetables. “The meals are really long and there are so many courses and it’s so disrespectful to say no,” Morgan says.

So the time they were served platters of what seemed like the fish’s reproductive area …they ate them. Well, Jamie did. Morgan realized Jamie didn’t know what she was eating, so Morgan slid her share onto Jamie’s plate.

3. Get a good translator.
People will not respect you if you don’t have a good translator. Usually the Sugar-Butters use Skype’s messenger system because the people they communicate have software that translates messages in real time. “But you can’t use slang in Skype,” says Morgan. “One word can throw the whole conversation off.”

But when they travel, they handpick their translators carefully.

“We have one who speaks Mandarin and one who speaks Cantonese. You have to have someone you would trust to handle negotiations,” Jamie says.

She said they also always use male translators. “When we walk in the room to do business, everyone expects to see a man come in with us. If we’re alone, they wait for the man to come in the room.”

4. Distinguish between differences in culture and differences in values.
The Sugar-Butters spend a lot of time trying to figure out who will be a good business partner. They have a lot of understanding of cultural differences. For example, they will travel for days to visit a factory in inland China just to show respect to the factory owner.

However they have a good nose for bad values, as well. For example, at a trade show a vendor would not talk to their translator because they thought he was of too low a class. Once the vendor realized that the Sugar-Butters and the translator were with a major company, the vendor was accommodating. But by then it was too late. The Sugar-Butters would not do business with him.

5. Stay healthy.
The hours for working in overseas markets are out of sync with most workers in the US. Morgan, for example, works 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. on Skype. One of the best ways to cope with erratic hours is to have a set exercise regimen. They spend a lot of time doing pilates at Boston Body when they’re home, and it’s one of the things they miss most when they travel.

Their exercise regimens are also a source of perhaps the greatest culture shock the Sugar-Butters face.

“In Asia they’re not into exercise,” says Morgan. “It’s impossible to find a gym, and if you run outside, people are like, `are you okay? What are you running from?'”

35 replies
  1. Andrew Flusche
    Andrew Flusche says:


    What a great post! You’re right about big opportunities in overseas markets. I don’t think I’d be able to handle the cultural challenge. I’m too thoroughly American. :)

    This is one reason we started Call Center Consultant: to talk about great call center opportunities, many of which are overseas.

    Take care,

  2. Recruting Animal
    Recruting Animal says:

    I have a cranky comment. (surprise) I used to have a running partner who moved to France. They’re sophisticated over there, right? When he came back he told me that the people there thought he was crazy when they would see him running in the street. And of course, smoking was A-OK.

    Now, let’s look at “Asia”. For years there were people telling us about how much more spiritual the people are over there than the materialistic North Americans.

    And look at what you just told us. A potential business partner would not speak to someone because he was of a lower class. Exercise is not cool and smoking I guarantee is double A-OK.

    I mention this not to put down France, China or India but only to point out that one dimensional grass-is-greener propaganda is something to be wary of.

    Early in the 20th century, Lincoln Steffens, a famous American journalist, (a muckraker of all people), went to the Soviet Union and came back uttering the famous line: “I have seen the future — and it works!”

  3. From Asia
    From Asia says:

    I am sure there are as much spiritual North Americans as there are materialistic Asians.

    From what I’ve learned it might be a good idea to have a variety of sources instead of relying only on books from big-name publishers, bestsellers lists, and those for ‘business’ or ‘travelers’. A ‘slice of life’ non-fiction writing might be a good source too. Sometimes I find it interesting to read books describing my own culture. Although they do present the highlights and iconic representatives, much of it is not part of my individual culture and my daily life.

    A lot of time people present the whole situation in one general stereotype because it makes it easier to put the idea across and easier for the unfamiliar to grasp.

    ‘Asia’ does not mean that everyone in Asia is homogeneous either. Although there are similarities, Koreans, Japanese, Taiwanese, Chinese, Malaysians , Singaporeans, Indonesians and so on also have distinct cultural differences. Like the businessmen from non-Asian countries, Asians have to pay attention to such details when working among ourselves as well.

    I’m not sure about where the person above was running, but in Singapore there are fitness freaks who jog in the middle of the night. I would think more than twice before doing so in Malaysia. You might lose more than your belongings. Apart from that, a lot of people who like exercising set apart a time for it and do so outside of the city center.

  4. Shefaly
    Shefaly says:

    I have to agree with Recruiting Animal and with From Asia. Perhaps this article would be better off titled ‘Working in Mainland China’!

    The rest of my comment became so long that I made it into a post instead.. Sorry, Penelope.

    * * * * * * *
    Yes. Okay. I see I have made an error in the title. I changed it. Even though I am sure I’m messing up the feed..and the links….


  5. Benjamin Strong
    Benjamin Strong says:

    What timing! I landed in Shanghai last night. The first thing I did today was hit the gym treadmill. I would much rather run outside but the throngs of people and visible pollution hanging in the air kept me indoors.

    One piece of advice I have is spring for a hotel room that offers free breakfast. You will most likely get western style food and you can usually pocket a banana or two for the road. That way you won’t go hungry during the day.

    Secondly, bring nice gifts. I bring gifts for the people hosting me or giving me tours of significant operations. Nothing crazy, in my case a nice framed ships pennant with an inscription stating where it came from. I had them shipped overnight from the frame shop.

    I appreciate the insight and look forward to other advice in the comments.

    Cheers from Shanghai!

  6. melanie gao
    melanie gao says:

    Asians aren’t into exercise?! There are no gyms?! You can’t take a few trips to China and make generalizations about Asia like that. There are TONS of gyms in China and almost everyone I know in Beijing, from ages 5 to 100, exercises regularly. It’s true people don’t run outdoors, that’s because of the pollution.

    Translators translate the written word, *interpreters* translate the spoken word. It’s a subtle distinction but if you’re going to hire one, you should understand the difference.

    • Elizabeth
      Elizabeth says:

      Asia is where the future is. Now. It is a huge advantage to know how to work with Asia, at whatever level: language, culture, contacts, etc. Particularly China, Malaysia, and Korea.

  7. Dale
    Dale says:

    Back in the day, the kiss of death for a promising career was to be sent abroad to a “third world” division. Being sent to Europe or Japan was fine since if you were sent there you were probably being primed for upper upper level management. Now, there does not seem to be as dire a penalty for being sent to the “third world” since good performance there signals adaptability and this is what most companies want. How the times have changed:)

  8. Scott
    Scott says:

    I have to agree and disagree with you simultaneously. International business is very much about 1. culture and 2. communication. You explained that quite well in your points. However, I disagree somewhat with the concept of such a lush and friendly job market for international opportunities. Provided if someone is very entrepreneurial in nature they can get into an international market any way they wish, the typical business is not necessairly welcoming for young employees interested in the international side of the business in my experience.

    It has been hammered to me again and again that you have to EARN your way towards an international position, that companies don’t let just ANYONE have such opportunities. I have always been very transfixed by the complexity and challenge of working internationally, but the more I look into it, the less it seems like legitimate opportunity.

    Here’s a nice little note from someone very experienced with the international side on successful practices:

  9. Justin Fenwick
    Justin Fenwick says:

    Well played Penelope! I lived in Beijing for six months and spent nine days there recently. Rule of thumb number one, in urban areas, is that one year in China is like 10 anywhere else. The economic growth and “capitalist communism” makes way for quick change. And quick it is, as three new office building sprung up in the two years away and this was just as neighbors to my old campus. This can also often bleed into the career/business market, often times making it necessary to travel often if not just live there to keep up.

    Thank you for your comments on cultural differences and respect. Often times I’ve seen foreigners, even well traveled ones, react suddenly when they find themselves out of their element. That cleaned plate might get you too much food or that empty cup too much booze, but in China you respect those two. Of course even further challenging when it’s 3x to deny something and 3x to offer something. The key, like you mentioned in different words, is to keep in mind that any first “crazy” reactions you may be having they could very well be having in return. Mind your space and respect theirs.

    As a quick response to those commenting on spirituality and materialism. I think it is right to say that every location has a mix. But if a country has a cultural and intellectual rug pulled out from underneath it (Cultural Revolution, etc.), then preached a form of capitalism, there is a level of spiritual replacement. I just think to over generalize from my experience, spirituality is not yet at its cultural maturity quite yet in China. Materialism will seem to reign as much, or more than, we might say so for the West.

    To conclude I’ll leave with some jet-lag tips:
    1) Vitamins! On the flight over, when you arrive, and etc. Don’t exceed the recommended amount though.
    2) Get out into the sun when it’s day time and keep the lights low when it’s time for bed.
    3) Sleep on the plane only when it’s sleepy-time at your destination. This works well if you are well rested before you leave on your trip.

    Thanks! Oh China…

  10. anirban
    anirban says:

    No one mentioned about accepting business cards in China. When you receive a business card in Hong Kong, make sure you extend and take it with both hands. Also , do not put it in your back pocket. This is considered disrespectful.

  11. Justin Fenwick
    Justin Fenwick says:

    anirban is right. To add to the technique…after accepting with both hands make sure you turn the card over and look at both sides (most are two-sided). Business cards are made to impress in China on purpose. Take time to notice the small details of the card before removing it from view (not in your back pocket). This will help begin business or even personal meetings off on the right foot.

  12. Lily
    Lily says:

    What you said it certainly not true. If you live in Shanghai, you will find life here is nothing different from the place you live except for more black-hairs walking on the streets. You can buy anything you want and live as comfortble as you like.
    You can certainly find gyms everywhere to yoga, bodybuilding, dancing, you name it. And people will not be surprised when you are running along the road. Believe me.

  13. Allen
    Allen says:

    While an interesting conclusion, from what I have witnessed this is not true. I am a student interning in Beijing and despite the atrocious air know of a good number of people who run (including myself) and have seen quite a few strangers hitting the pavement. While the question of net benefit is debatable, the idea that the Asian culture does not embrace exercise is absurd. Many people here probably prefer different approaches to their physical activity, but there are at least three weigh-lifting style gyms within a five minute walk of my building (and one on the bottom floor)

  14. Broc Smith
    Broc Smith says:

    American Architect Writes Fun Book about Doing Business in China.
    "The Tragic Kingdom, or; "Prisoner in a Chinese Theme Park", (found on all bookstore websites such as, borders, etc), is a behind-the-scenes look into the field of design and build in China. The book is a profile of the personalities, culture, and psychology of the world's most massive looming superpower as seen through the eyes of an ex-pat American.
    I have witnessed a formidable decade in which China has commanded a modern presence on the world stage and have participated in the planning, designing, and building of mega-theme parks in Beijing, world-class aquariums in Shanghai, gigantic malls in the Pearl Delta, resorts in Tibet, and panda relocation projects in the foothills of the Himalayas.
    The stories and themes found in The Tragic Kingdom spring from one man's journey. At the same time I believe they disclose truths about a globalization that eventually will impact every economy, lifestyle, and person on the planet.

  15. Tamar Harrington
    Tamar Harrington says:

    Where have these chicks been? I live in China and I run outside everyday. I’m not the only one in my neighborhood, either. (I am the only foreigner in my neighborhood.) I’m too cheap to join a gym, but they are available.

  16. The SmartIntern Team
    The SmartIntern Team says:

    It might take a bit of research, but virtually all cities in China have at least one reasonable gym you can join up with. Expats in Beijing and Shanghai can find everything from California family fitness to Crossfit gyms, so there are options!

Comments are closed.