For many Chinese, work is like family

Marketplace Staff Apr 8, 2008

For many Chinese, work is like family

Marketplace Staff Apr 8, 2008


Kai Ryssdal: Traveling on business is taxing enough without bureaucracy getting in the way. Sorry to tell you, then, that foreigners headed to China might be in for some extra paperwork.

There are reports today Beijing may stop issuing multiple-entry visas until the Olympics are done. Not a big deal if you’re planning a one-time trip to see the Games. Kind of a problem, though, for professional expats who go back and forth a lot.

American businessmen living in China full time usually have some adapting to do when they first get there. One of the most curious is the thin line between the personal and the professional.

Bill Marcus reports from Shanghai.

Bill Marcus: You might think it would be safe to run the China arm of a Wisconsin packaging manufacturer, but don’t tell that to Mark Flegm. Last year he took all his Chinese employees — about a dozen salespeople and engineers from their Shanghai warehouse — to play paintball.

Mark Flegm: Someone shot me in the face and it was bleeding. The safety protection equipment they provide you is minimal at best.

Flegm is general manager of Orbis. They make protective packaging for transporting car parts. Every month, staff and management have an activity, be it badminton, bowling or dinner. Last summer they camped on a beach.

Sun Fei, who goes by the nickname “Bobo,” works as a engineer in Orbis. I asked him about the trip.

Sun Fei: …lot of stories!

They got chased off one beach, didn’t eat dinner ’til late and fished off a 60-year-old boat. Mark Flegm:

Flegm: Everybody had more fun with it than I would have expected. If I would have done this at home with a group, we would have had mutiny from the whole organization.

Orbis is one of many Western companies in China that have adopted China’s collectivist office culture. Western bosses say they like the team building aspect of these outings.

Corporate trainer Gary Wang has worked for Sony and DuPont. He says Chinese companies have to stress collectivism to counter negative cultural trends.

Gary Wang: Chinese people as a whole are not very good at working with each other.

Chinese under 30 are more likely than not to be an only child, so many workers don’t grow up dealing with conflict.

Wang: We don’t have “win-win.” The “win-win” is a term like coffee or chocolate, is from the West.

One way Orbis’ staff and their American manager counter this trend is to eat lunch together — every day.

Recently, I invited myself to join them. A dozen of us squeezed into a van. 15 minutes later, we were at a relatively nice Chinese restaurant. They come to this place three or four times a week.

We sit down at a huge banquet table. In the middle is a big glass lazy susan. There’s pork in a clay pot, curried chicken, a fish head and about a dozen other dishes. Bill per person: $3. Orbis picks up the tab. It’s in the contract.

Ling Chen: We’re a family.

That’s Ling Chen. She’s an engineer, in her 20’s and single. This is her first job out of college.

Chen: Boss our father and we are all kids, sons and daughters, no mother here.

And that’s the general spirit. In the Chinese office, it’s considered rude not to talk about your personal life.

Expert Gary Wang says Chinese think the way Americans deal with each other in the office is a little cold.

Wang: For the American companies, your co-workers are not friends; you are business partners.

So at Orbis and other Western firms in China, the result is a team that eats, plays, vacations, but most of all works together.

In Shanghai, I’m Bill Marcus, for Marketplace.

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