Like many of my classmates, I wanted to "make a difference" when I graduated from college. Then the Great Recession hit. My idealism turned to panic as interview after interview ended in rejection.
Then I read an article that said the Chinese economy had grown 9 percent in 2008. The jobs had all gone to China, apparently, so why not follow them? Over a few months, I saved enough from my part-time catering job to book a flight to Beijing.
Thanks to a lead from my college Chinese teacher, I found a job as a business analyst at a technology company in a suburb of Guangzhou, China’s third-largest city. From the outside, the cheery corporate campus with glass buildings seemed straight out of Palo Alto or Mountain View, Calif. Inside, the cubicles and fluorescent lights were familiar, but it never felt normal to work in a Chinese office.
After two or three months, though, my life settled into a routine. The day started at 8:30, and we all worked until noon, when Kenny G’s saxophone cover of the Chinese classic “Jasmine Flower” over the intercom announced lunch. We would line up at the canteen to buy a cheap plate of oily lotus root and “meat” that appeared to be just chunks of bone and fat.
Nap time was at 1. My whole team would pull cots out from under their desks, tuck in their blankets (one woman even brought a stuffed pig) and sleep until 1:30, when the mournful arpeggios of Richard Clayderman’s easy-listening piano masterpiece “A Comme Amour” signaled the start of the second work period.
Sometimes, in the seconds before I regained consciousness, I would forget where I was; I would look out my window, see the rows of identical blue glass office buildings and feel a deep, existential panic. But then I’d open my Lenovo ThinkPad laptop and drink a Nescafé instant coffee, and I’d be back in the anesthetic glow of Microsoft Office, where everything had a purpose. At 5:30, Kenny G’s “Going Home” announced the end of the day.
I enjoyed being a professional foreigner on top of my usual responsibilities. Since I was the lone American in the office, some saw in me an opportunity to provide an international flavor. I appeared in a corporate recruitment video shaking hands and conducting fake meetings. At different times, I also served as an M.C., translator and singer. At the peak of my foreigner career, I sang for 2,000 factory workers at a Chinese New Year gala organized by the Communist Party.
The first friend I made was Jack, a nerdy but self-confident product manager. On Saturdays, he would pick me up in his car, a Chinese-made Chery QQ, and we would drive to the public swimming pool. We would do a few laps, though the pool was so full that we could never swim in a straight line. Afterward we would drive to an outdoor seafood restaurant, order some fish and beer, pull up plastic stools and talk.
Jack complained about China, but not about censorship, pollution or human rights. What bothered him were housing prices. Jack had a good job, but to be successful you needed a wife, and to get a wife you needed a house. But a two-bedroom condominium cost $300,000 to $2 million, and prices kept rising, fueled by real estate speculation. So Jack simmered in his cubicle for years, saving for his ticket to marital happiness that remained just out of reach.
It occurred to me that this was an ingenious method of social control.
I lived in the company dormitory, along with the other unmarried workers, in a half-empty “development zone” called Science City. There was nothing to do there and nowhere to eat except the dreaded canteen and an unappetizing fast-food restaurant.
Unlike Jack, most of the workers didn’t own cars, and to reach the city took an hour on the bus, which became so full that it was harder to breathe on board. So my co-workers spent most of their free time alone in their rooms.
Living this way seemed like a slow spiritual death, and it caused me to come up with an anonymous employee satisfaction survey.
It contained 15 multiple-choice questions about food, housing, salary, benefits and company culture. I found a website to host it, posted the URL on the company bulletin board and drafted a mass email to workers. I took a deep breath and clicked “Send.”
Within 10 minutes, a man from human resources arrived at my desk. He showed me to an empty conference room and asked me to delete the message and shut down the website.
But I was determined to use my status as a professional foreigner to make a difference, and I kept the survey up. I received around 300 responses. One employee wrote:
“Too many men, not enough women, not enough basketball courts!”
“1. On the surface, overtime is voluntary, but in fact there are implied standards for overtime. If you do less overtime one month, then the next month your boss will have a talk with you, your overtime stats in hand.
“2. The canteen food is dreadful, severely impacting employee health.
“3. The salary isn’t especially high, and they decrease our benefits year to year.”
It seemed as if I would get away with my survey until my boss called me into his office. “Look, people will always be unhappy,” he said. “We can’t serve them foie gras every day. It looks like you’re putting a wedge between the employees and the company. They want to preserve harmony.”
He said he would vouch for me if I wrote a letter of apology to management. I agreed, but attached my survey results as “compensation for the trouble I had caused.” I signed a meaningless admission of wrongdoing and took down my survey. I continued working at the company for another year.
Looking back, I can see that I was imagining myself as the hero — I would sweep in, challenge authority and rescue the workers.
But to change anything in a new cultural context, and doubly so in China, you need to understand the people involved, their motivations and the reasons things got the way they are. That takes time and patience.
An American company, too, would object if a worker distributed a survey to the whole company without permission, and in the end, my company was quite forgiving. And management did eventually overhaul the cafeteria and introduce an employee bonus plan, though I don’t know whether my survey was the cause.
Nevertheless, the survey episode taught me that I could use data and a few good questions to tackle problems, and I’ve been an analyst even since, working in Hong Kong; Boston; Jakarta, Indonesia; and now Shanghai to help global companies solve problems.
More important, it taught me that the most critical step isn’t to “make a difference,” but to understand. It’s a principle I’ve tried to apply ever since — in China, in global business and in life in general.