Sep820092:20 pm

China: career catalyst and character builder, ctd.

James Fallows questions the NYTimes’s “the Chinese streets are paved with gold” hypothesis:

We have this story last month, which suggested that if young Americans couldn’t find jobs at home, all they had to do was move to China and they’d shortcut into positions of responsibility. I’m here to say: Well, sort of.

Is China exciting enough that people should go there? It sure is. Can young people with no background in China or Chinese find work quickly? Probably so — if they’re willing to teach English. (And can get a visa — whole different topic.) And if they stay and learn the language, lots of other opportunities often do turn up. Really, for Westerners in their 20s it’s hard to think of a better investment of a few years than going to China, learning what it’s like, becoming comfortable with Chinese ways and Chinese people, facing its discouraging realities but also sharing its sense of possibility.

But the idea that many non-trained grads will find “good” jobs — eg, ones where the Chinese employer regularly pays them? Or that it’s realistic to go from zero to “highly proficient” in Chinese language in a short time? Or that young foreigners will be insulated from the, ummm, idiosyncrasies of typical Chinese accounting and business practices? Those all seem a stretch. This kind of “land of gold!” account of today’s China has a touching parallel to the “gold mountain!” accounts of prospects in America that have historically drawn Chinese migrants across the Pacific. Both are accurate in spirit, but potentially misleading on details.

My first reaction to the story was that if you’re young and looking for an international, “character-building experience,” China’s never a bad way to go. My English teaching experience there continues to serve me well, in those non-specific, character-building ways (i.e., not the Chinese language skills I learned but rather the intangible skills that I was forced to develop: adaptability, confidence, resilience, the ability to succeed despite language and cultural barriers, etc. etc. etc.).

But I’d have to agree with Fallows in his assessment: Going to China to teach English or study the language is one thing, but going to find permanent employment is a whole different ball game. How do you even begin? I would have no idea. A great point from one of Fallows’ readers currently working in China:

The NY Times article you mentioned is basically treated as a joke here within expat circles. Laughed at and dismissed. As you mention, you can become an English teacher immediately. Anything else takes luck, work, and contacts. (Your own or others; I know a guy who did get an architecture job here fast: he’s best friends with one of the most well-connected people in Beijing. There may be a connection.) I know [one of the people]  mentioned in the NYT article: She speaks fluent Chinese, has a Yale education, an impressive resume, and works 20 hour days. She’s not some gal who just showed up in China because she couldn’t find a job in the States.

I’ve been here for a year now and am very aware of how my poor Chinese hampers me. Even though I’m a senior-level copywriter and my abilities are much needed, my rudimentary Chinese keeps me from being hired full time (fortunately, I want to be a freelancer). I’ve been told that the whole [major advertising] group requires now that all new hires speak Chinese reasonably well — which means none of my clients could hire me if either of us wanted that…

The other issue is contacts, which seems to be the way work is handled here. Now that the economy is improving, or seems to be, I’m suddenly busy — but it’s taken a year of going to networking events, writing talented designers out of the blue, and being friendly at parties to get to this point. I’m sure people who are more gung-ho and social than me…  could get well-connected faster that I did, but I’m skeptical of a know-nothing recent graduate with no special skills and knowledge to offer being able to connect quickly with the right people and then get a good job.

Categories: The World at Work | Follow responses via RSS | Leave a response | Trackback

One Response to “China: career catalyst and character builder, ctd.”

  1. maria says:

    hi, so i dont know where im supposed to blog about how the presentation was that Sherry gave to our school today, so im going to put it here! The presentation was awesome, i liked that she had so many cultural influences from everywhere she went and is making changes in peoples lives. my mother is from Honduras and i’ve always wanted to study abroad and study spanish and the lives of other people. This presentation today made me realize that i can do whatever i want if i just act on it. Thank you Sherry for an awesome presentation and coming to our school!!

Leave a Reply