Make Face or Lose Face: Challenges of a Professional in China

When we set out for another country, whether for travel or to stay long term, we always try to get closer to the culture of the country by eating the locals’ food or by following some of the local traditions that we find interesting. And as soon as you start playing this game of trying on the role of the local, you get a second nationality, that we universally call being “an expat”.

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If you are in China and planning to stay here as a professional, you should consider getting the “expat” nationality as a warming up before the real game starts, sometimes ridiculous and sometimes stressful — the game of making faces.

“Do you know why we are here?”  My supervisor asked me while we were waiting for the elevator in the hotel in Shenyang. “It’s because our former leader, now head of Propaganda department is in X Province.” I worked as a journalist for a Chinese media platform at the time and that was one of my first business trips. I was asking myself that same question before my supervisor even mentioned it, usually they don’t bring foreign journalists to these kinds of events, as it’s more oriented towards the Chinese public and not so much for the foreigners here. So as soon as I wrote a quick note about this forum, I put away my notebook and my pen and started to wait for the real job here. And…  everything suddenly became clear: they needed my western face to show to their foster manager, now head of the Propaganda office of X Province.

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Using foreign faces is one of the most popular kind of promotion in China. They use foreigners to show the high status of a company or an event. Of course, when they ask you to work for them or just to participate to an event, they will never tell you the real reason. That’s something you get to find out on your own once there. If you are a student, who is eager for adventures and always in need of money, you will find your benefit there. But what do you do as a professional while eating delicious lunch composed of close to 50 dishes, served on a traditional round table, and having awkward conversations with the head of the Propaganda department of X province? It feels less important than developing your professional skills or in my case finding good stories for great articles.

You have several options, or in this case, “faces” to chose from. Face number 1: if your goal is living in China and earning money to pay the rent, you will find plenty of opportunities to fulfill that need. Working as a professional (zhuanjia) for a Chinese company would mean showing the face of indulgent obedience in the office and the face of passive indignation in a bar every Friday night, where you will endlessly discuss with the other expats how things are as an expat in China. And, finally, the face of pride, when you come to a networking event and find out that you are the only professional in the room and the rest are English teachers (no offense).

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Face number 2 is the face of a fighter. Not for everyone, only for those who came to realize how everything works in a Chinese company, but still thinks it’s worth working at. Unlike the first case, professional growth or just being professional still matters to you. So, you start with the face of an independent fighter, who is truly eager to help the company grow. Very soon, that face will be replaced with the face of a passive fighter, who accepts all the limits a Chinese company sets for him and tries to remain professional in that very small space that is left for his actions. And here, the more you smile and the more you pretend to accept things (and, believe me, you are going to meet a lot of things that you’ve probably seen only in the most ridiculous dreams), the wider range of actions you will get. And the more you frown, the less options you will get.

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And finally, the face number 3: the face of temporal acceptance. When you come to realize that the Chinese way of being professional is against your western nature, but you already have made your way to China to work here, paid 5 months of rent and still wait for your first salary, you need to make your life easier. So you can make a face of acceptance. And don’t confuse this face with one of indulgent obedience. Use this time to look for another way to accept the rules of this different approach to work. Show them that what matters for them is also important for you, even when it doesn’t make sense. And you will probably better understand their mentality and a very different aspect of their work culture. And, not only you won’t lose your face here (in other words get the face of constant dissatisfaction), but also become good friends with some of your coworkers and discover very new and interesting sides of yourself.

By Lida Stanchenko

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