Can’t the Journal do Better Than This?

Tuesday, February 13, 2007 7:39
Posted in category The Big Picture

For years whether it was as a MBA student, a day trader, or someone just looking for a good source of corporate news, I have been reading the journal. I have to admit that reading the journal is more of a chore rather than something I really enjoy reading, but for business there is nothing better.
The problem is in China, the coverage can at times be excellent, and at others, the coverage can be pretty bad.

Today is one of those bad days.

For many expatriates who have lived in China, we have gone through many cycles of love and hate with the country, the people, the rules, the ups, the downs, etc.

The phrase I am having a “China day” is a day that pretty much says I need a vacation before I snap… or could else go wrong today?

When someone first arrives (a FOB), there is a search for the reasons behind the differences. sometimes it is fun to break it all apart and try to work it all out. However, at some point you stop asking why. It is like reaching fluency in a language and you no longer need to literally translate a word in your head … you just respond.

Well.. apparently the WSJ has a new writer on staff who is just in AWE over the office habits of Chinese, in particular how they are so different from those in the States, and had written In China’s Offices,Foreign Colleagues Might Get an Earful

There’s a lot that goes on in Chinese workplaces that mystifies — and occasionally embarrasses — the expatriates pouring into China.

From there the analysis goes deeper:

Beyond weight and body shape, office small talk here often includes the size of your apartment and your salary.

From the perspective of one lawyer operating in Beijing:

In recent months, Ms. Gallo has been given assessments of her wardrobe (“very nice, could be European”), muscle tone (“flabby,” a translation settled on after consultation with a group of English speakers) and childbearing prospects (“certain to have many boys”).

However, my favorite piece of analysis is:

Most of the time, she adds, Chinese people do their best to avoid bumping into their American colleagues. “The Chinese staff don’t know how to hold small talk with Americans,” she says. Direct translations of Chinese chatter can come across as confusing or intrusive in English.

And..

Food is a particularly useful social lubricant. In many offices, the most popular foreigner is the one who likes eating local delicacies, such as pig’s blood and chicken feet.

The story wraps up with:

So, how should a foreigner respond when he’s told he’s fat? My stock response is, “There’s so much good food here.”

WOW. that is probably the most profound breakdown of office politics I have read yet. so many cliches… So many stereotypes… and all in one article.

I wonder of the expatriates interviewed how many actually speak the language (you know.. Mandarin), how many go to work on the bus (rather than in their car), and how many have spent time necessary to understand a little of the history and culture of this country.

I realize that the WSJ is writing for primarily expats, and that is fine, but this article is rally taking a step back into the 1930s when being an expatriate can with your own concession.

Being an expat in China is not about getting used to ring tones and slippers in the office and secluding yourself in an Audi A8 on the way to your villa, it is about learning the language, spending time in the culture with friends, and traveling through this country to see all it has to offer (good and bad).

There are a number of people who have made the trek here, and who understand that the days of the expat are limited. I suggest reading our report on Halfpats as they are really the next wave for China’s senior positions.

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10 Responses to “Can’t the Journal do Better Than This?”

  1. rbrubaker says:

    February 13th, 2007 at 9:33 pm

    For those that are interested in different perspective on the article, I suggest you go to CLB where they are looking at it from more of the humor side.

    In the comments, Dan states that my analysis is as light on the article as I say the article is on Chinese culture, and after a reread of my post I will admit that my rant was a little too thin.

    anyway, the WSJ does a great job in general with their coverage of China, and when thinking about it this article is actually a great example of why many expatriates do not stay in China for more than 2 years (I am seeing another 5-6 friends leave following the new year).

    The issue is this: if your employees think you are the coolest foreigner because you will eat the weird stuff, then you have failed to show them that you have any interest in their culture. There is already a general belief that foreigners and foreign companies are only here for the profits, and this article is just adding fuel to the fire.

    I am not criticizing those expatriates that have successfully managed their way in China without the language, but the ability to do so is coming to an end as I highlighted above.

    CLB told one poster (halfpat_rant) to lighten up, but for those of us on the ground who deal with this everyday it is not a light topic by any means.

    I look forward to getting back to the coverage that WSJ is more attuned to…. Business news and analysis.

  2. shanghaiman says:

    February 14th, 2007 at 4:24 pm

    Richard — u r spot on the money. This article was terrible. Of course, the journalist geoff fowler lives in Hong Kong, not mainland China so that might have skewed the bent of the article towards stereoptypes.

    So when he writes…

    So, how should a foreigner respond when he’s told he’s fat? My stock response is, “There’s so much good food here.”

    That is what his HK colleagues say. And that is what he says to them. Any good journalist should know that culturally HK and China are completely different.

  3. rbrubaker says:

    February 14th, 2007 at 6:43 pm

    Shanghaiman.

    I have read through some of his other stuff, and the quality of this article is much different than when he writes on business. Like I said… I look forward to when the journal gets back to business.

    What I say to the whole fat comment depends on who says it really.

    Sometimes, I laugh it off, sometimes it wonder what I did to that person, and at other times it gives me some more ammo for future ribbings I will give them.

    I once had a colleague stand next to me and wonder why I was twice as fat as he was, and in response I told him I got paid 2x as much as he did. He stopped laughing. Everyone else laughed harder.

    At any rate, coming from America where someone can get sued for saying someone is fat, I actually appreciate the honesty and candor sometimes…

    Happy new year of the pig, and thanks for checking in.

  4. China Law Blog says:

    February 16th, 2007 at 8:19 am

    1. Where Fowler lives is irrelevant.
    2. I never said ARLTC was light on analysis. I said ALRTC needed to lighten up.
    3. Lighten up!
    4. This article was written as part of the WSJ’s cubicle culture series. Fowler was asked to step in and do a piece on China.
    5. The cubicle culture series is intended as a LIGHTHEARTED look at working in an office.
    6. Fowler’s piece was intended to be lighthearted and that is how virtually everyone viewed it.
    7. Not everything has to be serious.
    8. Should we criticize Monty Python for not accurately reflecting London culture?
    9. LIGHTEN UP. Not everything has to be serious. Can’t you take a joke?
    10. Fowler’s handling of the you are fat comments is neither an HK handling or a China handling, it’s a Fowler handling, and I can definitely think of times where it would be appropriate.
    11. To be frank, it is stuff like this that makes people hate bloggers.
    12. The WSJ is the best US daily newspaper at covering China and it is pure snobbery to act as though it does not do a good job at it.
    13. Your asking how many of the people ride the bus to work, etc. is weird. Who cares? This artiicle was obviously not aimed at the person who speaks fluent Mandarin and has lived in China for the last 5-6 years. It was aimed at the person who typically reads the Cubicle Culture column and that person has probably never even been to China. Is that person not entitled to an article? Must every article be geared towards the China veteren.
    14. How would you like it if someone dissected every one of your posts? For instance, I might note that you make a fairly eggregious grammatical error within the first ten words of your post. But, I would never ordinarily do that because I recognize that WE bloggers make such mistakes all the time in our haste to get posts out and I am generally tolerant of such things. Not every post WE do is dead-on serious or dead-on perfect. TOLERANCE.
    15. SO LET’S ALL LIGHTEN UP.
    16. Other than that, great job on the blog

  5. rbrubaker says:

    February 16th, 2007 at 8:56 am

    WOW

    Dan. I really got under your skin on this one.

    A post like this is why people hate bloggers? Now, that is a statement.

    Like I said in the above, the journal does a great job and I actually just gave them credit for a great job on the plane. I also believe the NY times and Washington Post also have great coverage.

    As for this is supposed to be a “lighthearted piece”, that is fine. But the fact is that it is through articles like this that some people actually form opnions about China busiess culture, and the picture isn’t very accurate.

    Why is it not accurate? because they didn’t pick a single person who I think has ever ridden the bus, much less taken the time to learn the language. If it were just one of the perspectives presented, that would be fine. had they asked a couple of old China hands for their perspective, it would have added balance.. and then the piece would have been about how perceptions change over time in China.

    That could have been lighthearted, education, and a great read.

    Anyway, back to reality and I look forward to future Fowler business pieces (which I have given thumbs up twice now)

  6. rbrubaker says:

    February 16th, 2007 at 8:56 am

    WOW

    Dan. I really got under your skin on this one.

    A post like this is why people hate bloggers? Now, that is a statement.

    Like I said in the above, the journal does a great job and I actually just gave them credit for a great job on the plane. I also believe the NY times and Washington Post also have great coverage.

    As for this is supposed to be a “lighthearted piece”, that is fine. But the fact is that it is through articles like this that some people actually form opnions about China busiess culture, and the picture isn’t very accurate.

    Why is it not accurate? because they didn’t pick a single person who I think has ever ridden the bus, much less taken the time to learn the language. If it were just one of the perspectives presented, that would be fine. had they asked a couple of old China hands for their perspective, it would have added balance.. and then the piece would have been about how perceptions change over time in China.

    That could have been lighthearted, education, and a great read.

    Anyway, back to reality and I look forward to future Fowler business pieces (which I have given thumbs up twice now)

  7. China Law Blog says:

    February 17th, 2007 at 7:38 am

    Yes, because I think you were unfair to the piece. One can always criticize anything for leaving something out. Not every article has to involve someone who “rides the bus” or be geared to that sort of person. It presented ONE side of office life assuming anyone who reads the WSJ knows not every Chinese person or ex-pat was reflected in the LIGHTHEARTED story.

  8. rbrubaker says:

    February 18th, 2007 at 1:02 am

    Dan,

    If I was unfair, then it was my off day as well as the journal’s. Each story in itself was lighthearted, but the author did not present the other side, nor attempt to when he should have

    Why do I not view these as lighthearted?

    It is basically because when I read that article what I see is actually a fundamental problem with expats in China and why they fail. If you are winning the hearts and minds of employees by eating exotic food, it is because you have given them no other reason to respect you… and if you do not have the respect of your employees, you are really in trouble

    So often I hear expats talk about their negative experiences in China, in and out of the office… and most of the time the issue is cross cultural.

    you ask why is it important for someone to ride the bus? How else do you learn what makes your employees tick? Think HK and China are the same? Wrong… the people are very different and their the way you motivate them will be as well.

    So much about this place is cultural and personal, and while a story on its own may be lighthearted, the issues that surround it are not.

    It goes to HR, IPR, and a whole host of other reasons why companies struggle and expat managers fail to make it longer than 2 years..

    Maybe I am reading too deep into it, but the job that I do for my clients demands that I look at cultural issues when I work with them to understand IPR risk, theft, etc… and the issues that really come out of this article are anything but lighthearted to me.

    While I still have a lot to learn, I wrote my criticism based in my 15 years of Asia experience (5 in China). If that is unfair, then the review I gave the same author on a different piece was as well.

    Happy New Year everyone.

  9. David Dayton says:

    February 19th, 2007 at 7:01 am

    Richard,

    As a 20 year veteran of Asia, a Asian Studies Grad and a Mandarin speaker, I totally agree with your comments. You’re right on. One of major the differences between people that visit China to do business and people that live here for business is the recognition that the longer you’re here the more you realize how much more there is to know about China.

    Dan’s bog is absolutely great, but his response to your post doesn’t do you or himself justice–16 points on how to lighten up?! And all of them as opinionated as your post. Probably impossible at this point (who says foreigners don’t have a concept of face?!) but I would be very interested to see how/if the (candid) comments of his partner Steve (who lives in China and speaks great Mandarin) differ from Dan’s blind praise of the WSJ.

    The WSJ isn’t a source for comedy or culture and should stick to business–because when it doesn’t people still think that it’s just as authoritative as when it does.

    Keep up the good work.

  10. rbrubaker says:

    February 19th, 2007 at 9:42 am

    David,

    Appreciate the support, and I enjoyed your recent post on the negotiation.

    I agree with you that Dan does a great job, and I think that culture issues are ones that have many takes. for those of us that are on the ground in China, we are seeing things on a daily basis that give us a different perspective.

    In this case, Dan/ Geoff and I disagree, but I think we all agree that it is time to get back to business.

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