(Photo Credit: Gregory Stoller)
Our 17-year-old son was fortunate enough to find a summer internship in China. He traveled there briefly last summer to expand his high school Chinese language study, but 2018 marks his first official work experience, in the US or otherwise. My wife and I decided to go visit him for a week. After more than two decades, traveling overseas, either alone or with business students, is a non-event. But bringing your spouse for her first-ever visit to the People’s Republic, and also experiencing how the next generation views business, culture and life overseas was in theory going to be pretty exciting. Rather unexpected were their frank critiques.
China is terrific but across the entire spectrum is quite different from the United States. Different doesn’t have to imply a pejorative. Given that my wife and son had both already been to Asia and multiple other international locations before, I figured visiting China would be a slam-dunk. Not so much. Living in a culture half a world away is always just that. Here is what I’ve learned.
Improving vision through a 25-year old lens: Familiarity breeds contempt worldwide. So many of the oddities or idiosyncrasies that make China, shall we say China, I’ve either come to accept, or have become desensitized towards. I’m also biased since I love being there. But experiencing it for the first time isn’t just working through what I thought would be small growing pains; at times my well-honed cultural lens of 2 ½ decades didn’t need just a few dabs of Windex but rather a full set of new parts. Add in to the mix that amongst family, no holds are barred. The food was challenging but that was the least of our issues. Privacy is simply non-existent, especially while living in China. Everything is openly shared; personal space, clothes, phone peripherals and beds… even at work. Our son works at a desk in a shared office and nothing is sacrosanct. Despite my best-intentioned exhortations that “you’ll get used to it,” and “this is a small Chinese thing,” it’s tough for any of us to recalibrate our American independence on the fly.
Don’t believe what you read: The Western books are wrong on both ends of the spectrum about China. The US business press loves to engage in China bashing, stoking the flames of xenophobia against Americans and US companies succeeding there. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Our son has been welcomed with open arms both inside and outside of the office. When his new boss of only a few days asked him about his favorite food, the boss’ wife stayed up until all hours of the following night making homemade dumplings for him. When he couldn’t get a Sim card, as he was below the 18-year old Chinese minimum age, one appeared in hours, and at no cost.
At the opposite extreme, the Chinese economic machine doesn’t reside solely in megacities like Beijing and Shanghai. Our son’s internship is in a second tier city in southern China, where after riding a high-speed train for 60 minutes, a second hour-long taxi ride is necessary to reach his office. Fluent English speakers are practically non-existent, none of the signage or menus is bilingual, and our kid has become a de facto celebrity of sorts when he walks down the street, since most locals have never seen a non-Asian face. In the morning, lacking basic US creature comforts such as a non-fat mocha latte makes daily life at times challenging. Ironically, I got a similar start in rural Japan when I did my internship, but I was already in my early 20s and had four years of college Japanese. It’s a tough sell to him, since even though he has done extremely well learning Mandarin during his high school years, he’s still well shy from having memorized the 2,500 characters needed to read a newspaper.
Surviving a famine of US food staples: Like their US brethren, Chinese teenagers love their phones and social media. But imagine a US teenager’s life without Facebook, Google, Insta and Snap? All of these services are blocked through the Great Chinese Firewall. Politics might periodically intrude into a US adult’s daily life, but censorship shouldn’t affect the day-to-day online musings of a rising high school senior. Right? This was another bitter pill to swallow for my wife and son. Add to this the other governmental policy, which prevents visitors with fewer than eight weeks of residency from having a Chinese bank account. Seemingly innocuous, except most of China has now moved to a cashless society. Apps like WeChat act as an electronic debit card, used to pay for a cup of coffee, a taxi fare or ordering food in a restaurant (i.e., where paper menus are often no longer used) but doesn’t yet link to overseas banks. Some vendors sometimes don’t even carry enough cash to make change from the equivalent of a $20 bill.
At the end of the day, our oldest child loves the experience and we’ve seen him mature more in three weeks than in the past full year. The internship and cultural experiences are positively, and exponentially, growing on him with each day that passes. My wife was a real trooper throughout, politely smiling and biting her lower lip often until it bled, or surviving on the peanut butter crackers she brought from home. I ate my own share of humble pie, as well, trying to explain, and at times “justify,” as much as I could, often in vain.
This latest trip also taught me that a less than perfect experience shouldn’t deter one’s passion for something that truly excites you… even if the lessons being transferred to your spouse or to the next generation aren’t necessarily going to manifest themselves one-for-one. My China experiences can be different than those of others.
Our son’s latest set of pictures shows a kid grinning from ear-to-ear as his boss officially declared he’d be a part of the company’s newest project. As for my wife, after having reflected on her China sojourn, she’s in no danger of relinquishing her passport. She’s still very excited to travel and explore internationally. But perhaps Europe, with its more western, cosmopolitan style, might be more her speed. Finally, the planning for my next consulting trip with our BU MBAs is in full force, and on schedule.
Greg Stoller is an entrepreneur and a senior lecturer on entrepreneurship, experiential learning and international business at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business in Boston, Massachusetts, USA.