Going to another country for the first time, whether for business or pleasure, can be a daunting experience – especially if you are going on a long-term basis, and have to relocate with your family in order to make that new country your second home. For most foreign people, China is probably not an easy place to adapt to because of cultural differences, language barriers and just the fact that it’s so far away from Europe and the Americas that people automatically fear the remoteness and isolation. For one British expatriate, the China experience has been nothing short of an adventurous journey. Navjot Singh, a Briton from London, initially went to China in the early part of 2002 for a short one-week holiday. Here he describes his experience from then onwards.
For me it was meant to be just a short holiday. I knew nothing about the culture (apart from what you hear and see in the news) and there was no real interest in China for me. It never really occurred to me that I would be coming back to China on a long-term basis until I was exposed to the country’s fast-paced economic growth and immense beauty.
Upon graduating from Loughborough University in 2004 with a combined Bachelor’s and Master’s Degree in Electronic and Software Engineering, instead of applying for a graduating job in the UK, I decided to take a chance by relocating to mainland China, initially to teach English at the Guangdong University of Technology, in the southern city of Guangzhou.
Teaching English at the university allowed me to get acquainted with the local culture and customs because I knew that once I was in my corporate job, I would not have as much spare time to travel around as I did when I was a teacher. It goes without saying that during the first few weeks one is just a tourist going around taking pictures of everything they see or meet. However, from the first day that I entered China, I decided that I was going to have the mindset of a tourist for the whole of my time in the country and enjoy every moment. It stems from the fact that I always have the thought in the back of my mind that I may never get a second chance to see or try anything, so even once in my corporate job I treated every day as if it was my last day in China.
As I’ve said elsewhere on this site, for me personally China has become a lifelong affection. China will surprise you more than you would have imagined. To reject the stereotypes: yes, it’s very safe to live in; the country boasts great cuisine from all corners of the world and not just China; and the people are the friendliest that you will ever meet.
After the completion of my stint as an English teacher, I started my corporate job with Philips in Shenzhen in 2004. Apart from the colleagues from Philips offices around the world who came on occasional short-term business trips, I was the first non-Chinese expatriate staff member that Philips had in Shenzhen. It was rather strange trying to fix or test a Philips DVD player for clients, because my colleagues could speak good enough business English. However, with almost all of the technical manuals being written in Mandarin, the challenges soon became apparent to me.
Back in the 1980s great emphasis was laid on the need for people to learn Russian or Japanese because of the economic climate and impact that these powerhouses had on the world’s growth. No-one in those days forecast that come the 21st century, we would all face the need to learn Chinese or, to a lesser extent, Hindi (India’s national language). Now almost every corporation is giving their staff members the opportunity to learn Mandarin. I jumped at the first chance that Philips gave me to commence my Putonghua lessons – before that, I didn’t even know how to say “Nihao”.
It was during my time at Philips that I got headhunted through a networking opportunity by one of the senior managers at Huawei Technologies, China’s multi-billion dollar telecoms multinational. Huawei provided me with the chance to participate in some truly global projects and gave me an insight into becoming an International Account Manager, a move away from the technical side into a commercial role. Huawei’s HQ in Bantian, Shenzhen is an extraordinary site that could be described as the Milton Keynes of China. The only differences are that you don’t see so many roundabouts and the weather can be ridiculously hot and humid in the summer. It was just a sheer privilege to be witnessing this corporate powerhouse every day, and most importantly being part of it.
One thing I did realise from my time working and living in China is that no matter how good you may be at mastering the language, the most important challenge which many foreigners may not be able to overcome is one of the culture, irrespective of whether it’s in the office environment or in personal life.
It continues to amaze me that in my five years in China, I have been fortunate (and unfortunate!) enough to be in so many more different scenarios, both good and bad, that I have been in during my whole life in all the other 24 countries that I have been to. In China, every day there is something good and new happening, maybe a new building is erected or another trade deal may have been signed with a foreign country; and almost every day the skyline changes in the big cities such as Shanghai, Beijing or Guangzhou.
In London we have one Canary Wharf, but in one Chinese city such as Shenzhen, there are at least ten buildings of a similar size, if not bigger. It’s this sheer scale and pace of expansion which attracts me most about China. It’s a truly magical and remarkable country to live and work in.
Buy Navjot Singh’s books!
Newcomer’s Handbook Country Guide: China
Including Beijing, Guangzhou, Shanghai and Shenzhen
Paperback, 292 pages
2008, First Books
Gorilla Guides: The Business Traveller’s Handbook to China
Paperback, 332 pages
2009, Gorilla Guides