Three Ways to Build a Career in China Faster

Build a Career in ChinaPhoto by Jeremy Lim

Today’s guest post comes from Brandon. He moved to China in 2008 and recently founded SmartIntern China Internships, a company which helps students and recent graduates to secure internships in Shanghai.

Building a career in China isn’t easy, but you wouldn’t be here if you didn’t like a challenge, would you? There is no one approach that can guarantee success, but if you follow these three steps, you will be closer than most to living a dream in China.


Tip #1: Bypass the HR Department


Most people think of HR as the people they need to impress in order to land a job, but the reality is that impressing HR should be your last resort. In fact, your goal should be to avoid making contact with HR completely.

The goal of an employee in any corporation is to make themselves look good to their immediate manager. This is their number one priority. The entry-to-mid level gatekeepers in HR are incentivized to do this, not to take risks. And you, my friend, a foreigner from a foreign country with a foreign sounding name that is hard to pronounce and a less-than-perfect grasp of the Chinese language, are perceived as a risk. Your overseas background is difficult to contextualize, and you will face even bigger challenges if you don’t have a big brand name or two to put on your resume. The truth is that, in China, you are an even more unknown commodity than the average applicant.

That doesn’t mean you can’t provide great value to the company- you can! However, the people who will recognize this are not the HR gatekeepers- they are upper management or the company owner(s) themselves. ‘Stalk’ them on LinkedIn (though perhaps not as aggressively as this company) and find out a way to connect with them in person. This brings me to Tip #2.


Tip #2: Network Offline


The great thing about networking overseas is that expat communities tend to be tighter and more close-knit than communities in your home country. When you go out in your hometown, how often do you befriend a group of friendly strangers at the bar within five minutes? My guess is not very often (unless you live in some incredibly friendly city, in which case- tell me where it is in the comments!). In China, it is very easy to strike up conversations on the street with expats and locals alike. If you get yourself out there, and perhaps participate in a run with the Shanghai Hash House Harriers or volunteer with a group like Bean, you will be surprised at the movers and shakers who you bump up against. And, as they have once been in your situation- new and in very a foreign country- they tend to be sympathetic and willing to help.

Some networking groups to consider are:

  • Internations
  • FC Club
  • Chambers of Commerce- Google ‘{your country name} chamber of commerce china’ or ‘{your country name} board of trade china’ to see what membership options are available. Membership in one of these organizations costs money, but it is well worth it, as most members are senior executives and entrepreneurs with strong local knowledge.

I’d also recommend getting involved on LinkedIn by starting interesting discussions in groups like China Networking Group. Of course, if you are looking for an (here is my plug ;) ) internship in Shanghai I can help you with that here.

While less true in cities like Shanghai and Beijing, an additional advantage you will have is that we foreigners are often perceived as being far more interesting than we actually are. You could be the most boring person ever, but in most of China’s cities, you will be an attraction by virtue of your mere foreignness. This can be unpleasant at times- think back to that cab driver who wouldn’t stop stroking your arm hair- but it’s also a huge asset that you can leverage to your advantage.

You’ll get stressed at times by the traffic and general chaos on China’s streets, but please promise me that you won’t recede into your comfortable apartment with a hundred bootleg DVDs, only emerging once a day for Starbucks. If you get out there, network strategically, and are open to serendipitous encounters, you will eventually meet the people you need to meet.


Tip #3: Adjust your Expectations


This is not your home country, and expectations are different. In China, there is a saying of ‘吃苦’ (chiku), which loosely translated means ‘eating bitterness’. For long-term success in China, you should be prepared to ‘chiku’ in the short-term.

For example, many companies expect 6 day work weeks from employees. I have even seen companies advertise a 5 day work week as a ‘perk’! You might also have to get your own health insurance, and will likely be paid a salary far lower than you would command at home. The truth is that, if you are dead-set on transitioning out of teaching English and into a position that better aligns with your long-term career aspirations, you might need to take an internship at age 25, or work for a local salary for a year while proving your value.

I am not saying everyone will have to do this- cushy expat jobs in China still remain, though they most often go to employees with highly-specialized skills. What I am saying is that you should be prepared, and willing, to work longer hours for less money than you would back home if doing so will provide you with the opportunity to reach your long-term career goals.

This might not sound glamorous, but my five years in China have shown me that this is pretty close to the truth. Easy? No. Worth it for the life lessons and practical experience gained? Yes, absolutely.

What have your experiences working in China been like? Let us know in the comments!