Wednesday, September 27, 2006
Those Lazy-Hazy-Crazy Days Of Summer
I have officially been in Laiwu a week now and the one thing that has struck me more than anything else, and truly highlights the cultural differences between the United States and China, is the laid back atmosphere of Chinese business. My first notion of this was the evening before my first day of work. I asked my assistant what time I was expected to come in the next day. She said, "come in whenever you like. I can call you around ten and pick you up then, if that's not too early." Ten? I know I'm on the other side of the world, but international business is international business. I was expecting eight-thirty, or nine at the very latest. Especially as I wasn't really oriented yet. But nonetheless, I came in at ten.

After aimlessly surfing the internet for an hour or so, my assistant told me that the boss wanted to meet me face-to-face. Finally, I thought. So I got up and went to his office for jiaoliu (literally meaning interchange, referring to a kind of informal meeting). We talked a bit about my trip down to Laiwu, he checked to make sure my living situation was all set up, and we chatted about my educational background and my Chinese fluency level. Then we ended the meeting as it was already almost noon (I came in at ten, so lunchtime arrived rather quickly). Since I eat all my meals in the restaurant of the hotel I live in, I went back there to eat. I ate in a leisurely fashion, reading and occasionally taking a bite, when I looked down at my watch and realized it was one-fifteen. I figured I ought to be getting back. So I finished up, signed the check and headed back to the office. I entered the glass doors, ran up the two flights of stairs to my department, and discovered the door was locked. Maybe they're in a meeting, I wondered. So I hung around for a while outside the door. Finally, around two-fifteen, a woman whose office was down the hall came in and, upon realizing I was locked out, allowed me to sit in her office for a while. We chatted for about twenty minutes, at which point she looked down at her watch and noticing that it was two-thirty five said, "everyone should be getting back now from lunch." Two-thirty five? Again, I was puzzled. I asked her, does everyone usually come back from lunch so late? She replied, "Lunch here is two-and-a-half hours long. Sometimes people go home and nap or watch the news."

And it was then that the working environment here in Laiwu became clear to me. Laid-back might not even be the right word for it. Clearly something must be getting done, for this to be one of the world's largest steel producers. Yet the flow of workers in and out was not fluid, but lazy in its nature. And each new discovery of the workday's amorphous structure grated on the work ethic engrained in me by the American business culture. To put it bluntly, this ain't no regular nine-to-five, folks.

But it makes sense of the week before I came to Laiwu - indecisive planning, a we'll-deal-with-it-when-we-get-there kind of attitude, the inability to tell me exactly what I needed to do to get all the formalities taken care of. As of yet, I am in no position to comment on its effects on actual efficiency because I have no means of comparison. But I'm sure such an effect does indeed exist.

But there are definite upsides. In Laiwu, there seems to be more family togetherness - children and parents often eat lunch together, and the unstructured day makes coming and going easier. There is certainly no ill-will or griping about having to come in too early or about long hours. The flexibility during the day even allows for a weekly women's yoga class in the mid-afternoon (which I had my first experience with yesterday). And workers have plenty of time to come into my office and help me practice speaking Chinese.

I haven't decided for myself, as yet, whether these upsides outweigh the downsides of not having a structured workday with higher expectations and greater professionalism. This will be a question that will develop over time. And as I discover its real effects, I hope to come closer to understanding what gap lies between American and Chinese business development.
posted by Rachel @ 3:01 PM  
THE WILD WILD EAST: Everything you never knew you didn't know about life on the other side.
In China, the people are represented by two separate, yet equally important groups. The Chinese, who call this land "home," and the expats who migrate here. My name is Rachel. I am an expat. These are my stories.
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