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What It's Like to Work in a Chinese Office

ANDREW SANBORN

Here’s part of a real conversation that happened in my office:

Chinese coworker:“Andrew,你可以给我 more precise design steps for 我们的产品吗?”   (nǐ kě yǐ gěi wǒ _____wǒ men de chǎn pǐn ma)

Me: "可以的。你要更多 flowchart technicality 还是用户故事?”  (kě yǐ de. nǐ yào gèng duō_____hái shì yòng hù gù shi?”)

Chinese coworker:“都可以。我需要更多 detail for developers."   (dōu kě yǐ. wǒ xū yào gèng duō_____)

Me: "酷。可以啊。”  (kù. kě yǐ a)

You may be thinking, "I know most of those words! I'll buy my ticket to Shanghai now. Thanks, Andrew!"

Not so fast, Turbo. That conversation was between two 同事 (tóng shì)  coworkers, both fluent in English.

What about the times when your conversation partner does not speak English?

Unless you have a firm grasp on the language, you should work on being *ahem* extremely good at talking your way out of meetings.

Some things you can’t talk your way out of. Like going to your first Chinese business dinner, making a first impression on a coworker, or the many other aspects of work culture of China.

You’ll find that some are amusing, some refreshing, and others downright odd.

Here are some of the cultural differences I’ve experienced working in Chinese offices.

Single? Not a problem.

Some of the first questions you'll hear in a Chinese office is:

  • 你结婚了吗? (nǐ jié hūn le ma?)  - "Are you married?"
  • 你有男朋友吗? (nǐ yǒu nán péng yǒu ma)  – “Do you have a boyfriend?”, or
  • 你有女朋友吗? ( nǐ yǒu nǚ péng yǒu ma)- "Do you have a girlfriend?"

Outside China, I didn’t often hear this at work, but here it’s one of my first conversations with coworkers, followed by an introduction to bachelorettes in the office.

Normally, I would thank my new friend for being a bro, then turn up my coolness to 11.

However, I've had enough office equipment hurled at me during a lovers' quarrel for one lifetime. So thanks, but no thanks.

Maybe that’s not your story. Hey, everyone knows 李梅 (lǐ méi)  in accounting has eyes for you, and our friend Pippa has some tips to help your new romance go swimmingly.

Just make sure you're clear about decorum. You don't want to catch the business end of a suddenly airborne stapler at work. You're also likely to catch a nice chat with HR.

It’s okay to speak Chinglish...

My 同事 (tóng shì) and I are both fluent in Chinglish. In fact, much of this post is written in a kind of Chinglish, to give you an idea of the language spoken in most workplaces.

Learn it, know it, live it.

... but don’t stop studying Chinese.

Most technical terms have Mandarin equivalents, but many times the words are uncommon, so everyone uses the English.

Unfortunately, in official meetings this is sometimes considered impolite. Because of this, you might be left blushing when you can't make a passable answer to a question about your project.  

Practicing your industry’s vocab will save you loads of embarrassment. Trust me.

The South: cots and contracts

My first office job in China was in Shenzhen. When I walked in the building, my first question was, "What's with all the cots?"

One thing you're bound to notice in the south is the 睡垫 (shuì diàn)  - sleeping mats or cots.

When it's hot, as it tends to be in the tropics, sometimes you need a 午睡 (wǔ shuì)  - a siesta (literally "noon sleep") to recharge during an extra-long lunch break 午休 (wǔ xiū).  

Though, as you might expect, a two-hour lunch means you can't 下班 (xià bān)  - clock out, until after 7:00 in the evening.

Sometimes you may even be required to 上班 (shàng bān)  - go to work, on Saturday regardless of whether or not you have work to do. If your job is 无聊 (wú liáo)  - boring anyway, you might start to think about other employment.

To avoid an unpleasant misunderstanding like that, make sure you read the fine print in your 合同 (hé tong)  - contract.

In many cases, you won't be given an English copy, so find a Chinese friend who can translate, or you may be stuck with some undesirable terms—like working a few soul-crushing hours every Saturday morning.

office space

Get comfy in your Northern office.

These days I work in Beijing for a social media organization.

While some departments still adhere to a classic 9am-6pm, 不用午睡 (bú yòng wǔ shuì)  – “no lunchtime naps” attitude, others have adopted a more flexible schedule, or 弹性工作制 (tán xìng gōng zuò zhì). 

My colleagues tell me this Silicon Valley-styled "get your work done and go home" environment is becoming more popular with newer companies.

But like many radical ideas, it will take some time to catch on.


Learn more about the “nature” – 性 (xìng) of work in China in our Intermediate Lesson here!


One of the first things you might notice in northern offices, especially in Beijing, is the 加湿器 (jiā shī qì)  - humidifier.

It's not just for children with croup anymore. When the humidity in the air gets below 30 percent and you can’t open your office windows, you'll be thankful for this lovely little lifesaver.

Wrapping Up

So, with these pieces of advice, you can make a better decision on when to buy that plane ticket, and what to expect when you land.

If you’re looking to take your next job in the “Middle Kingdom” (中国 (zhōng guó)  - China), I highly recommend it!

And keep working on your Mandarin before you arrive too! A little bit of preparation can go a long way toward getting you settled in to your new life in China.

Oh, and if you see 李梅 (lǐ méi)  from accounting, tell her Andrew "回家了(huí jiā le)"  - went home.

There’s plenty more about the Chinese office experience that I couldn’t cover in this article. Do you have any questions? Want to share your own Chinese office experiences? Tell me in the discussion section below.

Learn more

How do I ask a question in Chinese?

Two ways to say “or” in Chinese 

4 Tips to Survive Your First Chinese Business Dinner

How to Make Great First Impressions with Any Chinese Speaker

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ANDREW SANBORN moved to Shanghai, China a year and a half ago, even though he never took a day of Chinese class in his life. That hasn't stopped him from mixing it up with locals and becoming conversationally fluent in Chinese.

Tue, 29 Mar 2016 20:00:00 GMT

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