Between two worlds
Living and working in China and Germany
A summertime chat with Zuhui Mao and Klaus Schmitt
Mrs. Zuhui Mao comes from Shanghai and has been living in Heidelberg for more than 30 years. She is the executive director of SinaLingua, a cross-cultural management company founded in the year 2000. The company conducts workshops on all relevant global management cultures and is today provided with a network of about 80 trainers. Since 2006, SinaLingua also has its own branch in Shanghai, China.
Mr. Klaus Schmitt is a trained industrial management assistant who has also graduated in sinology and ethnology. Eleven years ago he went to China to work for the German Foreign Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai. For about four years now he has been training Western and Chinese managers in China in cross-cultural management, team building and executive development. As an organisational coach, today Klaus Schmitt advises and coaches managers and global company representatives.
This year, however, the two are travellers between two worlds: both of them have returned to their home countries for some months to work there and this way once again experience their own everyday lives. Does this run smoothly, or do they face certain challenges? SinaLingua spoke to them.
SinaLingua: For quite some time now you have been back to your home countries. How are you doing?
Zuhui Mao: I’m great, no complaints. Apart from a heat wave in Shanghai with more than 40°C and an extremely high humidity, everything is okay. After all, I love hot weather. And here in Shanghai we have the advantage of being provided with air condition.
Klaus Schmitt: Meanwhile I´m feeling very well. However, after turbulent Shanghai it took some time to get used again to this new everyday life in placid Heidelberg. Currently I´m enjoying the quietness, the tidiness, the orderliness and the fact that life over here is slower than in Shanghai.
SL: Mrs. Mao, Mr. Schmitt, independently of each other you are currently spending some months in your home countries, after having been living and working in Germany and China respectively for many years. This time, what made you decide for longer stays in your home countries?
ZM: I left China in 1985 to go to Germany, and now I have been living in Heidelberg for more than 30 years. Accordingly, I had always been dreaming of living in my home country of China again and of seeing if I´m still capable of doing this after 30 years. When getting older, you become ever more aware of this. This raises questions: In which ways will I be affected when being back home again, when looking for my roots? Will I really get along with life over here, what is conspicuous, what do I like, what not? After all, this was the point which made me decide to come back to Shanghai.
KS: For me the motto “back to the roots” plays a certain role. After meanwhile eleven years in China, I wanted to experience life in Germany first hand again, including everyday life at work. Even if I came back to Germany every year, for holidays or business trips, this is not the same as permanently living here for some months. Furthermore, for me it was important to experience interaction and business communication in Germany again, as this is a frequent topic of my cross-cultural trainings and coachings in China. I will then be able to make use of an updated impression of the current situation for my work in China.
SL: When becoming familiar with your home countries again and starting to establish your everyday lives at work, were there any remarkable impressions for you? What were your most striking experiences?
ZM: Over the past 20 years I have been to China at regular intervals, both for business and private matters. Basically, I had never lost contact to China, even if no stay was longer than two weeks. However, it is a great difference if you are staying in China for three, four or even six months. The biggest challenge in the beginning of my return was that in China there is hardly any separation of work and private lives. Sometimes this was rather tough, also due to the time difference to Germany; the moment work is over here, work in Germany has just gathered pace. Insofar I can very well understand what expatrietes in China have to deal with, hats off! Apart from this, everyday work over here comes along with many obligations in the evenings. Business contacts are very much maintained, one has meals together, also on weekends. Over here it is a matter of course that even when being on holidays you are available for conversations with your business partners. For me this was the most difficult thing when becoming familiar with China again. To sum it up: Shutting yourself away with certain anchors, saying that now I´ve arrived, in a way which allows me to have my own rhythm of life with certain rituals, this requires much self-discipline. Over here this is completely different from Germany.
KS: For me, many things were striking at the same time. For once, this is not only a cliché but reality: the fresh air and the plenty of nature, also in the city centre, as well as the quietness, often organised by strict regulations in Germany. This made me become much calmer, much more focused. In the beginning I couldn´t get enough of the green of the trees, and I encountered intensive smells I had not perceived like this for a long time, e. g. a freshly mowed lawn or a freshly polished staircase. Then there is an immense and extremely distinctive bicycle culture over here (bicycle lanes, child trailers, giving way to bicycles, bicycles in buses and trains and much more). One of the first things I did over here was buying a used bike! Another great difference I perceive in conversations with Germans is their particular sense of humour. Often humour in Germany finds expression by irony, something which is not necessarily the case in China. For example, after having arrived at Frankfurt Airport, I was asked by the customs officer if I was from Shanghai. I asked him how he knew and if at that time there had been only one flight arriving. He said that my name Schmitt had made him think so, as it sounded really Chinese.
SL: Which cultural differences between Germany and China do you perceive particularly in everyday life?
ZM: On the one hand, over here I still have close contacts to my family and friends, accordingly personal relations are much more intensive than in Germany. Over here it is a matter of course that I see my parents at least two times a week and that I call them now and then. And I am no exception: relations to family and relatives are very close. Vice versa, this also means that, when being in Germany, I take much care to have my personal freedom, to just retreat when and how I like; this is difficult over here. Also, over here it requires much self-discipline to have a break now and then. I had to consequently build in some rituals, doing yoga at fixed times, having a massage or sitting in a park on my own and reading. Apart from this, there are so many people over here, often getting to work takes very much time, everywhere you meet people. In this sense, there is no basic understanding of moving too close to each other. Basically, this cultural imprint influences the entire everyday life. Another example is the fact that now, during the summer time, for more than one and a half month I have been living like on a construction site. I mean the situation here in my apartment complex, where constantly people are moving in and out, resulting in refurbishments. When, for example, refurbishments have been completed on the 5th floor, and you believe that now you may take a deep breath, the noise starts again on the 13th floor. This phenomenon is simply accepted in China and nobody complains. Then there is an extreme difference concerning lifestyle. In Germany I live in Heidelberg, a city whose number of inhabitants would not even be sufficient for one neighbourhood in Shanghai. Meanwhile the City of Shanghai itself has become a multi-cultural metropolis; the enormous offer of cultural and arts events meets the highest modern and international standards. This is something I enjoy very much.
KS: There are so many differences I take notice of. I just don´t know where to begin. Now, as summer really takes off, there is the example of the distinctive balcony culture in the city centre. Even the smallest balconies are used for recreation, for enjoyment and coming together, and they are nicely made by help of a variety of decorations and plants. In China, the balcony culture is less distinctive, the people there rather go outside to share their everyday lives with many other people. Another difference is the service culture. Compared to China, there is only little staff, which may result in long waits or obvious stress. Furthermore, often the service staff seems to be outspokenly inflexible when it comes to individual food preferences (I am a vegetarian!). Another point is the open-mindedness of the people over here. As in Heidelberg I hardly know anybody and had no circle of friends and acquaintances. I attended many events on my own (open film events, dances, lectures) and I believe myself to be rather open-minded and finding it easy to meet other people. But compared to China, over here I notice how much aloof the people are and how much they want to be among themselves. In China, on the other hand, many people are very curious, and often they approach foreigners to greet them and simply start a conversation. As I perceive it, many Germans are generally less interested in meeting other people.
SL: How do you perceive the younger generations in both countries?
ZM: In China we speak of the different generations of the post-1980ers, post-1990ers and even of those who were born after the year 2000. Myself, I have little contact to the latter two groups in my everyday life. However, in the team of my company there are some staff members belonging to the post-1990 generation. I think that their entire way of being is very open-minded, very communicative, and after all they are not so much different from the young generation in the West. Sometimes they are very straightforward, and they are also capable of accepting open and straightforward criticism, and they indeed reflect on it. When it comes to those cultural elements as are visible and perceptible, I hardly notice any differences between the young generations of Germany and China. Just the same, I notice that the attitude towards work-life balance has much changed among the young generation in China. They have learned how to work, nevertheless they know how to really enjoy their leisure time: may it be that they go to concerts in the evenings or go on weekend trips with friends, meanwhile many have their own cars, they fully enjoy their lives, and they plan their holidays much earlier than the older generation. Furthermore, quality of life, to which e. g. the love of nature and healthy food also belong, is a topic which is much more in the fore among the young generation.
KS: Now, I have not so much contact to young Germans, however I perceive them as being very different from each other. On the one hand I meet young people who are very smart, ambitious, considerate, communicative, social, open-minded and showing an international attitude. They know how to deal with the social media. Many of them think about their lives, their desires and their goals in life. On the other hand, however, I also see young people in Germany who, to me, look rather depressed and frustrated, who are hanging around with their friends on public squares, mostly with a beer can in their hands. I think that, concerning this aspect, society is very divided. Over here, several criteria such as school education, parents, and the question of who has supported their education and if they have been supported at all plays a great role. I do not rule out that in the future the so called social gap might cause great problems in Germany.
SL: Do you identify different ways of approaching things when it comes to the organisation of work?
ZM: When it comes to work, organisation in Germany is much more structured. In Germany I can plan things well one week in advance, and in 70-80% of cases nothing will be changed. Accordingly, I enter my office in the morning, I basically know what to do and can start to execute things. Certainly, there are always some more things to do, but basically everything is much more structured. In China, on the other hand, I can plan just one day in advance – if at all. Certainly this is partly due to my role as the executive director. I am primarily interested in maintaining the relations to our business partners, clients and suppliers. Over here I have much more appointments with clients than in Germany. And over here I go out for meals with business partners much more often. Thus, on the whole I may say that, concerning the organisation of everyday life at work, things are much more spontaneous over here. This requires a certain degree of readiness and openness to spontaneity and improvisation.
KS: When it comes to my everyday life at work, for me the strict separation of job and private life was striking. After their time in the office, most Germans dedicate their lives exclusively to private matters and hobbies. Furthermore, there is a strict separation between workmate and friend, in the short run little friendships develop among workmates, and in most cases one keeps a personal distance. In China, on the other hand, transitions are rather fluid. Both concerning relations to staff members – who are soon called “friends” in China – and the times when people are available, there are hardly any visible limits. Among this there also counts that many employees over here do not have breaks together or go out for lunch together, quite different to China, where this collectivity aspect is much emphasized. Furthermore, over here reliability is a value I encounter constantly. Currently I much enjoy this strong reliability of most people. Thus, when it comes to decision-making, often a longer period of preliminary planning is necessary, to be prepared for possible changes. Over here, much runs according to inflexible structures one does not want to neglect. Processes run along fixed courses, and what is more, basically one keeps these rules. Concerning communication, over here it is comparably important to create an atmosphere of reliability.
SL: In your opinion, what are the greatest differences when it comes to the planning and implementation of projects?
ZM: This may be well illustrated by a German-Chinese project which is currently running over here. Also in China there is project planning, with a clear structure and deadlines. However, it changes constantly. For example, if an executive changes, a project may soon come to a standstill or may be put on hold. Thus, over here executives must innately be open towards change, to be able to react flexibly and thus to make quick decisions. This comes along with greater readiness to take risks and more commitment, so that considerations such as “Are we going to accept the offer by this new partner, even if no contract has been fixed?”, “What do I think about the situation?” or “May I already start the project while at the same time intensifying my relations to the partner?” are daily fare. In Germany, in most cases the risk would be too high. Thus, over here I see full confirmation of the stereotypes concerning the two cultures. On the other hand, if a German comes to China and is to a certain degree ready to take risks, often he/she will see surprising change and positive results if then, suddenly, the project does run or even follow-up projects become possible. This depends much on trust in the business partner. I find this kind of flexibility in China very remarkable.
KS: When it comes to project work, in Germany for me reliability is in the fore, i. e. planning should not be changed much afterwards. Working against this requires long-term planning, good preparation and fixed standards, to achieve the best possible result. In case of changes, they are in most cases soon communicated, which in my opinion is a great difference to China. There, I have often made the experience that due to hierarchy levels, unclear competences, interwoven relationships were not communicated immediately. If once something is fixed, in Germany (at least in the field of training) you may assume that the client will not change much. In China, on the other hand, I must expect that there will be several changes. This is perfectly normal and okay if I am ready to be flexible and simply know that I am still moving within the project frame.
SL: Finally, would you tell us about your favourite dishes at the moment?
ZM: As currently it is extremely hot in Shanghai, I love having “leng mian” (冷面, cold noodles) which are only offered in summer. They are prepared with a variety of different sauces and garnishes. However, what I would really love to have and miss very much over here is potato salad with barbecue sausages!
KS: Currently I like everything most which has to do with potatoes, may it be potato soup, mashed potatoes, boiled potatoes, potatoes in the skin, hash browns and of course also chips (French fries). For me, this is the German dish as such.
SL: Thank you very much for the interview! We wish both of you a nice stay in your respective home country.