Applied Information Management

China: My Witness to Change

AIM alumnus, Bill Curtis (04), with his son and four students in front of the new Capitol Museum in Beijing, China.

In 1982, I took the train from Hong Kong to Guangzhou, China. This was my first trip to the People’s Republic of China. At the sleepy village of Shenzhen on the border between the then British Crown Colony and the PRC, the train halted and the Hong Kong crew was replaced by a mainland crew. The first mainlander I saw was a woman of about 50 who methodically swept the floor of our car with a straw broom. She was dressed in green fatigues with matching cap with a red star. Today, that once sleepy village is one of the world’s most modern cities with a population of over 1.5 million people.

The rapid pace of change is not the only adjustment foreigners must cope with in China. Chinese society is changing along with the economy and is today an interesting mix of tradition and new ways of thinking. Nothing illustrates the contradictions in Chinese society to me more than the behavior of the college students I have been teaching for the past five years. The girls, for example, struggle with the traditional expectation that they will marry young, have their child, and find a safe, stable job like teaching. They are concerned that they may not be able to help support their parents; another cultural requirement. (By the way, a twenty-something female in China is always referred to as a girl. A woman is someone much older.) On the other hand, many of my current and former female students have serious career ambitions and do not want to get married and have a child despite considerable pressure from their parents.

My cultural immersion in China began in the small city of Shijiazhuang, population of 10 million. Although it’s the capital of Hebei Province, Shijiazhuang is not high on the list of cities you would want to visit. This is precisely why I chose to teach there. I wanted to be away from the major foreign enclaves in Shanghai and Beijing. Even today, people in Shijiazhuang stare at me when I walk down the street. Since I lived on a college campus, there were always students who would volunteer to help me adjust to the city in exchange for oral English practice. The students took me under their collective wing and taught me just about everything I needed to know to adjust to life in China. Eventually, I was able to function pretty well on my own. I recall the first time I went to a restaurant by myself. I did not know enough Chinese to read the menu but I could still order food, ask for chopsticks (kuaizi), ask for the bill (maidan), and know how to count money – all simple things, certainly, but a major cultural victory for me.

Working in China has provided me with surprises and frustrations. My plan was to stay in China for one year and then return to the States to resume my business career. But, I was quickly seduced by the “million kindnesses” of the Chinese people, especially the students. I was not prepared for their enthusiasm, helpfulness, gratitude and their friendship. In and out of the classroom, these students became my mentors and my friends. However, as a professional manager, I find the paternalistic management style of many Chinese leaders to be quite frustrating. It is common for rules or agreements to change without warning or explanation. “We think you are working too hard so we are making this change.” It really doesn’t matter what you say after that, the decision is final. More troubling is the difference in the pay given to us Foreign Experts when compared to the Chinese teachers. To attract foreigners, compensation is well above that given a Chinese teacher doing a similar job. The Chinese expect this and do not complain. In China, my compensation makes me very well off. However, the equivalent wages in dollars barely gets me above the poverty line in the United States.

Another work difference is the amount of praise given to you for doing your job well. Awards, certificates, praise in local publications, comments by colleagues and students are common. I was the recipient of the Yanzhao Friendship award given by the Hebei provincial government in 2006. It was all a bit overwhelming but it also motivated me. It’s easy to be seduced by kindness and recognition.

Finally, my work team is international, coming from all over the globe. Hearing different points of view on nearly every topic keeps our conversations lively and often challenging. The international flavor of Beijing is now another reason for me to stay in China. As you can imagine, the Olympics turned my neighborhood, which is adjacent to the Bird’s Nest Stadium, into a truly global village for the month of August. And, speaking of change, everything in my neighborhood was either replaced or spruced up for the games. Even the sidewalks were replaced!

I work at Tsinghua University’s Center for International Exchanges as Post-Graduate Curriculum Manager. I am responsible for overseeing the design of courses for our students who will study abroad to receive advanced degrees after one year of preparation at the Center. With my teaching colleagues, I work closely with our partner universities in the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and the United States in course preparation and assessment. Chinese students have particular problems when they study overseas so we equip them with the tools they need to be successful: English for academic purposes, being assertive in the classroom and in teams, how to work effectively in teams, presentation skills, and intercultural communications. We also provide content in math, the sciences, and business. For example, last year I put together courses on intercultural communications, business and urban planning. The latter course was for our students who are now at Michigan State studying for a master’s degree in international urban planning. The variety of work and the amount of responsibility keeps me both interested and motivated.

Two AIM courses have proved particularly helpful to me in my work. Our very first course on virtual teams provided a lot of material for me in working with Chinese students. Information Design Trends was a great source of material for the urban planning course. I’ve also drawn material from our various management courses, especially in designing assessments that would both challenge and interest the students. But, the most important thing I took from the AIM program and applied to my work in China was the ability to look at the world from a different perspective. Having degrees in different disciplines has made it easier for me to help my students embrace possibilities they have never before considered or never thought possible and to think critically about them.

For anyone considering a career in China, here’s some practical advice. First, bring copies of your diplomas. Transcripts mean nothing here. I made the mistake of not doing this. When I applied for the position I now have at Tsinghua University I had to ask a friend of mine to dig through my possessions in storage outside Ann Arbor, find the documents, copy them, and get the copies to me—a major inconvenience. Second, embrace ambiguity. This is a high context culture. If you are not comfortable with uncertainty, don’t subject yourself to the anxiety of not knowing all the details of what will happen to you next and when it will happen. Third, be prepared for things to change for no apparent reason. Don’t expect explanations to always make sense. They may not. Fourth, don’t bother getting angry. When everyone is pushing to get on the bus or subway at the same time, just wait for them all to get on—you’re not going to get a seat anyway. When the car makes a right hand turn into the cross walk and you’re the one that has to put on the brakes and stop for the car, don’t worry. Be happy.

My overriding feelings about China and the Chinese are positive. Certainly, there are significant problems here but I have to say that the Chinese have transformed me from a semi-reclusive introvert to a more self-confident and happy extrovert. I love teaching and I love the Chinese. They have touched my soul with their many kindnesses toward me. Each day at noon when I taught at Hebei Normal University, I held an English Corner. Among the group of students who regularly attended were four girls—all international business majors. One day they were asking me about my son, Mike. In the conversation they asked if I ever had wanted to have a daughter. In fact, I had often wished that I had had two children, a boy and a girl. I said, yes, I did indeed wish I had a daughter. The girls paused for a moment, looked at each other, spoke in Chinese, then one of them said to me, “We will be your Chinese daughters.”

So, my witness to change has had something to do with observing this 5,000 year old culture go through an historic transformation. But, the real change is in me. Someday, I may return to the United States. But, for now, I am at home in China with all my Chinese sons and daughters.

PUBLISHED: November 11, 2008