Wednesday, November 30, 2011

China Water-Cooler Chatter

After close to 10 years of working (and living) in China, here are common, office chatter topics which I've either heard in passing or had the pleasure to partake in the conversation.  

Fascination with Homes

Rent or buy

The size of your home

The price of your home

Apartments are a rage in China.  I’d call it a cultural obsession.   The way some folks ask me about my dwelling space, size, price - I thought they were looking to move in with me!   

Whereas where I’m from, folks can go decades before they buy, there is a mad race here to own an apartment.  It almost seems like an entitlement for the 20-something crowd to think they are due an apartment.  

Home discussion is always an icebreaker in China and for the most part, perfectly normal conversation topic. 

Food and Food Intake Method (plus the occasional “outtake”)

Who cooks in your house?

Can you take spicy (food)? And it is "take", ie can you bear it?  

I have diarrhea. 

There is a pickiness here about food, that I cannot quite put my finger on.  I’ll eat anywhere and pretty much eat anything.  Most folk here seem picky about their food and then it can even extend to another level of “whose cooking are you brave enough to endure?”  Granted, there is a large mistrust here of restaurants; the food safety, 2nd hand oil thing, etc…   It seems in a normal home here, whoever controls the wok, has the power.

Then, diarrhea, is not something you keep to yourself.  If you got it, folks don’t mind telling it, hearing about it, how you got it, where from and then there is a lot of chin music on who can brave “spicy” food and from what region.  I’d honestly had never thought that much about it… 

Getting Voted off the Island

I trust them, I don’t trust them. 

Maybe it’s because of history, maybe folks just like the Survivor model in their office, but for some reason, I hear trust mentioned a lot?  Why, I’ve asked myself?  Is there something going on that I should know about?  Is some of the team passing nuclear secrets to each other?  Is there a larger conspiracy transpiring and manufacturing promotional items is just the cover up? 

I say that tongue-in-cheek, but there is an extreme distrust of one another here;  a fear that someone will rat out the other – although I’ve never uncovered what that dirty secret is and I bet dollars to doughnuts they also don’t know.  In the West we tend trust people until they’ve given us a reason to do otherwise, here it is the opposite.  Whether it’s the VP or the lady that sweeps the office, there is a watchful system here and just be sure you don’t get voted off the island, a la Survivor.

Price Fascination

How much you get paid

The amount of your bonus

The cost of “x”, how much did you pay for “x”?

How much the boss pays for their “x”.

Like nowhere else in the world, there is a fascination here of what something costs.  Whether you bought a new pair of Li Ning’s or a BMW…spill the beans. 
What did you pay?  Typically after you tell someone what you paid, the normal response is for everyone to make that tongue clicking sound and shake his or her head and tell you, “too expensive”.

Also if the staff doesn’t share with one another the amount of their bonus, compensation, etc.. they are considered, “not a team player”.  There was one small girl, probably shorter than 5’3 who was bullying all others to tell her their bonus.  I guess if they didn’t squeal she was going to vote them off at the next tribal council? (back to the above “trust” concept).  

Asking you how much money you make is not something folks are shy about because most will willing offer the info on how much they are making.  

Many people in companies here have this “us vs. them” mentality when it comes to employee and management – obviously a sprig from the communist root.  The worker has to band together against the evil oppressive class.  

And if you are in a position of authority, knowing what you pay for things is the juiciest, hot commodity going today.  I think it’s from a developing country having lack of hobbies, thus leading to little random bits of knowledge being something people want to scoop up.  When I heard the team discussing how much my shoes cost, I got my hopes up thinking they were going to kick in a buy me a birthday present (ie knowing what quality level I expect, perhaps a better pair of shoes) but it turns out they were just shootin’ the bull.  

I realize a lot these chatter points stem from history, welfare (cost of everything being an obsession) and culture.   It’s been a blast working in China and being a foreigner in China, having Chinese colleagues and managing a team has been a humungous life-growth mechanism.  Moving out of your home country and working with others changes your views on just about everything.  Be sure to enjoy the ride whilst it’s happening.      

How does this office cooler talk differ from where you live?

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