The prospect of seeking employment within a culture so vastly different than your own may seem difficult enough as it is, seeing as the role will have to include much more than fulfilling one’s work duties. When we join a new work environment, it’s important to, for the best performance and peace of mind, to familiarize yourself with the superior and colleagues, flow of things, office etiquette, and most importantly – the cultural context in which it all boils down to.
As Angela Spaxman writes; there is a significant number of unspoken cultural norms and it agitates the primarily perceived image of Hong Kong as a westernized city, which makes it difficult for some people to blend in with their local coworkers and make an easy transition from their native culture onto the one of Hong Kong. Another aspect Spaxman mentions is the importance of feeling relevant and needed at work, regardless of the quality of work that is done. She emphasizes how to a westerner it may seem mind-boggling as to why would someone stay at work 11-12 hours unless they were truly swamped with work, but in Hong Kong, it shows dedication and preserves face.
This leads me to ponder my first ever full-time employment and reflect on my home country’s culture to see which parts made it extremely difficult for me to adapt. As it is almost customary for the most Europeans, I signed a contract with a local English tutorial center and expressed the enthusiasm about starting to work as soon as they want me to – it’s important to say that this part wasn’t me trying to appeal to local mentality, simply because I knew almost nothing about it at the time.
I did know, however, about the importance of humility and keeping to myself which in my mind didn’t go really well with the company’s policy of thinking outside the box.
I was perplexed. Do I comply with the group thinking or do I think outside the box? Obviously, I couldn’t have done both, not if I wanted to preserve my sanity. Should I keep to myself and let superiors deal with big problems or should I speak up if I have a good idea? Being quite pragmatic and wanting to get things done, I’ve made a huge mistake during my first meeting.
The first thing that struck a nerve with me was the fact that this meeting lasted over 7 hours. Back home they say; if you can’t get it done fast, don’t waste any more time on it. I noticed that among the coworkers who attended, only foreign staff expressed their discontent, ever so subtly not to upset their superiors,
Problems discussed were quite trivial however and I knew for a fact they could’ve been solved in the first 2 hours of the meeting, should everyone put their heads together and make those cogs inside spin a little. I grew weary of sitting for such a long time and raised my hand offering a solution.
Western staff looked at me as if I just fed a starving family while local staff had a mixed look of anger and disbelief. Either way, I offered my solution to which my boss smiled. What I didn’t know yet, was that the worst is yet to come. Even though he expressed his gratitude and praised me for solving the problem, following day he invited me to his office where the whole Human Resources department had been waiting in absolute silence.
” The annoying thing is that they say they’re hiring you for your Western knowledge and expertise. But whenever you share your opinion, it’s rejected or you’re told it wouldn’t work in Asia. No further explanation. ” (Marcus Goes Global, 2009).
They all proceeded to tell me that, even if it means a clear solution, I don’t have to be the one to say it because, well, I just joined the company and it makes other people lose face.
The surprised look on my face couldn’t be obliterated by anything. I didn’t understand why am I getting a warning ticket for making a significant problem go away. Another thing that left me scratching my head was the fact it took four Human Resources managers and two teacher managers to tell me this.
While I was scolded for removing an obstacle, I quickly recalled my problem-solving experiences back in Croatia in form of a flashback. Procedural mechanisms at work are not exactly loved so all the employees work as efficiently as possible to just get it out of the way. If the problem arises, whoever has the solution will be addressed to make sure it’s identified and dealt with – that person may be a vice president, a CEO or a janitor. It matters little if it helps bring the solution to the table.
Following months, very few local coworkers spoke to me. In hindsight, I should have probably kept to myself instead of trying to help out people that were struggling with paperwork that I’m quite familiar with. Apparently, one of them launched a formal complaint about me claiming I am attempting to do their work for them. So I have been slapped on the wrist yet again which lead me to just endure my contract period instead of looking to prosper in the corporate world of Hong Kong.
1.Spaxman, A. (2006). Workplace Culture Shock in Hong Kong. South China Morning Post. Retrieved from: http://spaxman.com.hk/living-and-working-hong-kong/workplace-culture-shock-in-hong-kong/
2. Unknown author (2009). Surviving the Asian workplace. Marcus Goes Global. Retrieved from: http://www.marcusgoesglobal.com/2011/03/surviving-asian-workplace.html