Cultural Challenges in the Workplace: China Edition 1
by Aether in

Last Updated on November 19, 2018 by Aether

For non-Chinese professionals working in China, what are the day-to-day cultural challenges and how to overcome them?

China has become the second-largest economy in the whole world; therefore it is no surprise that spending some time in the far east, to gain international exposure, comes with many benefits. Taking on a job with a western firm, which has offices in China, can rapidly boost your promotional opportunities and significantly enhance your CV.

There are, however, a few challenges that you will likely have to overcome if you do decide that you wish to work there.

Living standards

China is a developing country, which means that housing and living standards are considerably lower than they are in the West. Housing listed as “suitable” would likely not pass any US or Western regulations. When moving into a new apartment, mentally prepare yourself for the fact that you will need to spend a bit of time cleaning before you fully move in. Hiring a cleaning assistant is a relatively cheap and nontrivial task, and should be taken advantage of if possible. Most furnishings will look very bland and will only be designed for its primary use, rather than considering comfort or aesthetics.

Most apartments will only have hot water in the bathroom, which is provided by a mounted wall unit. The shower will likely not have a curtain or any other furnishings, so you will probably need to buy these items later on.

Entertainment options

Although this may not be a primary focus initially, as you will likely be fully concentrating on your work and career, eventually you will want to wind down and watch television. Unfortunately, at the time of writing, there is only one English-speaking station available in China and not all cable companies will provide it. Many English speakers rely on the incredibly cheap DVDs that are available in the markets, as these will predominantly have English audio. You should plan on either bringing out a DVD player or to purchase one when you’re out there.

Work values

Westerners put lots of emphasis on independence and self-determination, as this is what we believe contributes to success in the long run. The Chinese, however, put more emphasis on luck and that success is the result of who you know within your working relationship network. Westerners are far more likely to take responsibility for mistakes and to apologize, but Chinese workers are more likely to attribute the error due to your misunderstanding and are reasonably hesitant to apologize. The best way to handle these sort of situations, especially in the long run, is to agree on the misunderstanding, as this will earn you more favor in their business relationship system.

Personal space

As you’re probably aware, China is incredibly overpopulated, which makes personal space a premium. Not only are offices and markets packed, but people often cut in front of you while you’re waiting in queues. You either accept that someone has cut in front of you or you can calmly reclaim your space. This can be quite a culture shock, but reclaiming your space in the queue is readily accepted without conflict.


Aether has been playing World of Warcraft since 2006. In his youth he raided 7 days a week, but now just plays with friends doing Mythic dungeons and Arena. He swaps his main more often than he should.
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