Young Americans In China

Shiho Fukada for The New York TimesChina is an opportunity for everyone, I make sure to emphasize to those interested in the country. There is a tendency to think that you have to be Chinese, to know a lot about China, or to speak the language fluently to be able to participate in the growth of the country. While all of that is helpful, that is not necessarily the case. My advice is to not let any of that stand in your way if you are serious about China.

Whether you are Chinese, American, European, Asian or of some other ethnicity; whether you have experience or are a recent university graduate; you can find a role in China if you take the time to look. China is a great big, rapidly growing and complicated economy that needs a wide variety of skills to help it develop. Most of all, it needs people who bring to the country drive and an entrepreneurial spirit–and people like this come in all shapes and sizes.

For these reasons, I was delighted to read Hannah Seligson’s article in the New York Times, New Graduates Finding Jobs in China (Mandarin Optional), which describes how many young Americans now recognize the China opportunity and are not letting these obstacles stand in their way. I was also pleased to see Mick Zomnir featured in the article. A fellow Pittsburgher and a past contributor to MTD, Mick is a student at M.I.T. who worked as an intern at JFP Holdings over the summer. Mick did a great job for us, and is now on his way back to the United States. I’m sure he’ll be surprised by his new-found fame when he lands at the Greater Pittsburgh airport.

The article raises once again the issue of language, which I discussed in my book, Managing the Dragon, and which we have mentioned on several occasions on this site. I make no secret of the fact that I haven’t learned to speak Mandarin, not because I don’t think it’s important or because I would not like to. The facts are that I came to China in mid-life after a 20-year career on Wall Street and language was never my thing.

My value-add in China was never going to be my facility with the language. Instead, it was going to be the knowledge and experience which I brought here from a long career in investment banking. If I had let my lack of knowledge of China and its language stop me, I wouldn’t have had the amazing experience that I have had over the past 15 years.

It was gratifying, therefore, that the Americans cited in the article have not been intimidated by China and have come despite having no prior background with the country

For example, Mick had never been to China and couldn’t speak the language. I hired him for the summer because he is smart, hard working, has a strong entrepreneurial spirit and had already demonstrated his capabilities and commitment to the company by working for us part-time while in school. Although there were things that he could not do because of the language, he made many valuable contributions in the things he could. Every member of our Chinese staff told me how much they had learned from him.

Joshua Arjuna Stephens, who graduated from Wesleyan University in 2007 with a bachelor’s degree in American Studies, came to China two years age when he took a temporary summer position with an educational travel company in Shanghai. The article quotes him as saying, “I didn’t know anything about China. People thought I was nuts to go not speaking the language, but I wanted to do something off the beaten track.”

Likewise, Sarabeth Berman, a 2006 graduate of Barnard College with a major in urban studies, took a job as program director for a modern dance company in Beijing. Ms. Berman said she was hired for her familiarity with Western modern dance rather than a knowledge of China. “Despite my lack of language skills and the fact that I had no experience working in China, I was given the opportunity to manage the touring, international projects, and produce and program our annual Beijing Dance Festival.”

Not withstanding the above, however, my advice to young people looking to start their careers in China is to take the time and learn the language while they are young. That’s why it was also gratifying to see that the initial experiences these individuals have had in China has sparked a deeper interest for them in the country, its language and its culture. Joshua and Sarabeth are now both proficient in Mandarin, according to the article, and Mick plans to study Mandarin when he returns to M.I.T. in the fall.

My advice: If you have an interest in China, don’t waste a lot of time getting here. If you like what you see after you’ve experienced it first hand, figure out what skills you need for long term success, and then go out and get them.

One Response to “Young Americans In China”

  1. Hi Jack,

    What do you make of Shaun Rein’s piece in Forbes:
    http://www.forbes.com/2009/08/13/china-jobs-employment-leadership-careers-work.html

    I don’t like looking at things so pessimistically (or so-called “realistically”), but there have been more of these than the positive tones engendered by the original NYT article. What are your thoughts in response?

    –ADM