Joel Ferris is an American expat in China who worked with the United States Chamber of Commerce in Chengdu, South West China. Let’s take a look at his experience and see if we can’t get some insights for ourselves!
Please give us a rundown of your experience in China.
I’ve studied language in Taipei, Hangzhou, and Chengdu for one month, four months, and 10 months respectively. Throughout my two years in the country, I’ve skipped a few classes to travel extensively from cities to remote places not on any map. With bachelor degrees in Economics and Chinese Studies, I lived in Chengdu a year and a half accumulating work experience, perfecting my language abilities, and trying to make it big.
What made you go to West China (Chengdu) instead of one of the larger coastal cities?
I went to Chengdu on a Chinese government scholarship to study advanced language, but I went with the mindset of a professional, not a student. Chengdu is the hub of Western China, and the whole region is benefitting from the national ‘Go West’ policy; Chengdu and Chongqing have been rated the fastest growing cities in the world for the next decade. These cities admittedly have fewer opportunities for young expats, but there are also fewer expats in the cities. The American Chamber of Commerce in Southwest China (AmCham Southwest) was the perfect organization for me to jump-start my career. It was amazing to immediately find a job that used both of my degrees. I flew to China with two new business suits in my suitcase, hoping to wear them, and found myself needing more business attire than I planned for.
How would you recommend other recent grads go about finding these sorts of positions for themselves?
One of the coolest aspects of some second-tier cities is the tight, yet extensive, expat communities. You are immediately plugged into a group of students and young professionals that offer great outlets for networking. Within a month in Chengdu I was playing on a soccer team that participated in an AmCham Charity Tournament; soon after that a friend recommended me to work in the office. Before I knew it I was a language student in the morning and a professional serving the international business community in the afternoon.
What sorts of opportunities do you see available for foreigners in West China that otherwise might not be available in the coastal cities?
Shanghai has finance and consulting; Beijing has PR and marketing. West China is full of unpredictable opportunities for young foreigners. There are usually opportunities in real-estate, wealth management, IT, marketing, and logistics, but one needs to arrive with an entrepreneurial spirit. Big American companies operating in the West are almost completely localized with staff. You are more likely to find a good position with a start-up or Chinese company than an established US enterprise.
Did you feel like you were given more responsibility than you otherwise would have back in the United States?
I was the only American on staff at the Chamber, and given more responsibility than I would have in Shanghai much less America. Pretty soon in the Chamber I was put in charge of our contributions towards the 2011 AmCham-China White Paper- an authoritative policy and economic review for foreign business operating in China that is delivered to top lawmakers in the US and China. At every event I was the host, greeting members and introducing high-profile speakers which offered excellent networking. My responsibilities were all over the place from graphic design and copy write to merger negotiations and regional orientation for visiting delegations. Working closely with American business and the American government every day gave me great insight into how to operate in emerging markets.
You’ve decided to head back to the US after your experience in China. How has the transition process been?
I actually came back to the US Christmas and Chinese New Year with an outstanding job offer from a SOE investment and development company back in Chengdu. The job came about from an executive headhunter who had heard about me from contacts in the Chamber and about three interviews completely in Chinese. Somewhat regrettably, once I was back in the US the job has started to fall through. That goes to show- you cannot get a job in China, even after you got an offer, unless you are in China.
Please tell us any humorous or outrageous stories you may have experienced.
Traveling I have been in some outrageous situations from being ‘saved’ by nomads and sleeping in their tent on the side of a cliff in western Sichuan to being threatened by Tibetan bridge trolls who wanted a toll to pass over a river. In the city, as many young men over 185cm tall have experienced, I made substantial income from modeling anything from a French chef to a Budweiser rep at a music festival to a cat-walk fashion model.
If you were to do it all over again, would you choose Chengdu?
When talking to friends interested in China, it is hard to think of anywhere better to go than Chengdu. Besides the dynamic business environment, it offers a great expat community, the best food in the country, a vibrant culture, and is surrounded by some of the best traveling in the world. I think Chongqing and Kunming would both offer good lifestyles with exciting business opportunities in Chongqing and NGO work in Kunming. Language ability is more important as you go inland, and that is what stops a lot of young people.