Simon Cartoon, a good friend of Career Hack and devout Sinophile, is currently working in the nuclear industry in China, which is a hot sector right now and will be for some years to come. Let’s turn it over to Simon and see if he can give us an idea of what it’s like to be a young expat professional living in Shenzhen and working in China Nuclear.

1. Tell us in a nutshell about the work you’ve been doing in China.

I’ve been working on a SAP implementation at a nuclear power plant in southern China. SAP is a kind of software used for ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning). Other varieties of ERP software include Oracle and Maximo.

In this case, SAP will be used for a variety of functions at the plant, including maintenance, finance, HR, and supply chain management. My focus specifically has been on an area called “Turnover to Operations”, which is used by any large industrial enterprise to validate constructed facilities and systems before actually commissioning and operating them. This includes acquiring all the necessary data to safely operate the system, and uploading it into SAP.

This project has been a number of ‘firsts’ for me – first SAP project, first work experience in the nuclear industry, and also first time working in Mainland China. Overall it’s been a very positive experience so far, and I’m hoping to continue out here into the near future.

2. What’s life like living in Shenzhen? Any unique aspects that set it apart from other Chinese / Asian cities?

The key thing to remember about Shenzhen is that this is a city that 30 years ago was barely a fishing village. Walking around downtown, the vast majority of what you see is never more than 10-15 years old, if even. And you’ve got a subway system constructed in the last 5 years that could put quite a few American/European cities to shame. So it’s a very modern place to set up shop, with first-rate infrastructure and most of the amenities you would expect in any western city. There’s also some pretty strong ex-pat areas, especially in the Futian and Shekou districts, that are great places to go for networking or to ‘get a taste of home’.

That being said, this is not a place to go if you’re looking to learn more about Chinese culture or ancient history, but if you’re looking for a Shanghai-type destination in southern China, this is it.

Some challenges: Unlike Beijing/Shanghai/Hong Kong, English proficiency can be pretty spotty here. But it is a Mandarin speaking city, despite being in Guangdong – most people here immigrated from various provinces in central China, especially Hunan and Sichuan. If you’re coming in knowing any Mandarin at all you’ll definitely be using it. If not, this is a good place to learn!

Additionally, like many places in SE Asia, Shenzhen has some rough summers, with high humidity for several months in a row. AC is almost universal, but central heating is pretty rare. On my project we were all wearing jackets in the office through the winter. Even though the temperature never got below the mid-50s, it would often be about the same indoors as outdoors.

3. Getting used to a foreign culture is an important challenge for any ex-pat, but especially important when you’re trying to succeed in the workplace. What can you tell us about Chinese culture and how it has impacted the work you’ve done so far?

I think truly understanding the concept of “face” is one of the biggest challenges for westerners coming to China. Doing business here, you will see many situations which are almost dictated by a need to either save face or avoid losing face. That means people will avoid doing or saying things that will embarrass themselves or others. And this goes both ways – it can mean somebody will avoid saying something that would embarrass you.

So you might ask a person, “What is it in the current solution that we are offering that you don’t like, or that needs to change to satisfy your requirements”, and get an answer like, “Oh, it’s fine, really nothing to worry about”. You were given this response because your interviewee feels that telling you the defects in what you’re developing could embarrass you. Another common way this arises is when you ask somebody for certain details and are told “I’m not clear on that (我不清楚)”. It could be that the person really doesn’t know the answer, but quite often it indicates that you’re asking for something that could reveal negative aspects of their system or organization (or reflect poorly on other people in the organization, especially superiors), and the person doesn’t want to ‘lose face’ by revealing these details.

There are two good ways to deal with this: 1) Develop your relationship (this takes time) – as you get to know people better over time, they are more likely to ‘talk straight’. 2) Avoid asking difficult questions in public situations. This means it’s better to pose a potentially negative question in a private one-to-one conversation, rather than in a group meeting where the possibility for losing face is much higher.

4. Some ex-pats might be specifically interested in living in China. Others could be choosing from a number of countries. What do you think are the key attractions of living and working in mainland China?

Well anybody who’s opened a newspaper in the last 10 years knows that this is the fastest growing economy in the world (in absolute terms, perhaps not in % terms any more). And just taking a few train rides around the countryside or any large city shows that there’s still plenty of construction going on. No need to go into much detail there.

A few aspects that I’ve noticed that you might not read elsewhere though: 1) People: Chinese people tend to be more welcoming of foreigners than other East Asian countries (primarily South Korea and Japan), based on stories that I’ve heard. I’ve found people here to be warm and welcoming, and very accommodating around language difficulties (which are common) 2) Diversity – You can travel to a dozen different cities or provinces in China and have a dozen completely different experiences. The food, culture, landscape, and even dialects/languages differ dramatically around the country. 3) Infrastructure: Although China is still by and large a developing country, there’s still at least a half dozen cities now with absolutely first-class public transportation, mobile connectivity (you don’t lose your signal in any subway I’ve been to), and downtown areas that are as safe and clean as any Western European city.

5. How important has foreign language competency (in this case Mandarin Chinese) been in the workplace, and in daily life? Can an ex-pat get by on just English in the beginning?

This depends a lot on where you go, and what you do. From what I’ve seen and heard so far, you can get by in Shanghai/Hong Kong (and maybe parts of Beijing) without speaking a word of Chinese. Shenzhen is possible on limited to no Chinese, but only if you limit yourself to expat areas downtown. I have met a few long-term expats here who don’t speak Chinese, but they all told me they strongly regretted not making an effort to learn the language early on.

As for the workplace, this again depends on the environment you find yourself in. Keep in mind every Chinese person who has taken the gaokao and gone to university will in theory speak pretty good English (on average). As you move lower in education level, though, English proficiency rapidly diminishes and often disappears. In many parts of China there is still very minimal interaction with foreigners (very true in most of the interior of the country), so many people have little or no incentive to maintain English proficiency, and this shows. If you are keen on travelling around the country, and especially if you want to get ‘off the beaten path’, Mandarin Chinese proficiency is absolutely essential. I’ve definitely been in several dozen places so far where not speaking Chinese would have put me SOL.

Don’t worry about dialects or any of the other Chinese languages (Cantonese, Shanghainese, etc). Mandarin is pretty much universally understood (although some people will speak with accents that will have you thinking they’re speaking another language. Definitely adds to the excitement!).

6. Any crazy stories from your time living in China?

No crazy stories from work, but given that I’ve been working at a nuclear power station, I’d say that’s a good thing!

But I have had loads of very unique experiences in China outside the office. I participated in 春运 (“Spring Transportation”) – this is the massive migration that takes place every year during Chinese New Years, which generally completely overloads the transportation system no matter how well the authorities prepare in advance. I went with a friend to travel around Inner Mongolia, and our own traveling included a 3am – 6am “standing” train from Shenyang to Tongliao, on which some passenger had to stand in the bathroom as there wasn’t any other space available anywhere on the train! And I should mention that the temperature outside was -5F…We also managed to squeeze 7 people into a taxi sedan a few days later (not including the driver).

A couple other quick ones: Climbing inside the cockpit of a Korean War Mig fighter jet in Dalian, eating Bamboo beetles in Chengdu, financing holiday shopping from craps winnings in Macau, reproducing Vice President Biden’s culinary tour in Beijing, and finally, finding a fake Jaeger Lecoultre watch for my dad in Shenzhen (I was told repeatedly that this variety was ‘far too exclusive, nobody would both to fake it in China’. There are very few things that will not be faked in China)

About Simon Cartoon

Simon grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 2008 with a B.A. in International Relations. A summer job in Taiwan kindled his interest in the Chinese language, which he has been studying on and off for several years. After a year at a small financial services consulting firm in New York City, Simon decided to pursue his interest in technology and has spent several years working at Diamond Technology Consultants and subsequently PricewaterhouseCoopers (which acquired Diamond in 2010).

Past work has included technology portfolio assessments and program management, with his most recent experience being on a SAP implementation, which is described below. In his free time Simon enjoys long distance running (Chicago, San Francisco, and New York marathons included), playing piano, military history, and ETF investing (with varying success).