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Working on Fluency

We were a perfect match – I acted as an interpreter, and he would keep me in check whenever I did anything silly

By Sam Duckett Updated Jul.1

I’d like to think my experience of arriving in China was somewhat unique. It all started with a sleepover at my friend’s house at the age of 12 where we cracked open his dad’s collection of Hong Kong action movies. At the age of 16 I asked my mum for Chinese lessons and fast-forward to my early 20s, I found myself in Beijing, studying for my master’s degree in Chinese Language and Literature.  

After graduation, I started my professional career at an English radio network in Beijing and became acquainted with the expat community for the first time. It was then that I realized the acute contrast between the different types of experiences that foreigners have in China. While I had minimal difficulties with the language barrier, I still struggled to adjust to work life in Beijing.  

It was at the radio station I met someone who would become a lifelong friend. Chris had experienced China on the opposite end of this spectrum. Having spent his childhood bouncing between the US and the UK, he had an incredible level of emotional maturity and was beloved by most of his colleagues, but he often found himself frustrated with the language barrier. We were a perfect match – I acted as an interpreter, and he would keep me in check whenever I did anything silly.  

Chinese universities do an incredible job of protecting their students, providing everything from supermarkets and canteens to hair salons and coffee shops on campus. It’s entirely possible to spend years in a Chinese university without ever leaving the campus. In fact, whenever we would leave the campus, we would often joke we are going to the “real Beijing.” But working in Beijing is an entirely different experience. Day-to-day life in a big city can be overwhelming, and the work environment can be a minefield of office politics.  

As someone who is fluent in Chinese, there was often an expectation that I would be fluent in Chinese office culture, which initially couldn’t be further from the truth. I struggled with showing an appropriate level of modesty commonly seen in a Chinese office. Later on in my career, I would also come to find out that Chinese speaking even served as a detriment at times among some of my superiors as I didn’t fit their expat box. They would even go as far as to pretend I couldn’t understand and try to interpret for me. Walking this tightrope to please both the people that wanted me to fit into their stereotypical view of an expat and those who saw a multilingual employee as an asset has been somewhat exhausting.  

Connecting with my expat counterparts was equally challenging as I had never been the “let’s all go out for a drink on Friday night type.” Therefore, the idea of spending the night in Sanlitun with my colleagues always felt somewhat daunting.  

However, over time, I learned to navigate the working expat scene with Chris’s help. There are points of conversation you get accustomed to talking about. The most common and most challenging question I usually faced was “what’s the best way to learn Chinese?” There is no easy way to tell someone “comprehensively study for four hours a day every day for the next five years,” so you offer handy little tips that can help them along their way such as pronunciation techniques and how to better memorize Chinese characters.  

At the radio station, I found a slice of heaven with the Chinese network’s show called Foreigner Perspective, where two foreign hosts would discuss the latest social events in China entirely in Chinese with a Chinese intermediary. These types of conversations made me feel like I was back in university, and this space was essential for my sanity in this new environment.  

The host of the show, Peter Yu, also went out of his way to teach me how to conduct myself with my Chinese colleagues and grow as a professional. Looking back on my life, I honestly do not know where I would have ended up without him. He made me realize the importance of a strong mentor.  

Ten years into my professional career, I feel like I have come a long way from when I first graduated, and I feel more at home in the Chinese office environment than I could have ever expected. I owe my ability to navigate cultural differences to the lessons I have learned in Beijing. As I reflect on my journey, I feel grateful to everyone who helped shape me into who I am today.