Career Tales from China

By Hagevik, Sandra | Journal of Environmental Health, September 2000 | Go to article overview

Career Tales from China


Hagevik, Sandra, Journal of Environmental Health


I have just returned from a three-week vacation in China with a new perspective on career development. What I saw, heard, touched, smelled, tasted, and read was overwhelming, so I won't try to recount all my impressions. Seasoned "China hands" warn that first-time visitors are the only ones foolish enough to think they understand anything about the country. So I'll tell career stories about the experiences I had and the people I met or observed.

First, the people were far better dressed and fed than I had expected. Gone are the Mao green jackets and quasi-military clothing. Today the uniforms of airline personnel, ticket takers at tourist venues, and wait persons could be those of people from any country. While feeding China's billions remains a severe problem, outdoor food markets and shops are full of produce, meat and fish (dead and alive), soy products, spices, and baked goods. Nothing is hermetically sealed, but everything looks fresh. Many people make their livings as shopkeepers, selling farm products and handicrafts encouraged by an emerging market-based economy.

My first career story involves the "Hello People," entrepreneurs who assault tourists with "Hello! Hello! Hello!" and handfuls of goods for sale wherever tourist busses stop. "Made in China" took on new meaning when I bargained for lovely silk scarves at $1.50, ties at $2, and silk robes at $7. "Hello People" are intrepid, assertive, and good negotiators--not bad qualities for anyone in the workplace. Sometimes they became annoying and intrusive, and I quickly learned not to make eye contact or tarry too long if I was really not interested in buying their wares. I wondered whether there were lessons to be learned from them about managing our own careers in highly competitive environments.

In each city, our guides were employees of the state-owned tourist agency, China International Tourist Service (CITS). Many guides shared the same speech pattern, repeating a phrase twice, so it couldn't be ignored. Most were young, eager, and willing to please. Customer service has arrived in China. While it was clear that the guides had scripts for describing cities and tourist sites, the better ones departed from the standard line to reveal their personalities and disclose a bit about their lives. Our guide in Beijing told us she had moved out of her parents' nice apartment with wood floors and carpets to live on her own in a traditional courtyard where she stores her cabbage under the window and shares cooking facilities and a bathroom with her neighbors. Those of us with young adult children recognized the universal quest for independence.

Two young men took us beyond buildings and artifacts to describe what life was like for them and their families during the Cultural Revolution in the 1970s. One of these men came from an educated family that was relocated to the country to be re-educated by farmers. His grandfather, a learned man, responded to his public humiliation by taking his own life. Because of this family shame, our guide's older brother was denied education and was assigned a factory job. Our guide, raised in less restrictive times, was admitted to university studies on the basis of academic prowess rather than family history. On the side, he is a freelance photographer and is slowly rebuilding the treasured family library that was burned by the Red Guards. The career lessons for me were bittersweet: the tragedy of losing a valued life to political whim, and the unfathomable value of a grandson's courage and integrity in searching for meaning in life. …

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