In the Garage

Working in a Chinese office -- cultural + development differences

July 12, 2015 | 8 Minute Read

I've just recently reached the seven-month mark working here in Shanghai. The company that I'm at was actually founded here by an Indian and an American, but the majority of my coworkers are Chinese (although we also have an office in Kuala Lumpur and one in Mumbai). We're only a team of about 20 people in the Shanghai office, so comparing work styles between a Chinese, German, and American company isn't really possible since the other jobs I've had were at bigger companies. However, there are a few things I've discovered working in China, and if you know me, I love lists. So here are five things I've noticed about working in the Middle Kingdom.

West Lake in Hangzhou

1. The water dispenser

Every office here in China has a water dispenser/water cooler. Except it's not really a water cooler by any means. In the United States, the water cooler actually cools water so that you'll get a nice glass of cold water, something you'd like to drink on a hot summer day, whether or not it's the summer. Here in China, it's really more of a water heater dispenser. There are two options for water: room temperature which is "cold" water 冷水 (not "ice" water 冰水, which is what Americans like to drink) and hot water 热水. The hot water is practical for making tea, instant coffee, or even ramen very quickly, but the room temperature water just doesn't do it for me, especially since the really hot summer weather is upon us. Usually I'll let my room temperature water sit a bit and it'll actually get colder because the air conditioning is on so high. Also people here drink hot water plain. I knew that before I came here since my dad and grandparents do that, but I know non-Chinese people think it to be super bizarre.

2. The afternoon power nap

At my last job in Germany which was at a fairly big tech company, I would always joke about taking a nap on one of the big bean bag chairs that was ubiquitous around the office. But that's all it ever was -- a joke. I wouldn't actually ever take a nap there because, well, it'd be a bit odd (though I'm sure everyone in the office would just shrug and be ok with it or play a practical joke).

However, here in China, it's very common to take a power nap after you eat lunch. The term is "xiūxí" 休息, or "to rest." My coworkers will usually sit at their desks and lean forward, resting their heads on their arms. Some of them actually have pillows that they'll put on their desks and just slump over onto them without having their arms to lean on. Each person's nap differs in length, though there are a few who don't really do it. When I told my Chinese teacher that I don't power nap after lunch, she looked at me appalled, asking, "So, you just eat lunch, and then continue working?!"

I'm not sure if this helps productivity or not, but if I did power nap, I'd probably take it later in the day during my afternoon slump. Then again, if I took a nap, who knows if I'd actually wake up.

And generally, people are really good at power-napping here. Here's two pics of people sleeping on the train, in addition to the ones I posted in February (because I take pictures of everyone on the train since there's not much else to do when you're riding it every day for 45 minutes one way).

Powernapping on the train More powernapping

3. Personal hygiene in the office

Back in February, I mentioned how people do gross things in the subway. I had a picture of a guy clipping his fingernails in the subway, and guess what, it doesn't end on public transportation. I have a few colleagues who do this in the office as well. I talked to two of my coworkers who aren't from China, and I realized that I'm not the only one who finds it a bit disgusting. So now every time I hear that awful noise, I look up at these coworkers with this reaction:

Freaked out cat

I've talked to Christian about this, and he's also said people clip their nails in his office too. So it's not just in my office. I guess at least I should be thankful that they're clipping their nails over the garbage can and not just letting it fly every which way.

4. Developing in Chinese isn't nearly as awful as I had expected

Working together with developers whose English is at a very basic level can be challenging, but at the same time, if we are discussing technical stuff, speaking in Chinglish gets the point across both ways. Luckily so much of development is in English, so by just pointing at something and using very basic works, like, "That's not right," or "That's ok," we can work together pretty well. I've learned specific terms, though sometimes it's just easier for me to fix the code myself (especially if it's front-end related) or just show a screenshot. On occasion, there are things that are a bit more complex that I'll have to ask another colleague to translate for me. The problem here is that the colleagues who speak English well don't really know technical terms at all in English or Chinese. Luckily, these situations aren't so common, but it's a learning experience for everyone involved.

5. Developing for the Chinese market is a completely different ballgame

Currently, one of our main projects is developing a WeChat app. I've mentioned WeChat several times before, but to reiterate, WeChat is a social network/messaging app that has a lot of other really cool, convenient features. It's enormously popular and you can't get away from it. On a side note, I actually prefer WeChat to WhatsApp or Facebook messenger (which I've actually removed from my phone because I hate it that much and it's useless in China anyway). One of WeChat's interesting features is that if you tap on a link that someone's sent you in a private message or someone posted on their Moments (basically like the Newsfeed on Facebook), the link will open in the in-app browser. And the WeChat browser doesn't behave anything like other browsers.

The other day, two other colleagues and I were testing our WeChat app on three different platforms -- iOS, Android, and Windows Phone. As a WP user, I've sort of unfortunately gotten used to things not looking quite as nice as on an iPhone. But the number of bugs and differences I had on WP in WeChat basically made the head developer want to cry. He looked my phone and was like, "What is that?!" WP only commands about 7% of the market here in China, but even so, that's a few million people, which makes it hard to completely ignore.

Basically, we've skipped making a responsive website and gone directly to making something WeChat-optimized, which actually isn't that uncommon.

Screenshot of TimeOut WeChat app

All in all, working in China has so far been educational, both in terms of development (tech-wise) and learning the language. Sometimes I miss being able to explain something clearly in either English or German, though at times I struggle to express myself just in English because German just comes out. So it's things like that that are part of my daily work life. I wonder what will happen when/if I ever move back to the States or Germany how things will be at that point.

EDIT 7/13/15 - I forgot to mention working in a Chinese office and the BATHROOM. God, the bathroom. A lot of places here don't have plumbing like in the west. So instead of flushing the toilet paper down with everything else, you have to put the toilet paper in the garbage can NEXT to the toilet. It's something I really loathe a lot and find it pretty gross. Not only that, there are sometimes squat toilets in offices. I've seen women go into them voluntarily, to which I will say, "No, thank you." And I'm pretty sure that if there's no squat toilet, some women will put the toilet seat up and squat on the toilet. Like, the regular seated toilet that's a standard in the west. Kind of like this guy where the toilet collapsed under him and he was injured (just read the article).