Jörg Pfeilmeier is a Swabian by birth and conviction. He is also a self-confessed fan of China. Jörg Pfeilmeier is currently working for MANN+HUMMEL in China. Since 2011, he has been living in Shanghai with his wife and two children. This is the second time he has been there, following an initial stint between 2004 and 2006. In the MANN+HUMMEL blog, he explains what he loves about the ‘Middle Kingdom’ (China) and the ‘Pearl of the Orient’ (Shanghai).
‘China fascinates me because it is exciting. And it is exciting because it is different. I’ve had a personal interest in the country for years. When I was asked to go to work for MANN+HUMMEL in China, I accepted without much hesitation. It was the first time I had gone to work in a foreign country for an extended period and my wife supported the decision from the outset. So when I went to China for a second time in 2011, I knew what to expect.
The clichés about China are wrong
Let me say first of all that most clichés about China and its people are completely wrong. For example, to my knowledge, I have yet to meet someone from China who enjoys eating dog. However, eating habits were probably what struck us most at first. All dishes are provided for everyone and picking from other plates with your chopsticks is not just tolerated but actively encouraged. Despite the different habits, we are still fascinated by the food in China: And the more noisily you eat it, the better it all tastes.
Different customs in China
The cliché of Chinese people mainly eating rice is also incorrect. In restaurants, it is either not served at all or provided as a filler at the end. The belief that people here are always smiling and behave in a reserved and polite way is also way off the mark. In fact, we had to get used to some loud telephone calls and conversations. These sometimes sound to foreigners like heated disputes, although in reality people are just discussing directions or the best way to cook a dish. All visitors are struck by Chinese people’s matter-of-fact approach to money: People like to show off what they’ve got, be it cars, handbags or watches. And since everyone loves to do it, they haggle in all types of situations, until stalemate is reached. This means that several rounds of bargaining are sometimes needed just to buy a watermelon.
Hot summer – cold winter
Central Europeans are unaccustomed to the temperatures in Shanghai: In summer it’s unbearably hot and humid. This changes in winter: Since there is hardly any double glazing and Shanghai is in the south of China where there is no heating, houses are cold in winter: The temperature virtually never rises above 20 degrees. And that’s even with the radiators that our landlord had installed specially for his delicate foreign tenants. However, if you work, it’s not a huge problem. After all, you spend a limited amount of time at home. On one hand, the working day is long and on the other, we spend longer travelling to and from work. Driving is often a challenge as the rules of the road are generally seen more as guidelines in China.
When two chinese people say the same thing, it can mean something completely different
The language is something that remains a mystery for many ex-pats. Although Mandarin, the main language in China, has thousands of characters and words, the meaning of which changes with their tone, some foreigners speak it fluently. Some can even read and write Mandarin. My wife and I fell in love with the language and, after studying hard, can now get by quite well in everyday situations. However, situations often arise which seem bizarre to foreigners – for instance when people don’t understand even simple phrases despite the fact you feel you’ve pronounced the words correctly. In my opinion, however, understanding the basics of the language is essential for showing respect to your host country and opening doors with your words.
Learning to view the world differently
Every ex-pat in China experiences a culture shock of one sort or another. This brings me to the conclusion that there is more than one way of viewing the world: Ultimately, many of our idiosyncrasies are strange to Chinese people. This is not surprising, as many things in China seem strange to us. Despite or perhaps because of this, the country is a fantastic experience – a gift that neither myself nor my family would willingly do without. If you’re open to new things, you’ll never forget the experiences you will find here. Here, you can make a difference, experience a spirit of optimism and lead the way. You also learn to be tolerant and open-minded, qualities you can pass on to your children. However, you also need to be able to keep your cool. And most importantly, you mustn’t take everything from intercultural training sessions provided in preparation for secondments abroad at face value.