Want to start at the beginning? Read part 1 of Leslie’s global career story here.
When I left off, I’d graduated from Berkeley with a Latin American Studies degree and decided to move to China to teach English.
In this post I’ll give you an overview of the four years I worked in China, followed by my key take-aways from all these experiences.
In August 2006 I landed at Jiaxing University in a “small town” of about a million people near Shanghai. The university gave me an air-conditioned apartment in an avocado-colored concrete walk-up building on campus.
This experience was completely different than my travels in Latin America.
People stared at me and sometimes even took my picture. I quickly learned the most common questions — Where are you from? What’s your name? What do you do? Are you married? How much for this? — and simple answers. That gave me enough basic vocabulary to get around Jiaxing. I’d go to the vegetable market and the ladies would quiz me: “What’s that?” “Tomato.” “What’s that?” and so on, through all the fruits, vegetables, types of bread, and clothing and so much more.
As I practiced the basics of Mandarin, I taught Oral English classes.
I had 16 sections with 20-40 students each, many shy and unfamiliar with being asked open-ended questions. For one lesson, I brought in a collection of random products and toys for my students to advertise, including rubber duckies, a pink toilet plunger, a wooden back massage hammer, and a clay whistle in the shape of a chicken.
I instructed each group to name the product, think of four or more unconventional uses for it, imagine its target customers, and put together a creative presentation. Several groups impressed me with their creativity. The duckies became trusted confidants, the pink plunger became a hat for toddlers to wear so their mothers wouldn’t lose sight of them in public places, and the back massager became a self-defense weapon for elderly ladies.
I couldn’t help but laugh when one group advertised the chicken-shaped clay whistle. A shy boy explained, “This is small cock” (a word undoubtedly chosen with the help of an electronic dictionary). “Little boys think it is very interesting to play with. They play with it all day. Little girls think it is a bit boring….” Ah, I could not stop laughing….
When the school year came to a close, I was ready to for a new challenge, but I wanted to stay in China. I found an internship at the American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai.
During this six-month internship, I met representatives from multinational companies like Citibank, Disney and Nike and learned a lot about corporate social responsibility, social enterprise and the possibilities to do good through business. I worked with Christy Campbell, who wrote about her intern experience in China here.
At the end of 2007, about a year and a half after I’d landed in China, my internship ended, my lease ended, my visa expired, and I had a one-way ticket home to San Francisco just before Christmas.
Most people didn’t want to hear more than a sentence or so about China, so I kept my responses concise: “Fun. Interesting. Lots of people.” And then we’d move on to another topic.
Reverse culture shock hit me hard. I’d say things like, “Wow, there’s free coffee at Bank of America, and you can understand exactly what I need and help me in five minutes!? I fully expected to be here all afternoon” and “Wow, Trader Joe’s has so many choices. And I can read all the labels!”
I was back in my old life but everything felt strange and overwhelming.
I needed to create a new life rather than settling into my past. I traveled around the US and visited friends and family, and tried to reacquaint a little bit. I soon found a new job at a startup and moved into a new place with people that I’d met on Craigslist.
I began to treat my hometown as its own adventure. This attitude helped me move forward.
A few months later, the financial crisis hit, the San Francisco startup went under, and I became a full-time volunteer with a nonprofit focused on China. Since it brought together my interests in social enterprise, China and nonprofit marketing, it felt like the logical thing to do.
When the organization’s founder invited me to become its first paid Marketing Director in China, I jumped at the opportunity.
I packed up my life in San Francisco and moved to Beijing.
On a Beijing hutong — a tiny alley of small shops — our office was located in a old courtyard house. I wrote blog posts, created marketing plans, and made templates that people across the US could use to organize events to support this bootstrapped organization.
I moved into a big apartment that I jokingly referred to as “The Real World: Beijing.” Two brothers — Syrian-Swedish bodybuilders — were on the lease and they rented out the other bedrooms. We shared the space with a French renewable energy engineer, a Bulgarian preschool teacher, a belly dancer from Kazakhstan, a journalist from Washington D.C., a Chinese woman who spoke flawless English following years in New Zealand and South Africa, and many, many more — everyone stayed just a few months.
In Beijing I learned that it’s hard to become a paid employee doing what you’d previously been doing as an unpaid volunteer. Your role needs to become much more valuable. In a startup nonprofit with a tight budget, salaries can be hard to justify.
That’s how, just two months after arriving in Beijing, I no longer had a job.
But I did have a visa. And the financial crisis was in full force in the US. So I decided to stay.
At dinner with friends, including one I’d taught with in Jiaxing, I explained all of this. That friend was dating a British guy who was a co-founder of a corporate training firm based in Beijing.
A couple of days later, he called me and said, “I hear you’re a good teacher. We have a client who needs an enthusiastic American. It’s a patent law firm. Come in tomorrow for a meeting.”
He hired me to join his team.
I settled into a schedule that was equal parts inspiring and educational.
In the mornings I’d meet with my Chinese tutor Layla to study vocabulary, pronunciation and grammar. Thanks to her patient guidance, I graduated from toddler-speak (I want that! Give me two bananas!) to the level of a nerdy but illiterate 8-year-old with an unusual command of environmental jargon. Layla was so patient with my questions about specific terms like “wind turbine” and “garbage incinerator.”
In the afternoons, I led one-on-one specialized English classes for patent attorneys, wind energy engineers, reporters from an international energy publication, and the ambassador from the Republic of the Congo to China. Conversations with clients challenged my ideas about creativity, success, and so much more.
This rhythm continued for about a year. Next, I enrolled in more intensive Chinese classes.
Around that time, at a farewell party, I met an American musician who spoke flawless Chinese. We exchanged business cards. A few months later over g-chat he mentioned that the ad agency where he worked was looking for a copywriter. Was I interested in writing ads?
I thought it sounded interesting enough and was hired to start a few weeks later.
I stepped feet first into the corporate world.
This crash course in advertising was 80% in Mandarin, packed with biz jargon in English. I enjoyed the challenge of describing product features in succinct, easy-to-translate headlines.
Our client was one of China’s biggest brands. My job was to write ads in English about new products for export, to be translated into Russian, Thai and a bunch of other languages.
My experience was far from smooth. As a member of the creative team, I worked with designers and was expected to stay as long as it took to get the job done. We’d sit in the office all day with nothing to do, and then — at 9pm — have an urgent meeting about deliverables for the next morning.
This required me to figure out new ways to communicate. I remember drafting a headline in the middle of the night — a play on the word “edge” — and needing to explain it to my manager, who spoke zero English. My Mandarin was nowhere near thesaurus level. To capture the sense of edgy / cutting-edge / competitive edge, I’d experiment with combinations of online tools like Wordnik and Google Translate.
Every other day, at an undetermined point between 4 and 7am, we staggered out of the office. The wind howled through my too-thin clothes, and we stood for too long on the ring road, waiting for a cab. Exhausted, I took bureaucratic hassles too personally. I failed to stand up for myself. It hurt.
Around the same time, a good friend got sick with a not-yet-diagnosed but scary illness (he’s fine now, but his treatment lasted more than a year).
This got me thinking: Is this what I want to be doing?
I knew in my gut: the answer was no. I was miserable and unwell. I didn’t like being a tiny part of a multinational machine. I craved something new.
The day before the company finalized my work visa, I quit.
I searched for a new way to experience Beijing. With plenty of freelance work — tutoring a sweet UK-bound high school student, training an upstart recruitment firm, planning a charity cycling event — I made ends meet, but felt overwhelmingly reactive and uninspired.
I spent too many days alone in my apartment, clicking mindlessly through personal blogs of people I didn’t know. Slept in too late. Waited for the phone to ring.
Then suddenly, in March 2011, my must-move-on itch began to materialize into a workable plan. I received an unexpected but ultimately life-changing email from a Canadian-American renewable energy entrepreneur whom I’d met in Chile (on the sidewalk, in the rain, when I shared my umbrella with her and her dog) while I was studying there in 2005. More on that in the next installment of this series!
As I look back on four years in China, here are the biggest lessons I’ve taken away from it all:
- You can reinvent yourself. At age 22, I went from being a student of Latin America to a teacher in China in three months, with no specialized training. Whenever I feel overwhelmed by major change, I remind myself that I’ve done this before and I can do it again.
- When you live and work abroad, learning the language makes it much easier to make local friends and feel like part of the community. But language skills are not enough to really build a career.
- The best opportunities come through friends and friends of friends.
- When your work life is in flux, it’s really important to find stability in other ways. Figure out what makes you happy outside of work — making brunch with friends? yoga? exploring new parts of the city? — and make these things a priority in your daily life.
Tune in next week for part 3!