First work trip to Beijing

Two weeks ago, my bosses floated the idea of sending me to Beijing with my Series Producer. We had undertaken a high stakes project and she was tasked with the recce of potential filming locations in Shanghai. Would I be keen to join her in Beijing before that to recce other sites, meet prospective interviewees, translate (my Series Producer is English and can’t speak Mandarin), and take loads of notes? Why not I replied.

Due to logistical and scheduling issues, my flight that was planned for last Tuesday morning at 7am was only confirmed on that week’s Monday afternoon. Since 2008, I had been to Beijing 3 times for work and play, and so was mentally well prepared for the trip. What is wonderful about the city, is that because it is so big and bustling, I always experience something new and visit places I have never been before. It is a city of unending exploration.

I spent 5 days in Beijing through a packed schedule which we ended off most nights with beer, gin and on one particular evening, watermelon soju (in an actual watermelon) in a noisy BBQ bar populated by millenials. Through my interactions with the Chinese from varying backgrounds — professors, cab drivers, waiters/waitresses, doctors, colleagues and random locals on the streets — I learned a few things from my short time there.

  1. Cultural differences. We had planned to take our 3 Chinese colleagues out for a meal and drinks. Team dinner with beer is what we called it. When we suggested this idea to our junior colleague, she seemed apprehensive. At first she said that our busy schedule meant we could only squeeze in a team lunch, not dinner, and would it be alright if there wasn’t any beer involved? Of course, we replied, whatever works! My gut told me that there was something deeper to her story, and I asked her in Mandarin whether my instincts were true. It turns out they were. She explained that in China, junior staff do not often drink alcohol with their bosses for fear of saying the “wrong things” while tipsy or drunk that might offend their bosses. From our point of view, we thought it would be a good thing to have everyone drink and be relaxed, but for them, the notion of propriety echoes strongly across their culture.
  2. Empowerment. A mentor of mine defined empowerment as the contribution to the power of a team or organization. This was a refreshing definition of empowerment I had hitherto not encountered before. The conventional understanding of power is that of a hierarchy (think:triangle) where powere is concentrated at the top within the hands of the few and trickled down to the rest below. But this kind of power is that vested upon someone by virtue of authority; simply put it is just a position or title. Someone appointed as a “manager” can still feel very disempowered within the work setting if s/he feels s/he’s not being listened to, or his/her contributions unacknowledged, or s/he’s not growing etc. On the other hand, empowerment can happen at any level within a team or organization, and is achieved when a person is contributing to the collective power of a team (think: circle). In this way, even someone at the bottom of the hierarchy can feel empowered. While I was in Beijing, my Series Producer did something that I felt exemplified just that. My junior Chinese colleague shared with us, prior to our trip, the frustrations she had towards our project and how she felt like what she did never seemed to be good enough for the team. One difficulty she experienced was interviewing and talking to people. And she didn’t quite know how to make up for it. In short, she felt disempowered. While we were in a cab in Beijing, my Series Producer suddenly asked my colleague to interview the taxi driver. At first she was shy, even reticent, and only did it at the behest of my boss. As she began to ask the cab driver more questions, we started to encourage her, and she became more confident. Towards the end, she was having a free flow conversation (what the Chinese would call “free talk”) without us having to egg her on at all. This is a good example to show that by making my colleague feel that she is contributing towards the power of our team, we were indeed empowering her, something more valuable in her, and our team’s, growth, than giving her a promotion.
  3. Expectations. In our conversations with various professors during our trip, we had expected to walk away from the discussions with specific stories we wanted. Our meeting started at 9.45am and meandered it’s way to 12pm without us getting anywhere. The questions we asked seemed to result in a different answer. No matter how much we tried to guide them towards what we wanted, they wouldn’t budge or didn’t understand us. Eventually, my boss simply said, “The kind of stories I want is XYZ. Imagine if you were A character, walking through the mountains, and you do BCD. That is what we want for our show.” The professors chuckled, and proceeded to regale us with stories, one after another that had me grasping my pen to take notes. The lesson I learnt? It’s much more effective to simply communicate what it is I expect to the person I am communicating with, instead of holding my tongue and hoping we will get there somehow. In my life, I regularly hold expectations towards myself and others. And the failure to communicate these expectations clearly leave both parties frustrated — “why did you not meet my expectations” on our side, and “I can see you are frustrated but I don’t know what you expect from me” on the other side. Either way, it does not serve the relationship.
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