Working in China, Finding It Weird

This summer I’m working at a mobile device manufacturing company in Shenzhen, China. I was hoping the transition from New York would be easy. It isn’t.

Sleeping On The Job

The view from my desk, everyday at 12:30pm.

At my company (and many others), employees are given a one and a half hour break in the middle of the day for lunch and a quick snooze. This wasn’t really ever explained to me, I just came back from lunch on my first day to find the lights off and everyone sleeping at their desk. The reasoning is all about productivity — rather than sit tired at your desk all day, just grab a quick nap in the middle of the day and stay alert through the afternoon.

Workers across the world find their own way to relax, but I’ve always found that workers in the west are much more likely to take frequent breaks during the day. I have no problem staying productive at work, but I do need to get up on occasion to stretch my legs or get a drink. I’ve seen a good number of employees stay rooted in one position for hours on end without needed to stretch, socialize, or stop entirely. I don’t have the raw stamina to grind it out like they do, but if I can match their efficiency and output the team runs smoothly.

The Rush Hour Squeeze

People running to catch the next train. Trains leave every two minutes during rush hour.

I’m no stranger to taking public transportation in New York and Prague, and I’ve seen the traffic flow in more than a dozen cities around the world. Shenzhen is by far the most crowded and stressful I’ve ever witnessed. In fact, 12 people were trampled just a few months ago.

Once the train doors open, all sense of common decency is gone. I’ve seen surprisingly agile aging commuters throw elbows. I saw someone try to crawl into the train car. One guy was so concerned about making the connecting train that he sprinted from one track to another, clocking an impressive 40 yard dash time in the process.

It’s not weird because of the sheer number of people trying to take the train. It’s weird because no one seems to mind being pushed, pulled, or prodded. Being crammed into a stranger’s armpit is a regular Wednesday morning for some people, and it’s all fine. To me, it’s baffling that people are extremely anxious to get on the next train, but totally relaxed being stuffed into a tight train car.

A Bigger Attraction Than Real Attractions

Not sure if he thought he was going unnoticed.

The thing about China that I can’t stop thinking about is the staring. It started in Taiwan. After a short stay in Taipei, I hopped in a cab to head back to the airport to make my flight to Shenzhen. I emptied my pockets while going through the security, stepped through the x-ray machine, and came face to face with the happiest airport security agent I’ve ever met. I’ve met some some genuinely joyful agents in Copenhagen and Dublin, but this guy looked like he was born without a frown. He practically shouted a greeting at me. Then he hugged me, waved goodbye, and resumed his job.

A few days later, I was going for a walk through the city. I’m really into skyscrapers. I ended up at KK100, the 14th tallest building in the world. It was an amazing bit of architecture, and my neck hurt from looking up at the details. I looked back around and noticed everyone was staring at me.

Later on some friends and I were at Window of the World, an attraction park featuring miniature (but still pretty big) models of sights from around the world. I think people walked away with more pictures of us than I did of the actual attractions.

Westerners aren’t really common here. Dark skinned people are less common here, and I think people are taking notice of me and my American/European/Australian friends and colleagues. Maybe I’m just famous?

Working in China has been a wild adventure so far. If you’re interested in my thoughts on Chinese work culture, see my other post here.