Young Americans in China (Part II)

Hannah Seligson’s article about young Americans in China certainly hit a responsive chord. Not only did it top the list as the New York Times most e-mailed article, but it also was the cover story on Yahoo.   At a time when many university and business school graduates are concerned about their careers in the United States, the individuals featured  provided hope that China might offer new opportunities. No wonder it grabbed everyone’s attention.

Every action has a reaction, and it should come as no surprise that a number of articles appeared afterwards, taking the opposite side of the issue, showing why opportunities in China may be more elusive than suggested by the New York Times. Perhaps the most thoughtful of these was written by Shaun Rein, the founder and managing director of a strategic market intelligence firm in Shanghai, who certainly knows his way around China. For a complete view of this important subject, I encourage you to read Shaun’s article: Should You Look For Work In China?

More information is always better, but I can certainly understand how someone considering a move to China might be thoroughly confused at this point. The New York Times paints one picture about the China opportunity, while Shaun’s article in Forbes seemingly paints another. What should an aspiring China hand make of this?

ADM, a loyal MTD reader, apparently found himself in this position and asked for my advice.

Hi Jack,

What do you make of Shaun Rein’s piece in Forbes? I don’t like looking at things so pessimistically (or so-called “realistically”), but there have been more of these than the positive tones engendered by the original NYT article. What are your thoughts in response?


I’m sure that ADM is not alone, so I didn’t think he would mind if I responded publicly so that others might at least hear what I have to say. Here goes:

Make no mistake about it, China is difficult. Over the course of my last fifteen years here, I’ve learned that there are only two rules: Rule #1 is that “Everything is possible in China,” but Rule #2 is that “Nothing is easy.” The individuals featured in the New York Times article provide examples of what is possible. Shaun explains why it isn’t easy. Anyone who thinks that the China road will be an easy one should stay away.

Given the internet, globalization and all of the other social and technological trends that have made the world such a competitive place, so what if China is difficult? Everything else worth doing in the world is also more difficult today. Try landing that high paying job in the United States today, or gaining admission to a top flight business school. The opportunities are certainly out there, but nothing is easy anymore. If everything is more difficult today, I would tend to focus on where the opportunities are greatest for me. That may be China, but it may also be another country.

Unfortunately, there are no universally “right” answers to questions such as: Should I look for a China job in the United States, or should I do my job search when I get there? Should I go to China right after graduation, or should I develop my career and my skills in the United States first? Should I learn the language? If so, should I learn it before I go to China, or should I wait until I’m in the country? These are all questions that individuals must answer for themselves. There are no “right” answers. There are only answers that are “right” for you.

For those of you who are at the beginning of your careers, I have a couple of words of advice. You have your advantages—use them. Undoubtedly, you are more open minded and more worldly than the generation before you. By all means, keep that open mind. At this point in your life, you are most likely single, don’t have children and don’t have a mortgage. In other words, you have a low break-even point. Now is the time for you to experiment.

When it comes to China, do a self evaluation. List your advantages and your disadvantages. What do you do exceptionally well? What are you weak at? What expertise does China need? What can you provide?

When doing this analysis, don’t be bashful or intimidated by China’s complexity and size. Always remember that China is an entrepreneurial place where “Everything (even the most unthinkable) is possible.”

One Response to “Young Americans in China (Part II)”

  1. Hi Jack,

    Your post totally reminds me of an interview that actor Benicio del Toro did with Sonny Bunch (which the the former walked completely out of, flustered) for the Washington Times.

    My personal take-away from the article:

    “We can’t cover it all,” Mr. del Toro said. “You can make your own movie. You know? You can make your own movie. And let’s see. Do the research.”

    That’s how I’d relate to the furor over the Seligson article. It’s a journalist’s job to poke holes, ask the tough questions, and bore down deep for something resembling the truth. Or at least that’s how it operates in theory…

    I always fall back on something my daddy taught me: “Oh yeah? And what have you done?”

    Full court press, Jack. All in the interests of sports, ‘natch. Nothing a Yale boy wouldn’t understand, mind you…