Wynn Tanner, a Stanford MBA student as well as a FACES alum with strong experience in China, was interviewed by our Alumni Affairs officer Anya Shkurko.
ANYA: Wynn, can you introduce yourself and tell us about your experience in China?
WYNN: Sure, my journey with Asia started when my family moved to Hong Kong. I was about 6 years old, we were traveling for my dad’s job. I went to the American school, but I learned Mandarin the whole time as well. Later at Stanford I got really interested in China and while I was studying abroad at Peking University, in fall 2005, FACES had their conference there. That’s how I got involved with FACES originally.
ANYA: So what did you do for FACES?
WYNN: I recruited for the conferences. I had this network of people I had taken Chinese with or had grown up with in Hong Kong, so I was able to utilize that network and also reach out to different universities. It was really fun to be able to connect with universities across the States, reach kids that were interested in China.
ANYA: Did this job at FACES help you with your future career?
WYNN: It definitely solidified my interest in working in China. I’d been looking for something to give me a sense of purpose outside of academics, and FACES did that— in no small part because it has such an incredible community. I believe working with FACES my last year in undergrad motivated me think more about how China, and the people I was meeting who both lived in and were interested in it, could fit into my future professional career.
When looking for jobs my senior year, I was just riding the wave: everyone was looking for jobs in the States. At some point one of my job interviewers asked me why, with so much background in China (and with FACES), I wanted to work in the States. I remember pausing and realizing I couldn’t really answer that question. That’s when I really looked at China, and the advice I got was if you want to work in China, you have to be in China. I decided the best way in professionally was through attending the Hopkins-Nanjing Center for Chinese and American Studies (HNC) because it was a well-respected program and had 20 years of alumni both in China and in the US.
ANYA: Can you tell me more about HNC?
WYNN: At HNC you have American, international and Chinese students living, taking classes and socializing together. It has a very similar set of values as FACES and both programs have become amazing gateways for international and American students to get jobs in China in the commercial sector. After the program I was further inspired to stay in China to try my hand working as a professional. That ended up being a decision that led me to work in Shanghai for the subsequent 5 years of my life.
ANYA: Where did you work in Shanghai?
WYNN: My first job was as an Associate with Deloitte China Tax, which recruited directly from the Hopkins-Nanjing Center. While at Deloitte I worked on a small team that focused on brand building both within and outside of Deloitte China. After about a year and a half there I left to pursue more responsibility as a Marketing and Communications Manager for the UK real estate consultancy Knight Frank. I led both the Shanghai and Mainland China teams as the company grew about 150% in 2 years. After such an amazing opportunity working in China I felt it was ready to come back to the US, to pursue an MBA and gain a broader professional experience.
ANYA: You’ve spent all this time in Hong Kong and Shanghai, so I’m wondering: where is home?
WYNN: I consider here home, California. Which is funny because I’ve only really lived here intermittently. When I answer all the common questions (Where were you born? Where did you graduate high school? Where are you parents from? Where did you go to college?) the answer is always “here in California”. But ultimately everything in between is Asia, and I feel much more defined by those experiences than by what I do here, at home.
ANYA: So, when you were working in China as a foreign manager, was it difficult being an American boss?
WYNN: I think the hardest part was that the team I built was composed of people who hadn’t had leadership roles in the past, and the leaders they’d had were people who they saw on a very different level from themselves. When I hired my team, I wanted to empower them so that I wasn’t just their boss, but so they had the confidence to bring new ideas to the table, come up with solutions on their own, and really take ownership of their projects—to go beyond just checking off the tasks that I don’t have time for. I don’t want to generalize! I think plenty of Chinese workers have that kind of…
ANYA: Innovation capacity?
WYNN: Yeah—I guess, a capacity for thinking outside of the box. But it’s not an individual fault so much as the system in which they were raised. Understanding the environment they come from, I have a better sense of how to navigate the work culture in China. So I just did a lot of mentoring and one-on-one training. Each time I hired someone new, there was always the person who had been there before who took these people under his or her wing, giving each person the opportunity to have more responsibility over a project. Increasing their sense of ownership helped them think more creatively and innovatively.
ANYA: Did you talk to your employees in Mandarin or in English?
WYNN: It was both. Most of the time they would speak in Mandarin to each other and I would just have an ear out to listen for things I needed to know about. But normally I would use English and if they wanted to speak Chinese to me they could. We were an international company and as a marketing team we deal with marketers all over the world – speaking English was helping them develop for a more global role. When I look back at my job, I felt that someone could have done my job if they hadn’t spoken Chinese, but they wouldn’t have earned the respect that I did, and that was one thing that I felt the language really did for me. It allowed me to build better relationships with my colleagues. It was probably what kept me there for three-and-a-half years. That was also what my colleagues outside of China really respected about me as well, that I was able to bridge those connections. I see that theme across my life, starting with FACES and then HNC and then at Knight Frank. I was able to bridge those boundaries that spanned across the world. Employers really respect our ability to speak both Chinese and English fluently and understand the nuances and differences between the two cultures.
ANYA: During your six years in China, what were adjustments were the most difficult for you? How did you deal with the transition from life in California?
Wynn: Well it’s obviously very urban over there. It’s like living in New York City. You can’t just go hike a mountain the way you can here in California. It was hard to get away from it all, to escape. And I think the escape we used was to recreate the things we enjoyed back home. Something small, like brunch. Chinese people don’t do brunch; in America brunch is a verb.
There were also things about city life in China that I really miss back here. I loved that there was such a big bike culture in China. There, it’s because people can’t afford cars—it’s just how they get around—whereas in the States biking means spending two thousand dollars on a nice bike and all the gear that comes with it, and really only being able to take it out on weekends. I loved being able to bike to work, to do my errands, to visit my friends – wherever.
And that was another thing—the community of friends I had in China was so close-knit. I don’t know if I can explain how important it was to have that while I was transitioning to a new culture and finding my way in a new city.
ANYA: Yeah, I definitely understand. I had the same situation. What were some other cultural differences that you experienced?
WYNN: Hmm, it’s so hard to recall specific things because you get so used to them. Most of the differences come from living in a country with an overpopulation problem – such as the chaos getting off and on transportation, speaking really loudly with a lot of people around… Other small things that bothered me, particularly because we were an international company with international standards of behavior, were things like taking a phone call in the middle of a meeting.
ANYA: People do that in China?
WYNN: Not everyone, but you do see that more. There were fewer apologies if there was a phone call in the middle of a meeting. They might take it, say “I’m in a meeting”, whereas in the States that would never happen.
I would say one of my favorite cultural differences, and I wish America had this, are the large communities of older people out dancing in the parks. I feel that they make so much more of an effort to stay healthy than in the U.S. Whether it’s dancing or walking or some of the exercises they do, I really love that aspect of their culture.
And, of course, they love their karaoke. They love it! To them, you don’t need to get drunk to do it. I’d say that’s very different from Americans. The culture of mei banfa (没办法, means one can’t do anything about it), you know? Even though there is always a banfa (way to get things done), you have to get them to it. And so you just have to work a lot harder to get simpler things. But then again, I also love Taobao (淘宝), it’s so easy and convenient, and I felt like America was behind in that sense.
Shanghai is a really great place, although now I’ve come back to the States and I have no idea how to do anything. I’m supposed to make life decisions: to rent a house and buy a car, to pay my taxes. All the things I was able to put off for 6 years. It was crazy for me to come back and see my friends here making those kinds of decisions, settling down… I felt a bit like my life had been put on pause.
ANYA: Well I have one last question for you! What advice would you give to students going to China for work, but without the familiarity with the country that you had going in. What advice would you give them, given your background, if they didn’t have your China experience?
WYNN: No China experience?
ANYA: Yes. Or some, but not extensive.
WYNN: Go to China.
ANYA: And see it for yourself?
WYNN: Yeah. Go to China. Learn Chinese. I would say, if you are going to put the effort into learning Chinese at all, do it hard, upfront, work really hard for 6 months, a year, and then see what you want do with it. If you don’t want to put the effort into learning Chinese, then just go to China and you’ll know people there and they’ll introduce you. Although, just know that it is harder to get a job in China now without speaking Chinese. There’s a lot of Mainlanders that studied abroad and are now coming back. Multinational companies are looking for that and so it can be hard to not speak the language.
There are still opportunities available but I would say, go to China, see if you like it, and you probably will, because it is awesome, and learn the language. People there will respect you so much more. But if you are going to learn the language, do it right, don’t try and learn it twice a week while you are trying to teach English or have a full time job because it’s not going to be valuable enough and you aren’t going to learn enough. That’s the hard truth of it all.
ANYA: Thank you so much for your time.