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working in Beijing

Dr. David Silber 19.08.2010 rerelease 23.05.13

remark: These are just my impressions about my (short) time at Beijings university. Please keep in mind that I worked with open-minded students and that they could speak english quite fluently. If you work with people, who are not used to work with foreigners, you might have a complete different experience.

working at the university

Getting a job in china could be problematic, since in China very much depends on who you know and which connections do you have. These networks are called "guan xi" and are something you need to keep a close eye on, when you want to work in China. This includes getting a good job or finding a good appartment. However, I am probably a poor example of this rule, since I did not have any connections, but everything worked out quite well.

Much of my work revolved around LEED-experiments but I also provide two students with training in diffraction techniques. Since I teached this in germany for several years this was a simple task.

How to practice office ettiquette?

Having worked as a physical chemist at the university I observed some things, which I found quite different from working in germany. I want to report here some of these things (but keep in mind these are just my very subjective observations, which definitely do not represent work life in whole china).

Additionally I do not want to give the impression that my way (or the german way) of doing things is better than the chinese way to do so. I just want to point out that it is different and just because my way of doing things is different from your way, does not mean that my way is better than your way. However, it is important to note that these differences exists to make us all more understanding.


First of all I can confirm that the ideas and orders of the boss are never challenged – even if the suggestions are quite absurd - no one is going to disagree. Generally speaking it is probably not a good idea to criticize anyone, especially when you are a foreigner. Much later a friend told me (when I asked her what she found most difficult to cope with in germany) that people often criticize her. And after a pause she added "even your friends."
What is so weird about this is that on the other hand you can quite often see professors strongly criticizing their students. After a professor called a colleauge of mine an idiot the other colleagues explained to me that these comments should not be taken literary, but that there is a hidden meaning to it (in this case the professor was worried about the student).


Generally speaking people in china are what westeners would call "reserved". However chinese people think of themself as balanced (or in harmony with its enviroment). Acting in an extreme way like showing anger or pride upsets this balance and disturbs the harmony between you and your colleauges/family/society.
However, Chinese people like to give compliments and also like to recieve compliments. What is different in China is that, people never just accept a compliment but often try to relativize it. So when someone tells you your chinese is very good, you should not just say thank you, but also try to relativize it. I usually say "No, No! I still have to learn" (nali, nali! wo hai yao hao xue.)
So, that was the easy part. Things can get delicate when you make a compliment about another person. I once said to my supervising professor that his students are very clever and hard-working and he replied that his students were in fact very lazy and dumb (and one of his students was sitting right besides me). This was really an awkward situation. However, the student found this to be an acceptable response.

intimate question

When I was introduced to chinese people they usually ask me many questions. Some of these questions might be considered to personal in Germany, but are quite common in China. For example I was asked "How much do you earn? How big is your house? What do your parents do for a living? How old is your wife? Is she slim or fat?..."

Another interesting thing, that I noticed was that, when I told people how old I am, they (almost) always asked what my wife does for a living. People were assuming that I was married and they were surprised, when I told them that I was not married, yet. It also hardly helped, when I told them that I was (at least) engaged. I always had to explain that in germany it is common for a man to be well into his 20s and still be single.

employee morale

I can also confirm that chinese students are very hard working and overtime is quite common. However, I noticed that there is a downside to this kind of hard working. Overtime and breaking your limits is so common in china, that students come to work even when they are really sick, infectious and to tired to work safely.

I have seen one sick girl sleeping with her head on the desk in the laboratory, which is - as every chemist will agree on - quite a stupid thing to do. At first I thought this it is the fault of the student (because she did not know her limits). However, when I talked with chinese friends about this, they agreed on, that this is an example of poor managment and that her boss is responsible for her well-being.


  • Chinese students love to chat online and are almost constantly texting someone with their mobile. This is the way in which most communication is done among students. I think that one reason might be that they are often very far away from home and chat with their families to stay in touch with them.
  • For some chinese people the people of the world are devided into just two groups - the foreigners and the asian people - and when they think about foreigners they usually think about people from the united states and assume that you love to eat hamburgers, speak english, are rich, highly educated, big and inpolite...
  • One of the interesting topics I learned when I was at the university was that china produces all kind of solar energy devices. The solar cells are then either exported to Africa or sold in china. Despite Chinas interest in nucelar energy and reliance on coal, China is starting to embrace renewable energy. Therefore, I could see solar powered traffic and street lights even at the Tiananmen Square. Furthermore, many houses had some kind of solar powered water heating devices installed on their roofs.
    Remark: Nowadays this is not surprising anymore, but at the time I wrote this solar energy was booming in germany and nobody was thinking about china. I left this observation on this webpage as an example that you sometimes can have a glimpse of the future, when you observe what china produces.