In case you’re wondering why my article didn’t appear in the papers yesterday as usual, it’s because the tongue-in-cheekness doesn’t go over well with the “lingdao” (leaders) over at the Daily. A magazine will be running a longer version of the story in December, so there’s hope yet for self-deprecating humor in China! Read below for what didn’t make it into yesterday’s newspaper.
My life in a danwei
I’ve joined a danwei.
Well, sort of. The publication I now edit is owned by China’s oldest publishing house. Like many large historical enterprises, it operates in a nebulous quasi-state-owned zone. Regardless of its actual structure, it feels like a danwei to me, a novice at working for a Chinese company.
I started feeling the danwei-ness as soon as the hiring process began. It resembled nothing of the structured Round 1, Round 2, Final Round battle-style interviews I encountered in my previous life as an investment banker. At each meeting, the very professional conduct of the office HR representative contrasted with her need to seek further directive from the lingdao (“leaders”).
The nomenclature alone gives the danwei away. A lingdao implies, above all, seniority; a “CEO” highlights professionalism. Back and forth I went with the HR lady. After each interview she would conclude, “I will seek the leader’s opinion.”
Finally, the leaders and I decided we wanted each other. Then, on the most important negotiations I found myself speaking to two leaders separately about essentially the same things. A three-way conference call would’ve been easier. Or, the leaders could’ve debriefed each other directly.
When we agreed on the details I asked about an offer letter. My future leader assured me, “Don’t worry, we keep to our word.” For the first time in my short but multifarious career, I violated these golden rules: “Get It in Writing” and “Leave Your Options Open.” I declined other job offers without first signing on a dotted line. I felt a little reckless, like a Victorian lady turning down one marriage proposal without bagging a better one. Would I end up a Marianne after the betrayal of Willoughby?
Fortunately, my leader kept his promise. My first week was surprisingly busy. In the first six days, I attended four big meetings. Really big meetings.
In size, these powwows resembled annual meetings at western companies. Everyone save the receptionist was called in to listen. The meetings were also big in that they were long. With so many people crammed into a conference room for four hours at a time – no scheduled intermissions or clear agendas – the meetings felt epically long.
Speaking of agendas, it seems my leaders like to call gatherings with little advanced notice and only vague indications of what might be discussed. This might be why most of my colleagues sat fiddling uncomfortably for hours, unsure of when they would have to present, nor when to slip out for a cigarette, perk up or doodle.
After Behemoth Meeting #2, I decided that doing things strictly the danwei way would slowly drive me mad. Tentatively, I approached my leader and offered a humble suggestion: could we make an agenda with talking points and time limits?
The leader then did something very un-lingdao-ish. He agreed. Let’s institute the changes, he said, provided that I would do the work. When the next meeting rolled around, I thought I heard an urgency in everyone’s voice. We finished in two hours. Apparently, you can teach an old dog new tricks.
Danwei or not, there are always adjustments to make when fitting into a new company. Luckily, mine also comes with particular danwei perks. I’m in possession of a circular clearly stipulating that working beyond 5pm accrues over-time, which must be compensated with time off. Should I so desire, I can lay my head down on the desk at noon for a snooze without anyone coughing in embarrassment (as I did the first time I spotted a Chinese coworker napping). And, my favorite of all, there are danwei “outings.”
On my third day, I put on sneakers and met the entire publishing house staff in a parking lot filled with chartered buses. We set off for the “autumn outing”, a hike in the hills outside Tianjin. The last time I went on a seasonal outing was in grade school. The even more endearing surprise when we arrived at our destination? Our leaders distributed lunch money to everyone. It was so very Chinese.
As I sit at my danwei desk everyday I think how much my mother must chuckle over the idea of me adapting to a Chinese company. It’s certainly not what I envisioned when I joined the hoards of eager young Wall Street-ers years ago. But, for now, I like my life as a danwei employee. My leaders may not be western-style smooth operators, but at least they keep open minds on how to improve.