How time flies. I have been back in China for over one year now.

Previously, I worked in Shenzhen for a couple of months, and then I got a job offer from a friend who I met through a job-seeking app called Leipin. I never met this girl in person, but we chatted a bit online as she was interested in my life in Australia working as an interpreter.

It was during 2017 Chinese New Year that I received a call from my ‘virtual friend’ and was offered an opportunity to work in a startup technology company in Beijing as a simultaneous interpreter serving foreign senior executives. I passed the interview but, strangely, I never received a formal offer. Their HR promised multiple times that they would send out one asap, but that never happened. Instead, they pushed me quite hard during the festive season to come to Beijing. In the end, my dad suggested that I just go and check it out. Worse case, I could just take it as a sightseeing trip to Beijing. I went, and it turned out to be legit. Anyway, as I speak Chinese, I was brave enough to try out an unknown company without a proper job offer letter — however, for a foreigner who does not speak the language and is not familiar with the local culture, this can be risky, so it is best to insist on a formal offer letter.

As I was a freelancer back in Australia and never worked for a Chinese company, I was unaware of the length of the probation period in China. I had heard that it could range between 3 to 6 months, but I did not know that I could negotiate the period. I thought if it was a rule, then it should be observed. However, I later found out from my share-mate that basically everything is negotiable in China, so I could have asked for 3 months of probation instead of the 6 months stipulated by the company.

The startup company I am working for is under a Hong Kong group that has had a history of film making for a few decades. Our boss has had some celebrity girlfriends in the past that are easily searchable online. He is a rather typical Chinese businessman with a can-do attitude and good business sense. What is peculiar about him is that he has a mixed background of working in Japan for a technology company and later making music with Japanese artists. Despite his long work experience in Japan, the company itself does not seem to have established a well-functioning structure, even though it was founded in 2013. Most of our VPs are from Nokia, and they have brought along old habits to this startup, which has resulted in power struggles amongst them. Consequently, the idea of implementing an ISO system never got carried out.

What’s worse, this startup company has a brutal way of firing foreigners. The HR tend to give you very short notice (like 1 day), and you basically have no right to find out the actual reason for your termination of employment, nor do you have any negotiating power in terms of staying. Unfortunately, the foreign executives in our company are from different parts of the world and they do not seem to support each other. As a result, the unfortunate executive will just be on his own against the company, with only me interpreting impartially. Moreover, with Chinese work permit restrictions, foreigners working in China sometimes have even less negotiating power if they wish to continue to work in China legally. Therefore, it is always a good idea to double check your contract before signing and keep it in your desk just in case.

Lastly, I would like to share one good thing about working for this startup Chinese company. It is the ability that my position gives me to get close and personal with senior executives, from whom I can ask for opportunities directly. For instance, when a new Design VP came on board, I volunteered to help out as I had less interpreting work due to the departure of foreign executives. It was a simple process in which I just needed approval from my direct supervisor in the form of an email, and then to ask HR to talk to the VP.

In the end, the VP met me briefly and was happy for me to assist her, albeit only for general things. However, at least I got the chance to participate in more design-related meetings and expand my knowledge in that area. The Design VP proposed that I could transform into a project manager if I upgrade my skillsets in project management down the track, which I am excited and grateful about. I also chatted with our CTO, who recommended that I might become a product manager in his team as he is working on Japanese project and I also happen to speak the language.

Of course, these are just empty promises thus far, but at least I see a future that may go beyond mere interpreting and translation. I may be able to exert my potential more fully and see how creative I can be. There is a different (and more chaotic) system in this Chinese startup company which I may be able to take advantage of; when I was working in a major bank in Australia, we had to wait for a new position to come up internally, and then apply with a resume and selection criteria, which was lengthy and highly competitive.

On one hand, I despise the inhumane treatment to staff in this Chinese company; on the other hand, I vaguely sense the sort of personal growth opportunity that does not come along often. So in conclusion, I will stay in China working for a bit longer and see how I go!


Life as a returning Chinese expat in ChinaKay Zhao first wrote for Expat Essentials a year ago, when she first returned to China after having lived in Australia for 18 years. In this expat blog, Kay updates us on how her life and career has been taking shape over the last twelve months.

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