A memorable interaction with a Chinese employee leaves an American factory manager in Shanghai touched by an extraordinary example of kindness and generosity. Winter in Shanghai; photo from blog That Look Crayzy!
The starting time at my factory in Shanghai is 9 am. The buses carrying employees arrive shortly before then, and phalanxes of bikes and motor scooters whisk through the gate. Employees who come by private car usually arrive earlier to avoid the crush at the front entrance. Personally, I prefer to arrive much earlier since I dislike being delayed by the peak of the morning rush hour. Normally, I’d arrive between 8 and 8:15 each morning.
It is wise for senior expats to not drive in China– the reasons for that will have to wait for another article. Suffice it to say I had a very competent and safe driver. During the 30 to 45 minute journey from my apartment, I would ride shotgun and work on the e-mail that arrived during the previous 12 hours. Wireless Internet access is very good throughout Shanghai, and it was rarely a problem to receive and send e-mail while commuting to and from the factory. By the time I arrived at the factory, I was almost always caught up with e-mail, and could launch into a fast start on the workday.
The on-site security guards would unlock all of the offices before employees arrived in the morning. My habit upon arriving at my office was to connect the laptop to the network, log on, and verify that I had good connectivity. Next, I would take a walking tour of the factory to see what had changed on second and third shifts, and greet whomever had already arrived.
One Tuesday morning I arrived at the factory and found a surprise when I walked in my office. On my desk was a vacuum packed whole cooked duck, and three bags of different kinds of Chinese tidbits. If something does not belong to me, I don’t touch it, and I left these delectable goodies alone. I felt it was likely that someone had made a mistake, left these things on my desk, and would soon return to claim them. The site secretary had not yet arrived for me to ask about the items on my desk, so I commenced my morning tour of the factory.
As I neared the office of Carl, one of the managers, I stepped in to wish him good morning. Carl asked if I had seen the food on my desk. I replied that I had, and Carl explained why they were there.
The previous week, Carl asked if he could take Monday off since he had the chance to go to Beijing to visit his college classmate George and his family. Carl explained that when he attended college in Beijing, George and his family sometimes invited Carl to their home for a home cooked meal. In those years, food was still rationed, and having a guest for dinner strained the limits of the ration coupons. After Carl came to dinner, George’s family would experience some privation until the following month when they received their next batch of ration coupons.
Carl remembered this warm hospitality and was eager to visit George and his family. Even without a reason for Carl’s absence from the factory for a day, I was very happy to agree to Carl’s request. He was a steady, reliable, and effective employee. He had more than earned having a day off from work without debiting his vacation days account.
While visiting George and his family in Beijing, Carl learned that George’s mother, Mrs. Li, had terminal pancreatic cancer and did not have long to live. She was very grateful that she could see Carl one more time before she died. The food that Carl brought back and put on my desk came from Mrs. Li as a token of her gratitude to me that I let Carl have the time to visit her in Beijing.
Frankly, Mrs. Li’s gesture overwhelmed me. It was a mere nothing for me to assent to Carl spending an extra day in Beijing. I had no way of knowing ahead of time how important Carl’s visit was to Mrs. Li. It is astounding and generous that Mrs. Li, with her illness weighing on her mind, thought to do something for me. After Carl related to me the entire story that Tuesday morning, all I could do was to humbly accept Mrs. Li’s gift.
Later that same morning, while the feelings of gratitude and amazement were still fresh with me, I wrote a note to Mrs. Li to thank her. The secretary kindly translated the note for me, assuring me that she would retain the emotion of what I wrote as well as communicating my respect to Mrs. Li. Before lunch, Carl faxed the note to George to take home to his mother.
I do not know what Mrs. Li’s reaction to my note was, surely she did not expect it, but that is not important. A few weeks later Mrs. Li died, but the memory of her kindness and generosity to me remains as strong now as then.
It is usual in blogs about doing business in China to describe the problems, unique challenges, and unhappy surprises that sometimes occur. Like any other China expat, I have my own share of these experiences, too, but they have to be tempered by the extraordinary act of kindness that Mrs. Li conferred on me. I keep the memory of Mrs. Li with me an an example of the very best that people in China have to offer.
Ward Chartier worked in high-tech manufacturing operations in 6 countries for 31 years, with over 10 years as general manager. He is presently a principal with TechZecs, a consultancy based in San Francisco. Ward is also a frequent guest lecturer at universities, and mentors high-potential managers.