My parents immigrated to Canada in the 60s in search for better opportunities for themselves and their families. They were wonderful parents in that they gave me a lot of freedom growing up while instilling fairly traditional Chinese values, language, and culture. I embraced my Chinese-Canadian background, but like most kids from immigrant families, it can lead to a bit of an identity crisis. This feeling is usually most pronounced at school but I would experience this during my career as well.
Working in New York would be a culture shock to me on two levels. In Corporate America, you are expected to be direct and assertive. I struggled with this because first, in Chinese culture, you don’t tend to challenge authority, and second, Canadians tend to be overly polite versus their American counterparts. It was difficult for me to speak up at meetings for fear of appearing wrong or disrespectful. It also didn’t help that on a conference call once, someone stopped me mid-sentence and said, “Hey! You’re Canadian!”. At the time, I really didn’t know that we pronounced “about” differently.
While in Hong Kong, I would experience culture shock in a different way. My colleagues innocently asked me if I only ate sandwiches for lunch because they thought that was what North Americans ate every meal. I pointed out that not only did I grow up eating traditional Chinese dishes but Canada is actually a very multicultural place with cuisines from all over the world. Some of my coworkers would endearingly call me “gwei mui zai” which literally translates into “little white girl” and on occasion, they would jokingly point out how I would mispronounce certain words in Cantonese. None of this was done out of malice but it just further pointed out my otherness.
My perspective started to change further into my various roles at Lenovo. This was a Chinese grown company that acquired IBM’s PC division in 2004 with the aim of expanding internationally. When I joined in 2010, management decided to start investing more in marketing in order to build brand and grow sales. The company would start experiencing some growing pains when teams from both sides of the world started working more closely together. My dual background would come to be quite valuable as I was able to help bridge some gaps in a few main areas:
- Creative: There were a few campaigns ideas that came from local agencies in Asia that I was sure would come across as insensitive to certain minority groups in North America. Neither the agencies nor the marketing managers leading the project realized the potentially offensive nature of the creative. The reverse was also true when the global team shared concepts or used talent in such a way that would have seemed out of context in some Asian cultures. I would provide feedback to both teams to make the necessary changes. If the campaigns had launched as planned, it would not have portrayed the company in a positive light.
- Planning: In my roles on the WW or AP Teams, we started to work with more global agencies. I considered their planning processes to be sophisticated and best-in-class. At the same time, this more methodical approach to planning would become a source of friction with the fast pace in which our teams operated in Asia. I needed to balance the two to ensure that we yielded the best creative and media output while meeting tight timelines. I did this by bringing both teams together to explain the requirements of both sides and negotiating timelines that would be acceptable by all parties.
- Communications: Perhaps the most important of all, I was able to bridge communications gaps between some of my managers and teams in China and the rest of the global marketing team based out of Raleigh. My managers from China were brilliant strategists and creative minds but they struggled to communicate their ideas to our counterparts. This was not because their English was poor (quite the opposite) but because they didn’t understand some of the nuances in the language, culture, and ways of working. As a result, they were uncomfortable interacting within this global framework. My background and experiences would help to promote a healthy dialogue between the teams.
I think many of us will always feel a certain level of otherness, but in fact, it is our unique gifts, backgrounds, and experiences that help bring people together. If you look back, you may have been building bridges without you knowing, and it is for this reason, that you should always be yourself.
Originally published at https://www.linkedin.com.