Learning local work customs would save Chinese bosses headaches

By John Gachiri Source:Global Times Published: 2013-1-9 23:08:01

Illustration: Liu Rui 
Illustration: Liu Rui

Are Chinese in Africa racists? This was a very interesting question and one which, truth be told, I had not heard before, either because the Chinese community in Kenya is small and reclusive or people do not speak about the issue.

Racism is a touchy subject, due to an inglorious past where locals were humiliated under the British colonial government (1895-1963).

Before independence, the natives were treated as third-class citizens in their own country.

There were white-only neighborhoods, Africans were not allowed in some estates after sunset, some restaurants did not serve Africans or Indians, and even beer was exclusive to whites!

This apartheid was also economic. Africans were not allowed to grow certain crops, such as tea and coffee.

In the 1990s, former Kenyan president Daniel Arap Moi told two expats to go back to where they came from after they had said something to the effect that locals were genetically inept.

So any foreigners coming to work in the country would be foolish to try anything that had the slightest tinge of racism.

With that crash course, let us go back to the Chinese in Kenya.

The only insight that has come out has been courtesy of the rumor mill about a Chinese manager at a media station who is being stingy with employee per diems.

Nevertheless, I sought to find the truth from two friends who worked for Chinese firms in the IT and construction industries.

Both have quit, and say that working with the Chinese was one of the most difficult undertakings they took.

Paul, a quantity surveyor, says that his seven-month stint was frustrating due to the language barrier and different work cultures.

There was a cordial relationship between him and the senior managers who were more traveled and exposed. But it was not the same for the lower cadre staff.

He says the foremen, for lack of a better word, were not refined.

"They used to scream and yell (at the Kenyan porters). I understand that at times you have to do work but as a Kenyan I felt bad," says Paul.

He doesn't know if that is how they treat workers in China, but it is not acceptable here, he says.

They also spoke very little English, a major source of frustration because it makes everyone's life difficult.

If language is the greatest manifestation of a culture, if you show even the slightest disdain for learning a language, what does this say about what you think of another person's culture?

Some of these frustrations were shared by Otieno, who worked as a driver at a Chinese IT firm.

He said that driving colleagues who are speaking a language you do not understand begs the question: Are they speaking about me?

Work ethic was another issue.

While the Chinese are known for their work ethic, things work a bit differently in Kenya, and it would be wise to know one or two things that could save you a lot of trouble.

Sundays and funerals are sacred in Kenya, and while casual workers still work Sundays, it is the exception rather than the norm.

Funerals are big in Kenya. When an employee loses a close relative, most companies will hire a bus to ferry mourners.

Colleagues are also expected to attend, as is the boss. In addition to attending, colleagues and the boss chip in to a kitty to help the bereaved family meet the funeral costs.

In most cases, a day off to bury someone is not axed from your annual leave days.

If I were to give advice to a Chinese firm setting up shop in Kenya, I would say it is important to know that from time to time employees will be taking a day off to go for a relative's or close friend's funeral.

When this happens, do not make a fuss, and if it happens to be a close relative of a colleague, as the boss, you are expected to attend.

Both Otieno and Paul say that they do not think Chinese are racists, but still, it wouldn't hurt if they took the time to know the norms and customs.

It would foster better working relations between the two communities.

There is still a lot that has to be done on both sides, and Chinese should invest more in learning the local norms in order to reap a handsome dividend.

The author is a Nairobi-based finance journalist. gachanja.gachiri@gmail.com


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