A conversation in Shanghai

Each summer when teaching in Asia, I often contacted former students for a meeting so I could learn more about their career. This year only four of them are coming to see me as others are too busy or have other plans. Three students had worked in the U.S. for few years then returned home, only one who graduated last year and went home to run a family's business because his father was sick. The weather in Shanghai is hot and humid as contrast with Beijing where it was hot but dry. We meet in a nice restaurant in Pudong, looking toward the Bund on the other side of the river.

After some casual conversations, Zhang, a manager at Huawei begins: “When I returned home after several years working at Microsoft, I thought that I have time to enjoy my life in China. I was wrong as the work here is much busier than in the U.S.” Meng, another former student adds: “We are too busy to do anything. What we think as our own time has been completely replaced by more works, more meetings, and more social events. The problem is most of these works are non-productive. China is growing too fast but people do not understand what efficiency is. They have to go to meetings all the time but do not making any decision. Everybody talk and talk then call for another meeting to continue. He laughs: “It is “Busy-ness” not “business”!

Zhang complains: “The constant meetings combined with the feeling that there are so many things to do create significant stress to all of us. My health is not as good as when I was in the U.S. I am worrying that I may have a heart attack. In the U.S. after work most software engineers go to the Gym or play sports so they are healthy. But in China, they all go to restaurants where everybody eat, smoke and drink, if you do not do that, you are not part of the team.” Meng agrees: “That type of activities, especially drinking hurt the ability to focus on works, undermine creative thinking but people here considers it is a necessity because they all have good job, and making good money.” Zhang adds: “Technology should make works easier but in China, it makes everything more complex. People are sending emails and text messages to others all the time. With mobile phone, they call each other even after work; people call me at 11:00 at night and even 4 o'clock in the morning. There is no relaxation as people are constantly talking on their mobile phone or reading emails, and text messages. They talk on mobile phone in restaurants, in shopping mall, in the market and when walking in the street. Young people also consider it as the way of modern living. If they do not have the latest iPhone or iPads then they are not in fashion. If you look around Shanghai, you will see advertisings everywhere. All over newspapers and magazines you will see more advertises of fashionable things and people accept them as the new way of modern life.”

Hou, who graduated last year also laments: “As I took over my father's business. Everything was so busy as if you did not move fast somebody will. Now I know why my father was sick. When I want more time to decide, my family gets angry as it means indecisive and lazy. My uncle said: “Is that what they taught you in the U.S? You must move fast and make decision fast in this competitive world. If you do not then you are not working hard enough.” To my family, they think that I am lazy but for me it is about getting more things done. Most people are skeptical about slow down to think clearly on how to get things done. My family is afraid that we will fall behind others so they push me hard. My mother often said: “There is no opportunity like this, so we must seize them now.” I wish that I would stay and work in the U.S. for few years to learn how they do thing there.” Zhang shakes his head: “What you learn there and what you do thing here is completely difference. Over there it is about efficiency, effectiveness but here it is about keeping busy, making people happy, regardless of efficiency or effectiveness. No one make bad decision because no one makes decision. People talk a lot but refuse to make decision as no one want to be blame for anything. That is why things look busy but actually business is slow because people will discuss things over and over.”

Meng admitted: “We are making money but no one is happy. As I look at people at top positions, they are not happy at all. Everybody is afraid of the unknown as they are overburdened with trivial things. I think we are losing our own way of good living. Today making money is everything but few people realize that there is a price that they must pay. Now I remember about what you have taught us in your software courses about the moment of silence where it opens up the door to consciousness and recharging your spirit. You often encourage us to walk in the park to be with nature to replenish our mind but if we do that here, people think we are lazy. We cannot even spend 15 minutes in a quiet place with nothing to do as our minds are full of things. In this fast changing world, we cannot aware of the present moment as you told us many times in your class to keep us less stressful.”

I advised them: “You all need to be healthy, it is important for you and your family. Regardless where you work, you need time for yourselves. Take a lunch break as it is your time to stop work and recharge your mind for the afternoon. Tell your friends that you are tired so you need to rest. You cannot work 10 or 12 hours a day as it will damage your brain. Do not hurry to answer phone calls but wait until the third ring to answer as you need time to prepare. Do not quickly to response to text messages or emails, read your emails twice and completely before answering them. If you want to enjoy life, you need time for yourself else you will be pulled by all the unnecessary forces. You have to stop being busy in order to think clearly. Do not let others to tell you that if you are not doing something, you are wasting time. Time is what you have and you can spend it in different way. You need to ask yourself if you are doing things too fast then slow down a little to keep yourself calm. When you are sick, money cannot buy your health back, so do not waste it.”


  • Blogs of Prof. John Vu, Carnegie Mellon University
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