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Colleen Robar

Colleen Robar

Finding Guanxi

February 01, 2013

Edward Shei, an exuberant 38-year old born and raised in Bloomfield Hills, captivates a room of multinational expats with tips for a successful experience in their recently adopted home of Shanghai. In addition to giving an overview of Chinese history, Confucianism and cultural awareness, Shei throws in tips on language training, shopping and how to drink at a Chinese banquet. The two days go fast as our group of ten soak up the cultural training provided by Shei and his company, Communication Consulting, a division of GP Strategies.

Shei’s goal is to move his expat workshop attendees from xenophobes to cultural bilingualists. His preliminary advice for success:

  • Speak some Chinese.
  • Better understand Chinese culture.
  • Be more patient.
  • Soften your tone.
  • Show more trust.
  • Do more activities with Chinese people.
  • Be more polite and not so direct in front of others.
  • Listen to Chinese people more.
  • Don’t say bad things about Chinese people in front of them.
  • Coach others to transfer skills.

So how did this son of a Crittenton Hospital doctor make his way from Andover and Roeper High Schools in Oakland County to become an expert on one of the world’s largest cities? After earning undergraduate philosophy and literature degrees from Sarah Lawrence College in New York and a masters in film direction from Columbia University, he moved to China in 1999 “at a time when no one came to China. I had a sense of curiosity,” said Shei. One of his first jobs was teaching literature at Shanghai High School’s international baccalaureate program.

He credits his Midwest upbringing for some of his success in China. “I know about hard work and modesty. In the Midwest, we show success through our actions. BS takes longer. Modesty is vitally important in China,” added Shei.

Shei become comfortable in China by building up his “guanxi” (pronounced gwan-chee). Defined as a system of mutual obligations and social debts, guanxi is the way business is done in China. This two-way street requires that if someone does you a favor, they will ask you for one back. He began by teaching some local children English, and in turn was coached by their parents on business issues and proper protocol. Today, he has a vast network of friends and intermediaries he can turn to when he needs anything.

While working on his MBA at the University of Hong Kong-London Business School, Shei worked for a start-up bio plastics company. While there, he saw that many of their major issues were related to the cultural issues brought on by expats not thinking rationally about their new country. This led to his interest in cross-cultural training.

“I don’t think of myself as either American or Chinese. Instead I like to think of myself as a global citizen,” said Shei. “In the 21st century, people need a cross cultural awareness in order to succeed.”

Some of Shei’s most salient points in his workshop surround Eastern vs. Western department meetings. In the United States, people host meetings to exchange information, facts and opinions about the tasks at hand. Gatherings are a place to clarify what has been done and what is yet to be achieved. People are expected to speak up when asked about a topic.

In China, meetings are all about harmony and developing relationships. Any sort of criticism in such a public forum can ruin a relationship. People don’t want to “brainstorm” or even speak in meetings because they could “lose face.”

Instead, Shei advises Western senior leaders to spend more time in pre-meetings with their Chinese employees one-on-one clarifying job responsibilities and expectations in a much more “step-by-step” or incremental fashion. Indirect communication is best. Another tip: give lots of compliments to your Chinese colleagues.

Education can explain a lot of the differences between the cultures. American and Chinese children are educated differently. American students are taught to be creative and think critically. The Chinese system is based on rote memorization and test taking. For example, the elaborate system of thousands of Mandarin characters takes years to master. In comparison, American students learn 26 alphabet letters. In the United States, students write their first stories or essays in elementary school. In China, it isn’t until high school.

Shei predicts that Shanghai will continue to grow more internationally as Chinese people become accustomed to learning more from the outside world. “You hear the words open and transparent a lot more in Chinese companies, believe it or not,” he said.

He encourages his fellow Michiganders to experience China. “My goal is to help others decipher China’s culture. There has been such a cloud of mystery surrounding China for thousands of years. My best advice is to come to China and see what a fantastic place this is. Once people see what’s happening here, they will want to pursue even more of the county and its culture.”

CALENDAR NOTE: February 10 is the biggest day in the Chinese lunar calendar, Chinese New Year. This holiday spans weeks as Chinese head to their hometowns to spend time with their families. Find a Chinese friend, hang a red lantern and build up your own guanxi in celebration of the Year of the Snake.

To contact Edward Shei in Shanghai, email him at

Colleen Robar is a Detroiter who is based in Shanghai for the next three years. She is a Central Michigan University journalism grad, runner, weaver and an enthusiastic Detroit Tigers fan. She formerly worked for Crain Communications before departing for China.

January 31, 2013 · Filed under Robar

9 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Lynn Ochberg // Feb 1, 2013 at 11:47 pm

    Sheila is correct that most Americans have much to learn about Chinese culture. Although I was lucky to study Mandarin and Chinese history and culture way back in 1984 as a 41 year old ‘lifelong education’ student at Michigan State University, I have found that Americans without such experience are prejudiced against Chinese people, distrustful, often rude, and disdainful of guanxi. To many Americans it resembles our definition of bribery or extortion. On the other hand, when I lived in China for nine weeks my profession of creative artist was looked upon with disapproval. America’s enthusiasm for individual creativity was considered disrespectful of ancient Masters in the art field.Mr. Shei has taken on a very big challenge.

  • 2 Lynn Ochberg // Feb 1, 2013 at 11:50 pm

    Sorry that my iPad misspelled Mr. Sheri’s name as Sheila. These devices have trouble with Asian names and make ridiculous assumptions.

  • 3 Lynn Ochberg // Feb 1, 2013 at 11:53 pm

    This iPad did it again! This time changing the correct name that I typed to Sheri. I apologize for the Apple Computer Company and its so-called automatic spelling ‘corrections’.

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