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Expat-Talk (3): Working in Shanghai

In this series we've asked expats and former expats to talk about their experiences abroad. The third is Michael Renz, Director of Innovation at SAP in Shanghai. He has been living in China for the last eight years

My assignment for Shanghai was actually only planned for two years, but now that’s turned into eight. In the meantime, I have married a Chinese woman and the city has become my second home.

SAP prepared me very well for this assignment. I received intensive training at the University of Bochum, where they did a great job. And although I was theoretically versed and trained when I arrived in China, it was still something completely different actually being confronted with it. What we learned were the classics: table manners, the right greetings, the handling of business cards. And also the other trivial thing you smile about, like seeing people in pyjamas in the supermarket or people who protect themselves from the sun with umbrellas.

China speed

And then there are things that you’re mentally prepared for and that still demand a lot of adaptability. What surprised me the most was the innovation and speed of the Chinese. It was the same eight years ago, I had already been told back then that the times when one came to China as a foreigner and could feel superior because of higher levels of education were over. China as a developing country or as a cheap production country that only copies is a cliché. My Chinese colleagues here on the team are excellently trained and speak English very well. Technological change is rapid. I haven’t used cash for twelve months and now pay only with my cell phone. And now you don’t even need a mobile phone; last week I paid with my face for the first time using face recognition.

“In English there’s the term “China speed”. It’s a hunger for innovation that drives them.”

In English there’s the term “China speed”. The Chinese are simply very, very fast. That doesn’t mean they are smarter – it’s a hunger for innovation that drives them. They are incredibly open to trying out new things and very optimistic about new projects. Even after eight years, I’m still “the German” who sees the dangers and risks more clearly. The Chinese are sometimes too fast, they are too optimistic, we in Germany are too pessimistic and too focused on risks. The optimal path lies somewhere in the middle, and this is exactly the principle we work according to. We attach great importance to diversity. We make sure that we have this mix in our team – young and old, Chinese and German, experienced and inexperienced, men and women. The proportion of women in my team is 50 percent. We believe that this is precisely where the power of innovation lies.

What I have observed over the years is that the Chinese have an inner circle that they deal with differently from someone they don’t know very well. They tend to encounter strangers with reservations. It certainly took three or four years before I was properly accepted and gained the trust of my colleagues. You have to be patient. But when you are in this inner circle, the contact is as familiar and uncomplicated as with us.

“I’ve put the German DNA down a bit. I have a much higher willingness to take risks.”

China has changed me

If I’ve discarded anything, it’s long-term planning. When I came to China, I was able to say exactly what the next three years would look like. That’s something that has changed the most in China. At the moment I am quite relaxed when it comes to planning for the future and live much more in each day. This classic German characteristic of having to plan everything, to secure everything, I have forgotten in the eight years. I will certainly come back to Germany in a different way. I’ve put the German DNA down a bit. I have a much higher willingness to take risks. And even though I am “the German” here, I have adopted much of the Chinese mentality.

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