24 January 2018
A generation of American professionals equipped to engage with China
This series showcases young American professionals who have studied Chinese for any length of time, including studying abroad in China. Where are they now? How have their studies abroad, and Chinese language studies more generally, shaped their experience as young professionals?
Today we feature Keely Stanley:
Keely moved to Beijing in 2014 from Los Angeles where she had been working as a film producer. A major part of her role in movie development was sourcing money to finance film projects. In this process, she began to see that there was quite a lot of money coming in from China. Chinese financing played no passive role in the film development process. “If China money was part of a project, it changed everything,” Keely recalls. “…So I knew I had to go to China to understand how and why it was making such an impact in my industry”.
Upon making this decision, she immediately connected with a recruiter to find opportunities in China. It didn’t take long before the opening at a small Beijing-based English language TV news network found itself on her desk. It all happened in the blink of an eye. “The interview lasted ten minutes,” she said. “Then I was moving my whole life to China”.
The time had come to start a new chapter in China, but things were not quite what they seemed. She had a friend in Beijing working as a manager for a multinational education company who would tell her in great detail about the uniqueness of her experience living and working in the bustling city, never ceasing to offer a new piece of information, an invitation to something novel. “She would tell me about all the great things,” Keely noted. “But never anything about the shock.”
Culture shock. The two words to echo the minds of traveler and expat alike, kindling the fear that accompanies flying blind into a new experience. It is a term with a reputation that precedes itself, casting a long foreboding shadow on the journey’s start, begging to be understood despite its relative disrepute.
Having no formal Chinese training, Keely anticipated a relatively smooth transition into her new job. “Before arriving in Beijing, I was told that the job was going to be in a bilingual environment”, Keely recalls. She found the reality to vary considerably from the picture previously described to her. “People mostly operated in Chinese,” she said.
There were certainly moments when her coworkers would try to connect with her using broken English, but these micro attempts were fraught with awkwardness and, she would soon find, hindered by profound insecurity about English ability. There always seemed to be a barrier to real connection, but Keely decided to make the best out of an unexpected situation and soon took matters into her own hands.
“I learned quickly that you have to use personality to navigate your way through the company,” she said. “In China, things are more hierarchical, more formal, and can come across as closed off. Colleagues are also shy to speak with you in English, so they just won’t talk to you.” She came up with a fun solution to this challenge. “I would just blurt out words I heard them say and ask them, what does that mean? They would then laugh hysterically at my poor attempt to speak Mandarin. This approach would gradually break down the barriers between us.”
She soon observed the professional fruits borne from such boldness. Keely started to pick up the language through interactions like these. She tried to be more open, always smiling. Eventually, her HR manager took notice, and she began to receive invitations to meetings with upper-level management, her ideas receiving a more powerful audience. She ultimately developed a more nuanced understanding of the way things were done in this setting. Despite the importance of her position for the company’s international positioning, it took this sort of effort to make inroads to the upper-level management whose awareness of her ideas made a considerable impact on the life of her projects.
All the while, she had accumulated basic Chinese skills, priming her for formal language classes later on. Keely began her formal Chinese education about six months into her new life in Beijing. She had briefly contracted a private tutor but knew she required a more structured, intensive regimen to truly improve her prospects of language acquisition. She enrolled in an intensive course where she took classes from Monday through Friday 8:00 A.M. to 12:00 P.M., went to lunch, then worked until 8:00 P.M. “For me, studying while working was the only option. I have always worked and couldn’t take time off for full-time language study,” she said. “This was definitely one of the most intense periods of my time in Beijing, but it was worth it.” She sees the results of her labor every day in the relationships she has built and continues to build as she advances in her career.
Keely reflects on how both formal language training and on-the-job Chinese acquisition impacted her career in China. “I moved up very quickly in my career here,” she said. “The language thing for me has been more about understanding the culture and being able to connect on that level. Naturally, as your proficiency level goes up, more doors will open for you.”
The demand for foreigners in China who are proficient in Chinese persists. “A lot of people are leaving,” she notes, “…but China needs foreigners to operate, to help them navigate being a global economy.” It is not enough, however to show up with only the bare minimum.
“The days of coming to China to collect a check are over,” Keely advises. “You need to have some trade skills, perhaps be an entrepreneur. Naturally, you have an advantage if you are fluent or have a high Chinese proficiency, but you’ll also be competing with fresh graduates who can be hired for less.”
If she could do things a little differently, she remarks, she would have taken a year off to focus on learning the language. “I’ve been interviewed four times at the top production companies. They said I have all the skills, but the number one feedback was that I needed to really speak Mandarin. HR managers have so much power in China—they can decide whether or not you are hired, so you need to be on good terms with them. They may not understand the ins and outs of your job, but they need to know if you are going to fit in with the culture. A lot of times it’s a hierarchy thing, and they need to know if you are trustworthy, if they can really know you. In other words, getting through the interview is just the first step, but then you also have to think, ‘how am I going to be received by my Chinese colleagues?’”
USCS: Advice to current and future Chinese learners?
KS: Really take the time to learn the language. The job opportunities are always going to be here. If you can take the time off to focus on that, your experience will be dramatically more fruitful career-wise, and in terms of your general understanding of China. Working in a bi-cultural environment is a skill of the future.”
Keely Stanley, a dynamic, multi-dimensional entertainment industry professional, with a track record across multiple platforms, including film, television, and radio. Keely has established herself as an award-winning producer after completing her master’s program in San Francisco where she produced over 20 short films. Her first documentary landed in the Cannes Film Festival leading her to work with established producers and directors from all over the world. After three years of working as a Producer in Los Angeles, she helped develop the feature film GAME TIME for NBC NETWORKS. Keely’s passion for producing groundbreaking projects for television, film, music, and digital media is what lead her to China to work for a local television station. Currently, she has lived in Beijing for 3 years and truly enjoys the international lifestyle China brings. Her new hobbies include interior design. She loves a good Sunday shopping for vintage items.