August 9, 2022

Preoccupations: Into the Bustle of China’s Boom

I was excited about the idea. I’ve been with the company for more than 20 years. From 2005 to 2007, I worked on a project in Russia and made a number of trips there, but they never lasted more than 30 days. I have a feeling that NBBJ felt I could adapt easily in China because I’ve worked with some demanding clients. They probably also figured that if I could work in Russia, even for short periods, I could work anywhere.

I would rather have been offered the China project when my children were young and could have gone with me, because it would have been a great experience for them. On the other hand, I probably had more flexibility when the offer did come up, because they were already grown and on their own.

The biggest drawback was that my wife, Beverly, couldn’t join me. She’s a lawyer with the Washington State attorney general’s office, and her job can’t be done from afar. We decided that I’d go and that she’d visit when she could.

My predecessor in China tried to tell me about the job, but it’s hard to teach or learn everything by phone. And NBBJ didn’t have classes or training that larger corporations with hundreds of overseas employees might have.

Before I agreed to the assignment, however, the company sent my wife and me to Shanghai to give us a feel for what life might be like. We saw some housing options and met the people in the Shanghai office. NBBJ also paid for some economy-class airline tickets for family visits.

That amount of help was O.K. with me. I’ve traveled a fair amount, and am usually pretty good about preparing for a new region. I’m not necessarily looking for a lot of information; sometimes I enjoy being surprised and would rather find things out for myself.

I had three months to prepare. I picked up software for learning Chinese, but work was so busy that I didn’t have time to get to it before I left or after I arrived. Luckily, our Chinese employees spoke English.

Of everything I encountered, the biggest surprise was the street signs — they were in both English and Chinese, so it was easy to get around. The buses broadcast the stops in both languages as well. I was pleased to find that I could go wherever I wanted; I saw no restricted areas.

Since NBBJ is a United States company, Chinese law requires that we work with a local design institute in China. It could be stressful at times. The Chinese clients expected significantly more design options than a typical American client, and they wanted faster responses. Occasionally, they seemed intent on sticking with a design that had already been done, but on the other hand, they could be willing to take risks.

My work schedule was intense, so I didn’t have much free time, but I did become lonely for my family. It took a while, but I made friends in the compound where my apartment was. I also got to know some expats in our office, and my Chinese landlord and his wife were wonderful.

I enjoyed Shanghai more than I thought I would. Life moves onto the street in that city, especially when it’s warm. There’s always something happening, from card games to street-vendor sales to impromptu ballroom dancing. I was there for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing and Expo 2010 in Shanghai. The Chinese literally rebuilt both cities for these events, which, as an architect, I found fascinating. There is probably no better place for an architect to practice currently than China.

LIKE many other people who return from work in another country, I wish that I had traveled more while I was there. I also wish that I had learned the language before my arrival: then I could have enjoyed arguing with the taxi drivers about directions. But I did learn how to get around and knew the most direct routes. I also regret not being able to just talk with the drivers. Something told me they are like taxi drivers everywhere — they want to talk about the city and what’s happening.

I’d advise people who work overseas to try living outside the expat community. There were expats everywhere in Shanghai, but they seemed to congregate in certain areas. People with children might want to be close to the expat schools, but it pays to live with the locals if you can. You learn so much more about the culture.

I’ve been home a year now. I live on a houseboat on a lake in the middle of Seattle. In Shanghai, I rode a bike to work; here I walk to the office. I’m amazed by how quiet Seattle streets are. I miss the noise of Shanghai.

As told to Patricia R. Olsen. E-mail:

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