Chapter 51: My Guanxi, My Interview Nightmare

Photo of a suit and tie
Has your China guanxi (or contacts) ever surprised you? A new contact of mine set up a job interview in China like nothing I'd ever known.

In China, when you need to find a job, there’s no better way than through your guanxi, or relationships.

I spent hours calling my friends and contacts, announcing my jobless status, and asking them to look for leads. Even John consulted his own friends. But when you end the call, send that e-mail, or finish that text message, the rest depends on someone else — no matter how desperately you want results. And sometimes, the results you want aren’t the results you get.

I met David Dong in the gym, the week after I’d returned to Hangzhou, and mentioned, in passing, I was looking for a new job. While Dong, a CEO of a small company, offered his assistance enthusiastically, in near-native English, I didn’t expect much from a new contact.

Days later, my newly minted guanxi surprised me by calling in the morning with an opportunity. “My old classmate owns a foreign trade company, and he is interested in meeting you. Would you have time?”

That afternoon, Dong picked me up in his van, and shuttled me over to his friend’s company, in the culture and high-tech district of Hangzhou. Dressed in my tailor-made tangzhuang jacket and long black skirt, my outfit was as striking as the introduction I stitched together in my mind, ready to dazzle Dong’s classmate.

If only this were really a job interview.

The classmate’s company perched on the 8th floor — the top floor — in a corner building covered in reflective, almost black, siding and windows. It reminded me of the cars driven by China’s government officials, with privacy windows that made you wonder what happened beyond the glass. Entering the building was like stepping into something forbidden to the common people, and foreigners — and so was the classmate’s company.

The entire office was splashed in a melancholy gray, partitioned by the same standard-issue royal-blue cubicles used in almost every Chinese work unit, with all of the blinds pulled down, and the lights dimmed or turned off altogether. Were it not for the employees scattered around the office — in pencil skirts, pants, or white shirts and ties — I would have thought the office was closed or abandoned.

Dong led me to his classmate’s office, a cave-like glass enclosure off the left-center area of the company floor, where his classmate — a squat fellow with wispy black hair — barked away at someone on the other line of his cell phone, in an unintelligible Hangzhou accent. The classmate’s secretary, a bored young, thin woman in a pencil skirt, brought me some green tea in a paper cup, as I awaited this classmate CEO, like subjects await the emperor for an audience.

Five, 10, 15, 20 minutes passed. After what seemed to be nearly a half an hour, the classmate ended his last conversation, and waddled over to me. I straightened up in my seat, awaiting the questions he should have asked me, but never did.

“Do you know what a PDA is?” he asked in Mandarin, holding his up to me, like a language teacher drilling vocabulary with beginners.

I looked at the PDA, and met his narrow eyes, as I wondered what a PDA had to do with a job interview. “Uh, sure.”

“Listen, I want you to use that computer over there,” he declared, motioning with a pudgy hand towards a cubicle near the wall, “and find some good PDA models from overseas. Then contact the companies on the phone to discuss the possibility of cooperation.”

I stared at him for a moment, stunned, as if I didn’t even understand Mandarin. He wants me to do all of this, in one afternoon? I thought, but never said aloud. Nothing seemed right about it, but, somehow, I felt trapped in this top-down management nightmare. So I said “OK” and let the secretary lead me over to a computer, all the while wondering how a job interview became, simply, an unpaid job.

I wondered what David Dong really intended. Did he simply lend me to him, on the pretense of a job interview that was never promised? Did David hope to gain a little good face by parading around his new foreign guanxi before the classmate?

As I mindlessly searched the Internet for PDAs for over an hour, I searched my mind for an exit from the interview that never was. Then, suddenly, the phone rang. An out.

“Excuse me, but I have an urgent matter and need to leave,” I lied to the secretary, placing my resume in her hand, more out of reflex than any real desire to work there. I then walked out of a shadowy situation, in a shadowy building, and caught a taxi back home, thinking of the guanxi I cared most about — John, my Chinese boyfriend.

Have you ever been surprised when searching for a job in China (or another country)?


Memoirs of a Yangxifu in China is the story of love, cultural understanding and eventual marriage between one American woman from the city and one Chinese man from the countryside. To read the full series to date, you can start at Chapter 1, or visit the Memoirs of a Yangxifu archives.

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7 thoughts on “Chapter 51: My Guanxi, My Interview Nightmare

  • April 6, 2010 at 6:57 am

    If you apply for a job in the US Federal Government it is not much different either! Jobs are generally given on the basis of friendship than on the basis of merit or experience.

  • April 6, 2010 at 8:18 am

    I lived previously in the Middle East, so I knew about the concept of wasta – their version of guanxi. Still, I was surprised by the extent of guanxi here in China. I can’t knock it, though, as it seems guanxi is responsible for my husband possibly getting his dream job. Keeping my fingers crossed!
    .-= globalgal´s last blog ..A Little Spring Reminiscing =-.

  • April 6, 2010 at 9:02 am

    My condolences. 🙂

    I have been in bizarre situations like this in China more times than I can count. It makes me hesitant to accept invitations to dinners and events. Nothing is ever straightforward. There’s always some kind of scheming going on, and the only thing I can be sure of is that I will never know what it is.

    Good for you for getting out of there as quickly as you did.
    .-= G.E. Anderson´s last blog ..Questions raised by Geely’s Volvo Purchase =-.

  • April 6, 2010 at 3:24 pm

    Here is another version of interview being an unpaid job.
    Company put an ad of searching candidates for a position of secretaries who command a good skill of fast-typing in English.
    They promised a very good salary. So for the test day many girls came to try their luck. Each got some text to type.
    In the end nobody got the job, but the company had their task completed… haha
    .-= Crystal´s last blog ..Ancient Chinese Wedding =-.

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  • April 6, 2010 at 7:28 pm

    When I was 18, I worked one day at a job I had been hired for. I worked hard. I did well. I was overweight then, though. Much bigger than I am now. (Much bigger than I have been in the last 15 years, actually.) At the end of the day, the boss handed me a $20 bill and told me not to come back. It was very odd…
    .-= Juliet´s last blog ..Illinois trip: Day 1 =-.

    • April 7, 2010 at 12:19 am

      @George, thanks for commenting! It’s true that guanxi counts here in the US, more than we want to admit. I remind my Chinese friends of this, when they insist that you can always get ahead in the US based on your ability/credentials alone.

      @Global-Gal, thanks for sharing, and how interesting that a similar concept exists in the Middle East (a part of the world I have yet to travel to). When your guanxi works well for you, you can’t knock it, that’s for sure.

      @G.E. Anderson, thanks for your kind words, and for sharing your experience. Sorry you also had your share of uncomfortable guanxi experiences, but I guess that happens to anyone who lives in Chian for some time. Sometimes it really is so hard to know what’s actually going on!

      @Crystal, thanks for the interesting — and shocking — story! Wow, I cannot believe a company would hijack job interviews just to get some work done…or, then again, with my experience, maybe I can. 😉

      @Juliet, thanks for the comment. I’m so sorry that you had that experience when you were younger — if that boss did that because he didn’t like your weight, well, it’s just as well you didn’t spend any more time there. No one like that deserves to have you and your talents.


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