Cultural Crossover: When East Greets West
Driven to succeed by her traumatic childhood, Beijing-born Carrie Waley has carved a fascinating career helping British and Chinese executives to thrive – by understanding each other’s etiquette
Carrie turned her social skills into a successful business
In a London boardroom, several people are standing in clusters, glasses in hand, making small talk. At first glance, you might assume you had walked in on a cocktail party. But it is not the cocktail hour – it’s mid-morning. Step closer and eavesdrop on ‘hostess’ Carrie Waley and the besuited man with whom she is engrossed and you realise theirs is no ordinary conversation. ‘I’m just going to get a drink. I’ll come back to you – although of course I probably won’t,’ she tells him bluntly.
To anyone born in the UK, the excuse of going to fill one’s glass is accepted social code for moving on from the person who has been cornering you. To those born in China, however, as Carrie’s ‘guests’ are, it’s confusing. ‘The Chinese don’t do cocktail parties,’ she explains. ‘But if they want to succeed here, they need to know how to work a room.’
Carrie aged 3 (front right) with her parents and brothers
The integration of Chinese people in Britain has been going on for centuries. But in the past decade, as China has become the driving force of the world’s economy, there has been a change. China has a new, moneyed middle class made up of an estimated 300 million people. Tens of thousands of them are flooding into our leading schools, universities and blue-chip businesses. They are bright, incredibly hardworking and fiercely ambitious. But their careers are being hampered by a critical impediment – the clash of cultural etiquette.
Body language, eye contact, social kissing – all are a minefield for Chinese wannabe Westerners. And that is where Carrie steps in. At 48, she doesn’t have the qualifications or stellar CVs that many of her protégés possess. But as someone who was born in Beijing and lived much of her adult life in the UK as the wife of an Eton- and Cambridge-educated barrister, she has found herself uniquely placed to bridge the East/West social and cultural divide.
Carrie is a Mandarin consultant. For fees of £500 upwards, she offers coaching to job-hungry candidates from China and, conversely, teaches British executives how to ingratiate themselves with leading players in the Chinese economy. ‘We all prefer our own customs, but we know that learning each other’s will help us to get ahead,’ she says. Well-spoken and immaculately groomed, Carrie is everything you would expect of a woman running an image-conscious business. Her company has grown rapidly since she set it up single-handedly five years ago – she now employs ten staff as well as ten consultants. Indeed she has become so successful that Channel 4 has made a documentary about her. The film shows Carrie teaching the British custom of queuing – nonexistent in China, because, as Carrie explains, ‘there are too many people – any bus queue would stretch beyond the length of a normal high street’. She is also seen spreading butter on to bread: ‘The Chinese don’t eat butter, so they don’t always know what to do with it.’ And finally, she gives masterclasses on handshakes – Chinese keep them soft, Brits like them firm.
A Tale of Two Chinas makes entertaining viewing, but it also has a highly emotional twist. Like her clients, Carrie comes from a well-educated and aspiring family. But unlike them, she is old enough to remember a very different China – one that just a generation ago was caught up in Mao’s Cultural Revolution. ‘We are all products of our past, but I hadn’t realised until I made this film that I had locked away the trauma of mine,’ Carrie says.
The daughter of an engineer father and teacher mother, Carrie grew up with her two elder brothers in Beijing. They lived in a wealthy neighbourhood near Tiananmen Square, but in 1966, when Carrie was two, Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution began and China was thrown into chaos. Mobs took to the streets beating to death so-called class enemies. Carrie’s maternal grandfather had been a self-made property developer and entrepreneur. His capitalist leanings meant that the family was labelled ‘bad’ by the new regime. To distance herself from her tainted family ties, Carrie’s mother had to take part in a movement known as the ‘mass exchange’, in which people travelled throughout China proving that they were prepared to embrace the Cultural Revolution. Later, because she was a teacher and therefore potentially ‘a dangerous intellectual’, Carrie’s mother was sent to a labour camp for eight months to be ‘re-educated’.
Carrie learned that she was locked up daily for between six months and a year as a pre-schooler
‘I was too young to understand,’ says Carrie. ‘All I knew was that my mother would disappear for long periods and I would feel abandoned.’Carrie’s father worked hard to keep the family together. In 1969, Mao declared the Cultural Revolution over and in the early 1970s, life settled down. But the family then became prime targets for what was known as the Down to the Countryside movement – a policy in which urban children were sent to farming villages in order to learn the values of peasant life. Parents were told that they could keep only one child at home and, unable to contemplate choosing, Carrie’s parents fled to Hong Kong.
The move, when Carrie was 12, meant leaving behind their home and all their possessions – her parents arrived in Hong Kong with the equivalent of £50. Without speaking Cantonese or English, neither could get well-paid jobs – Carrie’s father found work as a car mechanic and her mother worked in a factory. By 16, Carrie had become multilingual, but the setback in her schooling meant that she was never going to be able to fulfil her academic potential. She worked as a hotel receptionist before moving into public relations. In her mid-20s, she met Eric Waley, a British personal injuries lawyer. They married and moved to the UK, and ‘as soon as I arrived here, I felt like a fish in water’, says Carrie.
Moving to Britain meant she could bury her past. She and Eric had two daughters, Amanda, now 21, and Laura, 19, ‘and those years when my children were small were the happiest time’, she says. ‘But even so, I had days when tears would pour down my face and I had no idea where they came from.’
Being thousands of miles away from her parents and brothers (both stayed in the Far East and became successful businessmen) meant that she saw them infrequently. In the late 1990s, her parents retired and expressed a desire to move back to China where they still had many relatives. Carrie and Eric (who are now amicably divorced) bought them a place in Beijing, which doubled as a holiday home for the family. But when Carrie and her parents did get together, none of them wanted to recall their old lives.
‘I always knew that my mother must love me, but I couldn’t understand why she would leave me. Now I see she was in an impossible situation and had no choice’
However, making the documentary finally prompted Carrie to have a conversation with her parents about her childhood. The on-camera encounter was highly emotional, particularly for Carrie’s mother who, through tears, explained how her own mother lived with them and helped look after Carrie and her brothers until the Cultural Revolution started. Then, when Carrie was two and a half, her grandmother was exiled to the countryside. Carrie’s parents were both expected by the authorities to work, and with no one at home to help look after the children, her mother explained, they had no option but to lock them in the house while they were out to keep them safe. Carrie learned that she was locked up daily for between six months and a year as a pre-schooler. ‘You clung to me every time I came home, crying and telling me how much you missed me,’ her mother tells her. ‘Of course I feel guilty. I always wanted to say sorry.’
Carrie has since spoken to her brothers, who are two and four years older, and discovered that ‘they were not emotionally affected at all’, she says. ‘For them it was “fun” time. As soon as our parents had gone to work, they would prise open the window and go out to play, which must have meant I was left completely alone.’ Carrie’s grandmother had returned by the time her mother was sent to the labour camp, but again Carrie had the feeling that her mother was abandoning her.
Interestingly, Carrie talks little with her father about the past. To her, he was always ‘wise and strong. It was my mother I really needed to talk to,’ she says. ‘I always knew that she must love me, but I couldn’t understand why she would leave me. Now I see she was in an impossible situation and had no choice.’
With hindsight, Carrie is beginning to see how much the separations from her mother shaped her. She says that when she became a mother herself, she could never contemplate going out to work, because it would have meant abandoning her daughters as she had been abandoned. But she is also innately determined – indeed she is a prime example of how someone can be both protective and nurturing and yet tough and self-sufficient. Once her daughters were older, she set up her first business as an education consultant advising Chinese parents who wanted to send their children to British boarding schools. Her current business has been a natural extension of that. ‘I think a lot of my drive stems from the trauma of my childhood but it also comes from having achieved a dream that once seemed inconceivable, and my desire to want to help others do the same.’
For many years, Carrie insisted she could never again feel at home in China, but now she has decided to embrace her homeland once more. Shortly after filming the documentary she decided to set up an office in Beijing which will give her the chance to visit her parents more regularly. Her father is 87, her mother is 76, and she has a sense of needing to make up for lost time.
‘Healing old wounds is painful,’ she says. ‘But there is an old Chinese proverb: “It is better to light the candle than to curse the darkness.”’
Carrie’s dos – and taboos – for bridging the East/West divide
West to East
Chinese hierarchy is based on maturity. The older you are, the more respect you command — so
when meeting a group of people, greet the most senior first.
Do not make eye contact with someone more important than you. Look down and do not speak until spoken to.
Don’t be surprised or offended if one of the first questions a Chinese person asks is your age. The Chinese cannot easily read Western faces.
Always give ‘face’ to the Chinese. Don’t embarrass them by, for example, taking them to a Western restaurant unless you know they will be comfortable using cutlery. And don’t try to compete with the Chinese on gift giving; if you buy your hosts something more expensive than their gift to you, they will lose face.
Pay attention to family. While in the UK, marriage and children are regarded as personal subjects, in China it is assumed that a businessman will have a wife and children and he will expect to be asked about them.
Chinese people always have their mobiles on and will answer them when they are with you without thinking it rude.
Business meetings in China are rarely one-to-one. A chief executive will bring several hangers-on – partly to make him look important, but also to make you feel important.
Meetings are usually little more than a formality – deals tend to be made afterwards, over dinner or later at a karaoke club.
At dinner, do not sit down before being told your place – you may get it wrong.
Chinese dining tables are round, with the most important person sitting opposite the entrance and his or her guests radiating around the table in descending order.
All dishes must be shared, and never finish the last piece on a plate – it will be assumed that you have not been provided with enough food and more will be ordered.
East to West
Make eye contact and be assertive without being arrogant. The natural Chinese stance is to affect modesty, but to succeed at job interviews in the UK, candidates need to adopt a more direct approach.
A firm handshake is vital. In China, bowing or a soft handshake is the norm.
Adjust your sense of personal space. China is so crowded, you cannot walk down the street without brushing against people, and candidates who come here often sit too close to others in interviews or meetings.
Never sit down at parties. The Chinese don’t do ‘drinks’ – hospitality always involves food. They need serious schooling on how to meet strangers, stand and talk with a drink, circle a room and break into a group.
Don’t invite people for dinner unless you know them well. In China, dinner is less intimate; it begins at 6.30pm and is over by 8pm, and everyone moves on to a club. In the UK, dinner may not start until 8pm and it lasts the evening.
Breakfast meetings are an innovation to the Chinese – in China, most decision makers do not get out of bed until midday because they have been doing business in nightclubs and karaoke bars till 1am.
Embracing is uncommon in China but here it is important to be competent in social kissing – a light brush to each cheek combined with an open-armed greeting will suffice.
Don’t talk about money in social situations. In China, everybody is open about how much property and possessions cost.
Dress appropriately. Dress codes can be confusing for the Chinese, particularly for women, who can find it hard to gauge the subtle nuances between the right fabrics and dress lengths for business and evening wear.
Avoid giggling. In China, women tend to giggle because it is seen as a feminine gesture. Here you can’t giggle because no one would take you seriously.
A Tale of Two Chinas can be seen on Monday 17 September at 10pm on More 4. mandarinconsultant.com
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