I want to tell you a little story about 2015. That’s when I decided I’m leaving America for graduate school in Taiwan. The easiest way to get to the point of a story is to first tell the 6 Ws.
Five of the 6Ws – Who-What-When-Where-Why – is I’m Taiwanese-American, chasing the dream of a global career, itself an American notion (proving where I’m from). I envisioned sifting and sliding between cultures as a business diplomat, solving for people and operations. Being as Taiwanese as I am American. Co-founding a globe-trotting family.
The 6th W is misleading, though, because the word doesn’t begin with a W. It ends with How.
How to Start a Global Business Career
‘How to start a global business career’ is a big question, and big questions (as anyone who’s done group work knows) get tossed around until voices in our heads (and teams) agree we don’t know what to do next. So, we shrink big questions into smaller ones until we can answer it with an insight. My smallest question was, ‘Where in the world am I needed?’
In regards to simplifying big questions into small questions, besides being easier to solve, are there other possible benefits?
Most people I had known who went international figured it out through the languages they spoke. Whatever skills they possess, they still need to be communicated.
Except I’m different. I’m Taiwanese-American. It didn’t matter if I could parlez français or fala português. To many Westerners, I look Chinese (whatever that means), many of their biggest challenges were in Asia, and they were often somewhere in between lost-in-Google-Translate-ion and culture.
When I lined up their expectations next to my abilities, I realized my path must go through Asia.
Why Does the West Struggle to Understand Asia?
Our brains work by simplifying information, which is how complex subjects become generalizations. Far too many are made about Asia and Chinese culture. Here’s one example. Explaining China with Confucius is like making sense of the U.S. through Bible quotes. It’s as true and wrong and odd as that sounds.
A long list of Western businesses have suffered the consequences of incomplete generalizations. In deal advisory, I learned humans justify irrational choices with the way they look at numbers, so we are here to attach perspective to those digits. Money is thus lost or made on the basis of perspective. Only looking at the big picture of Asia is a quick way to lose perspective.
Within the Chinese diaspora, there’s disparate behaviors and norms, cultures within cultures driven by geography, dialects, industries, etc. Outsiders need to make their own “map” to access markets and know what to do. Which market? What to do? Smaller questions come to mind.
“How to Figure Out Asian Business”
A simple life in Taiwan is affordable. Great food, limitless bubble milk tea, lively night markets, clean air (sorry China), amazing mountain views. A Western lifestyle is the same as it is elsewhere (iPhones and Adidas aren’t any cheaper), though more Westerners keep coming to Taiwan, including Taiwanese-Americans here to escape COVID-19 or find their roots. My reasons were professional, so I took another approach.
Instead of asking ‘Where is the most comfortable place to live in Asia if you have to pick one,’ the question became ‘How to figure out Asian business’… in a way that builds on my background and strengths. For me, this was finance and communications, quickly figuring things out and learning new languages. As far as big questions go, we know what to do — make them smaller.
How I Chose Taiwan
Learning about advanced manufacturing, access to Mandarin language learning and local culture were my criteria.
Asia adapted its strengths in manufacturing and production (which hardly exist in Western countries) to advance disruptive new technology, positioning it in a leading role. Wherever in Asia you are, there’s something interesting happening in manufacturing, and it means the 21st century may be the century of Asia. Learning the ways these industries operate, how they collaborate, get funded, became my mission.
High-tech manufacturing in East Asia is largely in places with Chinese populations. Many Western workers get by with English, especially if they’re a top executive or specialist. But when there’s confusion, they turn to someone… Bilingual.
For some people, being international is having a different mindset than locals. I see it as a process of understanding, then acculturating. Learning another culture is like developing a second brain, which everyone can do, although… It’s like a second adolescence. Awkward. I wanted to give myself every opportunity to develop a second brain, so I’d have several mental models to tap into during cross-cultural conflicts.
No perfect options exist, so we have to choose our struggles. Universities are often setup to educate local residents to work for a region’s major industries, so I chose to soft land in Taiwan through graduate school. My expectation was to learn about things in a way that wouldn’t be possible in the U.S.
Each market I considered – Singapore/Malaysia, Shanghai, Hong Kong/Shenzhen, Taiwan – has strengths, some even have world-class business schools. Many are Westernized, so there’s less mystery about local customs, more expats and accountability. But they’re also far from the action. Further inland is where the manufacturing centers are. Even though Singapore, Shanghai, Hong Kong have a global finance industry I can plug into, Taiwan’s semiconductor industry is the most advanced. My wager is this technology will trickle down and transform industries.
Taiwan is also a world leader in language learning. Mandarin is the major Chinese dialect in Taiwan, unlike Singapore (Hokkien) and Hong Kong (Cantonese). There are many forms of Chinese language, but Mandarin is the universal dialect most ethnically Chinese people use so that they’re understood — like English in the European Union.
And since I’m Taiwanese-American, it ought to make learning Taiwanese cultural norms more straightforward, but there are drawbacks. It’s possible to get the best of both worlds, or the worst. Taiwanese people can be careless about making snippy remarks, when they feel they’re better than someone else. But when you do get the best, you’re part of the majority. It’s nice.
Was it Worth It? Where Am I Now?
I highly recommend Taiwan! I love the people I call my friends and the experiences I’ve shared with them.
- Manufacturing. I’ve been part of the semiconductor industry for almost three years, and thinking about what’s next.
- Language. My Mandarin Chinese reached advanced working proficiency, I largely work in Chinese, but there’s more to learn. I also began studying Japanese.
- Culture. I’ve figured out a lot about how things get done in Taiwan. The best way to learn about the other side of the world is truly to go to the other side of the world.
Graduate school played a small role with standard courses, but no competitive resources or edge in understanding the region. Local academia has as many cultural landmines as systemic issues. Students have fewer protections, so, manage expectations. “You get what you pay for” is an appropriate takeaway. It really depends which graduate program you choose.
In my student leadership roles, I made the most of what we had, worked to ensure the next generation had a respected voice and promoted as much of a shared experience as possible.
Many things didn’t materialize but I still pushed through because I’m already here. If I told you everything that happened at once, you might say WTF. Wow That’s Fantastic. Eventually, I found what I needed… By perseverance, trial, and failure.
As for the globe-trotting family… I’m working on it. Perseverance, trial, and failure. 😉.