Every year more Americans take a career-motivated leap to a new life in China. The trend has now brought over 110,000 Americans to the People’s Republic, and their numbers are rising for various reasons. Whether it’s high unemployment back home or the excitement of new opportunities in the world’s fastest growing economy, China offers both challenges and rewards for the adaptable young professional seeking to make a difference.
Kai Lukoff, founder of TechRice and editor-in-chief of iChinaStock, has lived in Shanghai and Beijing for 3 years. Lukoff’s China odyssey began as an undergraduate when he participated in a program at Stanford University that brought together Chinese and American students in a forum of cultural exchange. Inspired by the experience, Lukoff moved to Shanghai and studied Mandarin on a language scholarship at Shanghai Jiaotong University. A planned 1-year stay became three years, as he became increasingly involved in the Internet and tech sector in Shanghai’s burgeoning start-up scene.
Lukoff has been able to make the most of his years in China because he sees the bigger picture of China. As he mentioned in our online interview, he’s living in China during a tremendously exciting time. “China is at a historical moment, and at a young age, to me that’s appealing.” For someone who hopes to serve in a bridge capacity between China and Silicon Valley in the near future, Lukoff’s Asia experience and rapid achievements show that being adaptable and understanding of the local culture can translate into success, hands-on participation, and all-around satisfaction.
Let’s start with the basics. Why live abroad, and why China?
There’s two sides of that. There’s one, the micro side of living in China. I love studying Chinese, I have great Chinese friends. And personally I find myself very adaptable to the culture, which I think is a little bit — quirky — like board game dens, which I like to go to every now and then. I like the music scene in China. So there’s that aspect of just everyday life here in China on the whole quite enjoyable.
Then there’s the macro question. Living in China at this hour is tremendously exciting. The country’s certainly going places. And so when I look at the opportunities that young Chinese have today, relative to their parent’s generation, is just incredible.
If someone is moving to China for the first time, what would you suggest they do to ease culture shock?
Most important thing is to have a group of buddies to settle into the experience together. For me, I came over here as a student, which I think is a fairly common path. It doesn’t necessarily have to be at a university, but with courses in Mandarin you can kill two birds with one stone. You can enjoy learning a language while making more friends. The people in your course are natural companions for getting your feet on the ground when you enter into a new place.
How did you build your network in China? Is it a challenge for a foreigner?
A lot of my initial friends were certainly from my studying days in Shanghai. From there, the single best avenue that I found is to just join an activity, it can be any activity. It could be joining a soccer team. One that I do here in Beijing was join an improv workshop, which happens every Wednesday. It’s bilingual so both expats and Chinese get together and make up jokes on the spot as well as act in various scenes. And I think that’s a great way to make friends.
In general, for foreigners I would say, it’s easy and I do see a lot of foreigners really having just foreigner friends, or some very internationalized Chinese, and in part that’s a big language barrier. The vast majority of Chinese do not speak English. If you do speak at least some Chinese, I would say go for it, make Chinese friends. There’s also no better way of improving your Chinese and learn what life is really like in China than to have Chinese friends.
One thing I will say is that I found it, at least at first, a little more difficult to make friends in China, than in the US. In my experience, Chinese culture has a little more of an “in-group” and “out-group” in that there isn’t a general public etiquette, or there isn’t the ease of friendliness with strangers. You really have to make a concerted effort to go out to dinner, get to know someone a little bit better before you become their friend in China.
As someone active in China and the tech sector, which Chinese entrepreneur or influencer do you most admire and why?
I do think what Kai-Fu Lee is doing is pretty cool, with Innovation Works fund. That is, he’s starting an incubator for Chinese start-ups and I think he’s inspiring and enabling a lot of young Chinese grads to build their own companies. That’s something in the past that required a lot of connections and finance to get started. And I think Kai-Fu Lee has created a really great brand around innovation works, as the place to go for elite Chinese techies who want to strike out on their own, and I find that incredibly exciting to watch as that develops here.
(Kai-Fu Lee is a Taiwan-born Chinese American IT executive who is prominent in China. He was the founding president of Google China and previously served in major efforts at Microsoft and Apple.)
If given the opportunity, how would you change the business environment in China?
I would love to see the government take a step back, from not only the way it regulates, but also participates in state-owned enterprises (SOEs) in the vast majority of Chinese industries. The Chinese Internet is one of the freest, if not the freest industry, but the role of the government looms enormously. And I think it’s quite counterproductive towards the further evolution of both start-ups and larger Chinese companies, who really have to grease the wheels, or go to the government for support. Often time this means it’s the person with the best connections that wins, and not the best entrepreneur.
Lastly, no interview about China is complete without a discussion of food! Any restaurants or cuisines you recommend in either Shanghai or Beijing?
I quite like Southern Barbarian in Shanghai, which is Yunnan food. There’s another restaurant that’s traditional Shanghainese food. I’m not generally a huge fan of Shanghainese food, but I think it’s kind of obligatory to try it if you’re in Shanghai, and I think this restaurant does it quite well, and that would be Ji Xi Lou, or Jesse, which is Shanghai’s Xuhui district.
Another recommendation that I have is to go to a Mala Tangdian, and those can be found all over China. There you choose your own ingredients that you put into your personal soup. It’s a little bit like hotpot, but I quite like the atmosphere, especially of the ones just on the side of the street. Plus I think it’s just a cool China experience.