Why does a Chinese become an engineer? Enter the world of M. She is my new Chinese friend I met in Shenzhen.
SHENZHEN -- Honestly, when I saw more than 100 comments posted last week to my story entitled "Four reasons why it's 'game over' for foreign chip firms in China," I was shocked. Stunned. Gobsmacked.
Then, I realized we may be onto something here. I mean, China.
On one level, as one source wrote to me via e-mail, “There are many people who have been staying in Silicon Valley and seldom visit China [who] hold hostile views towards China (accusing China of pumping out cheap but low quality products).” On another level, “expats and those who have been doing business with China appear to think China used to be a manufacturing center for low quality stuff, their designs are now catching up together with their focus on product quality.”
While I hope to do a series of China myth-buster stories — hopefully in collaboration with my colleagues — I now see a pressing need to bring China, or things about China, down to a more human scale. China cannot remain just as “a concept” or a set of “talking points” to those of us who live outside China.
China — as indicated by its 53 different ethnic groups and several languages -- isn’t a monolithic nation. It’s full of lively people who often think very independently; some are funny and others can be more serious; and I dare say that even irony is no stranger to the Chinese. They all face their own daily challenges and struggles just like the rest of us.
Enter the world of M (I don’t have her permission to use her full name). She’s my new Chinese friend. I met her only a few days ago in Shenzhen, but I immediately liked her when I saw her beautiful smile and sensed her quiet determination when she talked.
She looks incredibly young – as though she’s fresh out of college. But it turns out that she’s far beyond her undergrad days. She has already experienced a few major career changes. Educated as an engineer, M initially worked as an embedded system designer. However, she wearied of engineering, and moved on to a short stint as an analyst in Shenzhen. But she left again. Now still in Shenzhen, she works for a Shanghai-based company with offices all over the world, as a marketing person.
When she described her first job, after college, as an engineer, she made it sound like an assembly job. Doing layout work on a board is generally considered the fate of the female engineer. Everyone sits at a long work bench, focused on the layout. An expat engineer I met in Shenzhen pretty much backed up what M was saying. He noted that many engineers in China aspire to something else, beyond boilerplate engineering, when they pass 30.
That reminded me of EE Times' own global salary survey conducted in the fall of 2010. Jack Ganssle, a columnist for our sister website Embedded.com, who saw the survey, wrote about a year ago: “In China everyone hates their jobs. Only 26% report being satisfied with their career and employer, and 41% are actively seeing a new career. I’m astonished, as one would think engineering a path out of abject poverty or an escape from manufacturing jobs in Foxconn conditions.”
Well, M pretty much confirmed what Jack saw, intuitively, in our survey results.
I asked M, “Why did you decide to become an EE in the first place?” Her answer was very clear. “It was my parents’ choice.” She said, “My parents thought it was a good way for me to earn money.”
But wait, you let your parents choose what you were going to become?
To her credit, M doesn’t blame her parents for choosing wrong. M adamantly defended them. “You must understand that China is still poor. We must first earn money to support our family.”
That’s when it suddenly hit me. Pursuing one’s dream (and interest) in a career must be regarded as an act of sheer dilettantism for many people living in the world today. Survival is the true priority. You have to make a living. In the eyes of M’s parents, turning M into an engineer was her ticket to a more prosperous life.
Luckily, M now loves being a senior marketing manager. Leveraging her experience as an analyst, she now gathers data, correlates it, adds her analysis, and sends reports to her big boss. She’s happy and that makes me very happy for her.
When M insisted on taking me out for dinner, I asked: “Are you married? Do you have kids?” Yes, M is married and has a young son. I said, “I know I would enjoy your company enormously, but you really don’t have to do this for me. You should go home and be with your family.”
But M said, “Don’t worry. My husband is taking my boy to swimming tonight.” M also shares quarters with her in-laws, who moved to Shenzhen to help take care of her son. Both M and her husband work to support the family of five.
M, during dinner, talked about how China has grown so quickly over the decade, and how the Chinese government – although this may sound a little intrusive – had to make choices in terms of what professions are more needed than others. Obviously, EE was on that list.
I know it’s not my place to pass judgment on someone else’s career.
And I have to be careful about criticizing the choices made by someone else’s government. Luckily, I could leave that up to M. After a thoughtful pause, she rested her chopsticks, looked into the distance and said, “But one of those days, when my son grows up, I’d like to be able to tell him, ‘Choose whatever career you like.’”
When that happens, perhaps China can be said to be truly “prosperous.”
A female Chinese guardian lion stands in front of Pekin University gate. The lions are always created in pairs, with the male resting his paw upon the world and the female restraining a playful cub that is on its back (shown).
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