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The Returnee: Interviewers keep asking me “Can you drink a lot?”

More and more overseas-based Chinese are choosing to work in China, or at least trying to look for jobs there. I am a recent returnee and have been searching for an ‘ideal’ position in my home town. However, after talking to headhunters, employers, previous colleagues, and even school mates, I’ve now discovered that the ideal job does not exist. Job hunting in China is just as challenging as anywhere else, even though I have foreign experience.

Getting the timing right: When should you return?

Many of my university friends came back to China straight after graduating from foreign universities. With their overseas degrees, they believed they were somehow ‘higher up’ than local graduates, and thought getting a good position in an international or big Chinese bank would be fairly straight forward. Unfortunately this was not always the case, and graduate returnees face the same problems today.

When compared with local candidates, their only obvious advantage is good English, but most junior positions in China provide limited opportunities to speak sophisticated English, even in foreign banks. Employers think domestic graduates understand the Chinese market and economy better, so they usually prefer to hire from leading local institutions such as Peking University.

Returnees with foreign work experience are at least in a better position than fresh foreign grads. A friend of mine, for example, was working in margin risk in a large US bank overseas and was hired by a top-tier Chinese bank to lead a new team. Margin lending was an entirely new business in China, her so experience was valued.

Can I move to the front office? And should I start drinking more?

However, I haven’t been as lucky as my friend. When I started my career overseas in operations, every move I made bought me closer to the front office. So when I returned to China I thought I could find a challenging client-facing role. My job search has been very difficult so far.

If you look at new vacancies online, both foreign and major Chinese banks are hiring salespeople, relationship managers, business developers, traders etc as they expand and remodel their businesses. In other words, there are plenty of front-office jobs around. But because I am not looking for a graduate position, I’m always asked the same two golden questions at interviews: 1) Do you have an existing client base?; and 2) Can you drink a lot?

Before I came back to China, I had heard many encouraging stories, such as people moving from settlements to RM, or from finance to private banking. But it seems not so easy any more, especially because I don’t have strong local connections. I was told I might have a better chance to transfer to the front-office internally after several years of proven performance.

I keep asking myself: what is my outstanding advantage to present to an employer? My headhunter tells me it’s my foreign experience. But that experience has to be relevant to the role, as it was for my margin risk friend. Frankly, I don’t know why it has been difficult for me to find work in China. Perhaps there are now too many returnees in the market?

Let me know your thoughts below.

Comments (4)

  1. I am surprised to hear that. Perhaps it’s all about connections and who you know. Don’t depend on a headhunter. Make contacts with the MDs and VPs of banks you want to work for. You’d be surprised how helpful they are when you don’t go through a headhunter. I am an ABC and speaks Mandarin and have years of experience working with clients in China. I had a tough time getting a job in China at first as well. By proactively contacting or networking with the executives of various banks has helped me get my jobs in China. Good luck!

  2. I think the same logic in overseas job markets will apply to the Chinese market: it’s not about you being a returnee, it’s about whether you possess the set of skills banks are looking for!

  3. I’m from HK and totally agreed with the points raised above. The problem is, the longer you stay in a place with non-Chinese culture, the harder for you to get into the China market, especially when it comes to experience hire. Employers don’t expect you to take time to adapt or adjust to the environments. They want the relationships and skills which can help immediately.

  4. Forget all the buzzwords like experience, skills, knowledge. In the real world of banking, only revenue counts. Local connection + drinking ability = revenue generating capacity.

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