'China is not for everyone': readers respond to Delmus Credle's BBDO China account

Our story sparked a debate about what it is like to work in China as a foreigner. Some feel it's necessary to let "linguistic misunderstandings" slide; others feel the company in question could do much better. Do you agree?

Delmus Credle
Delmus Credle

Earlier this week we published an interview with Delmus Credle, who resigned from his role as head of planning at BBDO China in January after just 12 months. As we explain in the piece, he left partly because of comments that he claimed related to his nationality, skin colour and sexuality and which he felt were degrading and unacceptable.  

We hoped that the article would open up a forum for debate about people's experiences of moving to different markets in Asia, particularly China, for work, and how well companies help people from various backgrounds and cultures to work together. 

The response to the piece from readers has been powerful, with many strong opinions and stories of shared experiences reaching us through various channels. Here we have chosen a selection of those reactions to publish. We invite you to comment further by email, by using our feedback form, or by connecting on social media via TwitterFacebook or LinkedIn

"I think perhaps this is just a linguistic misunderstanding for Delmus"
Sienna Parulis-Cook

"I am a white British-American woman who lived and worked in Beijing for seven years. A lot of what Delmus shared in your article does sound familiar to me, and I know that living in China can be a real culture shock. However, it sounds like in some of these examples that he really took things the wrong way. Chinese people will bring up how you're foreign and look/smell/eat etc. differently all the time, and I think generally it is not intended to be rude. This can be hard to deal with, and some days it gets to you more than others, but in my experience it was almost never malicious.

But China is not for everyone, and living there has tons of stresses on top of these kinds of comments about ethnicity and nationality, and I think if you find things like this really getting to you, it's a good idea to leave rather than to stay and feel unhappy and want to lash out. Shanghai is arguably the easiest, most accepting place in China to be a foreigner, too, so if you can't handle it, I think it's better to move to a different country. Personally, I left China 4.5 years ago for many, many reasons, and often feeling unattractive because of my race was just one of those.

If you can't accept that most of these comments, especially in a professional environment, are actually pretty innocuous, then it's a good idea to get out

But when Delmus says his colleague observed he was "blacker" after being in Malaysia and thinks this is some kind of racism, I think this is absurd. To call someone "black" in this case in Chinese only means "tan." After a weekend outside, or a holiday to Spain, my British colleagues may very well observe that I look tan or "got some sun," and I would NEVER be offended by that. I think perhaps this is just a linguistic misunderstanding for Delmus. And yes, being tan is not necessarily a good thing in China, especially for women, but imagine you're a Chinese woman in a British office, and you get upset when your colleague mentions you look tan after a long weekend, and then you accuse your British colleagues of being racist or insensitive for their comments.

I wonder how many other perceived slights were actually things like this, that maybe just failed to translate well. His sensitivity to his colleagues bringing up his nationality also seems a bit misplaced to me. Of course I wasn't there, but I think people all over the world bring up one's foreignness a lot -- I would imagine they do in Delmus' home country of South Korea, too. My mother has lived in the US with a British accent for 30 years and has people comment on it constantly (so much so that she avoids going to one branch of her bank, since the man there makes her feel so self-conscious about it). I live in the UK with an American accent and have people comment on it constantly. My Russian friends living abroad have to hear comments about vodka and how they shouldn't feel cold in the winter constantly... this is just how humans interact with each other.

Anyway, I do think that China can be difficult, and certainly racist, but not every foreigner living there reacts the same way to it. If you can't accept that most of these comments, especially in a professional environment, are actually pretty innocuous, then it's a good idea to get out." 

"Credle's description of a culture of 'cronyism' at BBDO China is entirely accurate"
This reader asked to remain anonymous

I was greatly saddened to read of Delmus Credle's experience while working at BBDO Shanghai. I was actually present at a high-profile BBDO China management event out on the town in Shanghai while they were wooing Delmus from his life in the U.S. They certainly made him feel wanted, so this is indeed a sad reversal of fortune, which clearly caused a huge disruption to his life. I hope that he is able to recover his career and start again in the U.S. There should be life after BBDO China.

I wish that I could say I was surprised by Delmus Credle's experience though. Personally, I also had an extremely negative time with the bullying, intolerant, insider culture that Tze Kiat Tan, CEO of BBDO China, better known as Z, and Sharlene Wu, [now CEO of Proximity China; formerly MD of BBDO Proximity China] have fostered. It is truly toxic unless you are part of the 'in' clique. Credle's description of a culture of "cronyism" is entirely accurate.

The hope in sharing my experience is that BBDO does better in the future. That they do more than just pay lip service to creating a culture of diversity and inclusion.

I myself was recruited from a chief strategy role at an agency in Shanghai upon being personally introduced to Z by a senior executive from BBDO's parent company, Omnicom. Interviewing with no less than five of the top China management I was hopeful for a bright future at BBDO, left my previous job, and was brought in to head a BBDO business division leading a team of more than 20 people. I was the last remaining Westerner at BBDO Shanghai though and following a warm recruitment period, found it truly unwelcoming. I'd worked as the only Westerner at many leading agencies in greater China over the course of approximately 20 years, speak fluent Mandarin, and had always found a way to fit in and add value. I'd even written an ebook guide for Westerners on how to do business successfully in Greater China centred around holding respect for Chinese culture and learning Mandarin, while also striving for self-understanding. BBDO China was my only experience where it was entirely impossible to be accepted by Z and her crew from the China diaspora. Credle's experience in this regard mirrors mine.

I left BBDO after just six months. Z told me that she had hoped that I "would be the new (insert name of the former western general manager of my BBDO business division)", but that I had failed to be him or fit into the culture. The former GM I was compared with was also western and she meant that, as such, we should automatically be the same; have the same skill set, personality and function, rather than recognizing us both as individuals that both just happened to be western. Of course, Z did not compare me to my immediate predecessor as GM, who was Chinese. Only to the non-Chinese foreign barbarian.

The hope in sharing my experience is that BBDO does better in the future. That they do more than just paying lip service to creating a culture of diversity and inclusion. BBDO China should not be meant just for Chinese people. But not for those with darker or lighter skin tones. This is particularly true if people have made extraordinary effort to travel across the world just for an opportunity to work at BBDO China. Or if one has learned Mandarin fluently and studied and experienced Chinese culture so extensively. BBDO China can and should do better."

Editor's note: Campaign Asia-Pacific carried BBDO's official response in the original article, has reached out to Tan, Wu, Catibog and Lopez-Vito for comment, and continues to welcome additional input from the company at any time.

"Living in China can be difficult – but it is much much easier than it was 20 years ago"
Harriet Gaywood

"I read this article and was interested in the topic but it seemed slightly one-sided and more like a personal vendetta. I have worked in China for 20 years – on occasion I have definitely been made to feel that I am white, female and will never understand China because I am not Chinese etc. Interestingly the people who have been offensive to me have not generally been from Mainland China but from Hong Kong or Singapore so when I read this article I did understand the points being made.

I have attributed these comments to insecurities by the people in question regarding what Chinese identity means for the overseas community. It is also true that living in China can be difficult – but it is much much easier than it was 20 years ago. So I suppose my question regarding this article is – rather than letting it become a name and shame of CEOs from one person's perspective, why didn't you do some more research and talk to more people?"

"Employers should be held accountable" 
This reader wished to remain anonymous

“I was saddened and moved by this article. I think this was a very brave step forward by Delmus Credle in highlighting an issue that is far reaching. Thanks to Campaign Asia for raising awareness of this and ensuring employers are held accountable.

I’d love to see a follow-up article based on other expat experiences from around the region."

"What Delmus encountered is innocence"
This reader did not include their name

"Are we going to start holding eastern places of work to the Western cultural standards? Why? And where does that begin and end? It's a sad day when the outrage-driven media hunts for 'discrimination' where there's only cultural difference.
What Delmus encountered is innocence. When you go to work in another country you do so with a certain amount of acceptance for that innocence.
The idea that one would arrive in China and everybody would be culturally sensitive to a New York Times, soy-milk-macchiato-drinking-liberal standard is laughable.
I am surprised at Campaign for publishing this article. If the point was to promote debate on foreigners working in China, why include Delmus' rather general criticism of Z's senior management team? It seems Campaign just offered the man a massive platform to air a very personal grudge."

Responses on Campaign's WeChat official account to the Chinese translation of the article (comments translated from Chinese)

Yoko: "I can only say that it’s due to cultural differences; this guy is not suitable for China. It is precisely because China does not discriminate, that's why there are no taboos to say something like 'your skin colour is chocolate', 'you are a foreigner', or 'you are blacker after a holiday'. It could be politically incorrect overseas, but this dialogue cannot be more common in China. It’s his own fault that he failed to integrate into the Chinese culture, so he cannot use US benchmarks to judge the words and deeds of people here." 

'Second-kick leg': "You are here to make some money out of China; don’t expect the Chinese to treat you as a master (king). It is indeed true that cultural differences exist, but it’s common sense to everyone that it’s not easy to make a living anywhere in the world."

W: "I don’t think calling someone ‘black’ after a vacation equates to racial discrimination in China. There is no such concept here; we joke this way with our friends. I think foreigners are overly sensitive when it comes to cultural issues, the misunderstandings could all be caused by cultural differences. Don't put this racism label onto the Chinese. If you care too much about what others think of you, I think it is because you yourself are too conscious of differences among races. He also talks about racial discrimination from the Chinese without thinking it through. It's equally biased of him."
Fay: "After reading it all, I think he has a heart made of glass and has created a storm in a teacup, but he himself seems to think that his superior is rude and deliberately so. This should stem from cultural differences. Those should explain the unhappiness between him and his superiors. Jokes that Chinese people deem as normal seem to be serious humiliation for him."

"Not only foreigners are discriminated. Everyone in the advertising industry gets it too. Nobody is excused"
This reader asked to remain anonymous

"I was recently (feels like ages now) hired to head an agency in a network so entrenched in delivering the bottom line that it is ruthless in its view of the most valuable assets in our industry, the people.

Discrimination happened the day I joined where not only I feel singled out being in a new role and workplace but the fact that I was from a competitor network made it hard to fit in almost on a daily basis. It's 5 months into the job now and I have helped to nurse the dying agency back to some level of stability and gain some traction to put it back to its intended course. However, I feel that there is only so much I can do and the do or die attitude with no regards for one that is ‘foreign’ to the internal ways of workings across this Japanese Euro network has left me even when I am local feels the most alienated. Sexual orientation skewed comments coupled with lack of experience sneers within this chaotic organisation has made me wonder how much longer can I last.

Just wanted to put it out there that not only foreigners are discriminated. Everyone in the advertising industry gets it too. Nobody is excused. This is by far the most archaic industry in people management skills and attitude, trying to sell the most forward thinking consumers engagement ideas."


Campaign Asia

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