SHANGHAI — Days before President Barack Obama's Asia tour stopped in China, Tess Kirtz, an Ohio mom who moved here for her husband's job, emerged from the new Barbie Shanghai worldwide flagship store with a gift for a child.
"It was wild. It was big and pink. It's beautiful in there," she said.
Stacy Kwinn and Gregory Perez and Kris Konopka and Justin Denney — two American expat couples who are friends — got together the other day for dim sum and swapped stories about the computer software business in China.
These are among the thousands of Americans living and working here. Their experiences have given them insights into what U.S. policymakers should do about this economic juggernaut.
Their advice: Teach more American kids the Chinese language and higher-level math and science. Keep innovating. Take seriously China's ambition to invent, not just manufacture. Help China improve consumer safety and conserve energy. Understand how cultural differences translate in the marketplace.
Dan Kuzmanovic, a stamping and tooling specialist on a three-year assignment in China for Ford, was back in Shanghai after a two-week break in Michigan.
"My parents left Yugoslavia for America," Kuzmanovic said. "Now I've left America for China. . . Being in China is probably a good thing for any company if you're a global company but you can't do it at the expense of America. I think Ford's found that balance. At the government level, you need to have the same thought process."
In interviews, expats also expressed mixed feelings about outsourcing.
They see a big potential in 1.3 billion consumers, if Chinese per capita consumption would rise.
That helps explain how Mattel chose Shanghai for its Barbie flagship store that opened this year, and why Disney spent years seeking approval — granted this month — to build its next Magic Kingdom in Shanghai.
The U.S. remains the world's leading economy, with a $14.3 trillion GDP last year. Japan was second. China was third, at about $4.4 trillion. But finance experts project China's rate of growth could put it in front in a decade or two.
U.S. exports of goods and services to China were $79 billion in 2007, according to the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative; imports from China were $330 billion. The U.S. was trailing both Japan and the European Union in terms of exporting technology to China, according to the American Chamber of Commerce in China, which represents 2,700 companies and individuals.
Expats interviewed see globalism crowding nationalism and admit they worry sometimes about how to keep America ahead.
"I do feel guilty, but I also feel like I'm serving the U.S. economy," said Konopka, who teaches English language and customs to Chinese workers in outsourced software jobs. "I'll go back to the U.S. with the knowledge of how China works. More people in the U.S. are going to have to know how to interact with China."
Denney, a software developer who asked that his major U.S. employer not be identified, said outsourcing isn't the right way to describe his company's local hires because it's about tapping some of the world's best talent, for whom there aren't enough visas. It's not about just saving money, he said.
U.S. expats admire the Chinese work ethic and the affordability of personal technology to the masses.
But they're struck by how pervasive piracy is, and some have learned the hard way to be vigilant so their own suppliers don't use substandard or counterfeit components.
They can't drink the tap water. They worry about consumer products and their children's safety in a way they didn't in the U.S. They scratch their heads at how much energy is wasted, at the lack of building insulation, at how the Chinese government controls state media. They see poor children sorting through trash in alleys at night, begging for money and food.
Many expats can't speak or write the language. Most locals don't speak English. This makes business communication tricky. Forget about pop culture.
They learn that marketing products in China isn't as simple as translating words. Chinese "have different ways of using things" than Americans, said Perez, a designer for a software company. "People want a lot of stimulus on their screens."
Expats find familiarity in the proliferation of Western chain stores. Still, much is different:
The loss of personal space. How cars don't stop for pedestrians. How lines aren't always honored. How men spit in public. How, in place of diapers, many Chinese babies wear bottoms with slits in the back. "This is why you have to take your shoes off to go in someone's house," Kwinn said. Prices often aren't marked, but negotiable, and the price for the Westerners never seems as low.
Some expats, or their children, don't like the food. Others embrace it.
Kuzmanovic said he can take his wife and kids out and fill up on dumplings for $10, but sometimes they want food that tastes like home. Those meals can run closer to $100.
Konopka said even if China eventually bypasses the U.S. as the world's leading economy, "I don't think it will ever be the land of milk and honey. There's so many people here competing for resources.
"China's a force to be reckoned with," she said, "but I don't think it's something Americans should fear."
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