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Terrence Lai’s Year in Taiwan

Contributed by Mary Ann Kelly.

Earlier this year I called one of my favorite analysts, Terrence Lai, for referrals. I was surprised to discover that he was no longer at Ogilvy – in fact, he wasn’t even in New York! Terrence had joined the International Chinese Language Program (ICLP) at National Taiwan University, and would be living abroad for the next year, taking intensive language classes. With twinges of both curiosity and envy, I asked Terrence if he would share his experience.

MAK:     What prompted your decision to participate in this program? Did you speak any Chinese prior to going?            

TL:          I was born and raised in New York and although I had traveled to various places I always had the desire to live abroad for an extended period of time.

After graduating from college, I always assumed I would go on to business school at some point. However, after establishing my career rather quickly and growing to an Associate Director, I found that b-school wasn’t necessarily the most appropriate step – at least not yet. I still wanted to do something educational and I had always wanted to learn Chinese. Although my parents and extended family speak Chinese, I never learned the language. I only wanted to take off a year so I began looking into intense programs that would foster fluency within 12 months.

MAK:     Why was the timing right? What did you hope to accomplish?

TL:          It wasn’t about I hated my job and needed to get away. It was just the opposite: I actually loved my career and knew that it would still be here when I got back.

The timing felt right because I had no large financial obligations, my family is in good health and my career was in a good place. Life happens quickly in New York and I was curious about opportunities outside the city and the States. I also didn’t want to look back in 5 or 10 years and regret not taking this opportunity.

I had 2 goals going into this experience:

1. Learn Chinese

2. Travel as much as possible throughout Southeast Asia

I figured learning Mandarin and living in Southeast Asia would provide me with a professional advantage. I had experienced a number of situations in my career where both internal and client teams were making wide assumptions about marketing strategies on a global scale based on broad research. I wanted to have solid, first-hand knowledge vs. making these assumptions.

MAK:     Where did you stay?

TL:          When I first arrived I stayed in the dorms at National Taiwan University but then I decided to get an apartment for the summer because at that point I felt comfortable enough with the language that I could rent. I also thought it would help me get more exposure to the local lifestyle.

MAK:     Did a lot of people speak English? What were the first couple of weeks like?

TL:          Everyone comes into the program at different levels. I’d estimate that about 10% of us did not speak any Mandarin at all. The other 90% were able to speak the language, but some were unable to read or write, while others needed to improve on their pronunciation.

The majority of students in the program are recent graduates interested in pursuing Masters or PhD’s in history, politics or science.  Still, there was a sizeable group of professionals like myself.

During the first few weeks, I found myself relying on my schoolmates for help translating things. At the time, I was so excited to be there and to be doing something new that I didn’t realize how far I was out of my comfort zone. I tried to just take things one step at a time in order to not get overwhelmed. There were many things I needed to adjust to, like the weather, the food, etc. So I tried to just take things slow. I also knew that I was only going to be there one year and it would be silly to waste time missing home when I knew I would be returning.

MAK:     Describe a typical day in the program.

TL:          The program required 4 hours of class time per day. Three of the hours were “group class,” with a maximum of 4 students per group. During this time you all were given the chance to speak – permitting you to see/hear each other’s strengths and weaknesses. The final hour was a one-on-one tutoring session in which you reviewed what you had learned and prepared for what was next. The 4 hours were often dispersed throughout the day. After a full day I sometimes felt so drained that I couldn’t speak for a few hours. At those times, I went swimming, biking or jogging to decompress.

MAK:     How much travel were you able to do during the past year?

TL:          I had not prepared a list of places that I wanted to visit prior to leaving New York, so I did a lot of online research and asked new friends. In the end, I visited 12 countries in 12 months: Taiwan, Philippines, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Mainland China, South Korea, Hong Kong, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia.

My friend Ann Woodward was a great help to me while making my travel plans – I often referenced her blog.

MAK:     Did you get everything out of the program that you had hoped?

TL:          I achieved my two goals, but the experience went beyond just the program. I learned a lot about myself and my reactions to certain situations. Prior to this experience, I was a perfectionist. However, after being in so many unfamiliar situations I came to a realization that everything will work out. I’m now able to look at things differently and not worry so much about things being perfect: As long as I have a roof over my head and food on the table, everything will be okay.

Professionally, I realized that everyone comes from different backgrounds and may do things their own way. Rather than trying to make someone do something the “right way,” we should be more open to different approaches because they may, in fact, be better.

MAK:     What was the biggest surprise about living abroad?

TL:          I was most surprised by how complex, intricate and sensitive the Asian marketplace is. Within one country, many different cultures, subcultures and socioeconomic classes exist.  Within one language, there are many distinct dialects. It’s very difficult to generalize about what consumers’ preferences are because they’re so regional.

In terms of global marketing, a brand cannot simply change the language and expect it to work in any country. An advertisement in Chinese will not necessarily be effective across Taipei, Beijing, Hong Kong and Singapore just because the majority of residents are ethnically Chinese. Also, each country’s economic landscape has its own set of local competitors that influence consumers’ consideration of international brands. If something is made locally, people tend to have a sense of national pride and allegiance to those brands.

MAK:     When did you start to feel at home?

TL:          I never truly felt at home but I didn’t expect to in just a year. Instead, I tried to achieve different milestones or levels of comfort:

The first level was when I became familiar with my surroundings and was able to use the transportation system.

The second was when I began feeling comfortable communicating with people. For example, when I could ask for directions or ask a question in a store.

The third came towards the end of my journey when I began to feel as though I had a support system. The school was very helpful with making friends/connections but when I began to feel as though I had people to talk to I felt more settled. In this environment you need to rely on “friends of friends” to meet people. It’s all about personal introductions so your network is critical.

MAK:     Now that you’re back, what are your plans?

TL:          I’m not entirely sure what I will do next. I love the career I established and do plan to return to it, but I’m still determining in what capacity – either agency or client-side; New York or Asia. I’m keeping myself open and would consider spending another year in Asia to gain the experience of working in that environment. I feel like the decision will come naturally to me.

MAK:     What advice would you give to someone with goal of living/working abroad?

TL:          I would say if you’re contemplating the idea but waiting for your ideal window of opportunity, ask yourself this: “If I don’t do this now, will I look back in 5 or 10 years and regret not doing it?”

My philosophy is that there will always be time to make money, break into senior leadership, make your mark in corporate America, etc… but there is not always time to travel abroad. Before you know it, you have obligations that don’t allow you to leave for an extended period of time. So take the trip now if you are seriously considering it! It would be a shame to be kicking yourself later about what might have been.

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