Trade Resources Culture & Life Being an American-Chinese LBN in China

Being an American-Chinese LBN in China

Never in a million years would I have expected to be living the life that I live now. I grew up as a Chinese American in the suburbs of the United States of America, studied Accounting at the University of Washington in Seattle, and started a wonderful career in the Silicon with PricewaterhouseCoopers, a Big 4 public accounting firm. I went from that life to being part of the executive management team at KNE Solar, a solar panel BOS and accessory manufacturer in a second tier city in Guangdong, China. And this unexpected professional journey of mine all began because of love.

My husband is a very ambitious entrepreneur and struck out on his own, opening businesses left and right. Since most of his ventures had significant operations in China, I made the tough decision after having our second child to permanently move to China for him. Next thing you know, I am helping my husband get his business up and running in China.


I am what people around here would call a “lao ban niang” (LBN) which translates to a female boss and usually refers to the wife of the boss. These female bosses can be characterized along a continuum where at one end of the continuum is the “involved LBN” and at the other end is the “stay-at-home LBN.” The involved LBN is like a business partner alongside her husband and knows the company’s activities intimately from vendors to customers, financial statements to factory operations.She has authority and access to most areas of the organization and has significant influence over the decision making process at the top level. The challengehere is balancing between being a wife and a businesspartner. And don’t forget – finding time and energy to be with the kids. The stay-at-home LBN is quite removed from the activities at the company and doesn’t involve herself very much at all, except for significant company anniversaries, Spring Festival celebrations, and significant customer or vendor social activities that include other women and family. However, the influence and power of the stay-at-home LBN should not be underestimated. She may not be heard from often, but when she does speak up, people listen. She can have influence over a wide range of issues from restructuring decisions, hiring, vendors, etc. On this continuum, I fall somewhere close to the “involved LBN” end, except during summer vacations and Spring Festivals where I stay at home more to spend time with my children because, on a more personal note, I am a mother first and a LBN second.

“LBN, wife of the boss, may not be heard from often, but when she does speak up, people listen.”

But I am not your typical Chinese LBN. I am the American-born Chinese LBN. You can say that I come with a little kick. In typical Chinese executive management meetings and general company meetings where theboss is never questioned, I usually have a few questions for him. I carry a notebook with me and take notes and when I am explaining something,I draw diagrams and charts. I make lists and have agendas and objectives for meetings. When leading teams on projects, I make sure my employees know what they are doing and that they are being productive. I have seen on several occasions employees stressed and terrified about
a project they were tasked with and I suggested them to go directly to the boss and ask questions so they could save time and have the informationthey needed to do their work. But they were usually too afraid.One team of secretaries responded, “We don’t ask questions. We just need to get it done.” So I had to prod the other end and ask my husband to provide a bit more direction to the team because they were lost in hissea of ideas. My communication approach is relatively direct when comparedto the locals, especially when giving feedback. You can say that myapproach to work is quite westernized. And my handshakes have a firm confident grip to them.

Although I find that my working style is effective in some areas, the traditional Chinese working style is more effective in others. When it comes to strategy and functions involving parties outside our organization, I play by the Chinese business style protocols. That often times involves endless hours drinking tea in various laoban (boss) offices, often times watching them smoke way too many cigarettes in one sitting, eating dinners and lunches with heavy amounts of alcohol, and watching my counterparts work their magic with something we call “guanxi.” From my observation,our employees do the daily work of the nuts and bolts of our business, while management spends a considerable amount of time working onmaintaining relationships with all relevant parties for various aspects of our business – to grease the nuts and bolts so that everything, from transportation of goods to banking arrangements, can all go smoothly.

Being an American-Chinese LBN in China

Elisa and her team pose for a photo in the office


It is very commonly heard that many women in Southern China seek to emigrate out of China by marrying a foreigner. The running joke amongst the circle that knows me is that I am the anomaly – I, being the foreigner, married back to China. But as China continues to grow, more and more Chinese that have grown up abroad are flocking back to their motherland seeking out new opportunities at all levels of the workforce and in all different fields and industries.

I am one such example. I am a Chinese American that has returned to my ancestral roots here in China. You can call me a banana within a sea of yellow. Literally, a banana is yellow on the outside and white on the inside. Metaphorically, it is a common term to describe someone that looks of Asian descent but is very westernized in their values, thought process, and experiences. After living in China these past few years, I have started to realize just how “white” I am. I look Chinese, but the cultural differences that I experience are quite significant. The comforting thing to know is that I am not alone.


There are a lot of women in the workforce in China. However, the majority of top executive positions are still comprised mostly of men. This is not anydifferent from the West. Even so, women in China have increasingly over time been gaining influence and power, whether directly or indirectly.

In relationships, the balance has shifted considerably between a woman and a man. I went traveling around China recently during the National Holiday and I was utterly shocked at how every young Chinese couple around me had the male hold the female’s purse. This purse holdingphenomenon did not exist in the prior generations where a man’s pridewas king. Holding a woman’s purse would have definitely “lost face.” Just a generation ago – the generation of our parents, when you see a couplewalking down the street in China it would typically look like this – theman is walking with nothing but a cigarette in his hand and his wife is walking almost two meters behind him, holding all the groceries, her purse, with a kid strapped to her back, and all the while balancing anumbrella over her to shade from the sun. Fast forward to present day –today’s generation, when you see a couple walking down the street in China – the husband is holding the woman’s purse and all the groceries, while balancing an umbrella over her to shade the sun as she pushes their baby along in a shiny new stroller.

Even the traditional Chinese home is changing. Traditionally, a woman married “into” the family of the man she married. This means that she leaves her home and moves into the home of her husband’s, which atthe time would include living with the father-in-law and the mother-inlaw. In the traditional Chinese home, the mother-in-law is the boss andthe new bride is expected to listen to everything this wise elder said and obey all her commands and “suggestions.” But again, a new phenomenon has been occurring. Most of my husband’s well-to-do male friends no longer live with their parents, all most likely due to the request andbidding of their wives. In fact, I, the American-born Chinese female, am one of the few still living the traditional Chinese life – with my father-inlaw and mother-in-law.

I can’t help but wonder if these phenomena have something to do with the media that Chinese women have access to and are exposed to, and as a result, are having influence on their expectations, values, and choices. Ideas such as true love, individual success and achievement, search for one’s own happiness, and the power of a sexy woman are more prevalent in today’s Chinese media than before.

Chinese women are changing. They are becoming more assertive, confident in their own skin, and believe in the idea of true love and pursuit of happiness. That, to me, is power.

Source: Focus Vision from
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