Going to break my rule about not posting about my personal life because I think this is important.
Recently my firm had a national meeting via internet talking about various success stories and initiatives. One of the messages from leadership was to encourage employees to take advantage of the firm's overseas secondment opportunities, particularly in China and India. Based on my own experience, I don't think they could be offering worse advice.
I hope my tale will be taken into consideration by any Americans who are thinking about going to China to work and also any working there now.
I had first lived and worked in China back in 1993-95. Upon my return to the US I got my first entry level job in the US. I progressed very quickly over the next several years. My job was never very China related over this time though the fact that I spoke good Chinese was useful simply because my bosses assumed I must be smart. I was always interested in going back to China for a time and when the opportunity arose to work in Shanghai founding a new department I jumped at the chance. I worked in China for 4 years, returning to the US last June.
My experience since I have returned suggests that gaining work experience in China is not only not an enhancement to one's career but may even be seriously counterproductive. In my case at least it is clear to me that my career would be in much healthier shape had I not gone back to China. I think the main message is that if you go, you should be prepared to stay. You should be prepared to accept that your career will be in China. You may not easily be able to just work for a few years and then return home. Here are a couple of the reasons:
1) For the most part, you do not learn anything usefully transferable to the US when working in China. For instance, you do not typically learn anything about cutting edge or best practice management or process techniques. You may learn a lot about how to do business in China, but this has little relevance to doing business in the US.
2) Despite the relative prominence of China in the media these days, China is just not thought of as terribly important by most companies in the US. I know this is hard to imagine for those currently working in China. However, I have now spoken to many high level professionals in many companies and it is just a fact. Profits there are typically either non-existent or minimal when compared to other regions. Even if they are manufacturing the majority of their goods there there is little need for someone who knows about this in the US. The need for these people is in China. Also, there is a perception that companies typically don't send their best people to China.
3) Once you reach a certain level in your career there is nothing more important than the personal connections you make. Now I'm sure that some people are a lot better at maintaining contacts than I am but it is very easy to let former relationships (particularly medium-level type) atrophy. The opportunity cost of my time in China has really become clear now. Cultivating high level relationships in the US as I would have done over the past 4 years had I stayed would have been invaluable now.
Now I'm sure the above does not apply to everyone. It depends on the type of job you have and the level as well. But I do hope that people factor these things in as a risk when considering overseas assignment.
In case your wondering, I am currently employed but doing work completely unrelated to China. I will likely end up back in China if I want to do work relative to my experience now.