How a young american turned a crisis at home into an opportunity abroad, beginning a new life in Beijing

When the economic crisis began to bite in the West a few years ago, it left many people looking for alternatives to the poor job prospects, part-time work and dire salaries that were often on offer.

Joseph Castillo was among them: moving first from his hometown Chicago to Montreal in Canada for work, and then being forced again to consider new horizons when opportunities there eventually dried up.

Times were hard, but Castillo’s luck was about to change, when in April 2009 a friend in Beijing asked him to come to China.

He took up the offer, initially intending just to take a vacation, but Beijing took hold of him and he decided to stay.

Like many foreigners looking for employment in China, Castillo first found work as a private English tutor. But while many English teachers in Beijing stop at that, Castillo saw a chance to make a difference in the profession.

“I saw an opportunity here, because there were a lot of people, like me, out of work, or struggling financially in the States,” he says. “They have degrees, master’s degrees, bachelor’s degrees, very educated, and they’re working at Starbucks, or some other kind of insignificant job. They might as well come to China, experience a new culture, try different foods, do some traveling, do a bit of tutoring to provide some of their expenses, and I thought it was just a great opportunity.”

The revelation led Castillo to found Nations Abroad Consulting Ltd, which is a consulting and cultural exchange company with offices in Beijing, Chicago and Dallas.

When it first started, the basic idea was to bring Americans to China to tutor English. But as time passed, Castillo began to broaden the company’s focus.

“My company began to expand and I was requested to get other types of positions – PR jobs and management jobs – and also I began to see a lot of problems with foreigners coming to China and Chinese companies, without maybe the right credentials,” he says.

“I saw a lot of companies in China. They were not as professional as the foreigners were used to, so I began to broaden my vision in regards to what we could do here and we began to help foreigners find great jobs, and help Chinese companies find great foreigners.”

Cross-cultural barriers have long been an issue for foreign companies doing business in China, and Castillo was struck by how little was understood about each other on both sides of the Pacific.

“I saw a lot of ignorance in the West, a lot of misconceptions and wrong ideas, and of course, in China, you saw the same thing,” he says.

He was asked by friends in the US if there were elevators and bananas in China, and this confirmed his belief that there were opportunities for his company to help fill the cultural gap.

And so Nations Abroad Consulting began to branch out, providing services such as helping foreigners new to China find apartments, assisting Chinese companies in finding qualified foreign staff and helping Chinese in the US to buy real estate.

Despite not speaking Mandarin, Castillo says he has found it easier to start a business in China than perhaps it would have been in the US, in large part because of the relatively low cost of employing high-quality staff.

As for the difficulties of operating, he says, “The biggest challenge for me in China is the language barrier. My Chinese is very poor, I don’t speak Chinese that good, but in a city like Beijing there are a lot people that speak English, so you get past those hurdles.”

Among the many services the company now provides, recruiting skilled people is still the core.

“Our primary concern, goal, is to find good people that have a heart for China, for Chinese people, that love the culture. We want to attract and find those people. That’s all of our focus.

“A lot of capital is spent in the States. We want people who want a long-term commitment, people who want to make a difference and help China to advance.”

His confidence in the business comes from the enormous potential that the Chinese market offers to foreigners.

“With 1.3 billion or so people, for us, customers aren’t necessarily hard to find,” he says. “We do zero marketing in China. We don’t emphasize looking for customers; we emphasize providing good service and good sources.

“We are not an NGO, but we are not as profit driven as we are customer service driven. We put good customer service over profit, value relationships, love people, help them as much as possible just trying to create a happy family atmosphere. Our customers have become friends, our foreign employees have become friends.”

Castillo has learnt much about how to run a successful business in Beijing over the years.

“In China, knowing the right people and having the right relationships is very important,” he says. “I actually value my Chinese relationships a lot. I depend a lot on Chinese people, couldn’t do this on my own. I always call friends up, I always ask for advice, ideas.”

He is a very hands-on boss and likes to make sure the people he employs from overseas to work in China are aware of the cultural differences they might encounter before they start work.

“In China, you have to be patient,” he says. “The Chinese do things differently. There is 5,000 years of culture here, you are not going to change it. You have to appreciate it in China, understand it.”

He also recognizes a need to teach his Chinese staff about Western culture so that they can interact with foreign staff and clients without misunderstandings.

Castillo now employs 28 staff worldwide, with seven key team members in Beijing. The company has been operating for four years without a single negative month. Part of the secret to this has been pushing himself and his staff to perform well, says Castillo, who now wants to expand into other business ventures.

Castillo’s life is now firmly rooted in China. His wife is Chinese and his son will turn 2 in April on the same date as his arrival in China.

He is now doing his higher degree at Ohio Christian University through correspondence and is an active attendee at an international church in Beijing.

jixiang@chinadaily.com.cn