Dr. Bonnie Murphy with a panda
The yin and yang of an Iowan’s career in China

Growing up on an Iowa farm, the idea of becoming a veterinarian was a realistic career goal for Polly (Knaack) Murphy (L)(DVM ’89, PhD ’94 veterinary pathology). After all, Murphy – Reinbeck High School class of 1982 valedictorian – was good at science and liked animals.

But heading strategy and business development for Pfizer, a multinational pharmaceutical corporation, in China? That would have been a stretch, she acknowledges. However, that’s exactly what Murphy has done for the past two years – following a bi-coastal American career.

“I’ve always liked challenges,” said Murphy. “Always sought out opportunities that looked fun. Still, I had no idea I’d end up in Beijing, population 20 million.” Reinbeck, by contrast, has 1,700 residents.

After Murphy earned her doctor of veterinary medicine at Iowa State, she only practiced for a short time before working as a pathologist for a drug company. She made the move to the business side of that industry, in part, because a project was cut when “people on the business side decided it wasn’t worth the expense because it lacked market value. We scientists said, ‘If they really understood this, they’d support it.’”

That new career path eventually led her to China with her family, which includes her husband, Marc, and two high-school age sons. Her spouse was enthusiastic about the move. The boys? Not as much. But they’ve adapted and grown to appreciate the experience.

“It’s hard to describe what it’s like to live in China,” she said. “In some ways, our lives seem totally ordinary as we go to work, school, shopping, and do other normal, everyday life activities.”

She said they live in a gated community, similar to neighborhoods in California or Florida – with a mix of expatriate families and Chinese. Their home is about the same size as ones they had in the U.S., though not as nice.

“Our boys go to an international school (about 80 percent of the students are Asian) across the street from our home,” she said. They ride their bikes to school.

“I find it ironic that the lives we live here are more like the one I was raised with in Iowa than anywhere else we’ve lived,” she said.

As in the Midwest, the school is the community center, and much smaller than the ones her kids attended in California and Pennsylvania, with K-12 under the same roof.

“The general area where we live and shop is small enough that you almost always see someone you know, which is not something we have had in the U.S.,” Murphy said.

She said she found it a bit odd that residents prepay for their utilities using a card and then load credits into a meter for each of water, gas and electricity.

“Since my husband is very diligent about this, we haven’t had the experience I’ve heard from other expats of unexpectedly having no water/gas/electricity. When this happens, you have to wait until business hours to replenish.”

Because Pfizer is a multi-national company, the official language is English. However, below the senior levels in Beijing, there are many people who don’t speak English. She said her management team was led by someone who didn’t speak Mandarin for more than 10 years, so her team speaks English relatively well.

“I like to learn, and China presents an endless flow of opportunities to learn both business and culture. After two years in China, I feel like I have at least some understanding of the culture and industry here. Without being able to read and speak Mandarin fluently, there’s always a sense that whatever I think I know is only the tip of the iceberg.”

Murphy said her Beijing commute takes between 45 minutes and two hours depending on the traffic. Fortunately, she’s provided a car and driver because of her senior position, so she can work en route. The family car is a tuktuk, a 3-wheeled electric vehicle “that is really a metal box on a motorized tricycle.

“We use it to get around our neighborhood, although Marc does have a license and we can use the company car on weekends. Still, driving here is an elaborate game of chicken, so he doesn’t like to go too far from home with the car.”

Murphy said her husband – a native of Wisconsin – is thriving. He plays hockey and will be starting a job this fall at a private hospital as a psychologist.

She said Beijing’s smog can be a problem. But it’s manageable for her and her family because their home, school, and her workplace all have air filters. On bad days, they wear masks. No fan of the wind in Iowa, she now views it as a blessing because it blows away the polluted air.

Though many things seem normal and mundane about China, she said there are constant reminders – both physical and cultural – that they are far from home.

“My way of framing it is that it’s as if we all look at the world through a triangular prism,” she said. “The U.S. sees the flat side and the Chinese look at the point.”

Communications can be a challenge.

“In the States, there is effectively one truth, but in China you can see two different things at once and both are true (think yin/yang). When I first got here I sometimes felt like I was losing my mind, because I’d sit in a meeting and we would all agree that ‘the sky is blue.’ And the next day I’d be in a meeting with my boss and someone would say ‘the sky is green.’ Huh? Didn’t we all align yesterday that the sky is blue? It felt like people were being dishonest.

“What I’ve come to understand is that Chinese is a contextual language. If there are no context words, then what a Westerner sees as ‘reality’ can shift based on what context is later added. The consequence of working in this culture means I ask more questions than I ever thought possible. The beauty of this shift in my behavior is that asking more and better questions is a skill that is helpful in any culture, including back in the U.S.”

Murphy values her family’s China experience.

“As I tell the boys, one of the things I like about living in China is that it turns everyday life into an adventure.”

Brian Clark is a freelance writer from Madison, Wis.
Magazine, Iowa State University Alumni Association

June 2016