China Inc. – Part 1

I’m in China for most of 2012 launching a new business.  You can read more about it at Appconomy.

Since I’m here working, I thought I’d share some impressions – in no particular order of importance – of doing business in China.

1.  Make sure when you get materials translated that you have them reviewed for professional writing standards.  There are several times that I have relied on translators to convert my wonderful prose – whether it was website copy or an article – to find out days (sometimes weeks!) later that there are problems with it.

The problems range from missing whole phrases or sentences I wrote, to a grammatically poor translation, to just badly executed meaning.  Thus, for something really important, it wouldn’t be overdoing it to get two different parties to review materials, after the translator has done their work.

2.  For any presentation that you do, always prepare for the ability to deliver it in dual language.

At a minimum, this means translating your PowerPoint or Keynote content into Chinese to go along with your native English.

If you don’t, then you may want to consider having someone verbally translate your presentation while you are giving it.

3.  The need for ‘brown face’ in your business relationship building is important. This phrase comes from my Chinese colleagues – it’s not mine.  Not unlike any other culture or country, the fact is that one needs to have Chinese members on your team to build credibility with Chinese customers and business partners.

4.  Taiwan and Hong Kong are and aren’t China.  The mainland of China is the People’s Republic of China (or PRC, in English).  As far as the PRC authorities are concerned, Taiwan and HK are part of the same nation.  So, if you are presenting a map, for example, of your offices in Asia, be sure to use the one that shows Taiwan and HK as part of the PRC.

However, while geopolitically, both regions are part of the Mainland, they aren’t governed in the same way.  Instead, they operate under their own special sets of rules, based on their unique histories.

Thus, Hong Kong enjoys a much more liberal atmosphere that permits everything from public protests to largely uncensored media. For example, Google operates its services in China from Hong Kong.

Likewise, Taiwan enjoys a more liberal, free society, with its own overlay of elected politicians.  The relationship between the PRC and Taiwan is principally governed via a construct and collection of governance called the Cross Straits Agreements.  But make no mistake: at the end of the day, the PRC firmly believes Taiwan to be part of its sovereign territory every bit as much as the USA believes Puerto Rico to be part of its.

5.  When someone in China says ‘no problem’ or ‘I understand’ the chances are that there is a problem or they don’t understand, but they are just trying to get rid of you.

6.  Americans use a lot – and I mean A LOT – of idioms in their business-speak. This especially becomes clear when you are consciously trying to avoid them with a Chinese audience that is modestly English speaking.  It’s also painfully obvious if you actively listen when there is an American who isn’t as attuned to the literal nature of their speech.

I very clearly remember sitting in a conference call with a team of Austin busdev people on a conference call talking to a Chinese team on the other end of the line. At one point, one of the main Austin speakers used seven sports metaphors in consecutive sentences: ‘ball over the goal line’ ‘quarterback the project’ ‘try an end run’ etc.

It was borderline comical!  I could only imagine to myself what it would have been like if our Chinese colleague had used as rich a set of sports metaphors in reply that were all based on the art of Sumo wrestling!

Bad Things About Good People

It is one thing to travel somewhere for a vacation or touring visit. It’s quite another to actually stay beyond a few days or even a couple of weeks.

Because when you actually stay for a while and live among the people, then your perspective shifts. Those odd, ‘cute’ ways of the locals you might have observed – but were mostly shielded from – as a tourist, turn into curious, annoying, frustrating elements of everyday life.

Take for instance walking on a city street – or really anywhere for that matter. To use an animal kingdom metaphor, I’ve come describe the Chinese way of walking as similar to a bat’s flying, whereas the Westerner is more like a cat.

Most of the time, the Chinese will turn into you – literally starting to walk towards you – as they approach, with only a last moment turn to the side to avoid brushing against you or literally bumping into you when you pass…just like the chaotic flight of a bat whose sonar enables them to avoid crashing into each other at the last second.

A Westerner on the other hand, starts making room to one side or the other, well in advance of passing another, so that there is plenty of extra distance between you and them when you actually pass each other…just like a couple of cautious cats passing, giving each other a wide berth of space as they cross paths.

Another example, which as a boy raised in Texas I’m perhaps especially attuned to, is the difference in common courtesy, especially with women.  Things you never see in Shanghai: a man opening a door for a woman, a man letting a woman get on the elevator (or subway) first, a man giving up his seat for a woman on a full subway or bus.

I recognize that this custom smacks of a particular male Southern tradition that, frankly, may even annoy certain American women who think there shouldn’t be any special treatment for women, as equally as the custom might perplex a native Chinese man.  But, in China, all I can do is model my upbringing, because I’m certain not to see any others practicing this form of Southern gender hospitality.

While these little differences in personal space and courtesy can wear you thin over time, I’d be remiss if I didn’t highlight some of the behaviors that seem to me quite admirable.  Here are a few of the more noteworthy:

People do their own community policing – in my short time in Shanghai, we’ve seen:

  • a purse snatcher chased down and caught by people on the street,
  • a taxi driver who ran a traffic signal (which is alarmingly common) at night and t-boned a scooter driver in an intersection thwarted from leaving the scene of the accident by a crowd that surrounded him and his taxi, and
  • a bonfire that was lighted on a city street in memorial of a passing relative closely monitored and ultimately safely extinguished by a citizens brigade of neighbors.

Closeness between men/women – It is very common (typical in fact) for women to hold hands and cross arms and for men – mostly younger men, under 40 – with their arms closely slung over the shoulder of another man, walking down city streets, in shopping malls, etc.

Personal relationships – While the younger generation practices it less, there is a long-standing Chinese  way of building relationships over meals, drinking, and shared activities (like karaoke, known as KTV in China) that include conversation that is given ample time to explore, go deep, provide room for learning your colleagues’ personal stories, etc.

Celebration of youth – there is a genuine joy in playing with and interacting with young children that seems much more broadly shared than I find in the USA.

And later, when they are working age, there seems to be a much greater acceptance of young men and women assuming roles of expertise or leadership.

Whether it is the apartment complex repairman or the director of a computer outsourcing center, it is far more common to see these same roles filled by people at least 5-10 years younger in China than in the US.

Taken up a notch, at more of the community and regional level, there are other admirable social qualities like a heavy emphasis on recycling materials of every and all kinds, as well as what appears to be a full employment philosophy about making sure there are jobs for everyone.

And, of course, one other social quality I favor as a foreigner, is that English is taught in school from an early age, so I can nearly always find at least one person who can understand me at a bar, restaurant, store, etc.

It’s been a fascinating time living in Shanghai, so far – unlike any other travel experience we’ve had elsewhere in North America, Europe, or Australia.  Next: some novice observations about Chinese business practices.

That’s China

I’ve lived in China for more than 4 months now. Specifically, I live in Shanghai.

You probably know that Shanghai is big.

But you may not know that it is the biggest city in the world. It’s 23 million people.

That’s more than three New York Citys, plus a couple of Austin Texas’s thrown in for good measure.

As a big city, it has everything you would expect, good and bad.

One of my colleagues says there are two main things you need to understand about going to China. I’m sure these are true across the country, but I find them especially true in Shanghai.

First: Forget about your notions of personal space – they aren’t respected. (I’ll talk about that one another time.)

Second: Don’t over think anything that you see that is outside of your normal experience or other behaviors that you would typically expect.  Instead, you simply have to get used to saying to yourself ‘that’s China.’

Examples?

How about enjoying a quiet Friday evening in your apartment, hearing something of a commotion outside down on the street, going to your balcony to look out, and seeing a giant bonfire has been started in a lane of a very busy seven lane road, with people around the fire banging drums and chanting in rhythm and, seemingly, throwing items in the fire – no fire trucks, no police, only what looked like a citizens brigade armed with a hose just in case.

Mind you, this is in the middle of the city’s most central business district. It would be like someone lighting a bonfire on 5th street in downtown Austin or Avenue of Americas in NYC near midtown.  I have it on video. It went on for about an hour.

How about walking along a few paces behind a regular guy, dressed business casual, just like you, on a nice (busy) downtown street during a regular work day and having him (by all appearances, not drunk) suddenly turn to the side, whip down his zipper, and take a wiz right there on the sidewalk, against a wall?  I’ve seen that happen multiple times.

How about visiting with your Chinese colleagues over a drink and talking about favorite places to eat and having a 30-something young lady say to you (somewhat sheepishly) that she likes a certain place because they serve the ‘freshest blood.’  She likes the fact that you can get extra portions of it and that they don’t charge you extra when, for example, you use it to flavor your soup.

But, “that’s China.” Order ice tea, and expect to get hot tea with ice poured into it and a cup you would use for coffee.

Go to a happy hour and rather than get drinks at a discount, expect to get two of everything.

Shop for bath towels at the local Costco equivalent, and expect only to find what you would think of as hand towels, because that’s what they use for bathing. I could go on.

China is a giant country, but it is all on one time zone. And that zone is literally the opposite side of the world.

When it is noon in NYC, it is midnight in Shanghai.  Just starting to gear up for your day in Boston at 9am? Just starting to gear down your day in Beijing at 9pm.

The opposite time is perhaps a good symbol for the opposite – or perhaps, better put, ‘other worldly’ – experience that I’ve had living in China.

I Don’t Live in the “Real” China

Let me be the first to say – by definition and admission – my observations are ignorant.

That is, ignorant in the technical sense that they are made with no formal study of Chinese culture, politics, geography, history.

A few blogs I’d recommend to you for a more balanced and informed set of observations about living and working in China include the following:

A few other facts about my circumstances that bias my writing:

I live in an apartment complex in the central city, high-end district of Shanghai, known as Xintiandi. How high-end?  The cars in my gated complex are a mix of Mercedes, Maseratis, Ferraris, Porsche SUVs, and a smattering of BMWs, Audis, and 1 or 2 Lamborghinis.

Across the street is a row of specialty auto showrooms: the local Rolls Royce dealer, the local Lambo dealer, and a couple of high-end sports coupe dealers I’ve never even heard of …but am certain I can’t afford.

A neighbor in my complex is Yao Ming, the retired basketball great star with the Houston Rockets, who has fashioned a post-sports career as a Chinese cross between Magic Johnson and Bill Bradley – businessman and a statesman.

My point is: I’m pretty sure that I don’t live in a normal Chinese neighborhood.  To draw a comparison, I tell people all of the time from back home that where we live is sort of the Chinese equivalent of what I assume it would be like to live in the Dakota in NYC, or some other West Side condo across from Central Park.

Yes, I’ve traveled to other cities in China including:

  • Shenyang – it reminds me of a much larger Pittsburgh, further north than Pyongyang North Korea, and not that far away from it
  • Chengdu – a central Mid-West city that reminded me of Washington or Oregon when I was there – rainy, lush, with scenic mountains nearby and home of a well-known Panda reserve
  • Shenzhen – something of a border town, just across from Hong Kong, and thus a manufacturing powerhouse, where the weather, traffic, and pollution reminded me of Los Angeles
  • Beijing – struck me as a cross between Washington DC and Chicago, with a hint of Silicon Valley tossed in for good measure. Beijing it turns out is where most of the start-up tech ventures are located, due to access to college talent, government support, company headquarters, and capital.

But, even with these travels under my belt, I can’t profess to have gotten any closer to the real nature of the people and what it means to be Chinese.  I don’t speak or understand Mandarin.  And, I don’t read the Chinese simplified or traditional written language.

In fact, I’m not even especially fond of Chinese or other Asian food.  It’s okay – something I’d eat once or twice a month.  But, far from a diet that I’d love to adopt three times a day.

The reality is: I’m an unabashed Austin cheerleader with a healthy dose of no-place-but-Texas pride.  While I try to be fair and seek to understand the perspective of others, I have no doubt that my observations are colored by my own racial, ethnic, and religious upbringing.

Knowing those biases, I hope my observations aren’t interpreted as being insensitive or insulting to any group or people.  Read on and let me know what you think!

Post(card)s from China

Shortly after I arrived in China, in January of this year, I began to write about the experience.

Unfortunately, it was a struggle for me to post my observations, due to China’s well-known ‘Great firewall.’

Facebook is blocked. Twitter is banned. Google is thwarted, although if you use an internet service provider that hosts via Hong Kong, you can get limited access to Google services.   Wordpress is stymied, although it can be configured to work with some effort.

Yes, virtual private network (VPN) software can bypass some of the blocks.  However, VPNs can be cumbersome to use, slow your response and processing times down considerably, and produce unpredictable results themselves.

Nonetheless, the first three months I was in China, before my wife Rebecca joined me, I used my trusty VPN-cloaked Facebook account and dodged Chinese censors to post short updates, photos, and videos to my social circles back home.

However, for longer posts like those on this blog, I had little choice but to wait until I got back on American soil.  In fact, of all places, I’m posting during a brief return trip through Austin and San Jose, backdating to the original months in which I did my writing.

So, the series of posts that come after this one are very much a personal account of my experiences and observations about Iiving and working in China.

With that in mind, I hope you pick up an interesting thought, bit of trivia, or fun fact from the next few posts.  Enjoy!