Having moved around quite a bit during this trip – Tokyo to Hong Kong and then to Shenzhen, China I’ve been able to experience the stark contrasts of doing business in China with that of doing business in Japan or Hong Kong. Yes Hong Kong is officially part of China but ask anyone from Hong Kong where they are from and they will tell you Hong Kong – not China. And anyone in Hong Kong will also tell you that doing business in Hong Kong is vastly different than doing business on the mainland.
Yesterday my friend Simon drove me around to several meetings with Chinese companies. The first meeting started as many meetings I’ve attended do – with a seat in the lao ban’s office (boss) and we were served tea made by the boss (in this case the factory’s General Manager) on his personal tea set – a ritual that I’ve experienced many times in China. It reminded me how different business is in the U.S. and I would never in a million years anticipate visiting a prospective customers and then have the boss make and pour tea and serve it to me. This was followed (as it often is in China) by the boss taking us out to a delicious Chinese lunch. The whole experience took more than two hours and we did talk business but not all that much as it was more about us getting to know one another.
As an aside, while we drank tea, we peeled and ate fresh li-ci berries which as I suspected were what we Americans call lychee nuts. I had never had them fresh before and they were good. They are also in season and sold roadside all over the Shenzhen area – sort of like lemonade stands except there are many, many, people standing by the side of the road selling the li-ci.
Other meetings yesterday also left an impression one of which is that Chinese business people will answer their mobile phone (that rings frequently) while in a meeting. The conversations last anywhere from thirty seconds to as much as five minutes and while it happens you have to just sit there and wait. The others in the meeting do the same. At one point Simon had to get up to take a call and left me in the office for more than five minutes while I smiled and waited. My Chinese is ok but more than five minutes of conversation in a business setting is still more than I can handle. It was different, that’s for sure.
When in China there’s a constant rush from one meeting to the next and meetings scheduled often start and run late. Sometimes late afternoon meetings lead into dinner, sometimes they do not. When in China doing business get used to being flexible and having your stamina tested.
The Chinese I have met in a manufacturing city like Shenzhen are all highly educated, very friendly and professional – in a Chinese way. It’s important to keep in mind that western customs of conducting business should not be compared since we’ve been at modern business for many more years than the Chinese. Cultural differences play such a big role and for many westerners can be frustrating if not fruitless.
I am prepared for most of what I have seen over the past two plus years of traveling to China for business. But I am still surprised by things I’ve not seen before and maybe more importantly the opportunity I’ve found for personal growth (or so I’d like to think) in going to China has given me a new perspective on relationships both personal and professional.
As an American business person ‘Hurry up and wait’ is still tough to handle at times but that’s the way things are done here and to try to approach it any other way would be foolish and counterproductive.
One last thought – if Hong Kong is not really China as I have posited, then Shenzhen is China – easy. The subways are new and really easy to use, it’s a totally planned city and there’s lots of English around for those that do not speak Chinese, and the people are very friendly and wish to be helpful. I’ve been to Guangzhou (Canton), Shanghai and Beijing – all tier-one cities that are much more representative of what China is really like. But you could do a lot worse than start your China experience in Shenzhen.
I think it’s just about time to come home. Next post from the other side of the globe.