Archive for October, 2008

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Let’s get a few things straight about China consultants…

October 27, 2008

How on earth do you explain what you do when you are someone who primarily deals with China? China Hand? China Expert? China Consultant? I hate all of these terms. I suppose China consultant is the best of a bad bunch but really, it is still awful. Have you ever heard of a ‘Spain Consultant.’

The Middle Kingdom, China, Cathay has held an enormous fascination for westerners for hundreds of years. We’ve tried to trade since the times of George III and even gone to war for the right to trade, a subject that is still a pretty thorny issue in China today.

My livelihood and by extension, that of my family is inextricably linked to China. Over the years I have tried to escape from its clutches, to consider a change of direction but it always come back to me that China is ‘in my blood’ even though I have no Chinese blood in me.

A chance encounter with my father’s Chinese colleague at the age of 12 led to this point. I told him I wanted to be able to read Chinese like he could, only to be told that no gwailo could ever really master the language. Degrees in Oriental Studies from Oxford University, several years as a translator and negotiator in China and an accreditation in Chinese translation from the Australian government followed. It is a magical language and the classical form of ancient Chinese even more so.

But back to China Hands. To understand how ridiculous the concept of a China Consultant is, one has to really first consider China as a concept.

Nearly 1/4 of the world’s population is Chinese, 75 times the population of Australia in a place roughly the same size. China spans from Mohe on the Siberian border to Hainan and Yunnan in the tropics and the cultures of these places are far from similar. Yes, China has a strong central government but is governed in a very decentralised manner. Dealing with bureaucracy in Guangzhou is very different to dealing with bureaucracy in Harbin, for example. Banqueting culture literally means the difference between some nice food under palm trees in Guangzhou right through to the total destruction of your liver and brain due to the local liquor in Harbin.

So to claim that you consult on 1/4 of the world’s population spanning an area similar in size to and about as diverse as Western Europe seems a touch arrogant to me.

Anybody who claims to ‘Help Western companies enter the China market’ worries me greatly. Which markets? Which areas? Do you really understand PCB manufacture as well as you understand setting up a language school or selling luxury goods? I doubt it.

There is no doubt, however, that when a company wishes to be successful in China they really do need assistance from people who understand the culture and the business environment.

So what makes a good China Consultant? I humbly suggest the following criteria be applied?

1) Would you work with this person in a territory other than China?

Don’t compromise on who you deal with just because you perceive China to be different.

2) Do they have focus and direction?

It is quite acceptable to have worked across a number of different industries in China. However, someone who claims to be all things to all people is unlikely to be good at any of them.

3) Do they have a solid track record in China?

You want someone who has run their own businesses in China or at least has an impressive list of satisfied clients. An expat worker who has decided to stay on after recently getting fired from a multinational is unlikely to be of much help to you unless they really know your industry inside out.

4) Do they speak fluent Chinese? I know some disagree with me, but if someone can’t even tell what their own staff are saying to each other or speak to the 98% of Chinese who don’t speak English then how can they possibly know the real China?

5) Is their experience recent?

Emerging economies change fast, 10 years in China in the 80’s isn’t much use in 2008.

5) Do not make the mistake that all Chinese know their own country. Just being Chinese does not mean someone is going to be of help to you. There are many excellent Chinese consultants but the same rules apply; credibility, experience and knowledge count for everything.

Above all, make sure the person you are dealing with is willing to work WITH YOU to EMPOWER YOU to be successful in China.

No one knows your business like you do. You need a guide, someone who can decode the complex cultural and political landscape. Someone who can explain it to you and aid you to work with, not against the business culture in order to smoothly get on with the business you do so well in other countries.

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Surviving in China- Food

October 5, 2008

For many foreigners visiting China for the first time, eating can be the most disturbing and disorientating of prospects. Aside from concerns (often unwarranted) about freshness and hygiene, or a pathological terror of using chopsticks, Chinese food can be pretty weird by our standards, and a far cry from the Kung Po chicken and sizzling beef with which we are bombarded at home. The mere names of dishes such as ‘Thousand Year Old Eggs’, ‘Husband and Wife Lung Slices’ or ‘Dog and Dofu Soup’ may well be enough to turn your stomach, but the good news is that Chinese cuisine is as varied as European, so you need not starve during your time in Asia.

As for table etiquette, this can be an immensely complicated matter, as one might expect in a country with such a long and rich cultural history. The good news is that as an outsider really can get away with just about anything; Chinese people will be very forgiving of your blundering foreignness, and so long as you try to copy what others around you do you are unlikely to cause great offence. The flip side of this is of course that you must forgive habits that to you may seem unusual or rude. Speaking with your mouth full, smoking at the table and even spitting out food are widely considered acceptable behaviour, all practices likely to horrify the western visitor.

The key point to remember is to keep an open mind and be prepared to try dishes that may seem completely alien. One facet of the famous Chinese hospitality is to treat guests to as lavish a reception as can be managed. To this end you may well find your host plying you with every strange creature that ever crept or flew upon the earth. Do not be down heartened! The best approach in such circumstances is to smile, laugh about the contrast with your typical meat-and-two-veg, and try to enjoy as much of the meal as possible. How better to win friends among your Chinese hosts?

  • Be aware of seating plans. At banquets and business dinners there will be a clear hierarchy of seats with the most important person, usually the host, facing the door. As a foreign guest you will probably be steered firmly to the place at which you belong, but you should certainly never barge in and seat yourself wherever you please.
  • Be wary of the heat! When you are asked if you can eat spicy food it is wise to tone down your response, regardless of your capacity for curry. Chinese chilli is qualitatively different to that found in Indian cuisine and can catch visitors by surprise.
  • If you really can’t stomach something that is offered you it is best to say “I am allergic” or “My doctor says I can’t” rather than that you don’t like it, as that way you may well just be forced to try it anyway. Always be consistent in your dislikes; saying you can’t touch seafood at one banquet and then wolfing it down the next day will make you seem dishonest.
  • Spit your food out on the table! This tip should not be taken too literally, but the table is the place where inedible remains like bones, fish skin and lumps of ginger ought to be deposited. The key point is that to be polite, food should always be removed from the mouth with your chopsticks, not your fingers.
  • Know when to waste. You should never finish off every last bit of food on the table; this embarrasses the host as he appears mean for not having ordered enough. Many westerners find it hard to come to terms with the sheer volume of food wasted at Chinese banquets. However, you should not leave any food in your individual bowl as this is seen as wasteful. In childhood Chinese girls are often warned that if they do not empty their rice bowls they will get an ugly husband!
  • If you are a vegetarian it is best to say you cannot eat meat for religious reasons. There is a long history of Buddhist vegetarianism in China, and this excuse is the most likely way to avoid any extra mince or lard. Chinese chefs often use a little bit of meat to add flavour to vegetable dishes and objecting to eating meat for humanitarian reasons is still not widely understood.
  • Try to use your chopsticks. When tackling particularly slippery or unwieldy foods, such as tofu or large bones, it is often acceptable to use your spoon or your hands, but at other times you will need to get the hang of your kuaizi. Individual pieces of food should be taken from the communal plates in the middle and put straight in the mouth or briefly into your individual bowl; food is not spooned into your bowl as in the West. Don’t worry too much about making a mess with your chopsticks – eating is not a tidy business in China and you will make friends everywhere simply for having a go.
  • One last thing- a chopstick is an eating implement. It is not, repeat NOT a drumstick, plaything, pointer, tool for emphasising a point or anything else. You use them to put food in your mouth. I have lost count of how many times I have seen westerners playing the drums with their chopsticks or pointing them at people. Not not do it, don’t even think about it and if you can’t resist, please imagine if you took a Chinese guest to Petrus and they drummed their knife and fork on the table constantly, how would you feel?