Before going to China on business – read this. Tips from one who has lived in the quirky land of opportunity
By Jackie Cameron*
When you first touch down in Beijing or Shanghai, you could be forgiven for thinking you have landed in a city as easy to get around as New York, Sydney or London. Everything at first glance looks so familiar.
Shimmering glass-and-steel skyscrapers as far as the eye can see appear to be modeled closely on international real estate icons. On the network of multi-lane highways that weave intricately around their lower levels are a proliferation of car makes you see at home.
Then there are the ubiquitous global coffee shop and restaurant chains, with their comforting signage beckoning you in to refuel on tried-and-tested fare. Also putting you at ease, perhaps, are the excesses of luxury European brands: international supermodel faces dominate giant billboards advertising expensive perfume and handbags; loud facades draw fastidiously groomed shoppers into well-stocked stores.
But, don’t be fooled by the trappings of western-style commercialism. It won’t take you long to discover that, while much has changed since communist China opened its doors to the world 30 years ago, the country has evolved with many idiosyncrasies deeply entrenched.
Even seasoned business travel expert Michelle Jolley of Corporate Traveller South Africa admits: ‘China can be a bit of a culture shock, though it is an interesting place to visit. English isn’t widely spoken, not even in the big cities.’
Eat, drink and be merry ― then have a siesta
Menus tend not to be in English. ‘Anything that crawls, slithers, walks or flies is available to eat,’ says the marketing executive, ‘so if you want to sample food like a local, you have to be very adventurous because you may not know what you are chewing on.’
If you have specific meal requirements for religious or health reasons, you might have a job on your hands finding suitable dishes. It is not impossible, though.
Jolley says some high-end restaurants are equipped to cater for these needs. Ask your travel agent to contact your hotel’s concierge in advance to request special meals, she advises.
It is important from a cultural perspective to not be too fussy about what you eat, or how food is eaten, as you could cause offence. As Len Deacon, a Cape Town-based health risk management specialist with interests in China, notes: important business discussions happen around food in private rooms attached to restaurants.
‘The better negotiations are going, the more lavish ― and exotic ― the meal. Everyone shares out of multiple dishes,’ he says. That often means dipping chopsticks you’ve used to get food into your mouth in and out of communal bowls.
Smokers light up at the table throughout a meal. Your hosts will chew loudly and slurp their tea, and feel free to do the same, as acknowledgement that the food is delicious.
Special toasts are to be knocked back quickly and enthusiastically, however it is socially acceptable to refrain from heavy drinking if you do so back home. Be warned, too: lunch starts early in China, from around 11am and is generally over by 1pm.
When the last dish is done you are expected to immediately leave the table. If you are really culturally sensitive, you will understand your host is likely to enjoy a short post-pranial afternoon power nap, so don’t arrange important meetings around that time. If you do, don’t be surprised if your business counterpart comes across as grumpy.
Give, give, give ― with both hands
Expect to receive gifts, and to disappoint your hosts if you don’t immediately reciprocate with something small that looks like you have brought it for them specially from home. Ho reflects: ‘I remember visiting a large company in China with others from South Africa who had not brought a gift. I suggested that we present my gift, some South African nougat, on behalf of the South African group to avoid any embarrassment.’
Money is handed over with both hands, too. Your credit card will work in some places, but generally expect to work with cash. Jolley, national marketing manager for SA Flight Centre’s Corporate Nation brands, suggests you draw a large wad of notes from an airport ATM when you arrive in the country, as it is not possible to source Renminbi (RMB) in South Africa. US dollars can easily be exchanged for Chinese currency, she says.
Feeling rich, famous and foreign
Although China is awash with pirate copies of Hollywood movies, it is still unusual for locals to see someone who isn’t Chinese in the flesh. Expect to be stared at, photographed and occasionally have your hair stroked, whether you are in the cities or countryside.
Visitors to China will tell you it won’t take long to start feeling like you are as famous as Angelina Jolie or Brad Pitt. Occasionally, you may even ponder whether you have arrived from another planet ― which makes China such a fun place to visit, even if you’re on business.
Jolley had such thoughts while recently exploring a hotel room in China. There were gas masks in the cupboard, which she theorised might be for some kind of emergency or pollution overload, while the bathroom held an adventure all of its own.
‘The toilet was ridiculously complex. It had a heated seat and push buttons for hot and cold water and air – and a mechanism to powder your bottom,’ says Jolley with a chuckle.
She described the experience as ‘very strange, but interesting’, rather than enjoyable.
The most sensible way for first-timers to China to get around is like a VIP, says Nick Walker, managing director of Blue Corporate Travel. Taxis are relatively cheap, but opt for a hotel transfer ― which usually comes as a large black luxury car ― for your first journey.
This way you don’t have to immediately start negotiating your way around using your own brand of sign language, translation booklets and the help of passers-by with a smattering of English.
‘You can easily employ translators for a modest day rate who will act as guide, personal assistant and translator,’ he points out. Remember, says Walker, they do not always translate accurately and may miss certain technical nuances.
Make your life easier by staying in a western-style branded hotel. ‘You are more likely to receive the necessary supporting services, from staff who speak English and appreciate the customs of foreigners,’ he says.
Extra insurance for medical purposes, over-and-above what your credit card covers, is also recommended, advise Walker and Jolley. This way you can be certain of receiving first-class care in an international hospital in China, or be flown elsewhere if necessary. Medical costs can easily run into the millions, and treatments and procedures are different from what you might expect back home.
Getting comfortable with China
Business visas can take time to get, and usually require an official letter of invitation ― with a formal stamp ― from a Chinese host, so some executives opt for tourist visas. But, after you have cracked the official nod for the first time, visas are processed more swiftly, reckons Deacon.
The same goes for travelling in China: it gets easier. You will soon be able to communicate some basic pleasantries and instructions in Chinese. You could start to enjoy previously unthinkable delicacies, like pickled ducks’ feet and chillied tree fungus.
You will find yourself holding your position in queues and lifts just as the locals do, in the jostle for space. In time, you might even find you are given a special Chinese name, particularly if yours is a bit of a tongue-twister for a Mandarin speaker, is the message from Walker, whose Chinese name (Ni Ke Xiang) aptly means ‘the one who flies high’.
* ‘China Unpacked’ is an article that first appeared in Signature magazine earlier this year. Incidentally, Signature also has a wonderful editor.
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- China completes world’s 2nd-tallest building in Shanghai (cbc.ca)
- China’s top restaurants reeling over new austerity (kansascity.com)
- What China’s Rich Want: Gold-Plated Cars And Tiger Bits (wnyc.org)
- Why Twitter and Facebook are too late in China – Sam Flemming (chinaherald.net)