A Survivor’s Guide- Part I
After nearly 40 trips and more than a decade of business travel to China, I have compiled a list of 10 tips that will all but guarantee success in traveling and doing business in China. I’ve even included a number of completely complimentary bonus tips to ensure your business travel to China is everything you want it to be. We’ll cover the first 5 tips in this blog and the second 5 tips in our next blog.
1. Don’t Attempt to Learn the Language
After more than 300 days of business travel in China and an impressive vocabulary of less than ten words, I have come to the conclusion that the return on investment in learning Mandarin is a strongly negative one. Even if you learn a word, chances are you won’t pronounce it with the right tone, and they won’t understand you.
When leaving a restaurant, the half dozen hostesses typically say, “Manzou.” For years I would politely repeat back “Manzou.” It was only recently that I discovered “Manzou” means “slow walking” or in the vernacular “watch your step.” Perhaps I am the only one who is linguistically challenged, but I say save yourself the humiliation and don’t even try to learn the language. And, if you’ve ever entertained the thought of learning the 3000 Chinese characters that are necessary to be “conversant,” forget about it.
Tip 1A: If you insist on trying to write Chinese characters, practice by filling out your Arrival Card with made-up Chinese characters. Not only does this practice keep Chinese customs officials on their toes, but it has personally only resulted in only a handful of border detainments over the years.
2. Befriend Chinese Customs Officials
Speaking of customs officials, in order to ensure a smooth entry into China, I recommend that you go out of your way to befriend them. In Hong Kong, I might greet a customs official with a friendly, “Hello Mr. Wu.” But, in China they don’t have names like Mr. Wu or Mr. Wong. They only have numbers on their name tags. So, I have found it effective to greet them with something like the following, “Good Evening No. 45789.” Using their number coupled with a warm smile, makes them feel much more like a person and less like a number. Occasionally, I will engage in small talk such as, “So, No. 45789, how long have you and No. 62867 been working together?” I’ve found engaging them this way on a personal level goes a long way toward reducing wait times.
3. Choke up on the Chopsticks
After years of emotional scarring and meal-time related self-esteem issues, I abandoned my attempt to imitate my Chinese colleagues who hold their chopsticks at the end of the sticks. It only took one time when my Chinese host signaled to the server to bring me a fork and spoon before I tried choking up on my chopsticks.
Choking up enables you to better leverage your fine motor skills and avoid the humiliation associated with poor hand eye coordination.
4. Embrace Indiscriminate Littering
In America we are taught to respect our environment. No one ever wants to be labeled a “Litterbug.” But, in China I have come to embrace indiscriminate littering. It is not uncommon to see someone finish a drink and throw it out the car window or unwrap a snack and just let the packaging fall to the ground. At first I frowned upon such rebellious environmental insensitivity, but now I embrace it as a part of China’s approach to a full-employment economy. It took me a while to realize this, but when you litter in China, you are actually creating jobs and putting food on someone’s table. They have all these people in orange safety vests pushing blue carts and carrying those sticks with a bunch of dead branches on the ends. Those are the people sweeping up all the litter.
The more you litter, the more jobs you are creating. Once I understood there was a positive economic benefit, I try to litter as much as possible. On occasion I will bring a bag of trash from my hotel room and act like a big shot tossing it out of the car window. When I am in a festive mood, I will spend hours tearing my trash up into small pieces and spreading it around the streets like confetti. That ought to create a few jobs. I have found that littering can be fun. And, whenever you litter in China remember that there is a direct benefit to China’s GDP.
TIP 4A: If you are an economist or just someone who is looking to impress your colleagues over dim sum, you might be interested to know that if you take “environmental service” workers (e.g., litter picker-uppers) out of the equation, China’s normalized GDP growth is a tepid 2.5%. However, publishing such workforce adjustments is strictly forbidden by the government as it reflects poorly on its public image.
5. Pick Up Some Silk Everyday Wear
I have the utmost respect for Chinese grandmothers. I mean who else that age has the energy to spend their days chasing around their 2-year old grandchildren? Not only are they energetic, but they are wise. I noticed that all of them wear these silk outfits that look like pajamas. But, I don’t think they are pajamas because they wear them around on the streets and all over. These things look like the most comfortable outfits I have ever seen.
They look way more comfortable than sweats or surgical scrubs- and so much cooler during the hot summer days. I decided I had to get a pair for myself. I found the perfect matching top and bottom. I first used them as pajamas, but it did not take me long before I started wearing them to business meetings in China. Not only were they super comfortable, but I felt like I earned a whole new level of respect from my Chinese colleagues. I would highly recommend that you pick up a pair. You’ll be glad you did.