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Who do you like to work with? E-mail
Featured - Business
Written by David A. Dayton

Probably who you identify most easily with. A year or so ago my then 5 year-old told me, in all seriousness, “Dad I’m like Kobe, not white like you.”  Suppressing laughter I responded, “Actually, you’re more like Yaoming than Kobe.”  But he was insistent.  He was “black like Kobe” he told me. Now he wants a Knicks jersey–bet you can guess which number.  Yup, 17.  Jeremy Lin.  My boys are all over him.  Of course so is everyone else with any connection to China.  Or the NBA for that matter. But it makes sense.  Not only is he good, but generally people more easily like what they can identify with–educated, christian, Chinese, underdog story–he’s hitting just about all the right buttons.  Similarly, Obama gets 90% of the black vote regardless.  Ditto Mitt Romney and the Mormon vote.  And Lin and the Chinese community are the same.

So it should come as no shock that Chinese people like to do business with other Chinese people.  Or that foreigners often “just don’t get” how things are done in China.  One of the most telling examples of this was a young lady that I played basketball with in China a couple of times.  She was an ABC (American Born Chinese) who had lived her entire life in the US.  She is 100% ethnically Chinese and speaks fluent Mandarin–but for all cultural intents and purposes, she’s American.  She plays ball with the guys, wears pants not cute dresses to the office (her comment), talks like, thinks like and acts like a 20 something American. 

She hated living and working in China.  Why?  Because while she “looked” like all the other Chinese, she was not the same inside.  People immediately identified her with “Chinese” and not “foreign” like can be done with white or black people.  But she didn’t “get” China and it drove her and the people she worked with crazy.  Last time I spoke with her she was on her way “home” to the US.

Whether it’s the language barrier or the cultural differences, the are assumptions made on initial meetings that are often wrong and subsequently can take years to overcome (if they ever are at all).  I’m a firm believer that you can’t drop into a country and do business and expect to be successful without some significant language and cultural training.  Of course there are exceptions to every rule, but the vast majority of experiences follows the rule.

When SRI works with Chinese from Mainland in the US they have the same problems here that Americans have in China.  They don’t understand the extent of the law, the nature of the market system (in my opinion most Chinese don’t know the difference between freedom and anarchy, but that’s a post for another time), they don’t realize how independent or religious or legally minded or linear (processes) American’s are.  They are completely blow away by the levels of trust and often confused when told not to “pay” for extra services.  They often comment on how “different” it is from China.  Most have commented to us something along the lines that since the US is “free” and a market economy that it would be more like doing business in Shenzhen (anarchy) and much less “legal.”

SIDE NOTE: One of the funniest things I’ve ever read on this was the anger of the Chinese government at the government of other countries during the 0lympic torch runs.  The Chinese were insistent that the participating governments control the demonstrations against the Chinese that was making them look bad all over the world.  When the governments told them they could not control free speech, the Chinese just couldn’t/wouldn’t believe that it was that simple.  During the 2004 winter games in SLC, it was the same.  The Chinese asked the SLC/Utah government to take down Taiwanese flags on balconies and windows in prominent buildings in the downtown area.  Of course they wouldn’t do it.

It’s no surprise then, that foreigners that don’t speak Chinese like to work with companies like SRI, or 3PQ and testing companies that have a “foreign” interface between the Chinese factories and the client themselves.  Not just for translation of language but for a translation of culture.  And even when great ESL is involved, an accent is still sometimes hard to deal with (it’s embarrassing to repeatedly ask someone to repeat themselves, pretty soon you just stop asking and realize that you’ll just have to deal with understanding 1/2 the information).  Ditto for Chinese in the US, they want to work with Chinese that are here already, that have gone through the culture shock and acclimatized already.

So how much of this is learned an how much is subconscious?  I don’t know.  For my son, he recognized a difference between me and Kobe and despite the fact that I’m his dad, he identified with Kobe (I hope that he get’s Kobe’s bball skills instead of mine!!).  For most adults doing business in a foreign culture for the first time, it’s probably mostly a conscious choice based on past experiences (of other foreigners they know or directly with other Chinese).

For now, I’m happy to be in the middle of business.  I do wonder what my boys will grow up and identify with though. In the meantime, while I can’t cheer for the Knicks yet, we certainly could do worse than someone like Jeremy Lin as a role model.

David A. Dayton is the CEO of Silk Road International (SRI), an U.S.-owned and managed international procurement agency based in China. Click here to visit SRI's Website.

Our valuable Editor David A. Dayton has been with us since Monday, 02 November 2009.

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