Business Trip to Shenzhen
A couple of weeks ago, my boss came up to me and asked me, if I would like to go on a Business trip to Shenzhen and help out at a Trade Show in late November. Always eager to experience new things and see more of China, I happily accepted. If you have followed my story, you know that November was a quite eventful month for me. First Malaysia, then a strained ligament, a Chinese Wedding, the removal of my wisdom teeth and also my birthday, which I celebrated with some friends and a little too much sake at the rain club.
Ok, before I start with my description of my Business trip to Shenzhen, I have to tell you that my story is solely based on my experience with very few people in a 3 days timeframe. I don’t want to generalize, so if I write “Chinese do that”, don’t be offended, but it sounds better than an endless repetition of “my colleagues”. I really like my colleagues and they took great care of me, tried to communicate with me as best as they could in English and help me out with whatever I needed. I want to thank Jia, Liu, Mei, John and of course my boss for the great time in Shenzhen. I learned a lot about the Chinese business culture and even more about the Chinese mentality. Some things were just strikingly different from what I am used to and what I had experienced before. Sometimes I laughed and sometimes all I wanted was to cry and go home. I had to jump over my own shadow more than just once, but in the end I am very grateful I did. It takes a while to accept the fact that my own culture is not better than Chinese culture, only different. I have read this phrase so many times, every little cell in my brain knows it, but this trip helped me to understand China, its culture, and especially its people a little bit more.
So here is what happened: A business trip to Shenzhen – the Chinese way…
On Thursday morning, I was picked up at 6.30 AM by my boss and my colleagues to go to the airport for our Business Trip to Shenzhen. When we arrived in Shenzhen, the sun was shining, the weather was nice and there were palm trees and flowers all around. What a difference to freezing Beijing. We took a shuttle bus from the airport and somewhere along the way my colleagues and I were dropped off on the side of the road. Instead of going to the hotel first, we went directly to the convention center to meet with one other colleague, John (I changed the names of my colleagues) and to see how things were going with our exhibition stand. Everything looked fine, so we left our promotion material at the stand and went to the hotel.
Getting to know my Chinese Colleagues
Then we checked in and when we were only given 2 keys I knew that I had to share my room with a Chinese girl, Jia. Don’t get me wrong, she is a very nice girl, but I am just not used to it. For god’s sake, I don’t even want to share my apartment, not to mention my bedroom!!! I love to be around people, but definitely need a door to shut and a place to be by myself, when I had enough!!! We started to unpack and freshen up. Oh yes, Chinese people apparently don’t have much sense for discreteness. 5 minutes after we entered the room, my colleague started to change, not in the bathroom, oh no, right in the middle of the room in front of me. Oh and she was not just throwing on a new shirt, no she changed EVERYTHING!!! Another thing that was a little disturbing, although I didn’t find out until the next morning, was that Chinese people don’t flush the toilet at night.
Chicken Feet and Pollywogs
After I had seen a little bit more of my colleague than I had wished for, we met with the other two girls and headed for lunch. They were afraid that I might not like what they order, so I told them that I eat everything. In hindsight, this was a little stupid of me… The first thing that was served was chicken claws! Great!!! This was a nice catch 69 for me. On the one side, this was one of the dishes I had tried to avoid by all means so far, on the other side, I knew my colleagues would lose face, if I didn’t try them. Since there were no other dishes on the table, I also did not have the chance to “eat my way around” them. So I bit the bullet and ate my first chicken claw. And to my surprise, they were actually quite good. I think I will have to be more open minded about my food choices from now on. You never know, if you might like something, if you don’t try it, right? The next dishes were not quite as “exciting” as the first one… or so I thought. For dessert we ordered half of a papaya filled with some clear “jello’filling”. It was very sweet and wobbly so neither the taste nor the consistency was too appealing to me. After finishing it, one of my colleagues pulled out her cell phone and used the dictionary function to tell me what I had just eaten. I am sooo glad she did it afterwards! I had just eaten frog spawn!!! No, I did not puke on the table but I am still wondering, if there are now little pollywogs swimming around in my belly and if I open my mouth one day soon and all that comes out is “quak”!!!
In the afternoon, my colleagues, my pollywogs and I walked back to the convention center to get our exhibition stand ready for the next day. At around 6 PM we walked back, but before we went to the hotel, we went to the supermarket to buy some supplies. If we had only tried to smuggle in some alcohol into our rooms, not just water and juice boxes, it would have truly felt like a school trip in 10th grade. Back at the hotel, we rested a little and then Jia, John and I went out for a fantastic seafood dinner. No, no surprises this time, only fish, shrimps and other familiar creatures of the ocean. After the outstanding dinner, and since it was only 8.30 PM, I convinced my two colleagues to go for a night cap to the hotel bar.
It was only then that I found out that my colleague John speaks English and not that bad either. I had been sitting directly opposite of him for the past 3 months and he had never spoken one word with me. I had assumed he could not speak English, but he was just too insecure to try. I tried to build up his confidence and praised his English and as soon as he plucked up some courage, we had a pretty good conversation.
He told me about his family and his background and about his big dream to go to Europe for his honeymoon. He was very open and he even told me that he misses his parents very much, even though they “only” live 6 hours away by train. In our culture, this would have been an embarrassing statement, especially coming from a 30+ year old man. Our society trains us to become self-sufficient and independent at a much younger age. If you still live at home at a certain age, you are considered a mommy’s boy, which after all does not have a very positive connotation. As a teenager, independence and “freedom” from your parents is considered cool and desirable, even though at that age you might not realize that there are also some small and minor disadvantages of being an adult. In China on the other hand, you are expected to live with your parents until you get married. Moving out to go to college or because of work is still the exception to the rule and the bond between parents and children seems to be very strong. While individualism is not part of the Confucian mind set, respect for parents and unquestioned obedience is. Respect??? Unquestioned??? Obedience??? I have to admit, that these three words describe the exact opposite of my behavior as a teenager. I fought with my dad on a daily basis, slammed doors, screamed, and cried, everything. But I have always loved my dad. I love him, because he is my dad and because he encourages me and lets me pursue my crazy plans (probably because he is just as crazy as me!!!). This difference really made me wonder, whether love is nothing but a cultural characteristic. Do Chinese really have a deeper connection with their parents or is it just culture that makes it look that way? Is culture so powerful that it determines who we love and how much we love them?
Being the Western Face of the Company
The next morning we got up early, had breakfast at KFC and walked to the Convention Center. The second person to visit our stand was a guy from the Australian Embassy in Beijing and I secured my first business card. Unfortunately, my company did not provide me with any business cards, even though this is one of the most important business items in China. They are exchanged for any reason and no reason at all. I mean, I will be happy if only one of my two suitcases will be filled with business cards I collected, when I fly back to San Diego… If you want to read a bit more about the importance of Business cards in China, you can do so here. Even though there were supposedly 30 different countries taking part in the exhibition, not too many foreigners came to our stand, even though we were one of the busiest stands of the fair. 99 % of our visitors were Chinese, and therefore I was not very busy. My job was to sit as an “eye catcher” behind my little desk, smile friendly, entertain the visitors with the few phrases I know in Chinese and then call for my colleagues for help. That evening, we enjoyed some more seafood, and because we were all tired, we went back to the hotel to get some rest.
On the last morning of my Business Trip to Shenzhen, we went for a yummy dim sum breakfast at a nice hotel. The food was outstanding, though I didn’t have a clue what I was eating. But I had learned my lesson and did not ask! The fair was the same as the day before only that day, we left after lunch, because Liu and Mei wanted to go to Hong Kong, and Jia and I flew back to Beijing. I could have gone to Hong Kong, too, but since I had been there already and being low on funds, all I wanted was to go home. Another reason was that my friend Sabrina was leaving the next day for Germany and I had promised her to see her off at the airport. When Jia and I were waiting to board the plane, I asked her why she didn’t want to go to Hong Kong. She confessed that she actually wanted to go, but our boss had told her that she has to accompany me back to Beijing, because he was worried about me. I was so shocked by that, I didn’t know what to say. Of course it was very thoughtful and caring of him to send one of my colleagues with me to Beijing, but on the other hand it was absolutely unnecessary. I am used to travel on my own and to take care of things on my own and I definitely don’t need a babysitter!!! I also felt very bad for Jia. If I were her, I would be pretty mad at my boss and at that stupid laowai I had to look after. Well, it wasn’t my fault actually, since it was not my idea, but I still felt bad for her.
But this also showed me once more this very typical Chinese cultural trait. Many Chinese don’t like to do things on their own or be alone. And a sense of community influences every aspect of their lives. They travel in huge groups, never wander off the beaten path, make decisions only with the consent of everybody involved, share their room and live with their parents until they move in with their spouse. Obviously not everybody. But this is definitely more true than for many other societies. I am the exact opposite to all the traits and characteristics that one would consider typical Chinese. I might be an extreme case, moving alone to the US when I was only 16, and now exploring the world on my own once more. Traveling and living in foreign countries on my own, relying only on me is adventurous and when I am successful, the feeling of accomplishment and confidence cannot be described. This Business Trip to Shenzhen made me realize that I don’t have much in common with the Chinese people, but it helped me understand it a little bit better…
Want to read what happened after my Business trip to Shenzhen?