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First Impressions of China - A business expatriate perspective

A light-hearted view of being in China for the first time.

Wow, how time flies! I have been in China since 1998 and in that time so much has changed. I don’t mean the global News stories such as 9/11, SARs, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, The Tsunami, Earthquakes, China’s first and second manned space missions, the appreciation of the RMB and so on. No, I am referring to the changes in my conception of China and the Chinese people.

I was born in London, England, in the middle of the last century and grew up in the North-West of London in one of the quieter suburbs. Those were the days that children could play safely in the local stream, without fear of being poisoned by the polluted water, and could play in the local park without fear of being molested – or worse. In those days China could have been another planet, or even the dark side of the moon, since our knowledge of China was very scanty. We knew all about Chinese food (or thought we did), and were positive that all Chinese wore funny conical straw hats, carried everything in two straw baskets attached by a bamboo pole and could not pronounce the letter “r” but said “l” instead. In fact, if those days we knew more about the endangered Pandas than we did about China and the Chinese.

Forty years plus change later I was sent to China on a fact-finding mission for the company that then employed me. In the intervening years I had been to many places in the world and had met many different cultures. My knowledge of China had improved a little and I now knew that not all Chinese men had long pigtails, moustaches and wore silk gowns. I now knew that in addition to the Cantonese cuisine of my youthful Chinese restaurants, there were also such things as Sichuan cuisine and Peking Duck. However, the main China truths that I knew were Chinese people eat rice with every meal (4 – 5 meals per day), and that a traffic jam in China referred to bicycles not too cars.

My mission was to come to China as part of a seven expert delegation in order to check the feasibility of a large-scale agriculture project in China. The pre-departure briefing was very thorough – it consisted of the following Ten Commandments:
1. You are going to Taiyuan, Shanxi – here it is on the map.
2. Only drink bottled water, and make sure the seal is still intact.
3. Don’t go anywhere without a Chinese escort/interpreter since no one speaks English.
4. Don’t touch/look at the local girls – it upsets the local men.
5. Don’t make jokes – they cannot be translated because the culture difference is too big.
6. Expect to eat lots of rice.
7. Don’t ask what the meat is because you won’t want to hear the answer.
8. Take toilet paper and first aid kits with you.
9. Bring a present for your hosts.
10. Enjoy the trip.

With such a detailed background briefing what was there to worry about? Now we really were China experts!
So, one day in September 1998 we arrived in China for the start of our two-week fact finding mission. We excitedly landed at Beijing Capital Airport to find an old tired building that despite appearances was incredibly efficient. It was the first time in all my global travels that the bags were already on the conveyor belt prior to our arrival in the Baggage Collection Hall, and not because of delays at Passport Control.

We met in the Arrival Hall by the local representative of the Hong Kong company that wished to convince us to start a China operation. He explained to us that there was no time to go into the city since our connection was in two hours and that we were to wait at the airport. No problem, we will spend the time exploring the airport shops and restaurants. "Okle"(a Chinese version of Okay), he said and so off we went on our first voyage of discovery …….. which ended about 2 minutes later when we realized that there were no shops, just a few small kiosks, and nowhere to sit and drink coffee.

Finally we boarded the plane for Taiyuan. It was small and maybe of Russian origin. Once in the air the Flight Attendants distributed various items to the passengers including fans. Great, what excellent service, free souvenirs – at least these were our original thoughts. We quickly discovered that the fans were not just idle presents, but a necessity since the plane did not have air-conditioning.

From Taiyuan Airport we were taken at high speed to the hotel, which (I know now) was in the older and more decrepit parts of the city. Our first experience of Chinese driving was at full speed and at night. We noticed that most of the cars were without headlights. The explanation given to us by our interpreter was that the drivers are saving electricity – Hello China it’s a battery that’s constantly being charged; what exactly are you saving?

The hotel was in a part of the city that rarely seems to have seen foreigners since we accompanied at all times by the clamour of “laowei, kankan laowei lai le” (foreigners, look foreigners are coming). Our host’s partner’s wife was the owner of the hotel (which shall remain nameless) and had decided to delight our taste buds with the local delicacies – Shanxi noodles and Shanxi vinegar. During the two weeks we stayed there we had noodles with every meal.

The actual site we had to visit was about a ninety-minute drive from the hotel. An area that included a number of small villages with houses dug into the local hills and a couple of very polluted reservoirs that were used for bathing and washing clothes by the local inhabitants, and as a source of drinking water for the animals. The whole of the next two weeks we were driven daily, in fear of our lives, from the hotel to the site and back again. We walked up and down the hills, took soil and water samples for analysis, had hotel prepared cold noodles for lunch, and learned about the technological level of the Chinese farmers, the sizes of their plots and the types of crops and cultivars grown locally.

We returned home at the end of our study as newly graduated experts on China. We now knew that:

1. How to find Taiyuan on the map.
2. Only to drink bottled water, and to avoid the local alcohol “baijou” since it tastes like petrol.
3. Not go anywhere without a Chinese escort/interpreter – it is impossible even to find the WC by oneself.
4. Not to talk to the local men – it upsets the local women.
5. Only slapstick jokes can be translated.
6. Chinese only eat noodles.
7. Don’t ask what the meat is because we know the answer.
8. Take toilet paper and first aid kits with you at all times.
9. Bring many presents for your hosts, his family and his friends
10. Prepare for all the return visits.

Wow, tempus fugit, how time flies! I have now visited more places than most Chinese. I have lived for a couple of years in the Northeast, lived for over a year in the Northwest and since 2002 here in Beijing. I now wander freely without an interpreter, drive like a native – if you stop at a zebra crossing you are liable to cause an accident! I fearlessly talk to the local women (my wife and her friends) and finally understand how much I still have to learn about China and the Chinese.

Note for the scared first time visitor:
A lot has changed since those days. For example today Beijing Capital Airport is a comfortable ultra-modern airport with many shops and kiosks. Unfortunately the prices have also increased. The nearly non-existent Duty-Free kiosk has been replaced with a modern Duty-Free shop. The prices may indeed be Duty Free, but in comparison to the shops in China the prices are Duty Plus.

Now with 20 years of living and working in China, I am in an excellent position to help you avoid the same mistakes and stereotyping.

Learn from my experience, I did it the hard way - why should you?

Image: The delegation with local hosts

The delegation with hosts.

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