I often get asked what China is like, and my response it to suggest that they visit. The problem is that it is difficult to describe a place which already exists in people’s minds. I remember having the same difficulty describing the United States to Chinese people who had grown up watching “Dallas” and “Bay Watch.”
This summer, I had a number of guests who visited Beijing for the Olympics, and I was curious to see their reactions and whether they differed from what they were expecting. My guests included a cross-section of people from government, business, the arts and the professions. Here are some of their reactions:
Socially, walking down the street, they saw people who did not act like downtrodden prisoners of an oppressive regime. To the contrary, the nationalistic pride over China’s successes not only in winning medals but impressing visitors with their accomplishments seemed to be the most prevalent sentiment.
Environmentally, the air, while not even close to the best of the Rockies, was not unlike most big cities in the U.S., and the food, accommodations and service was generally viewed as excellent.
Economically, no one who has been to Beijing’s famous Silk Market where hawkers sell luxury brand knock offs next to local goods will have no doubt about the capitalistic zeal and abilities of Chinese sales people. The number and variety of the high-rises, luxury shopping centers, housing and cars also made it clear what 10 percent annual growth can do.
Politically, they found that the Chinese are as interested in and as puzzled by the nature and mechanisms of American democracy as we are by the nature and mechanisms of Chinese communism. For instance, try explaining the nature and purpose of the U.S. Electoral College or how state and federal voting districts are redrawn every 10 years, and you will get more than a few quizzical looks and questions.
One observation was that the Chinese people acted the same way we might if the 2016 Olympics were to come to Chicago.
Over dinner, we chatted about how people’s lives have changed over the last 30 years; from shopping at local open air vegetable and meat markets to perusing foods from around the world in five-story grocery stores; from Hutongs to modern apartments; from bicycles to cars and from newspapers spread out on a local wall to the internet and TV.
It was pointed out that in the late 80’s, if you had a locally made bicycle or a Singer sewing machine or a Timex watch, you were the envy of your neighborhood in China, and if you had all three, you had arrived. Today you would need a Rolls Royce, a multi-million dollar apartment and a Vacheron Costantin Tour de l’Ile (real, not knock-off) to get the same effect.
The economic changes that have swept through China are impressive and obvious, as are the shopping and the historical sites, but these are only a few of the facets of China. Some of the best parts, exchanging cultural views, personal interests and jokes over a three-hour diner, taking an afternoon to drink and learn about the art and appreciation of tea, chatting with friends while having a foot massage or taking time to talk with people about their work and lives, are too often lost to hectic sightseeing checklists or schedules. It is a pity, because these are the points when you can get a small glimpse of what China is really like.
In a highly competitive society where pressure to succeed socially and economically can be often overwhelming, the art of relaxing is an essential part of keeping the balance. Unlike in the West, where we often switch from one engrossing activity to another (from work to work-out), in the East, they tend to switch off when relaxing.
So, when possible, each of my guests experienced a foot massage, took a walk through a Hutong, visited the local mega-supermarket, learned about tea and shared a leisurely diner.
Dinner at a reasonable Chinese restaurant in a private dining room for 10 will be about $100. An afternoon of tea sipping and shopping will cost about $40, depending on your tastes, and will keep you and your friends stocked for a year. A guided tour of a Hutong district is about $30; the walk through a modern Chinese supermarket is free. An hour-long massage, $10 to $15. It is terrific for relieving jet lag, taking the edge off that 20-story Great Wall climb and anything else that ails you. It is also a great alternative to a karaoke bar and a lot more conducive to talking about life or business.
For fun, if you have a translator, you can ask the staff to diagnose you through the soles of your feet. It takes some a moment or two to get over the decadence of having someone wash and massage your feet, but so far everyone has survived.
At the end of their trip, each of my guests has said that their experiences differed sharply from their expectations and that they had enjoyed my suggested excursions.
Now think; 4.3 billion people watched the Olympics on TV, 6 million tickets were purchased and more than 500,000 people visited China to be part of the event. What was seen and experienced will change the world’s perception of China, but the reality will continue to be a bit more elusive.
Doing business in China is not for everyone, but for those who choose to, knowing the difference between the perception and the reality is both an advantage and what makes it a true experience.