Expats in Asia A Different Breed

Expats in Asia A Different Breed

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When a really cheap fare comes flying across the computer screen, there are times when hopping on a plane is (well) less expensive than staying home. 

Having friends living in far-away places and willing to act as local guides is an added plus. Many people aren’t so hospitable in Paris since they’ve done it so many times and not everyone wants to see the Eiffel Tower yet again. That’s one of the problems when it comes to living in Paris. It’s such a short and easy flight from the U.S.

But when it comes to visiting Beijing, China, home to the 2008 Olympics, that’s another story. Mariana and I met in Paris more than twelve years ago. She’s one of the many who headed to the land of potential to explore multiple business opportunities. Marianna has an advantage over others who’ve done the same thing since she was born and raised in Hong Kong and speaks excellent Mandarin. Plus, she was ingrained with the Chinese sense of “saving face.”  

Even though my last trip was only three years ago, Beijing has grown and grown as if there’s no tomorrow. Fewer people speak English than in Paris and there’s no way you won’t stand out if you’re a Caucasian or even a foreigner. Even though the city is gearing up for the Olympics, don’t expect people over 30 to speak much English unless they’re in the service industry. 

Saving face is an attitude and doing things according to mores. Working in Asia requires foreigners to understand precisely how business is done and play by the rules. The Chinese are extremely sensitive to titles and protocol. Take the lead from them; foreign executives should have their own interpreters, rather than ones supplied by the government or the company with which you are trying to do business. 

Always be on time and leave the meeting before they do. Expect to make numerous trips and conduct many meetings before a deal is done.  Contacting the American Chamber of Commerce in China is a good place to start. Plus, there’s the Rotary Club and other organizations that facilitate business between the Chinese and foreign enterprises.

But this isn’t the Beijing I wanted to see.  If I were younger, I might have attempted to make my fortune by setting up manufacturing facilities that has the manpower to turn out an excellent product if supervised 100% of the time. From what I gleaned, the Chinese are excellent when it comes to implementing, but not as great when it comes to innovation. 

There’s no question that some exports have recently come under justified fire. These manufacturers and distributors are definitely going to have to clean up their acts.  Anyone who watches CNN’s Lou Dobbs will get an ear-full about the evils of doing business in China. The reality is that other countries are unable to produce goods at such low costs. You’ll run into buyers from Wal-Mart and Costco beating down margins.

But I wanted to see Beijing from an Expat’s perspective. Mariana arranged for me to tour neighborhoods that are here today but won’t be tomorrow. Buildings are demolished faster than you can imagine and Beijing is in full gear preparing for the Olympics.  Even the ancient alleys are in the process of being upgraded, if only with a coat of paint. It was a real surprise to find myself in front of the Confusion Temple. 

Taking taxis often poses a challenge since the driver might take the scenic route. The person who was kind enough to escort me sat in the front seat and told the driver which route to take. Each taxi has tiny microphones that have been installed by the government. When I last visited, I ventured nowhere without a card with Chinese characters instructing the driver where I wanted to go.

I was also able to see an apartment where a mid to upper level Chinese government worker lived. The building had formerly been union owned but is now a rental property for the Chinese only.  It was more than adequate but by no means lavish. The rooms were small but that’s not unusual compared to France. What’s different than France is that the building (less than 10 years old) had no hot water in the kitchen and the bathroom was rudimentary. No separate shower stall, no tub and forget a Jacuzzi

Non-Chinese live in newly constructed buildings that house Expats where rent is not cheap by any means.  They are everywhere and one gets the impression the buildings are by no means fully occupied. You can’t help but wonder what will come of all these buildings post-Olympics.

Mariana was kind enough to host a dinner for me with a group of Expats. As is often the case when you live in a foreign land, Expats tend to socialize with one another.  Each guest was living there for a specific reason and like Beijing despite the pollution which is hopefully being cleaned up. All of them voiced that they have worked with the Chinese but rarely socialize unless it’s a business or networking dinner. Westerners are rarely invited to a Chinese family’s home.

Before leaving, Mariana and I did a fast shopping stop. I think I’m good at bargaining but she puts me to shame.  All of the stall minders speak some English  — but you simply don’t get the same bargains if you’re able to debate the prices in Mandarin. Many of the booths stock the same goods so it’s possible you might be able to get something for even less. 

On my way back to the airport, I realized another enormous change. The traffic was practically a gridlock. The majority of the cars were new and expensive. Even though my trip was way too short, I gained a new perspective on this Chinese city. I wonder what it’ll be like in another ten years. Will it be the economic power some are projecting?

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