The Brancatelli File



June 15, 2006 -- Rebecca Bardes went to China to teach English and see a new part of the world. She came back with a husband, a consulting firm and, most important for us, a trove of useful information and strategies about doing business in and business with the world's newest economic superpower.

"Everything I read before I went seemed not to be true," Bardes says of her preparations before her first trip to China almost three years ago. "The tour books are especially bad and outdated. So I started making notes about what was really going on and how things really work. It's become the basis of all of the services we offer at Bamboo Suitcase," Bardes' consulting firm.

I've spent a few hours in recent weeks with Bardes and her husband, Hu Ren Yi, an artist, university professor and Bardes' partner in Bamboo Suitcase. I've come away dazzled with the depth and breadth of useful detail they offer on day-to-day business practices in China and how Chinese executives expect to interact with visiting American business travelers.

Without much prompting, Bardes will rattle off a laundry list of useful little tips that we can all use when traveling on business in China. Here are just a few of her most basic insights:

  · Agendas are fluid. "Everything is done at the last minute in China," Bardes explains. "They are trying to adapt to Western-style business practices, but don't expect a written agenda."

  · Gift-giving is pervasive. Although not as formalized and daunting as in Japan, the gift-giving culture among businesspeople in China is flourishing. "Bring some American tokens, like specialty foods," she says. "If a Chinese person gives you a gift, you are expected to reciprocate. But the good news is that you can reciprocate with your own corporate logo items. Chinese businesspeople love Western brands."

  · Flattery will get you everywhere. "Take every opportunity to compliment your Chinese hosts and potential business partners," Bardes says. "Saying things like, 'Your factory is so much better than ours!' really has an impact." The flattery works because Chinese "feel superior to foreigners and they think Chinese ways really are better than Western practices."

  · Smoking as business bonding. Chinese executives use cigarettes as part of business team-building. "It's customary to distribute cigarettes to participants of a meeting," Bardes explains. "Whenever anyone in a meeting lights up, he'll distribute cigarettes to others in the meeting. By the end of a meeting, you could end up with a stack of cigarettes in front of you. So even if you don't smoke, it's wise to have two or three boxes around so you can reciprocate." The preferred brand: Chunghwa, a made-in-Beijing cigarette packaged in red-gold boxes. Needless to say, Bardes adds, no-smoking laws don't exist in China.

  · Drink 'til you drop. As in many cultures, business in China is conducted over meals. "What is said over dinner is much more important than anything said in the office," Bardes says. But along with the dining comes a large amount of drinking. "If you even touch liquor, they'll keep it coming until you fall down. If you really don't want to get drunk, say that you have a health problem and turn down any offers of liquor. Otherwise, you'll be expected to drink to what we consider excess."

  · The language barrier cuts several ways. Many Chinese executives speak excellent English, Bardes says. And few expect Americans to speak much Chinese. But what may rattle visitors is how much difficulty Chinese businesspeople have communicating with each other. "Don't get frustrated when one Chinese person doesn't understand another's dialect." Mandarin, the official Chinese dialect, is spoken extensively in the offices of the big cities, but "it's not necessarily well understood in the countryside, where more and more factories are being built."

  · The gender gap is alive and well. Unlike other Asian societies, Chinese women are well-integrated in the nation's business infrastructure. But that equality does not extend to female visitors. "After a day of meetings or visiting factories, there'll be a night of partying, especially at what the Chinese call KTVs, which are karaoke places with girls as part of the entertainment. This is a guys-only kind of thing. Women will be entertained at dinner and then dropped off at the hotel so the men can hit the KTVs."

An artist by training, Bardes picked up all this insight almost as a by-product of her original reason for visiting China: to teach English as part of a six-week program in the Shanghai area. But after her initial six weeks were up, she chose to stay on, intrigued by the people, the culture and the rapid growth almost everywhere in China.

After Bardes met her husband, she and Hu realized that their observations were something they could share. Besides offering language lessons and artistic and cultural programs, they have recently expanded the brief of Bamboo Suitcase to business relationships. She and Hu now shuttle back and forth between China and the United States as they pursue their cross-cultural agenda.

"Even well-educated Americans tend not to know very much about China and how things work," Bardes says. "And even well-educated Chinese businesspeople tend to have odd perceptions about Americans."

Such as, I asked.

"Ever heard of Growing Pains?" Bardes responded. After seeing my blank expression, she explained that Growing Pains was a relatively obscure American television sitcom that has become fabulously popular in China.

"A lot of Chinese people know about American culture through Growing Pains and, of course, most Americans don't know what the Chinese are talking about. Chinese people also learn about Americans through movies, so they end up talking lots of book English with movie patter thrown in. It's very disconcerting if you don't know where it comes from."

But Bardes urges Americans to make sure that they don't expect the relationship to go one-way, with the Chinese straining to learn Western ways while we remain blissfully ignorant of how things work in China.

"You better know how to use chopsticks," she says, "because if you ask for a fork, you're going to be laughed at. And don't expect to blend in because you can't. Outside of the big cities, many Chinese people have never seen a laowai [foreigner]. You're going to stick out, so get used to it."

Perhaps most importantly, Bardes explains, Americans need to understand the Chinese concept of guanxi or business relationships. "It's very useful and it's much deeper" than Western-style networking. "Chinese businesspeople survive on their relationships. Everyone knows someone who can do something and they are happy to call on them to help you."

But, she warns, "Don't just take-take-take. You have to give back. Chinese people will expect you to use your relationships to help them and you must be as generous with your relationships as they are with theirs."

Copyright 1993-2006 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.