Business As (Un)usual

December 27, 2012Jerry5 Comments

“I’m sorry, but the lavender pillow is out of order, can you please choose another?”

A classic mixture of over-the-top yet sincere customer service sprinkled with cultural “close enough-ness” to be charming.

A soft knock on my hotel door reveals a smiling young man with my Chinese Herb Pillow as I think “what a crazy idea”.

This is one example of why I love China and reminds me how lucky I am to experience firsthand this turning point in history.

After its emergence from the cocoon in the late 70’s, China is airing out its wings and we all know the inevitable flight will follow. However, as with a butterfly’s flight pattern, it is impossible to predict the paths’ trajectory.

I have found that business meetings can also follow this same unpredictable pattern.

I try keep in mind the continual subconscious pull of Confucian social harmony and general collective agency in the Chinese conscience, but does everyone really need to be given a chance to try show their “expertise” right in the middle of my presentation?

It ends up feeling like an improvisation comedy word association game where everyone immediately starts to talk which in turn spurns alternate discussions with more word association games until that one late guy shows up and then half the room leaves for a smoke break and the other half explains what he has missed which in turns spurns even more word association games.

I suppose one could argue that my presentation is the cause for the fracturing of attention, but it has happened with enough frequency to lead me to believe it doesn’t all fall on my shoulders.

For a Westerner, this can be quite baffling the first time once experiences it, but I have learned to accept it. In fact I often find myself being surprised at the orderliness and quietness of meetings back home.

I fear I am entering a nowhere land between East and West where things simultaneously seem weird AND normal in each place – where people in both cultures view my opinions as strange and even borderline offensive.

I am finally smart enough to realize that my initial impressions and opinions of things I see in China will very likely change eventually.

One of my first interests was watching the wonderfully chaotic swirling mixture of cars, buses, trucks, electric bicycles, two-wheeled bicycles, three-wheeled bicycles, diesel farm buggies, and the fascinating assortment of what I like to call “other forms of transportation”.

My ability to understand was overpowered by it all, but now when in a Shanghai taxi and approaching a seemingly impossible traffic obstacle I find myself thinking, “yeah, we can make it, something might give”, and often something DOES give, the driver adjusts slightly, and we glide through.

For my fellow Americans…imagine being a running back suddenly breaking into the secondary, but instead of trying to outmaneuver line backers and defensive backs, you find an assortment of cars, buses, trucks of various sizes, bicycles, electric bikes (faster and deadly quiet), and pedestrians coming at you FULL SPEED from ALL DIRECTIONS.

That ability to handle (potentially dangerous) incoming information will come in handy in remaining calm during business meetings when it appears all hell is breaking loose.

After another stimulating day, it turns out the Chinese herb pillow wasn’t such a crazy idea after all.

5 comments to “Business As (Un)usual”

  1. Paul | December 28, 2012 | Permalink Reply

    Enjoyable read. When in a teacher/student situation, it is difficult to make the students feel free enough so that they volunteer their questions, but when in a business meetings, indeed everybody starts expressing their knowledge among themselves. Only when they are finished, the attention returns to the teacher.

    Nowadays I just watch in amusement, even when I notice that the discussion is going in a totally wrong direction. They won’t come back to listen to the Laowei until they have settled the issue among themselves. I just try to remember who made the most smart or ignorant remarks and focus attention on those persons during the rest of the presentation. Often to big amusement of the audience. It is business as usual and if you can deal with it, it is one of the things that makes life in China so interesting and worthwhile.

    After several years in China, I feel that the, initially frustrating, meetings with such discussions (even though I might be almost totally ignored during the discussion) are more useful and productive then the meetings where nobody reacts and you have to guess how much of your lecture has been beneficial to the people that were present.

  2. Jerry | December 30, 2012 | Permalink Reply

    Hi Paul,

    I totally agree and I have learned, after five years, to deal with it and I do find it very interesting.

    I have tried to learn to become comfortable with being uncomfortable if that makes any sense.

    Thanks for talking the time to comment.


    • Paul | December 30, 2012 | Permalink Reply

      Hi Jerry,

      I really recognize myself in your: “learn to become comfortable with being uncomfortable“remark. :-)


  3. Mac | December 31, 2012 | Permalink Reply

    yes, that nowhere land between East and West is certainly somewhere I have been before. Most recently when wondering why people wait at the roadside for a green light to cross, when there is no vehicle inside – hell, why are there no vehicles..!? Oh, its Sunday and we are in Germany!

  4. Jerry | December 31, 2012 | Permalink Reply

    Hi Mac,

    I lived in Germany for six years, so I know exactly what you mean. :)

    Good beer there – cheers!

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