I’m working in China this week and been up since 4 AM due to the time difference. I have flown, taken the train, subway, walked, and taken many taxis. The country is still growing impressively. I was in Harbin a few days ago, a northern city close to the Russian border (you can order Borscht). Harbin is famous for its ice sculptures in the winter because of the freezing temperatures in the winter but the weather has been very pleasant in the 70s deg F.
I was on the high speed train going from Shanghai to Hangzhou in less than an hour’s time. It’s very similar to the Japanese Shinkansen system. The country is building up its infrastructure and the city has a very well planned transportation system of high speed rail and subway. Surface transportation is another story. Drivers seem to change lanes constantly and abruptly, while playing a game of chicken with one another in seeing who will blink first and allow the other to continue with fenders merely inches apart.
I've really enjoyed working with some wonderful colleagues and countries in different countries and gotten to know them as friends. You learn to appreciate their perspective when dealing with the home office and markets..
Here are some notes on working in different cultures and countries:
1. Don’t be an ugly American (or Canadian…or Brit, etc.). Too many folks from the head office are loud, boisterous - basically just plain rude. You will be tolerated but not respected. The China social media has been buzzing about some recent events involving a drunken Westerner (identified as a Brit) sexually assaulting a Chinese girl in Beijing (graphic video of the man getting his due) and of a Russian cellist berating a Chinese passenger on a train (he boasted that he was a cellist, was tracked down online and sacked) so anti-Westerner feeling is higher than usual.
2. Don’t get personal unless you are very familiar with the person. It is okay to ask about family to a certain level but I wouldn't ask how much they paid for their flat.
3. Don’t talk politics. You will never win and just leave each other angry. Remember “my country, right or wrong…but my country!”
4. Smile. This is universal.
5. Be kind and courteous to all, including the hotel staff, restaurant personnel, the office cleaning lady, etc. Same for your office staff. Everyone in every position deserves my equal respect.
6. Rest. This may be very difficult since local offices may try to take advantage of your presence by cramming in as many customer visits, discussions, etc. Any time differences and jet lag won’t help. However, you won’t do much good to be tired and sleepy when you need to pay attention.
7. Stay hydrated. Stay hydrated. Stay hydrated. Bring along bottled water because there is much talking to do and you can’t drink the tap water in some places.
8. Be careful of what you eat and drink. This is not the time to get the runs. You can’t drink the tap water out the faucet in some places and you cannot be sure of the ice cubes in some other places. Your “western” stomach and immune system may not be able to take on what locals can.
9. Pack energy bars for a snack. Don't forget Pepto Bismuth, antacid, etc. (A colleague once had to graphically describe that he had the runs to get meds in a foreign country. He started his mime routine by squatting in front of the pharmacist. Suffice to say that it definitely got more interesting visually after that.)
10. Sleep Aides. I tried melatonin and just unsure if it made any difference. It might work for others.
11. Learn some local phrases if not the local language. Don’t expect everyone to speak your language. It will also be appreciated by locals if you at least try.
12. I tend to buy a box of pastries, etc. when I go to the office on the first day of a visit.
13. Have a photocopy of your passport and scan it into your travelling PC or smart phone. This may be helpful if you lose it. Keep your passport with you at all times or in the hotel safe.
14. Let the local office go home and be with their family at night and on weekends. The local office staff may feel obligated to entertain you for dinner or sightseeing. I let them know that this is unnecessary.
15. Do not ask questions or press in an aggressive manner, especially with customers and colleagues in front of their managers. “Face” is very real.
16. Rule of 60/40 applies. Listen at least 60% and talk no more than 40% of the time.
17. Observe local customs. Ask your local staff if you are unsure. For example, you should present your business card with both hands and spend a minute looking at the business card given to you in most Asian countries.
Note that customs change over time!
On an earlier visit many years ago, I addressed stangers by the Chinese word for "comrade" ("Tung Zhee"). I knew that this was a greeting by the older folks in the early days. Not much of a response but some good stares. My wife and colleagues told me that "Tung Zhee" has evolved to refer to someone who is gay.
18. Speaking of faces, don’t make faces or look horrified if you see different aspects or foods that you are not used to. So you see a cooked chicken with the head attached or the host ordered a fish head dish (it’s actually very tasty) – don’t be uncouth. Besides...try it, you may like it.
19. Watch the traffic! The driving lanes may be reversed so look before you cross. I am terrified of walking in China because pedestrians definitely do not have the right of way. I walk in the middle of the pack guessing that this must be the safest (I overheard 1 American walking next to me telling the other to follow the locals when crossing a street. I jokingly advised them not to follow my lead.)
20. Remember to keep promises. You will have much “homework” upon your return. The customer and fellow colleagues remember what you committed to do upon your return to the home office. Don’t make the company and your reputation look bad by forgetting.
21. Watch your language. Here's an example from yours truly...I worked a trade show in Toronto where our booth was based on a theatre theme with products being "premiered". We acted as ushers and passed out theatre candy to trade show visitors. I was curious why passerbys kept taking Raisonettes and not one person would take the chocolate covered peanuts. In fact, some of them seemed rather offended and kept walking. Finally, I asked aloud why no one wanted "Goobers" while waving a box. A visitor carefully studied the box and told me that "Goobers" meant "nose pickings" in Canada. I was offering "nose pickings" to trade show visitors.
22. Enjoy! Soak in the culture and atmosphere! It’s a great opportunity to learn more. I find that I always make new friends with staff and customers alike.
What other tips and notes do you have on travelling overseas?