I am back from a long but very successful trip to Asia, working with our local staff, meeting customers, and presenting at two seminars in Guangzhou and Ningbo. It's good to be home with family but I do miss the daily breakfast buffet at the hotels (my wife said that I can make my own if I wanted it).
One of the nice things about travel is really getting to know your colleagues on a personal level. You build up camaraderie as you all travel by planes, trains, public transport, walking/running, skipping lunch, and working into the night. However, you need to be careful about getting too personal and inquisitive, e.g. a Western colleague asked a Japanese colleague about the value of his home and got an evasive reply.
Here are a few tips when working with colleagues and customers in Asia (especially China):
1. “When in Rome or China, do what the Romans or Chinese do.” Don’t try to stick out like a sore thumb. One of my colleagues was upset about his hotel, found the food to be inedible, was indignant about having to take public transport versus having taxi service when visiting customers, and took his complaint to the country manager. This did not leave a good impression with the country staff since they stayed in the same hotel, ate the same food and also had to take the same public transport since it is faster and easier. Use this as an opportunity to soak in the local culture if you are in such a situation. Generally, you’ll find something edible. There are plenty of McDonald’s and KFCs in Asia so you can usually run out from your hotel on your own. Oh, and stop making faces and screaming when you see a cooked chicken or duck with the head intact or chicken feet as a dish. Just suck it up.
2. Don’t try to be or act special. I get rather uncomfortable when a colleague tries to carry my bags. This is the Asian way of being gracious and hospitable to guests, especially those they consider to be senior. I just don’t like to insinuate that I am any different than they are and insist on carrying my own bags. Your hosts will also try to take care of your evenings and weekends. I again respectfully decline since they all have families and work to attend to. (The only caveat is that dinners can be a good way to bond and know each other personally.)
3. Avoid political discussion with both colleagues and customers. This can be a rather touchy area especially with current events. Remember the quote: “My country…right or wrong, but MY country.” So I generally side-step politics.
4. Business Cards. Use both hands to accept and pass out business cards. Take a brief moment to look at the business card as a sign of courtesy. Applies in many Asian countries.
5. Speak slo-oo-wly and with less jargon. We are already imposing on the local staff and customers to interpret our English (unless you can speak the local language) so help them by slowing down your speech.
6. Carry a bottle of water (especially in China). Customers usually give you a bottle as a courtesy but you can gulp it down quickly when you travel, especially in the hotter regions. You can skip lunch but you can’t skip water. While you are at, don't forget to bring antidiarrheal, antacids, and other preventive medicines etc.
7. “_ _it” Happens (just like travel anywhere else). My flight in Guangzhou to Shanghai was delayed for over four hours due to weather. (it was amazing watching a number of fights break out at the Guangzhou airport). Customer service is still lacking for many Chinese domestic airlines. The airport hotel was overbooked on the night before my flight home. You grin, smile, and work through it.
8. Skype, FaceTime, Tango are amazing, economical ways to call home. Hotel and mobile calls are expensive and phone cards don’t always work (some hotels make it difficult to reach the local access number). I found Skype PC calls to phones to be a very inexpensive and convenient option with very good audio quality.
9. Many internet sites such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and blogs, are blocked in China so you should figure out how to bypass that before you go on a trip there. However, you may find it actually refreshing not having to read about what a Facebook or Twitter friend just had for breakfast or felt that morning.
10. Make a promise, keep a promise. Remember that you are representing the “home office” which at times makes you the expert and sounding board. I always make sure that I follow up on everything that I promised when I meet local staff and customers. Otherwise, you will be one of the countless people who visit, pretend to listen, and never hear back from. Do not be one of them.