Thursday, July 7, 2011

"Honey, I'm going to China for business"

The American perspective:

So you've just been told you're going to Shanghai on business. If you're pretty new in the business travel game, you're kind of excited, if not, you know that you'll have a comfortable trip regardless. You'll fly business class and be picked up at the airport. You'll probably be put up in a decent hotel - a Sheraton, Hyatt or Marriott at the least, something much fancier depending on your position and the importance of the trip. You'll attend a few meetings, possibly even held in your posh hotel, have a few business-related meals in good restaurants and have all that great food reimbursed by the company. You'll probably have a day or two to go sightseeing, or be able to extend your trip by two or three days with personal leave (paid by you) if you're interested in a mini-vacation. You'll have time to walk the Bund and do some shopping, hit up a swank bar or two, and you'll fly back, again in business class. You'll bring back enamel chopsticks for your kids who will be excited to hear about Mom or Dad's trip to China. You'll meet new people, do some networking, maybe have to deal with a cultural gaffe or two that will make a good story later. People will ask you about your life and work back home and share stories of their own trips or time spent working in the USA.

The Taiwanese perspective:

You've just been told you're going to Shanghai on business. You'll fly economy class and maybe get picked up - it depends. You have to write "Chinese" on your immigration form - if you write "Taiwan" or "Republic of China" you'll be denied entry. You'll head out past Shanghai to Kunshan, where you'll stay in a factory dormitory/guesthouse. There's nothing to do - Kunshan is an industrial zone. You'll be handling factory issues all day, attending meetings, and racing around like a madman or madwoman. No time for shopping and you won't be anywhere near anything interesting in Shanghai itself. You're so tired out after ten- to fourteen-hour days in the factory that if there is a day off - and there rarely is, because you often have to handle work issues through the weekend - you have the energy to flip on the TV in your room and sleep, and nothing more. You'll get asked about Taiwan all the time, with the added implication that don't you agree it's a part of China? Everybody knows that. Nobody will want to hear any other opinion on the matter and to say as much could get you into a fight, so you have to deflect those questions rather than stand up for your country. The factory workers, if they meet you, probably dislike you for being their Taiwanese boss. You get no more sleep or free time than you would in Taiwan. When you fly back nobody asks you about your trip - they all know that a "business trip to China" doesn't mean high-rise hotel bars and networking at business dinners in Hong Kong, Shanghai or Beijing. It means a week in a factory dorm in Kunshan, Tianjin, Shenyang or Dongguan. You fly there and back on your own time, not company time. You eat crappy food. You go to work the next day, not even a few hours to recuperate. Back to the meetings, back to the fluorescent lights.

Of course, it's not always like this - I am sure there are American businesspeople who endure awful trips to China with back-to-back meetings and hostile negotiations, and I have students who go to China and have a posh time of it in downtown Shanghai, Hong Kong or Beijing.

I'm just talking generally about what I've noticed, comparing the majority of my students' trips to China and those I know in the USA who regularly travel there on business.

I thought of this after a taxi driver told me yesterday, "so you are American? Why are you going to this office building? Are you a boss?" "No. I do corporate training - business English, business skills." "But you are American. I think Americans are the boss and the Taiwanese are workers. So you should be the boss."

This comment really bothered me, I must say. I don't necessarily think the driver approved of the situation, but it was uncomfortably accurate (although in a way that was more true even ten years ago and is slowly starting to fade) and painfully self-deprecating and neo-colonialist.

And I can't help but wonder when there'll be some great shift in the world economy that makes it so the dividing line between business class and the W Hotel and a factory guesthouse in Dongguan isn't so sharply divided along racial lines.


TG said...

I work in IT and have many Taiwanese colleagues. I personally don't do business with China, but the one who are sent there on business trips, never had the experience you described. And in fact, they are usually flying to Shanghai. But we have no factory in China, many IT companies in Taiwan don't. We just see China as a potential market. But those Taiwanese companies, who produce in China and keep sending some people to check on the factories - I pity them. It's more or less as you described. Many companies made a mistake for the long run to produce in China (there are other options). They're giving away knowledge, which will be stolen and used for a new successful Chinese company. Luckily mine wasn't so stupid to focus on the low cost and go there. And more and more companies are realizing that and will slowly pull out or not enter at all.

My two cents based on my personal perception (with focus on IT).

Jenna Lynn Cody said...

Oh, there are definitely exceptions. At one company where I work, which doesn't have a factory or production facility (they design online games), my student regularly goes to China, stays at fancy hotels and eats at the best restaurants while talking to customers, clients and business partners.

I'm talking about the general idea of business travel to China, and so much of China-Taiwan business is factory/hardware/production facility based. It's those guys who go to Kunshan and stay in a factory dorm, and they outnumber those who stay in fancy hotels

TG said...

I completely agree with you. Very good post, I enjoyed reading it (thumbs up).