Surviving a Business Trip to China

During a recent whirlwind two week long trip through China consisting of stops in Xiamen, Shanghai, Xi’an, and Beijing, it came to mind how wholly unprepared for the experience the standard American business person with no previous experience in-country is (and how under prepared the writer was). With this in mind, the following will detail a survival guide for successfully avoiding many of the pitfalls faced by the unaware traveler, in combination with a description of a few surprise discoveries made by the author.

  1. Don’t Drink the Water

This may go without saying, but Chinese tap water is not fit for drinking. Forgetting this could result in a very uncomfortable meeting or at the very least make your trip miserable. More on this from the New York Times; but included here for the additional caveat: this includes brushing your teeth and drinks with ice. While boiled water is available many places that you can be reasonably sure is safe, travelers may not realize that the same treatment is often not afforded to ice made in freezers. Freezing does not sterilize water and the water’s original source may have been the tap. Proceed at your own risk. Also, a travel medicine visit before your trip will ensure preparation with antibiotics and other helpful medicine should mistakes be made.

  1. Speaking of Toilets

Toilets in China range from Western style toilets to “Squat Style” toilets that do not have the bowl and tank setup that we are used to seeing, but instead consist of little more than a hole in the ground (google “Chinese Toilet” if you are really interested). For men this is less of an issue, but women may want to adjust water consumption throughout the day if they do not want to expand their bathroom skill-set. Likewise, (much like in the U.S.) women’s toilets often have very long lines for use!

  1. Address Card

Any experienced traveler can tell you that your hotel can order cabs for you to your location easily; do not make the mistake of thinking that the name and address of your hotel in English will be enough to get you home, however. With extremely large cities and a written language that is not only different words but characters, it is very difficult to make it back home unless you have the name and address of the hotel written in Chinese characters. Many hotels will have a small business-like card with the name of the hotel and address in both languages – bring this. If your hotel does not have such a card, the front desk staff can help you by writing it out easily enough.

  1. Relationships are Key

Forbes lists 10 rules for success in China, but they basically all boil down to one thing: Maintaining Relationships. In a culture where a lack of governmental oversight previously ensured that getting things done required force of power through relationships over power of law, relationships still reign supreme in business. Robert Bravo of Compass Corporate Training (a consultant company in Shanghai City, China) explains that small talk during dinner may sway the course of a negotiation instead of the actual deals that on the table. With this in mind, don’t be in a rush to get to the deal at hand – ask about your contact’s children, take interest in the area, even share a drink (or two!) before getting down to actual business.

  1. Business Cards

Different from the almost laissez-faire method with which we toss around business cards in the West, the exchange of business cards in the East is a big deal. Cards are exchanged upon meeting and delivered with both hands, to be studied for a moment upon receipt. This is seen as a sign of respect, and one should not simply cram it in a pocket upon receipt like we may be want to do back home. Likewise, cards should be bi-lingual and delivered with the Chinese side facing the receiver. Do NOT throw them across the table, but stand and deliver each personally to the intended target.

  1. Nap Time

As elucidated in the International Business Times, afternoon napping is a common practice for adults in China. As seen on this last trip, factory workers were allowed and encouraged to take a 30 minute nap after lunch. Likewise, built into a company visit schedule was “rest time” which turned out to be time allotted for the same (while in full suits). Keep this in mind when reviewing itineraries, and attempt to adjust as needed/desired.

  1. The Dalai Lama

Similar to talking about a certain presidential candidate during election time, mentioning the Dalai Lama may set off a powder keg that you are unprepared to deal with. Called a “traitor” in the past, he is seen by some as “an anti-China separatist” and you would do well to steer clear of any discussion on this topic.

  1. Public Transport vs. Cabs

In Beijing especially but throughout much of the non-rural areas of China, public transport is key. Taking the time to download/print out a current subway map of the area you are traveling will save you much in the way of headaches. One way fares across town were often a maximum of 6 yuan and the subway comes every few minutes no matter the time of day. Cab transportation on the other hand will attempt to gouge you as a tourist, and much of the writer’s expenses while in-country came not from food or souvenirs, but instead from a few cab rides that might have easily been avoided with a little planning.