Davidson, N.C.  

Doing business in the Chinese-speaking world



The following article by David Boraks is reprinted from Mandarin Speaks, published by The Chinese Connection, Charlotte, N.C., 1995

Lesson III . The man who knew too much

The young Canadian businessman wanted to make a good impression on his potential clients. Shortly after arriving in Taipei, while setting up his financial services office, he decided to demonstrate for his neighbors his broad knowledge of local customs — or so he thought.

Renting an office on the main drag in one of the most fashionable shopping districts, he hired a feng shui expert (a geomancer, who specializes in determining the proper geographic locations and orientations of structures and furniture, etc.) to come and test his office. To the surprise of none of those watching, the expert pronounced the office satisfactory and walked off with his fee.

The young businessman, who planned to sell mutual funds that would allow buyers to qualify for Canadian immigration, talked up his achievement in the neighborhood, chatting with shopkeepers, curious neighbors and other passersby. (They probably met later over tea and laughed uncontrollably.)

The Canadian had studied Mandarin and had traveled previously in both China and Taiwan. He had clearly immersed himself in the culture and traditions of Chinese- speaking people — an effort that is a feather in the cap of anyone interested in doing business in Taiwan or China. But somewhere along the line, he had forgotten the primary prerequisite for successful intercultural communication — humility. He had gone beyond studying the culture and, unfortunately, had begun to fancy himself an "expert."

Don’t be overconfident

For example, his confidence with Mandarin was almost without bounds. But his skills were not. His Chinese was painful to listen to. Other westerners who met him at first thought themselves lacking after hearing him brag about his skills. But Taiwanese who met him remarked the same in private.

He seemed to have done it all. And if he encountered something he hadn't tried, he was hell-bent on doing it. At a resaurants, he ordered the oddest dish on the menu. He rode an illegal motorbike. He was brash, a regular "Mandarin Macho Man."

But not all of his tactics were fully Taiwanese. Although he may have fancied himself knowledgeable about the cultural landscape when he arrived, he lacked the No.1 most important thing: contacts. He had no contacts and no apparent friends — western or Taiwanese.

To establish contacts, he held a series of free seminars on his nation's immigration requirements. He advertised in the newspaper. He put up fliers. Few people came. We watched for several months, after which he told us he still had not made a sale. We weren't not surprised.

Mr. Expert really didn't know as much as he thought he did. He always had another angle for making money. He once tried to sell Canadian-made water filters. The water in many places in Taiwan is not drinkable out of the tap because of biological contaminants. It must be boiled first. He mistakenly believed he had found the answer to all of Taiwan's drinking water problems and that he was the first person to think of it. He put the filter on the faucet of the apartment we shared and proceeded to drink straight from the tap, no boiling, all the while insisting we didn't know what we were talking about in telling him he was risking illness. (The filter's label, which any of his customers could see, said it was not designed to filter biological contaminants.)

One weekend, we took a trip to southern Taiwan. Upon our return, we found him suffering in bed, getting up every once in a while to run to the bathroom. He sheepishly admitted his mistake.

The lesson of this story is, as mentioned in the first of these three articles, humility. Although this young man had done his best to learn about the culture in which he hoped to do business, he failed to maintain his perspective. He was, after all, not Taiwanese and never would be. He did not know where to draw the line.

Updated 23 November 1996

Lesson I . Cultural Humility

Perhaps the most useful negotiation skills you can bring to a first meeting with potential Chinese business partners are humility and patience.

Lesson II . Lunch with the Mayor

Understanding Chinese social customs, such as protocol at a business lunch with local officials, is crucial to developing relationships. A couple of lessons from failed and successful social encounters.

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About the author

David Boraks is an independent writer and producer in Davidson, North Carolina, USA. He has lived in Shanghai and Taipei and traveled widely in Taiwan, Hong Kong and China. Write him at dboraks@yahoo.com

Back to David’s home page

Copyright 1995 by David Boraks. Please do not reproduce without permission.

Updated 10 July 2007 (originally posted 23 November 1996)