Recently I've been engaged in a number of discussions about markting to another culture. I've done quite a bit of that. I spent two years working for a Chinese company and four years for one that was essentially an Indian company. This first story is about my first trip to China.
I went to work for LinkAir in January 2000. In fact I was the second employee in the US. I'd actually gotten my job offer first but the HR/Accounting person had to be hired first so I could get processed in properly. My job was to take this Beijing based company and effectively launch it in both countries. Those are stories for another post. This is about my first business trip over.
So I was hired and spent the first month or so hiring those essentials - a design/collateral firm and a Public Relations firm. The design firm was great - though not the best listeners. One thing we told them was that anything fire related was bad luck in China - their first proposed police of collateral had flames on it and looked like it had been singed. They thought fire was good luck in China. Ack.
My first trip to Beijing was when I had been in my job only about 2 months. It was a long flight - I changed planes in Japan and had a 4 hour layover - I'm not sure Mike ever quite recovered from a long distance call from Tokyo saying I'm bored and I have three more hours - talk to me.
When I finally arrived I had been awake for roughly 24 hours and I was desperate for sleep. Somehow I'd managed to arrive towards the end of the day and my firm sent me greeters - the office manager, my translator and my driver.
To prepare for the trip I had done extensive research - I read 4 books about China, consulted the members of Allexperts.com and did a lot of web research. So when I arrived I was prepared with copious numbers of gifts in my bag for everyone I encountered. I had also learned that Watermelon was a leading national crop. What I was not prepared for was the reluctance of my greeting committee to let me just go to bed. They insisted on taking me to dinner.
Finally I succumbed - it seemed they would never let me go. I was faced with an enormous menu in Chinese though there were some photos. I was in despair - I speak no Chinese and frankly would never even attempt to read it - and so I desperately pointed to one item which I took to be a large sausage . "What's that?" I asked. The translator looked at the item and immediately began an intense discussion with the rest of the group in Chinese. Finally he spoke, "Braised Ass Penis".
I thought I would faint. "Seriously?"
"Yes it is a great delicacy in our culture. Men eat it so they can give their wives many children."
"No no, it's ok. It's just very expensive - 1000 Yen."
I was even more horrified. What must they think? 1000 Yen was the equivalent of rougly $80 at the time - and more than most people make in a month.
the more I protested the more they insisted but I would not give up. i insisted I just wanted a salad. The waiter suggested Caesar salad. I agreed and we were able to move on. That is until my salad showed up - consisting of soggy lettuce with a large fish on top - the fish was completely intact - scales, fins and eyes. I couldn't help myself - i just had to ask. "What kind of fish is this?"
I did my best - between chopsticks and the unscaled fish I was doomed to go hungry - but I remain convinced to this day that I had been offered the Moby Dick of all anchovies - but better that than eating.....