Student Blog: The China Ten - Business Study Tour of China
A Look Back on the Trip to China
by Brad Ross '09
After a fun-filled night in Beijing, the following day we had to pack up our overstuffed luggage and begin the long trip back to the U.S.A. But during the 20+ hours of flying and the four connecting flights, Catawba College's China Ten had plenty of experiences to reminisce about.
I had the opportunity to exchange personal experiences and insights with group member Sheri Keithley as we sat beside each other on all the flights home. Throughout the duration of the trip, Sheri and I shared a lot of similar experiences, but sometimes with differing opinions. So within this last installment of the China blog, I hope to address any loose ends that I have skipped over in my previous entries and to provide the opinions of fellow group member, Sheri, to further enhance the reading experience.
As a first-time world traveler, Sheri admitted that she took for granted many of the luxuries we have readily available in our Western culture. Her biggest adjustment was accepting the traditional Chinese cuisine. Before arriving in China, her preconceived notions of Chinese food were mostly influenced by her favorite Asian eatery, P.F. Chang's. But it didn't take very long for her to realize that her favorite dishes like chicken and broccoli teriyaki or General Tao's chicken were not native to China's restaurants. Many of China's eateries served their food in the style known as dim sum. This style of cuisine usually comprises of a variety of light meals that include different meat, veggie and fish dishes that are served specifically to complement each other. Because each dish had its own unique flavor that acted as a counter-balance for the previous or upcoming dish, the taste was very unorthodox to the Westerner's palate. Sheri jokingly admitted that during her stay in China, she joined a new dieting fad known as the " China diet." This non-deliberate dieting scheme consisted mainly of eating white rice and on occasion, some of the various steamed veggies that were available. But even though she shed a few pounds, Sheri was more then willing to retire her rice diet and begin eating Western cuisine once again. I believe that Sheri's opinion on traditional Chinese food holds more similarities to the overall consensus experienced throughout the group during our dining escapades. My personal opinions of the food that I shared with readers along the way were seldom the majority attitude within the group. I like to believe that my daringness to try everything, God's gift of a cast iron stomach, and lifelong liberal eating habits were the main culprits behind finding enjoyment in every meal. So by differentiating the habits of Sheri's conservative approach to dining with my "If it doesn't kill me, I will eat it" mindset, I hope that readers can begin to draw conclusions as to how their taste buds would survive in China.
Another major alteration Sheri and the other female members of the group had to adhere to were the Chinese restrooms. Throughout our tour of the country, we came across many restrooms that instituted the squatting toilet. This simple porcelain hole in the ground forced its users to bend down and hover while relieving themselves. For the male audience, the experience of using the bathrooms for number one was less daunting because we could simply stand as if we were at a urinal. But when it came to number two, it was a challenge for all and made for some very long days of holding until we returned to our hotel. To further add insult to injury, many of the public restrooms we encountered did not have toilet paper available for their guests. To accommodate our varying bathroom situations, Sheri and the girls instituted a ranking system that helped the group determine whether or not to use the facilities. Based on a one to five-star scale, a five-star bathroom in China consisted of all the common Western amenities that we believe a bathroom to have, but were rarely encountered throughout the country. On the other side of the scale, a one-star "bathroom" included all the luxuries that a forgotten construction site port-o-pot would have to offer. The toilet would be a squatting hole, extremely dirty, no toilet paper and sometimes absent of the dividers between each stall. Needless to say, the one-star bathrooms were avoided at all costs and only utilized in emergency situations.
Because our trip to China had a specific emphasis on business, this blog would not be complete without summarizing the overall impressions of Chinese business. Due to the Chinese government having substantial control over economic activities throughout the country, I believe the company tours we experienced were slightly skewed in order to expose us to the lighter side of China's business world. Group member Robert Van Geons was first to highlight this observation during our company tour of Kami Corp. This particular company placed an extremely high emphasis on their environmental preservation efforts, offering products to the Chinese public that were eco-friendly and reduced carbon footprints. But within a highly polluted country such as China, these efforts are merely scratching the surface of the problem and are not normal practices in Chinese manufacturing. Also the majority of the tours we were led on had a "Disney World" resemblance to them. What is meant by this phrase is that most companies led us through faux company wings that were designed for touring purposes and concluded the tour by landing us in company gift shops or free sample rooms. The only tour that I and the rest of the China Ten believed to depict the true essence of Chinese business was of Shougoung Steel in Beijing. The entire group was extremely trilled with the experience of engaging the corporate representative in conversation regarding his company. In addition, we were given the opportunity to tour the facilities and watch workers operate heavy machinery such as the blast furnace as they went about their normal day of labor.
On the small scale business aspect, the Chinese people will go to all ends to make a dollar. This could not be more evident then with the street vendors and storefront workers present throughout every major city. As mentioned before in earlier blogs, store clerks will constantly hound a prospective buyer until they either commit to a purchase, or run away in frustration. As we continued to deal with street vendors, we began to also discover how inflated their displayed prices were in comparison to the true value of the product. Merchandise displayed at a starting barter price of $20 USD could easily be dwindled down to $2.00 with firm negotiating. But many store clerks make their daily revenues through unsuspecting tourists who will settle with paying $15 for the same $20 marked product, thinking that they got a great deal. Through our many shopping expeditions, Sheri and I were deemed very tough customers by store clerks countrywide, due to our stiff and unwavering negotiation tactics. It was certainly attainable by our standards to barter down a product originally marked at $90 for the obscene price of $8. Aiding our quest for low prices, we instituted such tactics as Sheri's infamous "Uh not for that price" walk-away to my scheme of dividing my money up into separate pockets and reaching into one pocket per vendor claiming, "This is all I have, take it or leave it." By the end of the trip, we had felt very proud of our success in returning some of the advantage to the buyer's side.
But even with every single tactic being used in order to get the right price, the salespeople of China have mastered the art of selling and usually come out on top. Within a highly competitive market flooded with similar merchandise on every storefront, the seller must figure out every way possible to attract and close business transactions. We were given a chance to talk to several store clerks during our shopping trips in Beijing's Silk Street market to hear their tricks behind the trade. One specific store clerk named Summer helped put the hectic sales life into perspective for Sheri and me. Because the average salesperson at a vender stand makes about 2000 RMB ($285USD) a month based off commission, they must use every tool in their arsenal to get people to their stand. The first trick that a good salesperson institutes is the appearance factor. The majority of sales personnel we came in contact with was of the female gender and embodied soft yet innocent features. This childlike appearance sometimes lulls potential buyers into a state of trust and comfort making them more prone to buying. Once an item is picked out and the bartering phase of the transaction begins, many sales personnel take the innocence factor a step further by instituting pity tactics, claiming that they won't make any money from a price or that they will have no money to buy dinner. Once the transaction is complete, they will further try to increase the sale by offering a discounted rate if more of the product is purchased. And a final tactic that some with lesser morals institute is that upon returning change to a customer, they slip them counterfeit bills or Russian money, which is only worth a mere fraction of the RMB. Fortunately for the China Ten, we all had very rewarding and clean encounters with the aggressive street vendors and were pleased with the majority of our purchases.
With the 2008 Beijing Olympics right around the corner, every major city in China is taking advantage of the business opportunities that this event will produce. As we toured from city to city, Sheri and I both agreed on seeing Olympic advertisements and merchandise flooding every street corner from Hong Kong to Beijing. But besides these small-scale accommodations, there have been some major changes to the country in preparation for the games. The Bird's Nest Stadium located in the heart of Beijing is the primary example of China's efforts to accommodate the Olympics. This massive architectural masterpiece will not only house the games, but acts as a symbol for China's willingness to open up and leap into the 21 st century. In addition to the construction of the stadium, other major construction contracts have been negotiated in response to the Olympics. Modern housing projects have begun in order to provide adequate living conditions for the athletes during their stay. Fortunately, we were given the opportunity to drive past these new housing complexes to get a closer glimpse at the provided facilities. Each athlete will be given their own luxurious apartment suite complete with the latest amenities tucked away in a stylish, yet functional gated community. In addition to housing, the newly operational Beijing International Airport was built to accommodate the massive flow of crowds that the games are estimated to draw. This breathtaking airport has obtained the title of being the world's largest airport as well as one of the most aesthetically pleasing. The design of the building's interior is very modern, instituting large glass panes at the entrance and steel beams running parallel from end to end across the bowed ceiling. But the major architectural achievement of the airport lies in the building's appearance from overhead. As travelers fly over the mammoth structure, the building will appear as a dragon spread across the green grass of Beijing's countryside. When we flew out from Beijing International Airport at the conclusion of our trip, I was fortunate enough to lean over to my window and experience the breathtaking sight.
Aside from the large-scale construction efforts, there are many other changes that China is instituting in their preparation for the 2008 Olympics. One major concern that is being addressed is the high levels of pollution and unsanitary conditions the country is known for. Upon arriving in Beijing, Sheri was one of the first to realize how much cleaner the entire city was in comparison to previous places we had visited. As expected, the cleanup efforts in Beijing are in full swing due to their time constraint. To further increase their sanitary conditions, new laws are being imposed to help clean up the streets. One major regulation under strict enforcement is the banning of public excretion of all forms, ranging from spitting to fecal discharge. Even though these acts are socially unacceptable by Western standards, the Chinese have grown accustomed to relieving themselves whenever the urge strikes.
My overall impressions on pollution and sanitation in China are mixed. Even though they are making progress in improving their living conditions, there were many places that left me yearning to take a shower. The pollution aspect of China is extremely evident in the air quality, or lack thereof. In many of the cities we traveled to, Catawba's China Ten found themselves choking down thick, dense, humid air that just did not seem natural. Also, it was a rare occurrence to have a day graced with clear blue skies. On a positive note, the city streets of China were some of the cleanest, well-maintained travel ways I have ever walked on. From traveling abroad to Costa Rica last summer, I experienced the epitome of cluttered streets and unkempt metropolises. In downtown Heredia, Costa Rica, I sometimes found myself stepping over mounds of garbage, avoiding two-foot deep potholes in the pavement and unintentionally sloshing through cesspools of dirty stagnant water. China, by no means, comes close to the poor state of municipal cleanliness that Costa Rica exhibited. Street ways were mostly well-kept in China with little garbage buildup or damage to the pavement. Also in many regions of China's cities, there have been drastic efforts to introduce plant life through innovative urban garden landscapes and installing elaborate street planter boxes. To discuss my opinion on China's sanitation, I believe the key element lies within the handling of foods. The restaurants we dined at typically practiced proper hygiene procedures including wearing latex gloves, breathing masks and aprons. But outside of the formal dining areas, especially on the streets, was a completely different story. It was not uncommon to walk through the market district of a city to see live chickens being decapitated onsite by street butchers or seeing produce being laid out on the cement for consumers to come up and purchase. Even though I committed myself to trying every culinary work that China had to offer, I always drew the line when questionable sanitation came into the picture. To help me pick and choose my dining expeditions, each restaurant advertised a letter grade sanitation score, similar to the system used in the state of North Carolina. I am positive that these little certificates helped save my stomach on numerous occasions from a lot of grief and agony.
One final topic I would like to discuss from my experiences in China concerns the earthquake aftermath and relief efforts. The entire country of China has truly come together in remembrance of the thousands who lost their lives and in support of the millions who were left homeless from the disaster. Throughout every city we traveled to, there were traces of relief efforts ranging from money collection to local hospitals opening their doors for earthquake survivors. One unique happening that Sheri and I were able to witness was at the Shenzhen airport before our departure. As we were waiting to check our luggage in at the terminal, a group of Chinese civilians were wheeling a flatbed pushcart topped sky high with camping tents. This unusual sight boggled both Sheri and myself, but we thought nothing more of it after they passed by. It was not until several days later that our tour guide Xian unexpectedly shed some light on the situation. As Xian was elaborating on the earthquake relief efforts, he mentioned that many of the survivors left homeless from the disaster were forced to live inside camping tents until new apartment complexes could be constructed. Immediately putting two and two together, Sheri and I turned to each other and realized that the tents we saw in Shenzhen were most likely bound for the survivors! This little happening, along with many others, convinced me that the people of China truly care with a passion about their unfortunate countrymen.
To conclude my blog of China, I would like to thank everybody who has taken the time to follow my experiences in this distant country and hope that I have inspired readers to consider China as a future travel destination. As for my overall opinion on the trip, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience of immersing myself into the Chinese culture and it certainly has motivated me to travel elsewhere in East Asia. By getting a taste of how business is performed in China, I have further realized the large potential for U.S. businesses to succeed in China's Westernizing market. Therefore, if I were ever given the opportunity to work overseas in China as a U.S. business representative, I would take the position in a heartbeat. On behalf of me and the infamous Catawba China Ten, we would like to say Xie-xie (thank you!) to the Ketner School of Business for giving us this once in a lifetime opportunity and say that we are hopeful that our experiences can act as a foundation to encourage future overseas business explorations.
PHOTOS: The China Ten: Business Study Tour of China