Ni Hao Ya’ll – A Country Boy View of Studying Business in China

Ni Hao Ya’ll – A Country Boy View of Studying Business in China

I couldn’t believe that I still had energy to hike another 3 or 4 miles on the Wall after spending almost two weeks exploring China’s oldest temples, largest cities, and busiest streets – but I did! Five years ago, I would have never thought that I would be hiking on the Great Wall of China but on May 18, I boarded a plane heading for Shanghai for one of the most enjoyable vacations (and adventures) in my life.

In early Fall, a faculty spot came open and I had the opportunity to Study in China for two weeks. The agenda that was sent to the faculty and students who would be participating and looked pretty full, so I decided to stay an extra five days to explore on my own. For the past 4 years, outside of my day job as a web technologist for Eastman Chemical, I’ve taught college night courses at local colleges on topics such as Internet Commerce, Web Technologies for Education and Global Human Resources. The trip was sponsored by the Southwest Virginia Higher Education Center and was open to students and faculty from Virginia Intermont, Emory and Henry, UVA Wise, and other Tri-Cities schools to study business and culture in China, so I was eligible to go “free” excluding airfare.

As China seeks to be one of the largest capitalist economies in the world, it was an exciting time to go. Everyday I hear complaints about how fast China is growing and how everything we buy is made in China or how many jobs go overseas to China, so I felt a need to see what actually is happening. I was pleasantly surprised to see where a large percentage of our American money goes, but recognize we need to change our paradigm.

The biggest challenge that I faced as I planned for the trip was learning about the culture and trying to prepare for the unknown. George H, trip coordinator, and the staff at the Southwest VA Higher ED Center did a great job setting up two sessions to learn about culture and language. We were introduced to several different facets of China which helped us prepare for what we were to experience. Though I’ve travelled to countries such as Italy, Greece, Germany, Scotland, and several others – I was totally not ready for the major cultural difference and lifestyle in China.

After the 12-14 hour flight, we landed in Shanghai which is China’s largest city and is also known as the hub of economic development for China. My jaw dropped to the floor as we rode the tour bus to our hotel through Shanghai which is also home to the largest port city in the world. Shanghai literally means “above or out to the sea” and with a population that fluctuates from 20-30 million everyday due to so many surrounding villagers moving to the city during work hours with hopes of finding industrial work, it was easy to see why the Chinese are eager to see their economy grow. Shanghai is home to over 300 of the Global Fortune 500 companies and has over 6000 foreign funded businesses.


Everyone knows that China exports a lot of stuff, but many folks in our area didn’t know that China actually imports hundreds of millions of dollars worth of chemicals, coal, computers, waste metal, and machine parts from the Tri-Cities area in addition to being one of the largest buyers of chicken feet (which was a pretty popular treat all over China). China is Tennessee and Virginia’s 3rd largest export market. In the book, China Inc. author Ted Fishman states that China has not stopped growing for the past 30 years and its economy has doubled over three times over. In 2007, China sold the U.S. more than $256-billion more in goods than they bought. This surge has no equal in modern history.

One of our speakers from the U.S. Dept of Commerce in China said that 10 years ago, 70% of U.S. businesses that set up shop in China were not profitable, now the figure has flipped and only 30% of U.S. businesses are not successful. However, we learned that setting up a business in China is more complex and bureaucratic than it is in the U.S. and there are certain businesses that do better than others such as hi-tech medical devices. And with their rating of 163 out of 169 in a global study of press freedom, China still filters news and views from citizens whose ideas might undermine China’s values of security, honor, and interests of the motherland.


While I was wandering around from different museums and temples, I kept hearing about the “four” major Chinese inventions which are paper, gunpowder, printing and the compass. I can see why they were so proud of these since there isn’t a day that goes by that these aren’t used by people all around the world. It was amazing to see the Forbidden City which was built from 1406 to 1420 by a million laborers, the largest imperial palace architecture of the world, where 24 Chinese emperors ruled China for 500 years. In addition, we saw the largest imperial garden in the world, Summer Palace, Ming Tomb, Beijing opera and Acrobatics show, and the famous silk market where I picked up a few Tommy Bahamas shirts for less than $10, copies of course.

So, why is China beating the U.S.? Asia’s economic success rests on social foundations formed by a renewal of old traditions emphasizing hard work, family cohesion, passion for learning, high savings rates, and disciplined and orderly societies. I have found that both Americans and Chinese find enormous cultural differences in each other’s culture, yet they both feel the impact of change from the other. While exploring Shanghai’s Bund area, I saw one of the largest buildings in the world, world’s largest port, and one of the most diverse economic centers in the world that shouts out on buildings and signs “See China Change.”

There were several interesting differences from North East TN that I found. Take food for example. I only found a few Western restaurants, KFC, Pizza Hut, and McDonalds and they were scattered pretty far from each other. Chinese food is actually very similar to American versions of Chinese food, except they just have more types of the familiar dishes that we enjoy. Things didn’t taste as sweet or as flavorful as you would have in the U.S. I remember when one of our students got an ice-cream which looked pretty “fruity” on the package, yet had peas and corn in it.

In the tourist sections of China, you would find people selling anything you could imagine and every time you turned around, people were saying “cheap for you” or ask “watches or bags” and when you asked for something else, that was pretty much the only English they knew. In most cases, when you stopped to express interest in a product, you were physically pulled into their small booth or chased down the shopping streets as they yelled cheaper prices to you with hopes that you would buy.

Our group of students and professors explored Shanghai, Hangzhou, and Beijing and shared wonderful experiences together. I think everyone was amazed at how well China preserved their culture and history while still growing into an economic superpower. From techno clubs to a boat cruise on West Lake, an opera to a hike on the Great Wall, we all learned something new about China that we hadn’t realized. One of the most intense moments was when we were in Hangzhou and were getting ready to board a train to Beijing. We saw thousands of people and ambulances near the station. At first we thought there was a parade, but when we arrived inside the train station with our tons of luggage on our side, we witnessed something very heartwarming. We saw huge numbers of doctors and nurses lined up in perfect formation waiting on earthquake victims so they could get them to the hospitals. A moment I ‘ll never forget.

Toward the end of my trip, I jumped on a night train from Beijing to Xi’an (pronounced She ann) which is one of the most historical cities in China and is also home of the Terracotta Warriors. The 600 mile train ride was a great way to see the mountains and valleys of China as well as get a glimpse of the 40% of their population which work and live in rural areas. Most of these people work the government owned land and make less than $2 per month. Because of this low income, a huge number are starting to move into the bigger cities so that they can work in manufacturing plants.

When I arrived at the crowded and confusing train station in Xi’an, I quickly found a cab and was able to show the driver a few characters which got me to a hotel in the heart of the city. It was so cool to stay in a 4-star hotel for $40 per night and get a cab ride practically anywhere for $5. Early on, I stumbled upon one of many “spa’s” where you could get a full-body massage for $6. China rocks!! One of the most unique characteristics of the city was a 40-foot tall and 40-foot wide wall (with moat) that went nine miles around the city. It was built for fortification in the 1300’s and has lasted the test of time.

Xi’an was one of my most memorable cities, even more than Beijing or Shanghai. I met a college teacher who was grading English composition papers at the university that we were staying in while in Shanghai. Her name was Tracy Meow. Tracy graciously offered to be my contact while I was in Xi’an, so when I arrived in there, it was nice to know some of the locals. She took me to a popular area which is known to have a large percentage of Chinese-Muslims. We enjoyed some interesting local food on sticks. The next day we had a dinner at a fancy restaurant and I met two folks who were from Texas and had just moved there two years ago. We talked in great detail about how Americans who move to China to live acclimate to the Chinese culture and lifestyle, one which is very different from the U.S.

The next day I hired a driver and tour guide for $50 (for the entire day) and they drove me 60 miles outside the city to explore the Terra Cotta Warriors and several other sights. It was fun not being in a big group and I can definitely recommend this for others going to China if you want to “do your own thing.” As we rode back into the city after a full day of exploring, I saw dozens of tents all around. I asked my guide, Sara, what was going on. She explained that a lot of people moved to Xi”an (and other areas of China) to get away from the earthquake area and that they didn’t trust being in tall buildings.

The last day before I left China, I was invited to teach a two hour English lesson to a group of 30 Chinese freshmen at Tracy’s school, Xi’an International Studies University, one of the oldest language universities in China. The students were very polite and inquisitive of their Southern U.S. speaker. I pulled up the Tri-Cities on a Google map, shared a few stories about our region, and had several ask questions about U.S. culture and politics. I was very surprised at how well their English skills were even though they were very shy about speaking. Tracy said it is sometimes very hard to get them to talk but in her senior level classes where she teaches “Bible as Literature,” it is just the opposite.

One unique aspect that we recognize in the U.S. is the focus on learning among Chinese students. We hear daily about the poor scores American schools have in areas such as math and sciences. Before I went to Xi’an, I had the opportunity to spend a week on a large college campus in Shanghai and I learned that the students really enjoyed learning and doing group learning activities. Unlike American students, Chinese students spend more time building specific skills and knowledge on substantive topics versus pop culture or consumer satisfaction. Their parents constantly reinforce the fact that “perfectibility is within grasp of everyone.” Parents are very involved in their children’s life so much that they are known to push “too hard” for successful kids. Recently, there have been articles published in the newspapers that bring awareness to this issue.

Some other interesting facts I learned about China:

China’s one child policy (which is changing) has created a generation of 90-million “only children”

China is expected to overtake the U.S. as the worlds largest economy in 10 years.

China has the highest number of annual deaths triggered by air pollution.

China has the largest number of Internet users 220-million

Cell phone usage in china has grown from 87 million in 2000 to 432 million today.

For students and young professionals wanting to get an edge on the future global economy, I strongly recommend that you start learning about our partners on the other side of the world. Here are a few things that you can add to your “Culture Toolbox” when you start

  • Chinese love western money, culture, and music but sometimes view Americans as wasteful and arrogant, so be very polite and respectful everywhere you go.
  • When visiting hosts, gifts are in order.
  • Face – If a person confronts a problem directly this can become a big issue due to putting people on the spot and making them loose “face,” so it is important that you avoid drawing attention to individuals who may give poor service or someone you have a problem with.
  • Guanxi – Building relationships takes time and most relationships require a level of deep friendship in order to work. Another factor is that you never rush into business with them. Americans must enter into negotiations slowly and work toward consensus.
  • Individual vs. Group – Since the Chinese didn’t go the period of enlightenment, reformation, or Age of Reason, so their sense about “group” is different than Western views of individual freedom and free-thinking.
  • Try to learn some basic Chinese. In 2004, there were around 50,000 Chinese language students in American highschools while there are nearly as many people learning English as there are English speakers in the U.S., Canada, and Great Britain combined. Some favorites I used were:
    • Ni Hao – Hello
    • Hen hao – very good
    • Bu shi – no
    • Yes – shi de
    • Duibuiqi (doy bu she) – Sorry
    • Wo jiao – My name is…
    • Xie Xie (she she) – Thank you
    • tai guì le (tag way la) – Too expensive
    • Zai jian – goodbye

There are a lot of opportunities for young professionals who want to experience china whether it be to learn about how they conduct business, continue their historical culture, or gain insight to an entirely different paradigm. I think it is critical that we start opening up doors to building stronger understanding of China and its people and to the wonderfully rich partnerships we can establish with their dynamic younger population which is shaping the future global economy.

My experiences there opened my mind to how fortunate we are, how wealthy, how advanced, and how many opportunities we have to really impact our community and our country. We shouldn’t see China as a “competitor” or “threatening to our economy” but rather as a global partner which we can begin trying to understand so that both sides understand what each other needs and how we can mutually benefit from each other. Step outside your comfort zone, meet people that are different than you, and embrace the knowledge and experience of others.