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Letter from China | China, one scoop at a time



You would think that in China – with its growing power base, its population of more than 1.4bn people and its status as a vibrant international hub – getting a scoop of ice-cream on your desert wouldn’t be so difficult, right? It sounds silly, but this sort of request can be way out of the box. It’s all too symbolic of the paradigms that shape this country.

It still fascinates me that China can be a country full of possibilities and yet full of impossibilities. Go figure. Coming from a western, logical framework, one can be easily fooled into thinking that China is ‘not for me’, when in fact it is so you. You just haven’t made the connection yet. Things may seem difficult. They may seem impossible to understand. But you must realise the local framework is somewhat discoursed.

The point is that you can reach your desired goal or outcome; it’s just not that conventional. It requires a little bit of patience and local understanding. In other words – lateral thinking! It’s a place where “no” means “maybe” (provided you’re in the board room, of course). The fastest path to your desired outcome is not always the most effective. But make no mistake, when doing business in China, a “no” doesn’t mean “no” as we understand it.

I’m an entrepreneur at heart, so I thrive on “maybe”s. At times, the ‘red tape’ seems to be overwhelming. But then, as you learn more, spend more time with locals and influentials, you begin to understand the way to get things done. And it is never brought to you on a golden platter. It’s up to you to hunt down the alternative, ask the right questions and be bold enough to take the plunge.

Fly-by-nighters are famous in Shanghai, for their frequency and sheer numbers. If I had to isolate one failing they all share it is that they bring western logic to their goals in China. Logic will not get you very far in China. Anyone here longer than 12 months will tell you that. Money can help, no question about that, but there has been plenty of talent with money who figured that alone would work. (Just ask Mr. Murdoch.) It requires a deeper understanding about something much more accessible – the people.

They don’t expect you to understand them. Nor do they expect you to be just like them. But a level of understanding will help you tremendously with your China endeavours. We have a saying here: Never forget who’s ‘backyard’ you’re in. The Chinese think, talk and feel very different to Westerners. No matter how obvious it may seem, the same answer may not be that obvious to them.

This is in no way a negative reflection on China. Westerners just need to realise that China is merely a product of its own unique set of experiences, cultural revolutions, dynasties, government influence and the 53 local ethnicities that populate the country. How, foreigners, can we be expected to understand their state of mind? Don’t – but do appreciate the difference.

It can’t be done. That’s what I was told when coming here. Many times. It doesn’t necessarily mean the outcome is impossible but it perhaps means the process by which you plan to get there will prove impossible. What they are merely saying is that by doing X, you cannot do Y literally. And that’s all that is being said. You will not be provided another alternative, but try not to be disillusioned. Like Carnegie said: “Seek first to understand, then be understood.” More often than not, logic will not get you home. Lateral thinking is what makes everything possible in the Middle Kingdom.

Let’s return to my original anecdote – a recent experience at a popular Chinese restaurant. I was joined by a small party of foreigners all enjoying the local delights. On concluding the main course, I decided to indulge in the apple crumble. (Don’t worry mum, yours is still tops.) I requested a scoop of ice cream to accompany it. Possible? Yes. Easy? No.

When I ordered a scoop on top (ice cream was on the menu), the waitress replied, “No, we cannot do that.” I repeated the question very slowly, and visually, but received the same sturdy response. “No.” It was puzzling, but not that surprising. So I asked, “Can I have a side plate of one scoop?”

“Certainly,” she replied.

This is the first post in Anthill’s new Letter from China blog.

Andrew Collins is CEO of Mailman China, a leading alternative media company.  An entrepreneur from the age of 10, Andrew has been involved responsible for various ventures, from trading marbles to establishing an M&A consulting company at the age of 25. He is living the dream in China, looking to expand his media network.

Photo: http2007 (Flickr)