As a child, I was already interested in China. I would wander around the dimly lit Chinese Winkel in Eindhoven, awestruck by the Asian paraphernalia – the silk robes, the calligraphy scrolls, the t’ai chi swords, the smell of incense. I bought chopsticks and one time cooked a meal that required me to travel the 40 kilometres to the same town, so I could buy (canned) bamboo shoots. Exotic and mysterious are tired and limiting tropes for describing Asian countries, but these are impressions that were formed when I was a child. Early impressions are hard to shake off.
I’ve been born in 1975, so my awareness of China grew alongside that of large international companies, who were champing at the bit to get into China in the nineties when the country started welcoming international investment. But long before then, the world was fascinated with ‘exotic and mysterious’ China and the vast riches to be made here.
Yet, countless companies and individuals have lost their nerve, their money, their sanity when they came to China to do business. I’ve lived here now for over three years, and all this time I have been reading about the experience of foreigners who have lived and worked in China. I have seen friends and acquaintances leave, angry and frustrated. Some last only a year, some last longer. Most have lost their childhood wonder about Asia by the time they leave, and some never had it.
Most entrepreneurs who have come to China before me came with similar, somewhat clichéd and limited outsider impressions of China. Some came with huge ambitions, most came with curiosity and a sense of adventure. Many came to love the country with all its contradictions and complications. For everyone, it’s been a steep learning curve. Their experiences make for fascinating reading.
Marco Polo’s expeditions. The, often amusing, insights of early 20th century Shanghai-based media mogul Carl Crow are still relevant today. Joe Studwell’s ‘The China Dream’ recounts the mind-boggling financial disasters of foreign companies who flocked to China in the nineties. Peter Hessler writes beautifully about his encounters – with nice individual people but also with the government, in the form of dams being built or his life as a peace corps volunteer managed. Colin Flahive, who built a social enterprise and expat institution with his Salvador’s Coffee House here in Kunming. The best ‘Old China Hands’ are the people who have come to really understand and love the country, people who tried to bring something to the country instead of just take, and who tried to adapt as best as they could. A special category that warrants a mention is the missionaries, who have been coming here for centuries, with varying degrees of success. Some of them integrated really well, and today they are still part of the international social fabric of Yunnan. I’m not religious, so I’m not a huge fan of their work, but I can’t help but respect the tenacity of their efforts.
I’m learning from all of them, their mistakes and their successes. I think I have a good shot at success, but so did many others before me who left disillusioned. I know humility, respect for and a genuine interest in the country – its culture, its language and its people – are key ingredients to thriving here. On a practical level, I’m starting small, with low overhead costs. I have a head start in network, experience and understanding of business practices. Language is one hurdle I still need to take, but I’m taking weekly classes with a wonderful teacher. There is one cultural obstacle that I get confronted with regularly. My Dutch directness is diametrically opposed to Chinese ways of communicating. I’m learning every day from kind Chinese friends and I will continue to read about the experiences of others.
It helps that my definition of success is not getting rich at all costs. Success does not just have to be defined by financial wealth, which sometimes seems to be forgotten in the hyper-capitalist times we live in. Success for me means being healthy and happy, to feel I’m still learning, to continue to discover more about China – no longer quite so mysterious and exotic but no less fascinating – and to develop collaborations that will bring mutual understanding and friendship through cultural exchange. Let’s call it ‘success with Chinese characteristics’, or a Chinese socialist version of success.