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The love of all things laowai

The Chinese are madly in love with things from foreign lands. I know this as a Swiss citizen, because they go absolutely nuts over our army knives, chocolates, and watches. (I myself go nuts over our sausages - but I digress!) Many a Mercedes is owned by the well-off, and the décor of the average well-to-do local looks more like an imitation of Versailles than anything else.

If you're a foreigner working in a Chinese company, expect to be the star of the office. Even if you look Chinese, but are of a different nationality (like yours truly), you'll still attract all them eyeballs, and they'll ask you all kinds of questions about where you're from (as well as what they eat over there, and stuff like that).

But once you're too much into being totally foreign, other locals will start complaining. They expect the laowai, or "old foreigner", to dance the Chinese way (and nope, being "old" in China isn't all that bad - you're wiser when you're older). If you turn a blind ear to local demands, they'll start yelling at you, with slogans like "you don't care about the interests of the Chinese population", and "when are you going to localize so and so?".

That's not arrogance, by the way. We're talking about two big things here. First, did I hear someone utter that famed "When in Rome, do what the Romans do"? Second, is this not the world's most exciting market, with 1.3 billion and counting? With China becoming more and more relevant, I suppose they have quite a bit of a "right" (if you must) to expect more "special treatment".

Here's the scary thing: if you don't localize, they'll have a local copy available anyway. They're fully OK with sealing the door; the internal market is big already. My advice: be a harmonious laowai and dance the Chinese way. It'll be hard to do at first, but will win you a lot of points.

The importance of making Chinese friends

This one is actually more social than biz-related, but it's truly essential. If you're in the PRC for the long run, and in particular if all you can do with your limited Chinese is to point directions, bargain, and understand the word laowai, the writing is on the wall: You need to have a Chinese friend that swims around nicely in the local lingo.

The importance of making Chinese friends goes to the extent that even the police in Beijing will often ask you to put your Chinese friend on the line if communications between you and the cop come to nothing due to the language barrier. So do it. Meet up with a local, be nice, and make a friend (didn't they say something about "a friend in need is a friend indeed"?).

More importantly, by making local friends, you integrate more and more into the local culture. You get to be more and more Chinese. And to the locals, there is no better sight than seeing a laowai respect and understand China and be as Chinese as possible. If you master this, you'll be showered with awards in every conceivable way - sooner or later.

Next week on Mind the Gap Saturday: Two big microblogging networks - Jiwai.de or Twitter? The local version or the original? Be sure to Mind the Gap again next Saturday.

Copyright © 2007, Blognation.com.

This article first appeared on Blognation.

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