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Oct 31, 2009

Why are the Chinese Focused So much on Food and How this Affects your Business in China

The Chinese have a traditional way of greeting each other.  They say “chi fan le mei you?”  This means, “have you eaten?”  I heard from Sean Hayes of our Korea Law Practice team that Koreans do the same thing.

They also say hello and how are you and long time no see and stuff like that, but, the traditional way to greet someone is by asking if they have eaten yet.  This is unusual to say the least and often misunderstood by foreigners in China.  There are many theories of where the greeting began and I won’t go into those – the most important thing is to understand how important eating is in the Chinese culture and psyche.

Many years ago, when I had been here for about a year and thought I knew a lot about China, I was driving through a district of Shenzhen (a city with 12 million + people) and it came to me why eating was everything in China.

It was about noon and we were weaving our way through the throngs of people leaving their offices/factories, and the cars, taxi’s, buses, three wheeled gasoline powered tricycle things, and every other contraption known to mankind.  Now, I wasn’t driving but I was in the passenger seat and my driver was in 5th gear going 30km per hour and the car was shaking and I kept wanting to reach over and down shift for him but I refrained and gritted my teeth until they started to disintegrate.

It didn’t help that I hadn’t had anything to eat since that awful cup of Chinese hotel coffee and greasy fried bread stick that I had earlier that morning.   So, I tried to get into that Zen state that has gotten me through some of the most uncomfortable situations and I looked out the window at the chaos that was unfolding around me.

Right when I was concentrating on my breathing, I looked down the road and thought I saw what looked like a buck naked caveman eating a coconut.  ”I have taken this Zen thing to a completely new level” I thought to myself and looked away.  "Can’t be a naked caveman, surely someone would have taken him away or thrown a shawl around him or given him a fig leaf.”

I looked back in the same direction just to see if I might have not imagined this and there he was, a completely naked caveman eating a coconut.  He looked exactly like Tom Hanks in that movie where he is stranded on the island with the volleyball – not the fat Tom Hanks but the one after he had been there for a few years.

As we approached, he was on the area that in most countries would be a sidewalk, but in China is actually a labyrinth of open manholes, electric scooters carrying propane, rickshaws loaded down with styrofoam, dangling high tension wires and an assortment of other wonders and dangers. He was indeed naked and brown, obviously from not wearing any clothes, and his hair was matted and dreadlocked, obviously from not having a haircut, and he was eating what looked like a coconut or some other thing with a hemplike exterior.  Now in Borneo or Sumatra I wouldn’t have been surprised to see this phenomenon, but in Shenzhen China at noon on a busy work day – I was shocked.

The caveman walked through the crowd and no one even paid any attention to him.  He just leisurely strolled along and the Chinese purposefully moved on their way to somewhere without noticing him.  I wondered what they were thinking: “naked man – hmm,” "naked man – gotta get back to work,” "naked man – time to eat,”  "that coconut looks good – I’m hungry,” oe “what’s a caveman?”

I asked the driver, in Chinsese, about the man and he said, “what naked man?”  I said, “that one right there in front of the car” and he said oh, and I’ll never forget what he said next and you shouldn’t either because it’s the moral of this story, he said “where do you want to eat?”

Well, I was hungry and I have been to many of the big cities in the world, but I have never seen a naked caveman walking down the street eating a coconut and I just couldn’t think about food right now.  I said, “that man is naked, won’t the police or someone come to take him away?”  He responded, “maybe he is crazy, now do you want Chinese food or McDonalds?”

I couldn’t let it go that quickly so I called a Chinese friend and told him what I had just seen, he said “he’s probably crazy, do you want to eat hotpot tonight?”  Unbelievable is all I could think and I said I would think about it and call him later.  We had passed the caveman and were rolling along in 5th gear when it hit me.

They are obsessed with eating.  Now I don’t know where it came from and don’t really concern myself with the roots of their hunger obsession, but I just, then, realized that eating consumes their mind and probably gets in the way of otherwise productive thought.

Having been in China for a decade, it’s no longer a surprise to me when someone asks “have you eaten?”  I now respond with a yes or no and ask them if they have eaten.

I like to eat, especially big old Texas hamburgers and a good pizza and even some Chinese food, but it doesn’t consume most of my waking thoughts.  So I started to think about other things like productivity and creativity and rationality and how they apply in China and I keep coming back to the caveman and the people around him that were singly focused on something other than his being naked walking down the city street.  It has to be food.  They are always thinking about food.

I haven’t done any research with focus groups or control groups or any groups for that matter, but I have looked around and observed and I have reached the non scientific conclusion that the Chinese are more concerned about eating than anything else.  Even their obsession with money and saving face and smoking is far outweighed by eating.  For those of us China veterans we know that trying to accomplish anything from 11:00 a.m. until 2 is next to impossible.  I have even suggested that if anyone thinks about attacking China, they ought to do it during lunch because the Chinese will probably think, “look at that we are being attacked and overrun by aliens, where do you want to eat?”  Note to aliens, I have given you this pearl of wisdom without sending you a bill, please wait until I am out of the country.

So, if you are thinking about doing business in this huge and burgeoning China market or have done business here for years, you should understand the customs and psyche of the people who are and control this market.

While they can do good work and are industrious and hard working and entrepreneurial and lots of other things that I won’t mention here, they are often distracted by some genetically coded obsession with eating.

Plan your meetings accordingly, schedule factory/supplier/partner meetings first thing in the morning or mid afternoon (after they have eaten and slept).   Bring candy and pass it out if you see their blood sugar meters dropping into the “your head looks like a bowl of noodles” zone.  Don’t get frustrated, instead try and understand the things that make them tick and adapt to their ways, which you will never change in 5,000 years and i believe you will be more successful in doing business in China.

You won’t believe this part, but several weeks later we were driving through a completely different district in Shenzhen and i had reached another conclusion that the other gears didn’t actually work and that’s why we were in 5th all the time and who did we see – yes, the caveman.

Naked as a newborn (with brown skin and pubic hair and dreadlocks) and this time he was eating a banana! A banana!!  Even Hollywood couldn’t script this.

Scene 2. Naked caveman walking down the street in Borneo, no let’s make it Shenzhen and he’s eating dumplings or noodles, no a banana this way it looks like he pulled it right off the tree.  You’d think I wouldn’t be shocked but I was and I got excited and said to the driver, “look at that naked man he is the same one we saw two weeks ago isn’t he?”  He said, “what naked man, we never saw a naked man . . . are you hungry, where do you want to eat?”

The post was writtent by Frank Caruso.  Frank is the head of the China Law Practice at IPG.  He has lived in Shenzhen for over a decade.