The three of us arrived in Beijing after the 12 hour flight from Toronto. Cheryl and I settled into a modest apartment in the outskirts of the city, on the Communications University campus and Jet settled into his. This would be our home away from home for the next four months.
Whereas our Beijing business trip experience had been a tightly scripted affair, primarily taking place in the ultra-modern Haidian section of Beijing, we were now on our own, in a very different setting, totally reliant upon Jet to help us navigate everything from ordering food to forming a relationship with our partners at CU.
Everything was unfamiliar. The ride from the airport seemed to travel through time as well as space, as we exited the superhighway onto a desolate unpaved road teeming with crumbling Cultural Revolution era housing, street dogs and dirty restaurants, onward past a huge boulevards lined with new, quickly assembled high rise apartment buildings and finally arriving at the tree lined oasis of the CU campus.
One of the things we heard about in CAMP was how fast things can develop in China. We were about to find out what that meant. Whatever lay ahead of us, however unknown and unpredictable, we were excited and ready to immerse ourselves in the opportunity and culture that lay before us.
On the evening we arrived we met our CU partners for a late Baijiu fuelled dinner meeting that lasted until 5:00 in the morning. The following several days were spent meeting with investors and setting up our office, which was located even farther out in an industrial park building leased by CU for programs that were affiliated with the University.
The meetings with the new team were usually hours in duration, involving endless cups of tea, presentations about the programs we had developed and discussions about marketing and general direction. Everything was spoken in Chinese, of course; Cheryl and I were the only native English speakers. It was up to Jet to interpret as well as contribute to the conversation.
As noted earlier, there are significant differences in communication styles between east and west above and beyond language. Epic, circuitous conversations were the norm, the results of which were usually relayed to us in the shortest of explanations. We struggled to gain traction in these formative conversations; more often than not, the results of each day’s meeting seemed to contradict what we had talked about the previous day. Cheryl and I were coming face to face with the challenges of doing business in China.
It would be hard to overstate the novelty of these early days; virtually all of life’s touchstones were cast in an entirely new light. Even foundational things like food, bathrooms, travel, buying supplies and crossing the street all had to be processed in a new way.
Frustrations inevitably arose, but they dwindled in comparison to how utterly interesting the whole experience was. By week two we had established at least somewhat of a beginning direction; we would essentially start a series of storytelling-based classes similar to the live classroom performances Cheryl had been bringing to schools in Toronto, with an added component for the kids to learn some basic English words.
Sometimes the best way to begin is to just begin.