A Western Perspective on China

A Western Perspective on China

The countryside screamed past at 200 mph as I worked on my laptop, comfortable inside the train’s first-class cabin. Outside, weathered farmers worked fields by hand as women walked by carrying baskets.

The only evidence that it was 2015 vs. 1315 was the occasional worn-down tractor and the power lines that crossed the landscape.  And, of course, the gleaming 21st century bullet train I rode in.

As we neared the outskirts of Wuhan, cluster upon cluster of Soviet-style high rises rose against a dreary sky thick with smog.  Despite having never been to mainland China before, I felt a sense of déjà vu:  The stark contrast between old and new, rich and poor, viewed from our high-tech train eerily felt like a scene right out of The Hunger Games.

With its sheer number of people, China reminds me of a much cleaner version of India, but it’s there that the similarities end. I was bombarded by street smells which I’d love to describe, but can’t because I’ve never experienced them before. I could walk blocks in a market without recognizing a single food item.

It wasn’t the smells, crowds, food or the lost-in-time countryside that stood out most starkly, however.  Despite being warned, I wasn’t prepared for the often brusque nature of Chinese interactions.

Stuck on a bus where we hadn’t moved for close to 5 minutes, a passenger approached the driver.  She wanted to get off and walk, but the bus driver wouldn’t let her; there was a police officer right ahead and he didn’t want a ticket.  After a few more minutes, she came up to ask again, but in a much louder and agitated tone.

After another denial, the bus exploded to life:  a chorus of previously uninvolved people started shouting, most in defense of the driver.  Things grew (to my Western instincts) fairly heated, with the bus driver yelling back at the girl.  The confrontation continued until he relented, opening the door to let a stream of people pour out of the bus.

In most Western cities, a scene like this would leave bystanders somewhat shocked and exchanging looks with each other.  But within seconds, everyone returned to what they had been doing seemingly unfazed.

Surprising incidents like this were, if anything, entertaining to watch.  It was the Chinese mores of “please” and “thank you” that were the most difficult for me to adapt to.  The difference?  The pleasantries just aren’t used much. 

It’s especially tricky with those closest to you, as the rationale goes something like this:  My Chinese family members and friends know I love them, and they’ll assume by default I’m thankful. By vocalizing it, I’m putting into question our closeness and bond.

Despite knowing how my frequent “thank yous” came across, I just couldn’t help myself and still said it constantly.  Normally it wasn’t an issue, but after thanking friends who treated us to one meal I felt a bit of awkwardness in the air and wished I kept my mouth closed.

China 7

You hear about the internet being censored in China, but it’s a surprisingly surreal experience to be blocked from Google the first time you get online.  Nearly 3,000 sites are blocked altogether, and everything else you download is censored on the fly as you browse.

The Chinese government is often criticized for many things from censorship to human rights, leaving it with a less-than-stellar public image in the West.  So I was surprised when I saw a myriad of things being done by Big Brother to improve life and move the country forward.

Street trash was minimal as the government pays an army of workers to keep things tidy.  Cell coverage was maintained throughout my entire underground ride in the government-built subway.  And the high-speed train infrastructure made getting around China fast, comfortable and affordable in a way I haven’t experienced back in the States.

Business moves forward at a blistering pace in China.  A restaurant that was in the early stages of construction upon my brother’s arrival was finished just a few weeks later, a project that likely would have taken months in the U.S.  Walking the streets at 5:30 a.m. one day in Wuhan, I was shocked to find a buzz of activity at a construction site.  It turns out that workers are there around the clock.

Seeing how efficiently an authoritarian government can act does make you think about things a bit differently.  If we could ensure a just and infallible dictator who had our best intentions at heart, I’d vote that person into office in an instant.  It’s an especially attractive option at a time when dysfunction in the U.S. Congress has earned it a lower approval rating than cockroaches.

Watching a video one night,  I was especially impressed by the government’s foresight in defining, planning, and executing their program to eliminate poverty, which reduced the severe poverty rate from 53% to less than 10% in just 20 years.  The gains seemed won so much more easily when carried out by a single, efficient party versus multiple bickering sides.

It wasn’t until the end that I realized the documentary had been produced by the government.  I started to pull up YouTube to learn from a more objective source, but quickly realized that due to the censorship I couldn’t access it, either.

China 5

It’s hard to grasp the mind-boggling selection of product materials available without visiting China.

One day we headed out to look for fabrics for a product I’m developing and ended up in the city of Guangzhou.  We visited fabric shop after fabric shop, each with thousands of options.  I could have spent hours looking at the offerings of one business alone, and I quickly become overwhelmed by my choices.

After leaving one shop that had every conceivable type of buckle, strap and pull you could ever imagine, I asked our guide and manufacturing guru Jamon Yerger how many shops with a similar selection existed, expecting perhaps 3-4 competitors in the city.  His reply:  “Oh, easily dozens and dozens. Perhaps 100 or more.”

I’ve been to Tokyo, Delhi and New York City, but nowhere has left me with a sense of the sheer volume of resources needed to support humanity like China did. I was spellbound when we ate at a restaurant with a dining room 100 yards long.  An endless stream of food poured from the kitchen, and I couldn’t help but extrapolate this scene in my mind across all of China. I left and was tempted to immediately invest my life savings in Chinese pork futures.

This scale isn’t unique to China, of course.  I’m sure there are similarly sized restaurants in cities across the world.  But there’s something about China that conveys a massiveness of scale unlike anywhere else I’ve been.

China 4

My initial judgment of China for much of the trip was that of a polluted, overcrowded and brusque society.  But that slowly started to change.

Just a few blocks from a massive electronics mall in Shenzhen we discovered a picturesque oasis that reminded me of Central Park in New York.  It wasn’t a scene you’d expect to find in one of the world’s most well-known manufacturing centers.

My family and hosts were incredibly kind, and I was warmly treated to meal after meal with absolutely no possibility of my paying or helping out.

My biggest mindset shift came one evening as we strolled along the Yangtze River park as dusk was falling.  In America, most parks would be winding down as people headed home for the night.  Here, a full-scale party was underway.  Dozens of people flew kites decorated with elaborate lights.  A group of men played with enormous tops, using whips to keep them spinning furiously.

And there was the dancing.  Every quarter mile or so, we’d come across a large group of mostly older women (and a few brave men) dancing with a leader to music.  I thought this was isolated to the park and was surprised to see similar scenes in parking lots, shopping centers and random sidewalks across the city.  The groups were everywhere, doing everything from simple moves to elaborate, modern couples routines.

China 8

As our bus bounced home over a bridge illuminated by strands of colored lights, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of community and energy in the air as we drove throughout the city.  It was if everyone came out after a busy day to play, relax and connect with each other.  It’s not a feeling I’ve had in many places before.

Even while leaving, I had the nicest, most amiable custom agent I’ve ever run into – normally an interaction you look forward to as much as a lunchtime stop at your local DMV.

As my return plane took to the air, I knew I wouldn’t miss the crowds, the chickens feet, overcast skies or the pig jerky airline breakfast appetizer I had just been handed.  But I was already looking forward to coming back.

Special thanks to my brother Chris for showing me around China and putting up with my antics.  To Jamon from High Cappin for being our tour guide in Shenzhen.  And especially to my sister-in-law Laura and her parents Xueshan and Huadi for graciously hosting me.  

Andrew Youderian
Post by Andrew Youderian
Andrew is the founder of eCommerceFuel and has been building eCommerce businesses ever since gleefully leaving the corporate world in 2008.  Join him and 1,000+ vetted 7- and 8-figure store owners inside the eCommerceFuel Community.

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37 Comments

Peter MillerJuly 14, 2015

Hi. Great, informative, interesting post. Well done.

I wanted to share it with my daughter who has fashion ecommerce businesses – via email, but there’s no provision to do that !… only by Facebook or Twitter – and that’s not as personal/direct as I’d like.

It might be worth considering adding that provision. But again – good on you, great post. Cheers, PM.

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Peter MillerJuly 14, 2015

I’ve emailed her a link obviously – because she’s interested in getting new clothing created in China. I just didn’t know if there’s a ‘Share by email’ that was worthy, and would help your ‘Google juice’. Cheers, PM.

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Andrew YouderianJuly 14, 2015

Thanks Peter, appreciated. Will definitely consider adding the share by email buttons in the future.

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Carole RainsJuly 14, 2015

I visited Beijing a few years ago and the thing that struck me the most was being the minority. I walked to the grocery store one day and didn’t see a single non Chinese person then entire time. It was an eerie feeling. (But worth it to get those wonderful sweet buns they sold – I still miss them.) And everyone wanted to have their picture taken with us, like we were some kind of alien species, especially my tall, blond daughter.

In addition to the bus confrontation you mentioned, the Chinese seem to have no idea what standing in a line means. He who pushes through the hardest wins, and everyone pushes. Learned that pretty quick buying train tickets.

That being said, I too loved exploring China and am very happy to have crossed that off my bucket list.

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Andrew YouderianJuly 14, 2015

Hey Carole! I noticed that, too. I think in 3 days in Wuhan I noticed 1, maybe 2 other Westerners.

And we had a few line cutters at the train station as well. There’s a bit of an art to protecting your ground the closer you get to the window. 😉 Thanks for the comment!

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MartinJuly 14, 2015

An interesting piece Andrew, I look forward to visiting China soon. But I think they have Google and You Tube alternatives there, or something.. But probably filtered thoroughly.

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HarryJuly 14, 2015

They do have Chinese versions of Google and YouTube so if you search for something in English the results are practically useless.

Andrew let me know if you are still around in Shenzhen. I live here.

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Andrew YouderianJuly 14, 2015

Hey Harry! Sadly I’m gone, but thanks for the offer!

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Chris SeferynJuly 14, 2015

very good piece on China. I go there 2-3 times a year for purchasing.

For the internet, get a VPN on your phone and computer. it gives you 5-15 minutes of access at a time to the regular internet you are used to. start using apple maps or yahoo instead of google and you’ll be fine. buy a simm chip for your phone (make sure you pay extra for 4g outside of shanghai and other key cities, they only give you 3g which in china is worse than dial up).

after going to china, my best analogy is its like scuba diving. you are in the fish’s world, they are not in yours. its like that China – we’re in their world.

the craziest thing is the traffic and the amazing number of different types of vehicles that are moving in every direction all the time.

foreigners are a just an oddity unless you are in Hong Kong, which of course is not like mainland china at all.

I have said for years the benevolent dictator form of government is far and away the most effective. we have an oligarchy kept in place through racism and fear and its getting bogged down. I think we’ll make it through when we have a majority non white population but I can’t say for sure.

one further chinese business take away: they are not like american business though they front like they are. the word “quality” or “guarantee” doesn’t mean the same thing there. be prepared to eat some costs in dealing with them. keep in mind, in 20 years they went from rice farmers to the worlds second biggest economy (though not sure what it would be if the valued their currency correctly). every time you go there it’s basically 6 to 1 on US dollars. same exchange rate.

cheers

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Andrew YouderianJuly 16, 2015

Thanks Chris! Definitely used proxy servers to get around the censorship, but those would be spotty – sometimes they worked and sometimes they wouldn’t. The best way I found was to tether to my phone with my Hong Kong based SIM card. It was 100% non-filtered internet and worked well even after we crossed the border well into mainland China.

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Jeannie LongJuly 14, 2015

Very interesting. Thanks for handing us your experience which is much richer than what you see on the news.

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Andrew YouderianJuly 14, 2015

Thanks for reading, Jeannie!

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JenniferJuly 14, 2015

Thank you for sharing your experience in China. I traveled around China in year 2000, the year they were trying to win the bid for the Summer Olympics. I was amazed at how they could amass resources. Beijing was undergoing massive construction projects to help win the bid and I believe they corralled every piece of heavy equipment from around the country to make it happen. I spoke with Embassy workers who told me that they set up monopolies at the snap of a finger. The cultural differences are deep and pervasive. It’s interesting to observe their growth and evolution. Your blog post helps!

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Andrew YouderianJuly 14, 2015

Wow, sounds really interesting Jennifer. I’m sure things have changed dramatically in the last 15 years – would have loved to seen that massive worksite in Beijing.

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JenniferJuly 14, 2015

Even more interesting was the lack of resources in other places. I saw women digging trenches by hand outside a train station in Guilin (spelling?). I couldn’t believe it. Where are the backhoes?

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AhmedJuly 14, 2015

Hey Andrew

Just wondering,how this trip is involved in your business model of dropshipping and whether it had any effect,or was it a normal exploratory trip?

Great post nonetheless and you pretty much described everything about China,i’m in Guangzhou operating a sourcing and forwarding company for product selection and running a blog for teaching people how to deal with China business wise.

Next time you’re there please let me know,i would be delighted if we can even just take a photo together.

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Andrew YouderianJuly 16, 2015

Will do, Ahmed. We were actually in Guangzhou – that’s where we did the product sourcing! Too bad we missed you. I’m still drop shipping, but starting to work toward designing our own products – hence the trip to China to learn, source materials and start getting comfortable with the process. Hope to supplement drop shipping with selling our own goods in the very near future (currently designs are underway) as I think that’s increasingly where eCommerce is headed for independent merchants.

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QuincyJuly 14, 2015

Great post, Andrew. As a current resident of Guangzhou, so much of what you said is spot on and Im glad you enjoyed your time in this amazing country!

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Andrew YouderianJuly 16, 2015

Thanks Quincy, appreciated!

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StefanJuly 15, 2015

Hey Andrew, I LOVED this post. All I know about China is what I hear from Chinese people I talk to or what I read online. I thought that it was a polluted and miserable country, with a lot of corruption and a huge difference between rich and poor. I’m glad it’s not like that. But yeah, when you leave mainland China, it’s like you go back in time.

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Andrew YouderianJuly 16, 2015

Thanks Stefan, glad you liked it! To be fair, some of what you said is true – it is really polluted and there is a pretty massive difference between rich and poor. But there are a lot of good things, too, which you don’t always hear about. 😉

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StefanJuly 16, 2015

Yeah, true. It’s sad though. Chinese are nice. They deserve better.

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GraceJuly 15, 2015

Very enlightening and enjoyable to read. Thank you so much for sharing. I now have a desire to visit china.

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Andrew YouderianJuly 16, 2015

Thanks Grace!

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KiraJuly 15, 2015

Loved this! So eye-opening…never would have thought about “thank you” being awkward or rude!

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Andrew YouderianJuly 16, 2015

Thanks Stoops! Yeah, pretty wild and totally different to our instincts here in the U.S. Hope all is well at FBC!

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XJuly 15, 2015

Love the writing style Andrew!

I was in China for about 2 weeks (originally planned to stay 2 months) back in May – phenomenal food but the Internet situation was a deal-breaker…

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Andrew YouderianJuly 16, 2015

Hey X! Glad you liked it and thanks!

Didn’t get into it in the post, but loved the food there as well. Also had a few Chinese specialities (pig’s blood, chicken’s feet) that while I didn’t fall in love with were interesting to try. Did you happen to have a favorite dish? We had some spicy szechuan food that was really, really good.

Hope all is well in the world of email!

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XJuly 16, 2015

Awesome! I’m impressed you had the courage to try all those ‘exotic’ foods 🙂 Too many favorites to count!

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Sally LinJuly 15, 2015

Enjoy the writing. Thank you for giving a balanced perspective on China.

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Andrew YouderianJuly 16, 2015

Thanks Sally!

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Jordan MalikJuly 18, 2015

Andrew thank you for writing this. I’m not sure if you’re game for it, but if you could do a follow-up piece about why exactly you were there and how/why your interactions related directly to your e-com business, that would be tremendously helpful.

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Andrew YouderianJuly 23, 2015

Hey Jordan! I was in China to source some materials for a new product we’re working on. Not quite ready to reveal all the details, but hope to be able to share more info in the future about it, so will try to write more from an eCommerce and China perspective in the future when the time is right.

Appreciate your reading!

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RobbieTAugust 9, 2015

I was really disappointed to read your comments, you have either demonstrated your ignorance of history or your indifference to it. You deserve the dictator you blindly pledged your alliegance to in your article.

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RobbieTAugust 9, 2015

So here’s an example of the efficient dictatorship model for you to chew on:

My wife, a Chinese-born and raised U.S. citizen, was visiting her family in China. She was pregnant and had our two year daughter with her. Because of the one-child policy (your “efficient” dictatorship policy, having decided what’s best for the people of China), a pregnant woman with a toddler child sticks out like a sore thumb.

The police visited her family’s home three times while she was visiting in China. Once to find out who she was and what she was doing there (even though she had already registered, in compliance with the law). A second time to verify her U.S. passport, and a third time to make sure she had left China. Each time they reminded her of the one-child policy and to make sure she was leaving before our son was born.

Here is the perspective you may have missed. The Chinese government enforces the one-child policy with forced abortions. I have heard first-hand accounts from pregnant mothers who were abducted from their homes and forced to have an abortion against their will in the name of the law, the one-child policy. Who knows how things may have turned out if there had been a misunderstanding, or if the PSB agent had been having a bad day, and wanted to make an example of her, or any number of other variables. The only thing that saved our unborn child was my wife’s U.S. passport, IMO.

I hope you reconsider your allegiance to dictatorship before it really happens to you.

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Andrew YouderianAugust 14, 2015

Hey Robbie – thanks for your comment. To be clear, I in no way approve of or condone the way the Chinese government has acted in terms of human rights abuses. The story you tell is abhorrent and really, really sad. I was commenting only on the efficiency of having a one party in control IF (and this is a big if) they are completely benevolent to other’s interests which, of course, isn’t always the case. That’s why I said:

“If we could ensure a just and infallible dictator who had our best intentions at heart, I’d vote that person into office in an instant. ”

…but obviously that’s not the case here. To be clear, I’m not defending the Chinese government, especially in situations like this. As you bring up, there are a lot of serious problems with the system.

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JulienAugust 24, 2015

I have been working in both HK & China for the past 8 years and something strikes me when it comes to cultural and especially business differences.
China produces always more, faster, cheaper. Hong Kong stands more on the innovation side. The fact is, in the past 10 years, the unstoppable growth of TaoBao has been “stealing” great market shares from HK online-based businesses. It’s always hard to fight with larger choice / cheaper prices. But if there is one learning I’d like to share with all oversea businesses fighting with China competition, it’s the following one: don’t base your focus on pricing / quantity.

Hong Kong businesses are learning it the hard way: there is very little you can do to be price competitive when you live next to China. There is also so much you can do when it comes to product variety against a giant like TaoBao. What you can do however is to extend your service and delight your customers with a better experience.
Let’s take the logistics bit of Ecommerce for instance – too often forgotten.
Recently, local players such as EasyVan have been offering delivery services to Ecommerce platforms around HK and enable them to do same day delivery. This is a huge difference in terms of customers experience that China couldn’t compete with! Enabling your clients to receive their items within 2 hours after their purchase is a game changer!

You certainly know the proverb “In a fight between a bear and an alligator, it is the terrain which determines who wins.”. Same applies here: don’t fight a battle you can’t win on a field you don’t master, take it to a place you know and control.

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