thank you Danwei

July 14th, 2008

Thank you, Danwei, for this most excellent collection of links, especially the one exposing one China business celebrity for being the clown I’ve long suspected he really is. Not so long ago a blog post by this guy Perkowski got its 15 seconds of online notoriety- a post in which he boasted about how he’d never learned Chinese and explained why there was absolutely no need for any foreigner coming to China to learn the language.

Well, I didn’t leave a comment on his blog- and I’m not going to link to it. Really, you’ll find more intellectual depth on the horoscopes page of the New Zealand Women’s Weekly– something about casting pearls before swine floated around the back of my brain- but if I could sum up my response to such arguments politely and concisely, I would say:

Sure, a one-legged man can coach running. But if you wanted to be a running coach, would you deliberately cut off one of your legs?

Or a little anecdote: At one programme I worked on, a lot of the other foreign teachers, monolinguals all, were constantly complaining about the incompetence of the secretary who somehow found herself in charge of everything. We’ll call this secretary J. J had to take care of her monolingual boss, do general secretarial stuff, and was the go-to person for every foreign teacher with any kind of problem, no matter how big or small. So she was fairly busy. Anyway, many of the others were constantly complaining about her incompetence. I, on the other hand, never had a problem with her, not even the tiniest little issue. Everything I needed, I told her, I got. Why? Quite possibly because I spoke to her in Chinese. I was friendly and polite and spoke to her in her own language. And I’m in a very similar situation here at BeiGongDa. And monolingual colleagues have commented on the look of relief on, for example, waitresses faces when I start ordering food in Chinese- and speaking Chinese does generally make it much easier to get the things you want. It’s amazing how showing a little bit of basic respect- like actually bothering to learn the language of your hosts, for example- makes life that much easier.

I suspect a similar principle applies to doing business. In fact, Gady A. Epstein’s rather scathing review of Perkowski’s book linked to above casts some pretty hefty doubts on his claims to business success. Or even business ability. Apparently this clown showed up in China with $400 million and not a shred of even the most basic knowledge of the country- judging by Gady Epstein’s review of his book, Perkowski didn’t- and still hasn’t- put terribly much effort into patching up those collossal holes in his knowledge. And it starts with the language. I mean, in that blog post I alluded to (but still refuse to link to for the reason already stated), Perkowski says that one reason why there’s no need to learn Chinese is that so many young Chinese professionals speak such excellent English. True, but if you’re monolingual you have no way of knowing how good their translation skills really are and how effectively they are, or are not, communicating your views, desires and needs to your Chinese business partners. It starts with the language, it’s one of those basic competencies anybody wanting to work here should be prepared to develop. It starts with the language and then goes deeper into knowledge of Chinese culture, society and economy. Check out these two paragraphs:

Many business books on China urge vigilance about corruption, but there is a stunning lack of guile in Perkowski’s accounts of his exchanges with Chinese officials. When he marvels that a People’s Liberation Army officer wields a thick wad of 100-yuan notes and that local officials are willing to give away land to his company at no cost, it seems to elude him that the military man’s gains might be ill-gotten and that land given away for free is often taken from commoners powerless to object. Socially responsible foreign firms, aware of such abuses, insist on paying at least something for land; Perkowski says the local government officials who offered Asimco free land represent “all of the positive things China has to offer” but laments that after recent reforms “it’s no longer possible to obtain free land.”The author may have been so pleased with such friendly government officials because so many others got the better of Asimco in the early years, when his fund rapidly sealed more than a dozen joint ventures with lots of cash but little due diligence. Perkowski does discuss some of the ensuing difficulties but glosses over the most embarrassing details, deflects blame and minimizes his own serious misjudgments. (“In retrospect, we could have done a better job at negotiating some of the early joint venture contracts,” he concedes simply.)

Ouch. Are we to take it that Perkowski doesn’t even meet the minimum competence levels for doing business in his home country, let alone in a country he would seem to know absolutely nothing about? Should we assume that, if he is American or his business has American interests or investments, that by publishing this book he has opened himself up to a serious Foreign Corrupt Practices Act investigation?

I said it starts with language, and I said language is one of those basic competencies you should be prepared to develop should you want to work here- and by that I mean everything from being a foreign teacher like me right up to being CEO of the China branch of some Fortune 500 company. I’ll stand by that, but I’ll also admit that like most foreigners I know here I didn’t start learning Chinese until I arrived in China. But the process of learning the language has been just as important for my personal and professional development as my current ability to speak it. And at each step of the way the process of learning the language as well as my ability to speak it (at whatever level, from absolute beginners on my first day in Changsha to HSK Level 7 right now) has helped tremendously in my personal and professional life here. The fact that I can and do use Chinese at work (never with students, always with administrative staff) has made life a hell of a lot easier than it would otherwise be. For one thing, speaking Chinese makes it much easier to understand the mistakes my students are making with English and why, and therefore to find ways specific to their situation to help them correct those mistakes. It also means that, when dealing with administrative staff, I can get what I need done much more quickly and easily than I would be able to if I were monolingual. I don’t see how the same principle would not apply to the business world. Sure, it is easy to get through life and work and business in China without learning Chinese, but why would you? As I said already, if you wanted to be a running coach, would you cut off one of your legs?

Well, I really shouldn’t be leaping to so many snap judgements based on a review, especially not this early on a mid-summer Monday morning, but this review has done a lot to confirm the impression I had gotten from Perkowski’s blog.

So, once again, thank you Danwei for the links. And thank you Gady A. Epstein for the excellent review.

2 Responses to “thank you Danwei”

  1. syz Says:

    I had a bit of the same schadenfreude from the Forbes piece. Interestingly, I had left a comment on the “don’t need to learn Chinese” post you mention, but now all the comments appear to have been deleted…

    Unfortunately, the ugly foreigner scene you describe is all too common. You’d have thought it had gone out of style in the 1950s, but no, there you are, jaw on ground, listening to the multinational employee who’s been in country six months complain about the secretary didn’t communicate to the company driver about how she needed him to take her and her friends to the great wall over the weekend (they had to take a taxi). The sense of entitlement is palpable.

  2. wangbo Says:

    Ha, yeah, classic example.

    Can’t say I’m surprised comments were deleted, I mean, he got plenty of admirers agreeing with him, but surely there comes a point when you realise just how embarrassing it is to go on the public record making such a ridiculous statement.