How far would you go to learn about your customers? How far would you go to determine if you should really start the business you’re thinking about starting?
In my case, I took my family to China for a month for our company JackESL.
What follows is the story of our journey, replete with tips, warnings, links, Chinese cultural norms and places to stay.
JackESL is an English as a Second Language company my wife and I are co-founding along with our business partner Kathryn. Our market is China, a country with 1/5 of the world’s population. And before you ask yes, we are narrowing down that market quite a bit.
Going All In
As we’ve never been to China and have a limited understand the culture (especially me), I decided the best way to learn was to go there. And because half-assing isn’t allowed, we decided to go for a full month.
Our goal was to learn as much as possible about the Chinese culture by traveling to different parts of the country. We made a big loop through the country which, tomorrow, will find us again in Shanghai for meetings and our journey home.
Preparing For The Trip
In order to travel from the U.S. to China we needed to obtain visas. To get our visas we had to have travel plans. That made step one purchasing plane tickets and booking our first hotel.
The rest of the process was simple and consisted of ensuring our passports had at least 6 months before expiring, taking passport photos, filling out the visa paperwork, visiting the Chinese consulate in Washington, D.C. (near where we live), waiting in line, turning in our forms and paying some money, waiting a few days, and then picking up our visas. All in all it was a very easy and straight forward process.
As an FYI, the default visa you are issued is a 10-year multi-entry visa, so you can travel to/from China as much as you want for 10 years. Yay USA!
Along with obtaining our visas I purchased a universal power adapter for our electronics, a number of books for our Kindles, and an English-Chinese translation app for my iPhone.
With our travel arrangements made we packed up and headed to China.
First Stop: Shanghai
With more than 3000 cities, China has created a tier classification system to describe them.
There are the “Big Four Cities” which are the key Chinese cities, followed by 32 Tier 1 cities, 288 Tier 2 cities, 361 Tier 3 cities, and more than 1,500 Tier 4 cities. Along with the cities you have more than 20,000 towns, 12,000 townships, and other district offices.
In other words, China is a massive country.
We started our journey in Shanghai, one of the big four in China. The other three are Beijing, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen.
Shanghai is one of the newer Chinese cities, and has more than 24 million residents. It’s famous for The Bund, the City of God Temple, and Yu Garden.
While in Shanghai we stayed at the Grand Central Hotel Shanghai.
One of the things I love about Asia is the abundance of food. In addition to a wealth of large restaurants, you find food stalls and small. family-owned restaurants like the noodle shop pictured above.
Do The Chinese People Speak English?
Despite it’s size and the availability of many western brands, many people in China don’t speak English. We were lucky in that we found at least one person everywhere we went who spoke enough English to help us.
In the hotels it’s hit and miss. Often the front-desk people spoke enough English to check us in and out, however that’s where it ended. Many concierge’s spoke a lot of English, and at our current city of Chongqing, in the Marriott, a number of the staff speak very good English.
My Translation App Sucked…Here’s What I Used Instead
While in Shanghai we purchased a Chinese phone and SIM card (the component that connects a mobile phone to the local cellular network). This allowed us to use WeChat, a very popular mobile everything app, everywhere we went, and make phone calls. The guy we purchased the phone from spoke pretty good English and helped us to get the SIM card activated once we discovered the Chinese SIM wouldn’t work with our iPhones.
Recommendation: purchase a Chinese smart phone if you’ll be in China for more than a week. Ours cost around $150 and has helped enormously.
After struggling with my translation app, iTranslate, I was turned onto a Chinese application called Youdao.
I’m assuming Youdao must have millions of users as everyone we “spoke” with used the application. It works very well.
Recommendation: download the Youdao application and, while on wifi, download all of the English packs for offline use.
Due to the lack of English, a combination of Youdao, the “small” amount of English some people spoke, asking for help from the concierge at each hotel we stayed in, and pointing at things on a map, we were able to get around.
Next Stop: Hangzhou
The main method of transportation in China is train. But beware – depending on where you want to go and the class of ticket you want, you may have to book days or weeks in advance.
In our experience the train was much less expensive than flying. However, you want to purchase 1st class tickets or better. Anything else and you’ll be crammed in with a lot of other people. That’s non-optimal when traveling with family, or like me you get hot very easily.
Recommendation: book 1st class train tickets or better.
Additionally, a city may have four or five different stations, each with different destinations. Check with your hotel concierge before purchasing tickets and be sure to be VERY EXPLICIT about where you are trying to go. We ended up on a 1.5 hour side track because the station we went to didn’t have a train to our destination.
We took a taxi from our hotel to the train station in Shanghai. As you can see from the picture above, the train station is a football-stadium sized building completely full of people.
If you’re looking for air conditioning and western toilets in this train station, you’re in for a let down. There’s little of the former and a none of the latter.
It’s at this point I want to go off on a little tangent that will help you if you’re a westerner reading this.
When West Collides With East
Smoking Is Allowed Everywhere
I quit smoking almost 20 years ago. To me the smell of cigarette smoke is abhorrent. And smoking around my kids? Oh hell no.
However, that’s a contrite American concept.
In China, smoking is allowed pretty much everywhere – in restaurants, malls, taxis, hotels, everywhere. And even when you do see a no smoking sign, go into any men’s bathroom and you’ll be greeted by a sickening cloud of cigarette smoke.
Even at the Marriott Hotel Chongqing, in the Executive Lounge where smoking is prohibited, I had to tell the staff that someone had been smoking in the bathroom. But can they do anything about it? No. We were told shop owners won’t stop people from smoking because they don’t want to lose customers.
There Is No Line
The next thing I had to adjust to is that there are really no lines – in the train station, on the metro, on the road, at the buffet table – anywhere. In China you best check your common courtesy at the door if you want to move forward.
I have read this is due to the fierce competition for limited resources. I will tell you from my experience it doesn’t matter what age the people around you are. I’ve been in line only to be cut off by toddlers and the elderly alike.
There Is Also No Personal Space
China is crowded. On average, Chinese mega and Tier 1 cities have 8 million residents. Everywhere you look there are 35+ story apartment buildings. Get into any elevator or metro and you’ll quickly find out how many people can be crammed into a small space.
Two other incidents stand out in my mind.
Yesterday while at the hotel pool, we had claimed one of the lounge chairs by draping our towel over it, putting additional towels on top, and surrounding it with our shoes and other items. This didn’t stop someone from coming and sitting right down on it though. When I motioned to the towel on the chair, the guy moved it. Despite my standing right next to him, dripping wet, I had to “shoo” him away so I could sit down and help my kids.
The second incident is while on a river cruise we moved our napkins from the table onto our chairs. When we returned to the table someone had taken one of our seats and we had to have one of the staff ask him to move. From then on we “claimed” our spots with cell phones and Kindles, ensuring the message was clear.
To be fair, we may have been missing the appropriate cultural clue that pointed to our “claimed” spots being ours. For instance, in China they put their napkins underneath their plates instead of in their laps. After the seat stealing incident, I put my napkin on the table along with my Kindle.
Recommendation: carry paper tissues with you. Many of the restaurants we ate at, even nice ones, sold you paper napkins to use. I’m not sure how people kept their mouths clean, but it wasn’t with cloth napkins.
Budget (Quite A Bit Of) Additional Time
Because of the massive crowding in the cities, if you need to get to a train station or airport on time, give yourself more than a few hours. It easily took 45-60 minutes to get from the downtown in any city to the train station.
Recommendation: look to see if a metro goes where you need to get to. Many times the metro was a faster alternative due to the constant traffic.
Bring Your VPN
The Chinese government has blocked many of the websites we in the U.S. use on a daily basis – Google, Facebook, LinkedIn and more. If you want to access these websites you’ll need a VPN, or Virtual Private Network. A VPN creates a secure tunnel between your computer or phone and a server somewhere else. From then on all of the traffic from your device pops out the other end and vice versa.
Using a VPN allows you to access the websites you know and love.
The one I found that works very well is VPN Unlimited. Others I tried, including my tried-and-true HMA, didn’t work.
With all that said, let me get back to our trip…
Hangzhou is the headquarters of one of the largest companies in China – Alibaba – run by Jack Ma.
While in Hangzhou we stayed at the Landison Plaza Hotel. From there we visited the Xixi Wetlands (not recommended during the summer) and the Lingyin Temple. The temple was epic, with the entire complex covering multiple city blocks.
Another of the famous spots in Hangzhou is the West Lake area.
It was very beautiful, and as expected, is surrounded by food and other vendors.
After Hangzhou we decided to head to jump the border and head to Hong Kong for a few days.
While Hong Kong is technically a part of China, it’s termed an administrative region, which means it’s governed differently. Because of that it’s like going to/from another country, complete with getting a visa on entry (if you’re an American), and needing to fill out arrival and departure cards when entering and leaving the country.
We saved hundreds of dollars and hopped on a bus from the Hanghzhou airport to the Hong Kong border. Thankfully we got through the border easily and stumbled our way to our bus on the other side. Getting from the bus to our hotel, the excellent Luxe Manor, was an ordeal consisting of a taxi, asking multiple people for directions when we were dropped off at the wrong place, and then trucking our luggage through downtown Hong Kong on a busy and hot Saturday night.
Good times! But seriously, it was interesting to say the least, and again we found an extremely helpful person who helped us find our hotel.
We found our time in Hong Kong very enjoyable. Many people spoke quite a bit of English which made it easier to get around. Additionally, there must have been hundreds of restaurants around our hotel, and we found the number one dim sum restaurant in Hong Kong by happen stance, and it was celebrating its 30th birthday with a huge discount.
We were in heaven.
Side note: the firewall rules in Hong Kong are also different than mainland China. I was able to access Facebook, Google and others without issue.
Along with visiting the Tian Tan Buddha (epic), we also rode the Peak Tram to get to the highest point in Hong Kong and catch this beautiful view of part of the city.
After thoroughly enjoying our time in Hong Kong and getting some laundry done, we went back across the border back to mainland China.
After Hong Kong: Shenzen
As mentioned in the beginning of this story, Shenzen is one of the “big four” cities in China.
In 1980, Shenzen was designated one of China’s first Special Economic Zones, and became one of the fastest growing cities in the 1990’s. In 2017 it had a population of around 13 million.
Shenzen was built on a lot of foreign investment, and is one of the electronics capitals in China. Everywhere you go there are mobile phones for sale along with everything else electronic. We picked up a few drones.
Side note: if you think there’s a lot of competition in your industry, take a trip to China. Each floor of this mall is dedicated to certain types of electronics. What differentiates one vendor from the next when they are literally selling the exact same thing? The hustle of the owner.
The hotel we stayed at in Shenzen was The Pavilion Hotel. It was very close to many restaurants and shops.
Side Track: Where Are His Pants?!
Shenzen was the first time I saw a parent allowing their little boy to pee in public. A father held up what appeared to be a one-year old while he peed in front of a mall.
Two other infamous in our minds incidents of children peeing in public included one in a very nice mall (right outside of the window where we were eating) and another on the subway. In the former incident I did not see any cleaning occur while in the latter the grandmother cleaned up the child’s urine with a diaper.
I also saw little boys on our river cruise running around with no pants on. Also famous in China for little boys are pants with no fronts or backs, allowing for “fast action” when necessary, and not necessarily in the bathroom. Think boxers missing most of the middle section.
Again to be clear, I’m not speaking badly of China or the Chinese, I’m simply pointing our cultural differences so you’ll be prepared when you visit.
One of My Favorite Cities: Guangzhou
Guangzhou was one of my favorite cities, most likely because we stayed in a wonderful hotel – The Fraser Suites – which was attached to two malls. The room was absolutely fantastic, the staff extremely helpful, the pool clean and refreshing, and the food excellent.
While there we caught up with a high school friend of Kookkai’s from Thailand – Chef Apichat.
Chef Apichat is the Executive Chef for The Mango Tree restaurants. He travels between their 18 locations ensuring the food is authentic and delicious. As you can see from the spread, Chef Apichat hit the mark dead on. Each of the dishes we enjoyed reminded us of Thailand, with each being more delicious and enjoyable than the next.
Warning: if you want to actually get a table go at 5pm when they open. When we left at 6:30 there was a long wait to get in, and it seats 150!
Also in Guangzhou was the Ancestor’s Temple, conveniently located a block from an excellent mall and a metro stop.
The Ancestor’s Temple is an ancestral temple which provides a true flavor for the deep history of China.
Visiting Friends In Wuhan
After spending a wonderful three days in Guangzhou we said goodby and headed to Wuhan to meet with friends. Because we arrived late we stayed one night at The Dorsett Wuhan Hotel. The rest of the time we stayed at the Marco Polo Wuhan Hotel.
Wuhan is currently a fast growing city. Having welcomed foreign investment, this Tier 1 city is the capital of the Hubei province and home to around 11 million people.
One of our first stops in Wuhan was the Yellow Crane Tower. Dating back to 223 AD, this epic and ancient tower is a must-see.
One benefit of having a cute three-year-old in a stroller is you get some special privileges. In this instance we got an elevator ride to the top of the 5-story tower.
Here’s a picture of the tower:
The true highlight of our trip to Wuhan was visiting with our friends and their family, along with a side trip to a local Tier 3 city, Huangpi , to see what a “smaller” city of 1 million people looks like.
After six days in Wuhan we headed to Yichang to prepare for our Three Gorges River cruise.
One Night In Yichang
We stayed one night in Yichang at the Crowne Plaza, which was a 1.5 hour bus ride from where our river cruise ship was docked.
On the other side of our hotel was… you guessed it! A mall.
Something you may not know about me is I’m a fan of all things matcha. When we happened across this little shop that has matcha cakes, ice cream, drinks and more, I was in matcha heaven. They also styled it to looks like a traditional Japanese tea house.
After our one night in Yichang we hopped on the bus and headed to meet our boat.
The Three Gorges River Cruise
While the boat we stayed on didn’t live up to the expectations or capabilities we were sold on, the Three Gorges Dam is truly epic, and the gorge area is beautiful.
The Three Gorges Dam is the largest powerhouse dam in the world, meaning it produces more hydro-electric power than any other dam. It’s also home to the largest ship lift in the world.
To ensure their standing in the record books, further down the river from the Three Gorges Dam is the second largest powerhouse dam.
Over the course of three days we traveled by boat on the Yangtze river, the main river in China.
Two notable excursions included a trip up one of the branches, and a stop at the Fengdu Ghost City.
The Fengdu Ghost City was, as are many things in China, epic. I man’d up, put Virginia on my shoulders, and climbed more than 300 stone stairs in the hundred-degree heat.
At the top we were rewarded with a phenomenal view of the Yangtze, more ancient buildings and statues, and ice cream (which we purchased).
We snapped this fun picture before heading back down the stairs and making our way back to the ship.
Much Needed R&R in Chongqing
We’re currently spending our second day in the wonderful Marriott Hotel Chongqing. After not getting much sleep on the cruise (due to a very musty room and rock hard beds), we needed a little R&R before finishing our journey.
My entire family is enjoying working from the Executive Lounge on the 47th floor. Virginia was happy to be back online and celebrated with some YouTube (thanks again to the VPN).
Finishing Our Trip in Shanghai
In a few days we’ll be traveling back to Shanghai. I have meetings with multiple marketing companies there, and then it’s time to head back to the United States!
Bringing It Full Circle
So back to my original question – how far would you go to learn about your customers? How far would you go to determine if you should get into a business or not.
For me, the answer took my family and I on a one-month journey through China to learn as much as possible about the culture and the people.
We have indeed learned a lot and had many experiences, and as with all things, there is even more to learn.
We look forward to helping the people of China learn ESL through JackESL, and learning much from them along the way.