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Business in Asia –
A Userís Guide

by Sue Dockstader

How should you present your business card in Hong Kong?
Is it wise to travel by tuk tuk in Bangkok?
Is gold leaf still preferred currency in Vietnam?
Are the potential gains on the Chinese stock markets open to foreigners?
When is the typhoon season in the Philippines?
Sue Dockstader is an English lawyer who spent six years in Hong Kong. In this first in a series of articles Sue will focus on the issue of cultural diversity and its impact on businesses new to Asia. In future articles Sue will share advice and observations about doing business in Asia, providing a variety of facts, figures, and anecdotes to offer a taste of the Asian business environment. She will highlight some of the cultural nuances to be observed when doing business with specific Asian countries, offer practical hints and travel tips, and mention some of the obstacles (and pleasures) of being a gweilo/gei jin/farang, that is, a foreigner in Asia.

Have you thought of extending your business into Asia, or even of just visiting on vacation? For many this desire is never fulfilled because of the feeling that it is all too far away. For others, one bad experience has put them off from dealing with Asia permanently. Often, even for people of Asian ancestry, the Orient is still a mystical and unknown place. Although economic news of Japan and China is frequently reported in the U.S. media, there is still much ignorance surrounding Asia as a whole.

There are, of course, the well-known taboos of not touching a Thai on the head or eating durians on the Singapore subway. But to be really successful in Asia you need to do more than just learn a few superficial “doís” and “doníts,” you actually need to relearn the things you already know! It long has been presumed that if you are good at your job in your home country, you naturally will be a success elsewhere. Just plough on with the tried and tested business and social strategies and eventually the message will get through.

Unfortunately life in the Far East is not that simple. Just think of the difference in attitudes and business methods between say Wall Street and Solana Beach, not to mention Tokyo and Jakarta!

It seems that even President Bill Clinton, who you would assume to have the best possible research resources available to him on overseas trips, caused some diplomatic red faces during his trip to Korea. One newspaper reported that “In a series of protocol missteps, Clinton embarrassed Korean officials, confused his translator, baffled some dinner guests and delayed dinner briefly.” It appears that the worst of his strings of “faux pas” was unexpectedly inviting a translator to stand between himself and Korean President Kim Young-sam. In Korea it is an insult for anyone to stand between two heads of state. Sharpening your sensitivity to cultural slurs and taboos is essential to avoid such cultural gaffes.

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