On the second day of NPE, Shi Jingdong, a Chinese exhibitor I had interviewed the day before, recognized me from the crowd and asked whether I could walk him to an American toolmaker's booth.
``You see, my assistant speaks English, but she has to stay at the booth,'' he said, ``I cannot get a quote on my own.'' Shi speaks little English and there was not a third person from his company at the show due to visa problems.
To say the least of it, dismantling the language barrier is as huge an issue to the Chinese as to American companies doing business in China. Even being able to get around in Chicago does not guarantee sufficiently good English for negotiating business.
But communication is about more than language. When I told a Chinese public relations person to leave me a voice mail, she appeared confused. Apparently voice mail is not a common feature on the phones in China, not even cell phones. This can be a real hassle when you try to reach someone in China via phone.
What about e-mail? Still not as effective as expected. Before the show, I e-mailed a number of Chinese exhibitors, using the addresses provided by the show organizer, but I got no response.
``By the way, have you ever noticed an e-mail from me? I sent it last week,'' I asked a company official at NPE after an interview. ``Maybe,'' I was told. ``That's a company e-mail box. But honestly, even if you sent it to my personal e-mail, I still would trash it. How can you trust someone you've never seen or talked to?''
Good point. However, your potential customers on the other side of the world can hardly reach you via the telephone, especially if you do not have voice mail.
Fortunately, most Chinese firms, especially those interested in overseas markets, now run bilingual corporate Web sites, except for 100 percent exporters like MoldKing Co. Ltd., whose Web site is in English only.
In spite of bridging the language gap, MoldKing's site was puzzling, with three different company names on the home page and no explanation about how they relate to each other. A thorough Internet search in Chinese turned up no clue either. Eventually, I discovered at NPE that one is the parent company, which has two subsidiaries. MoldKing is the tooling division.
There is more to this name issue. Increasingly aware of the importance of branding, some Chinese firms have adapted English names that look nice and meaningful, but barely relate to their Chinese names.
One machinery maker asked me to shorten their transliterated English name in a story I planned to write. ``Take out the first word, that's the province name, it's useless,'' I was told.
Every time I fly to China, I see Americans reading ``Dos-and-Don'ts-of-doing-business-in-China'' type books. I also noticed at NPE that many Westerners delicately handle business cards with both hands. I could not help wondering: Wouldn't it make sense for adventurous entrepreneurs from China to learn about doing business in the States as well?
Nina Ying Sun is an Akron-based staff reporter and Asia specialist for Plastics News.