On this current 25 -day visit to China I've been reminded what a crucial role meals play in doing business here, and how much they vary depending on the type of relationships involved. Here are just four examples taken from the last week – they are not supposed to be an exhaustive list, only illustrations of variety! I've written this fairly fast (just about to go out for another meal!) so please excuse …
1) Formal welcome – team building
Returning again to a large city in the north of China, my first main meal with a business partner there was a celebration lunch at a good restaurant. Hosted by the boss of that company, all his top team were round the table (including his company driver of course). I was the "honoured guest" – there were a few little toasts, but nothing too extravagant. What did I want to drink? "We've got important work to do together this afternoon, so let's drink tea" I suggested. In the end we had some special fruit juice. It felt like the meaning of this meal was we've been working together well since your last visit, and though there have been some challenges we have some things to celebrate and plenty more good business to look forward to. We've got to the point in this relationship there is a good level of trust, and we're working for the success of both companies.
2) Strengthening ties with patrons
That same afternoon, I'm in conversation with the boss and he's telling me about one of his important clients – an old college friend of his who is now a business leader (and party member). "I'll call him and see if he's free to eat with us this evening" he says. A few minutes later, the deal is done. Though most of the people round the table are the same as at lunchtime, and the restaurant is of a similar level, this is very different meal. I sit at the host's right hand again – having come from so far away that's kind of given – but it's clear from the way the meal plays out that, unsurprisingly, the most honoured guest is not me. Dishes arrive at the table but we wait until the old friend, who has been delayed in traffic for nearly an hour, arrives. Conversation centers round him - we ask his opinion on the economy and listen respectfully to his views on cooking, travel and history. There's plenty of baijiu flowing. The meal is a success – I've been introduced to an important patron, and the host's relationships with both him and me have been strengthened.
3) Hanging out with working peers
The next day I'm with the same company but it's a very different affair. The morning has been spent getting on with more mundane work – training, checking emails, making some practical plans. Now it's time for lunch… I'm taken out by the two people I've been working with all morning, the two that I actually deal with most often from week to week. We exit the office building and head for the nearest shopping mall. There are about 20 eating places to choose from, and we survey them all before making a decision together (Korean food). As we tuck into delicious bibimbap there's no work talk of course, nor are there any "little speeches" – just chatter about hobbies, TV series, family. The meaning of this meal feels like: we're hungry, let's eat! There are more important things in life than work anyway.
4) Showing respect to elders
A few days later, and I'm in a different city. This is one that I lived in for many years (Chengdu) and where the company I used to work received lots of help and support from one local government department. Each time I'm in the area I call up my closest friend in that department, who is also their longest serving leader, and is close to retirement. Does he have time for me to drop by for a chat? "Yes" he says, "then let's have lunch afterwards". This meal is at a medium-level restaurant just close to his office. It's just the two of us, continuing the discussion from the morning. We're asking for news of old connections, new opportunities, possible ways to work together. There's plenty of chat about family too, and travel. It's an extra thing to fit into a busy trip to China, but this meal is thoroughly enjoyable, and well worth the time. With this visit and meal I'm saying: I really respect you and appreciate your friendship over the years; and if there are more ways we can help each other in business then all the better!