By Kent Clark, China Correspondent
I currently tutor a high school senior who will be attending college in the United States next year. It is common, in the provincial capital that I live in, for high school seniors that plan to study abroad the following year to stop attending regular classes their senior year. This is to allow them time to prepare for the SAT, as well as the rigorous English-language TOEFL exam, which is needed for university admission in English speaking countries. My student long ago completed those exams so he has spent the past six months with nothing to do other than improve his English. Since his English is pretty good, we often talk about political, cultural, and commercial differences between China and the United States.
“Bill Gates would never make it in China.” As 18 year olds are prone to do, my student sometimes makes brash statements such as this. We were having a discussion about private companies in China versus private companies in America right after the Facebook IPO. “Many Western entrepreneurs come here and can spend maybe 10 years, but still have no relationships,” was his more balanced approach to our discussion. As long as his grammar and pronunciation are correct, I try not to get into the habit of debating the merits of his opinions. However, this particular sentiment struck a chord with me since I am currently one of those many. I asked him what he thinks is the primary reason that so many outsiders fail in this country. He said that he didn’t know, it is just what he reads and hears about. “Maybe they just don’t understand the culture.”
For my company, I can’t say that a lack of cultural understanding has been a hindrance to success. Our customers all appreciate the work that we do and are enthusiastic about the English content we create. We create it with Chinese children’s interests in mind and those children respond positively. Our Web Site as a whole, however, is having a slow churn towards attracting new users. That means we are still missing something. Since I don’t want to be one of the many that my student previously referred to, I am looking for what the missing ingredient is. There is a Web Site called Tech Rice (www.techrice.com) which blogs about the technology and internet scene in China from Zhongguancun, the Chinese equivalent of Silicon Valley. They have a mix of Chinese and foreign bloggers, but one message becomes clear from reading their posts: the need to be flexible.
I don’t believe this is groundbreaking news, and being flexible is a good rule of thumb for any business, regardless of their location. I feel that attribute carries even more weight in China though, simply because few if any other countries or markets change at the rapid pace with which China does. It seems one of our biggest issues right now is that parents simply don’t feel comfortable letting their child use the internet for learning (frequently it is a distrust that learning is what the student will actually be doing once their parents leave the room.) They are not opposed to learning via technology; it’s just that the internet is not yet an entirely accepted forum for children to learn in. We thus have to think outside the box and be flexible.
Although I have started a Web Site company, I am not a so-called “techie”. I do not fully comprehend the intricacies of all the new technology out there and I probably never will. But in our attempts to reach new customers, and satisfy existing customers, we seem to be going back in time with what we can offer parents and students. Our attempts to be flexible have led to us issuing DVDs with our video content, including short grammar introductions, video books, and music videos. This strikes me as odd because our Web Site is laid out to be far more convenient. Instead of using a remote to watch one video at a time, a Web Site allows for a click of a button to gain access to multiple forms of media. The reaction to the DVDs has been positive, so for now it seems like a good idea. Personally, I wonder if the act of purchasing a physical object gives a buyer a sense of comfort, as opposed to buying membership to a Web Site. Whether that is right or wrong, the important thing is to be flexible in understanding.