By: Wendy Stephenson, Director of Strategic Initiatives
Literally, one step - or should I say misstep - and I had a minor international incident on my hands.
I had walked into the dressing room of a huge Tokyo department store, not realizing I was committing a grievous error. You never wear shoes on tatami mats.
However, I was not the first to have made a wrong move like that. In the mid-nineteenth century, America’s first consul to Japan shocked his Japanese hosts by walking straight into the shogun's presence in Edo Castle without removing his shoes.
In my case, I had store staff wildly waving their arms at me in alarm … but I couldn’t fathom what was wrong.
Having travelled considerably since then for business and pleasure, I have learned the importance of culture, tradition and protocol.
In China, for instance, business cards are always exchanged and should be done so with two hands as a sign of respect.
In Greece, it was unsettling to find myself staring at a machine gun in Athens airport. I had never seen any sort of weapon before in my life.
And again in China, simply knowing how to use the washroom facilities was an accomplishment. The toilet looked like a porcelain baby cradle lying on the floor.
Knowing what to expect and how to deal with situations is all part and parcel of the travel experience.
Harry Schulz, who has been on Chamber trips to Israel, China and Vietnam/Cambodia, says there are two aspects to such trips.
“You get a toe in the water. I can’t imagine jumping in cold turkey, not understanding the culture and going straight to the deal.”
In Vietnam, for example, it was interesting observing how they did things.
Driving through the countryside, he saw people in the fields, preparing the land with a hoe and planting the crops by hand … no automation, Schulz says, adding his business interests are agriculture related.
But he also noted the lack of automation in other areas. There were people with hand tools, banging out designs on silver trays, instead of using machine presses.
“You came to understand their idea of productivity is not like our idea of productivity.”
Another aspect of these trips is that other business people accompany you, because of The Chamber connection.
“You know many of them superficially, but you get to know them better. Some of my best friendships were formed on the road,” he says, adding a Chamber trip differs from a trade mission because it’s easier to bring along a spouse and share the experience.
“On these trips, there’s a comfort factor. You’re in a strange country, but you have a community (of travellers) where there’s a familiarity.”
However, there is value in having a business agenda.
“Some years ago, Dave Angus (Chamber president and CEO) went to Finland with a group to look at technology. It was a bit of mixing and matching … bonding with Winnipeg travellers, but also looking at the country’s business settings and talking collaboratively.”
Carol-Ann Borody-Siemens, who’s travelled with The Chamber to India, South Africa and Vietnam/Cambodia, agrees that there’s a comfort level travelling with a group of people, many of whom you know and have a similar attitude.
“Like in Vietnam, people rolled with what happened as if it were part of the planned experience,” she says, citing how the group was caught in a torrential downpour in the Mekong Delta, but it just added to the adventure.
Also, because of the type of people who went on the trip, the guides were asked insightful questions on the country’s history, economic growth and political/geo-political situation.
“We discovered what it means to our world.”
It’s through travelling, you learn the subtleties of a culture, what’s important to the people and how they live their lives day-to-day, Borody-Siemens says, laughing about the challenge of crossing the street in Vietnam.
“The first time I tried, it was not fun (vehicles were approaching from every which way and the traffic was steady). The whole country is like a ballet … as long as you are moving at the same speed and keep moving … you get into the rhythm, you’re OK.”
The trip was also a “cautionary tale,” she adds.
“In these cultures, people can be offended by things we do every day.”
She enjoyed Vietnam and would definitely go back, she says.
“We saw a lot and did a lot at high speed.”
For travellers who went on the first Chamber trip to China, it was a great introduction to the country and gave them a sense of the historical and modern-day reality, which has proved useful in interpreting the news.
“What was particularly impressive was seeing the economic growth … all of the building and construction … and seeing how China is positioning itself globally,” one traveller said.
While another added: “Watch out world … China’s coming.”
The trip also gave some travellers a new perspective.
“It was interesting being the object of their curiosity. People were wanting their pictures taken with us.”
At the same time, it was nice to have an opportunity to spend time with someone who lives there and to learn about everyday life.
“I would now feel comfortable going back on my own,” another added.
If you are interested in travelling to China, The Chamber is hosting a trip April 7 – 18, 2016. DEADLINE to reserve your spot is Friday, January 15.
Click here for more information, including an itinerary.