China Business

F-ck China Culture Lessons. Give Me Anthony Bourdain With No Reservations.

China Guanxi

The best way to strengthen a guanxi network is to stay connected.
Send small gifts or ask for small favors to keep a relationship active.
Host an occasional get-together.
Remember the major Chinese holidays and send greetings.
Get to know your colleagues’ outside interests and find ways to support them, like getting tickets to a sporting event or concert.

From “China’s Changing Culture and Etiquette


I love watching the TV show, No Reservations. The show involves Anthony Bourdain (of Kitchen Confidential fame) touring a country and sampling its restaurants and foods. Despite constant (at the beginning and at every commercial) warnings of adult content (there is usually massive swearing, drinking, and smoking), I always watch it with my ten-year-old daughter because I know of no better or more interesting way for her to learn about foreign cultures. Every show leads her to ask a torrent of questions, with none on swearing, drinking or smoking.

Bourdain defines bon vivant (see the eating, swearing, drinking and smoking above). This is a person who clearly loves to travel, loves meeting people of other cultures, and loves eating exotic foods. I have always divided Americans into those who think going to London constitutes stretching themselves and those who want to go somewhere where almost nothing is at all familiar. Bourdain neatly fits into the second category. Most importantly, he is a likable guy whose likability and bon vivantness (I was a French major so I know I am making up this word) crosses cultural divides.

His recent episode in Laos was amazing and led me to proclaim that one can learn more about how to act in China (or anywhere else) from a one-hour No Reservations episode than from anything else. Watch it!

The key takeaway from Bourdain is that if you truly seek to enjoy and respect the people (and food) around you, truly want to learn more, truly seek to participate in the culture and food and customs of a people, and do so with spirit, you will be fine. The word truly is important because people everywhere appreciate sincerity and effort and can instinctively sense phoniness.

So watch No Reservations and the next time you find yourself in a lesson on Chinese etiquette/culture designed to make you acceptable to “the Chinese,” ask yourself who you think most likely to have a real network (note how I did NOT use the word guanxi here) in China, your instructor or Bourdain.

Got to see Bourdain live and he was great. If he comes to your town, don’t miss it.

9 responses to “F-ck China Culture Lessons. Give Me Anthony Bourdain With No Reservations.”

  1. Agree 100%.
    Bourdain is unpretentious, humble when in the homes of locals hosting him and respectful of local culture.
    Hopefully he and whoever is the next American president can recover some of America’s lost cred “W” & Co. shit away the last 8 years…

  2. Some advance preparation is great (e.g. language study or at least chopsticks skills), but I agree, eagerly taking part in the culture is probably the best way to make people like you.

  3. Love Bourdain, love the show, and agree with what you said. There is a problem with the show, though, its okay if you don’t know where he’s traveling to, but the 2 episodes he did in China, he really stuck strictly to the tourist path (at least in Beijing and Shanghai).
    Totally unrelated, I recently came across the dvd box set of the first (and I think only) season of the tv show inspired by his book, Kitchen Confidential, in Shanghai and have been enjoying it thoroughly.

  4. Of course you are right about this and the only people who would say otherwise are those out there teaching the courses. I have been living in China for six years and my connection with “the people” comes from “being real,” not from anything I have read in any book.

  5. Dan, I totally agree with you on this. Having sincere fun builds a great network. But … I’ve found that some knowledge of Chinese culture adds to the fun. I’m sort of waiting until I finish the book, but I might just wait until I get back to the States to write a post on The Journey to the West. Dude, first off, this book, and especially Sun Wukong, is just plain old awesome. Second, The Great Sage Equaling Heaven is always fun to talk about (I think I confused and bored a lot of my friends in the States with tales of the Protector of the Horses exploits), and there’s not a Chinese person I’ve met that isn’t excited to share their opinion on any of the characters in the book. So I guess I’m saying mostly the same thing: genuine enthusiasm for the culture and eagerness to learn about the culture are what counts, and nobody but Westerners who think they know Chinese culture better than you really cares whether you use one hand or two hands to accept someone’s business card.

  6. The People’s Republic Of Capitalism. But I Digress.
    Excellent post over at the inside-out China blog on Ted Koppel’s recently completed Discovery Channel show, “The People’s Republic of Capitalism.” The post really shines in analyzing the views of some of the Chinese nationals who spoke during the serie…

  7. Interesting post, seeing a different culture is one thing and understanding it another. The ‘understanding’ part is related to what I do in my business.
    Knowledge of Chinese culture can be important when doing business, but make sure you understand that the culture requirements differ in the different regions – just like they differ in the North and South of France or the East Coast/West Coast of the US.

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