Monday, July 25, 2016

Understanding Chinese

This past week I had the opportunity to do something I had never done before. I had supper with the Chinese Grain Sorghum Trade Team. They were touring the United States looking at various parts of the Grain Sorghum supply chain and a couple of those days were to be spent in Kansas. I got an invite to help represent Kansas Farm Bureau. I had no idea what to expect.
The evening started with each of us determining where we would sit. It was suggested that we break ourselves up a bit and intermingle with our guests. I found myself seated across from the leader of the delegation and next to a grain buyer. The leader spoke very good English and the grain buyer spoke none. I have to admit that I was nervous, I wanted to say the right things and help sell more U.S. grain sorghum.
We introduced ourselves and started to make small talk while we were waiting for the waiter to come around. I tried my best to generate discussion, I had trouble hearing the leader, he was soft spoken and the room was loud. That added to my anxiety because I wanted to make sure I said and did the right things. Somehow in my mind I was afraid of starting an international incident solely because I didn’t hear something right. I strained intently to listen to every word.
My two new friends also conversed among themselves and I really wondered what they were saying. I suppose it was pretty mundane stuff but the truth was I did not know. Soon we were talking about agriculture and crops and I started to relax and enjoy the conversation. The grain buyer’s questions were mainly about my cost of production and what I thought the weather would be like this summer. It hit me that he wanted to know what our crop conditions, he was doing his job and trying to understand what our supply of grain sorghum would be like this year.
The cost of production was pretty simple. However, trying to predict the weather for the upcoming growing season and explaining the ups and downs of Kansas weather is difficult if you speak the same language, let alone through a translator. I am still not sure my answers satisfied him, he kept pressing me for more details about the weather. I think he thought I was holding out on him when I gave wishy washy answers about rain and heat. I would guess my answers will be reinforced by fellow farmers over the coming weeks. Kansas summer weather is unpredictable no matter what language you use.
Then I started to watch our guests and I realized I could have been watching a group of people from anywhere. I didn’t understand what I was hearing but I did understand what I was seeing. I watched as they picked on one another and joked around. The gentleman across from me explained that the ladies in the group were threatening a boycott on the tour Sunday so they could spend time shopping at a mall. They continued to needle him throughout the meal and if I was a betting man, I would guess that they will be wandering the shops instead of fields on Sunday afternoon.
He also explained that they were blaming him for any of the problems on the trip. More than once he said that they were telling us if anything went wrong it was his fault. This all seemed to be in very good humor and there was a lot of laughing and jostling at our table. I noticed similar activity at the other table too. It certainly reinforced the idea that no matter what our background or nationality that people are just people.
The evening soon began to wind down. Our guests were eleven hours behind their normal schedule and jet lag had to be setting in. I also noticed, no matter what our nationality that everyone of us kept checking our mobile devices. Addiction knows no boundaries. When everything was said and done I drew three thoughts from this dinner.
 First, I wish I had paid more attention in school about China and especially the geography. It would have kept me from asking what I am sure were dumb questions. Second, these are our customers and we must listen to them and carry on a dialogue. They need us and we need them. Finally, we are more similar than different. Our viewpoints and objectives maybe different but at the core we are members of the human race. Each of us are trying to live our lives, we have careers, families and friends and lives that influence our actions. I am not sure what our guests from China came away with, but I know I have a whole new perspective on our trading partners on the other side of the globe.

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