Interview Nicoleen Amoy Johnson President of the Caribbean Association of China

This month we interview Jamaican Nicoleen Amoy Johnson who is the president of the Caribbean Association of China. She has been living, studying and working in China for nearly 10 years. During that time she has completed both her Masters and PhD while working for a few international consulting firms in Shanghai. This experience has allowed her to deepen her understanding of the local Chinese people, their culture, their market and their language. It is an essential ingredient for success when doing business in such a unique culture. As the first Jamaican to graduate with a PhD from China and being one of the very few Jamaicans living there and fluent in Mandarin (Chinese native language), she is an invaluable asset to Jamaicans wishing to do business in China.

Q. How long have you lived in China.
I have been living in China nearly 10 years. I first arrived in September 1997.

Q. How long did it take you to learn Chinese?
I think that even today I’m still learning. It took me approximately 2 years to be comfortable with my Chinese level. After two years I was able to converse freely and to travel around China on my own.

Q. Tell us how you choose china as a place to live?
In 1997, I had just completed my first degree at the University of Technology in Jamaica and I wanted to continue straight into a Master’s program. I was offered two scholarships for the same Masters program in International Relations; one was to study in the UK for one year and one to study in China for 4 years. As with all my other decisions in life, I prayed about it and knew without a doubt that China would be the choice. I always enjoyed a good challenge and I was excited about the adventure China presented. I was also curious about learning Chinese. The trade off in study time was pretty significant but I knew in my heart that I was making the right choice. I knew if I truly wanted to fully understand the language and culture it would take time so the trade off of 3 years would be worth it.
I came, I completed my Masters after which my scholarship was extended for the PhD, which I also completed by which time I had already fallen in love with life in China. Therefore when I discovered the opportunity of starting my own trade consulting services, it was not a tough decision to stay on in China.

Q. How many Jamaicans do you know living in China?
Currently I have to redefine the term Jamaican to include those born in Jamaica and holding Jamaican passport, those that were born there but moved away when they were young and now hold other country’s passport and those whose parents or grandparents were born in Jamaica. We are so few that any sort of link to the island gets one incorporated under the ‘Jamaican’ umbrella. With this is mind, I know of approximately 30 Jamaicans living in China.

Q. Where do you get Jamaican food?
Usually I try to return to Jamaica at least once a year and on every single occasion all my suitcases would usually be overweight. (smile). I would stock-up on my favorite items, excelsior water crackers, grace noodles soup, spices/seasonings, salt fish, tin ackee, tin callaloo, fruit cake, etc etc. Whenever I ran out I would always check when others would be traveling home and they would also take back for me.

Q. Where in Jamaica are you from?
I was born in Bethel Town, a small community in Westmoreland

Q. Was it easy adjusting to living in China?
It was extremely difficult at first, primarily because of the huge cultural differences. However overtime as I learnt the language and had a better understanding of the Chinese people and culture, it became easier. In China you have to learn to ignore a LOT of things or you would never be able to adjust to life here.

Q. How do you handle a somewhat restrictive society, especially Internet access?
Again, you learn to live by the rules of the government and in most cases life is usually a lot less restrictive for the foreigners living here. However, if you allow yourself, it can become very stressful dealing with the Chinese bureaucracy, but I have learned to adjust to the system. I never allow myself to be surprised by the incomprehensible rules, instead I have learned to take every situation as a joke and find ways around them. Of course there are times when I cannot connect to the internet or when we are unable to access certain websites, again there is absolutely nothing we can do about it so you wait a few days and usually we would be back online after awhile. If it is one thing I have learned living in China, it is patience.

Q. Do foreigner get any extra privileges?
Definitely. This was especially true when I first arrived and we had less foreigners living here. Usually there would be one set of rules for the foreigners and a separate set for the Chinese. We actually enjoyed a lot more freedom than the Chinese and even though it was not in writing, there was always that mutual understanding between the Chinese and us. Eg. When I first arrived, all the foreigners were separated from the Chinese students, we had our own dorms (separate regulations) and we had our own rooms or not more than 2 students sharing. The Chinese students on the other hand were 6-8 students sharing a room and the conditions were extremely basic. Even if they could afford to live in our dorms, they would never be allowed to. In addition, We were able to go to the front of the queue at the hospital, in the banks at the bus station, etc. Things have changed somewhat since. Now there are more foreigners living here and they have gotten used to our presence,. However, we still enjoy some privileges.

Q. Any plans to move back west?
Eventually, but for the moment due to the nature of my expertise and with the growth of my business, I think I can be of greater assistance to the region by remaining in China. So I will be here for a while or until the Lord instructs otherwise..

Q. Tell us about the association?
The Caribbean association was inaugurated on April 1, 2007. I had invited a group of Jamaicans living in Shanghai with the hope of starting our Jamaican association but after further discussion we decided to expand the group to include the other Caribbean nationals and that evolved into the official launch of the Caribbean Association in China.
From personal experience, I know that living in China can be extremely lonely for people from the Caribbean, primarily because we are so few and so far away from home and also because the usual reaction from the Chinese when you tell them where you are from is “where in Africa is that?”. I saw the Association as a medium through which we can help those who are now living here and others who will come in the future, to better transition into adjusting to life in China as well as a formal avenue to educate the Chinese about the region. Hence our Mission “to foster a stronger understanding and appreciation of our Caribbean culture, strengthening Sino-Caribbean relations and to serve as a support network to the Caribbean community in China. “

Q. What is the main goal/objectives?
We are still new and as we grow and identify the needs of our members, our goals will evolve. However, so far we have identified the following:-
a. Supporting Caribbean students studying in China
b. Supporting the Embassies on a project by project bases
c. Building Chinese relations with the region and hosting events to build awareness
d. Keeping the Caribbean community in China informed of Caribbean related events.
e. Providing networking opportunities and support to the Caribbean community
f. Supporting local Charities.

Q. What are some of the opportunities for Caribbean business interested in China?
As the rest of the world has long acknowledged, China is a haven for sourcing low cost products, and with the proper research you can also find high quality goods at comparatively low prices. In addition, I think there are very few things that the Chinese cannot reproduce, so they provide a very good forum for finding new product items for trade in the region. It is a great place for finding new business ideas. It also provides a vast market for selling Caribbean goods, especially our rums, spices, coffee, food, tourism and other items indigenous to our region. The fact is, there is a growing number of middle class Chinese with greater disposable income and they are literally anxious to try new things and visit new places.

Q. What advise would you give someone looking for investment opportunities in China?
Key to success will be to invest in utilizing the services of someone with expertise in the market. The stories are many of people who have gotten ‘burnt’ here, as well as the frustration involved in doing business in China. A lack of understanding of the business culture can lead to catastrophe. If you have someone who understands both the culture, the language and business environment in China as well as the Caribbean, then the process will become a lot easier as they are able to bridge that gap. Many people think they are saving cost by bypassing this vital aspect of the process but in fact they soon find themselves with greater problems.
In addition, it is vital that proper background checks are conducted on the business partner in China. A website is not evidence that a company actually exist. Also, many times, you may be actually talking to a trading company and not the final manufacturer and this could mean huge difference in the final cost of the goods. Again, proper research is advised.

The two major trade shows called the Canton Fairs in April and October, do provide a very broad, if not overwhelming, gathering of Chinese suppliers with a wide variety of items to choose from. These are also forums for finding investment opportunities.

Q. What are some of the cultural norms to be careful off?
There are so many it is very hard to list them all. I list three major ones:

  1. Key on the list and very unfortunate, is the propensity to be dishonest, there is a cultural history behind this which I will not get into but it is not something a serious investor should ever overlook or take very lightly and when doing business here a conscious awareness of this fact will allow you to be more vigilant.
  2. What the Chinese refer to as ‘guanxi” actually meaning relationships/contacts is key when doing business here. Without the proper connections it is difficult to get things done and there is no “wishing it away’ that is the simple fact of the Chinese culture. In the West, we establish a business connection and overtime build the relationship while in China it is the complete opposite. You first establish a strong relationship and then this will lead to a stronger business connection.
  3. “Saving face” the concept of not causing embarrassment or causing an awkward situation. This is linked with the inclination to be dishonest or not being straight forward when answering questions, hence the inclination to answer ‘yes’ when in fact the answer is ‘no’. It takes a special skill to get the correct answers without causing any ‘loss of face’. If proper attention is not paid to this fundamental aspect of the Chinese culture, it could mean serious difficulties for an investor.

Q. Thanks for the interview any final thoughts
China is a very interesting country and doing business here is definitely different and can pose a challenge, however, with the right attitude and the right assistance, it opens many doors of opportunities to every investor.

Feel free to contat Nicoleen at: [email protected]

About the author

Xavier Murphy