A Glimpse into Chinese Culture: The Chinese Fish Switcheroo Trick

I reluctantly entitle this post "A Glimpse into Chinese Culture", because I am surely not an expert on the subject.  However, I’ve been around enough experts and spent a fair amount of time understanding what real differences in culture mean, to be willing to throw something like this in a blog. 

Last night I had a very nice, seafood dinner, at a very nice Hong Kong restaurant, with some factory owners.  When we entered the restaurant, we picked our courses out of water tanks brimming with all kinds of gilled culinary treats.  Our hosts knew their fish, and they picked out one they felt was going to be reasonably tastier than the rest. 

A few entrees, and 30 minutes later, our fish had still not arrived prepared.  Our hosts began to tease our server that he had switched the live fish we had chosen, for a dead, frozen fish in the back, and was now going to bring out a cheaper, imposter fish for our meal.  He would then put the good, live fish back in the tank to entice more customers.  This was not the case in this restaurant and would not be common in the kind of restaurant we were in.  But, rest assured, this would not be considered implausible in many restaurants in China.

How might a westerner view this?  Fraud.  Unscrupulous.  Dirty.  Lacking of basic moral character.  How might it be seen from a Chinese perspective?  Clever?  If the customers eat the cheap fish and think they are eating the good fish, and the restaurant saves the good fish to show someone another day–everyone wins, no?  If the broadcast of the Olympics opening ceremony displays computer enhanced images of fireworks, and everyone thinks they are real, spectacular fireworks, then great, right?  If you purchase product with specific paint requirements, and you receive and sell product with inferior paint that nobody knows about, then we all come out winners, yes?  Are they scams?  Or is it clever?  Clever scams?

Keep in mind, I fully realize that I am walking into an academic minefield when I attempt to discuss, elucidate upon, and distill something as complicated as culture down into simple fish stories and concepts such as cleverness.   But as it’s been explained to me by those much more in the know on the subject, so I would like to pass it on.  Cleverness and cunning is much more well-regarded in Chinese culture, than being the "good guy", or doing the "right" thing, from a Western perspective.  The basic value system is different.  How we respectively view and value the world, from the very ground up, is different. 

Of course, I am not making any sort of moral judgment whether this is good or bad, etc., but it’s helpful to understand when doing business here, particularly when sourcing products in China.  Westerners can not rely on the idea that businessmen here, or factories for that matter, will do the "right" thing, because it’s the "right" thing.  I find that even with reasonable experience in other countries, some folks fail to grasp fundamental differences like this.  It took me two years in an MA program in Asian Studies, and ten years of traveling and living in Asia, to develop a meager idea of these things.

Should we assume that all here are trying to outwit us in a chess match of deceit?  No.  But, as Dan Harris always points out, whether you trust or not, always verify what is being done to achieve your objectives here.  It’s important to know that when you need your supplier to do something, whether it’s reworking your product on their dime, using the specified materials, or not delaying your product to get a bigger customer’s order completed, using the argument that they should do it because "it’s the right thing to do" may only get you a chuckle.