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Listening in China

I’ve been listening to jazz since I arrived in China, first Duke Ellington which I’d accidentally brought along, and then downloads from iTunes. I’m not a jazz listener, generally, but it’s been like a craving. The curious thing, as Liz explained, is that the Chinese adore jazz; it even turns out that the hotel I will stay in this week in Shanghai is known for its jazz band.

I have a conference call later today, from Hong Kong where I’ll be for meetings, about the Asia panel at the GIIS forum in Amsterdam in two weeks. I’m supposed to share some lessons from China and information about Chinese publishing, and I am reflecting on what people need to know. It occurred to me this morning that one essential thing is simply to listen, and listen more. Operating in English here is difficult, and it is not just difficult for the Chinese person who is designated to deal with the foreigner. Many of the people I deal with have moderate to good English, but that doesn’t get us onto anything close to the communication level that we are accustomed to with those who speak our language. (As Chinese have more opportunity to speak English, as Europeans do, it’ll improve. But because of geography there will never be the same opportunity for large numbers of Chinese.)

It’s especially hard to gauge shades of meaning, and implications, and sometimes there are subtle points that are very important but are not going to be expressed directly.

I’m in Guangzhou (Canton) now, not terribly far from Hong Kong and a big busy city that is not so well-known as Beijing and Shanghai but the most important in the country after them. It’s a more livable city, said one of my friends, less stressful, and with great food. If Beijing is the counterpart of Washington DC and Shanghai of New York, what U.S. city would we compare to Guangzhou?

To my surprise, the hotel does have high-speed Internet (I could find nothing about this on the website, but there it was, with no English), so I’ll be able to keep up betwixt meetings with our new publishing partners here. I’m thrilled and amused by the fact that we will be publishing more Chinese books than HarperCollins, who made a big announcement at the Beijing Book Fair. More on that in my next post.

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