By Natalie Prim, Vice President of Community Affairs Pensacola Bay Area Chamber of Commerce
Looking toward the horizon, we readily appreciate the lure that tempted Old World merchants to trade overseas, where exotic items, interesting people and unlimited opportunities awaited them. While the risks and returns are quite different in today’s world, mutually rewarding business ventures and cultural exchanges are inspiring a new breed of adventurers to explore possibilities abroad. Likewise, the Pensacola Bay Area Chamber of Commerce spearheaded a trip that took community members to China in October.
Along with Evon Emerson, president and CEO of the Pensacola Bay Area Chamber of Commerce, a group consisting of small business owners, business consultants, a doctor, a manufacturer of veterinary pharmaceuticals, and an investment banker, made the trip. Our group of one hundred felt large until we arrived at the Beijing International Airport, which boasts the world’s largest terminal. In fact, the sheer number of people everywhere we visited was impressive. Beijing, the capital city, is home to fifteen million people.
Our first tourist stop was Tiananmen Square, in the heart of Beijing. Seeing thousands of people milling about, we quickly realized that photographs fail to convey the massiveness of the square; the area can accommodate up to one million people. At the center of Tiananmen Square is the Monument to the People’s Heroes and the portrait of former leader, Chairman Mao. Once a place of protests and bloodshed, the site (which is also the entrance to the Forbidden City) now attracts snaking lines of visitors who wait hours to enter Chairman Mao’s final resting place in the Memorial Hall.
Next on our journey was another spectacular sight, the Great Wall of China. The section we toured had seven hundred steps from the bottom of the wall to the top. Each foot forward reminded us that we were treading on stairs constructed over 2,200 years ago.
Throughout our visit, we encountered elements of Chinese culture as it existed centuries ago. Traveling in rickshaws through the narrow streets of old Beijing, we relished the chance to have lunch with a local family. They lived in one of Beijing’s oldest hutongs (neighborhoods), which features modest homes with courtyards. Eating and talking with our hostess, who has lived in her one-room house for forty-five years and raised her family of three children there, we gained a friend, as well as acquiring a more personal sense of an important segment of the Chinese population.
Each time we encountered individuals among the crowds, we seemed to spark a meaningful connection. As we photographed them, they took pictures of us. They were warm and eager to shake hands. All in all, the Chinese were just as curious about us as we were about them. Our tour guide, Alan, told us that visiting the United States was his dream.
Shifting our focus to commerce, our delegation met with business and government representatives to discuss future business opportunities. Ping Ping, a senior manager of the global purchasing department of the China International Electronic Commerce Center, told us about the phenomenal growth of small and medium-sized enterprises in China. The small business owners in our group took particular notice of this.
From Beijing, we traveled by car to the enormous city of Suzhou, a little more than three hours southeast of Shanghai. The area is known for the Grand Canal, the world’s oldest and longest waterway. While touring by small boat, we observed families carrying out their daily activities of living, such as cooking, cleaning, and washing clothes, just as they have done for generations. The old ways and quaint canals exist in stark contrast to new hotels and skyscrapers. Suzhou, which has a population of six million, is teeming with commerce.
Our adventure continued to Hangzhou, the tea capital of China, and home to seven million people. The scenic tea plantation we toured was lush. There we met Dr. Tea, who taught us about green tea, particularly its medicinal benefits, and much more.
We learned more from spending nine days in China than we could have from years of study at home. The country presents an array of contradictions. Amid the anonymous crowds are individuals who are delighted to make personal contact. Many perform the daily labors of their ancestors, while industrious entrepreneurs conduct global business deals. In one area, we would be reminded not to drink the water, while another locale would be totally modern. With such large populations, daily traffic snarls were common, yet the infrastructure is surprisingly up to date.
Business booms, but making a connection takes time. The process simply requires mutual trust, the kind that starts with an old-fashioned handshake.
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Natalie Prim is Vice President for Community Affairs at the Pensacola Bay Area Chamber of Commerce. Natalie has a background in legislative, community and workforce development and she has been with the Pensacola Chamber for eight years. Natalie’s work keeps her involved in local and statewide legislative initiatives focused on building better communities. This was the Chamber’s first tour to China.