In this article, Jonathan Poston finishes the story he started last time about how his kung fu film project collapsed without him ever seeing it coming…
…the lead student (and there is almost always one in every group—the outspoken, respected one) came to my office to let me know that the students felt uncomfortable with the contracts they had signed. Granted they were pages long, covering everything that the attorney said they should for me to feel comfortable that I owned all rights. I told the lead student (whom I’ll call film supervisor) that was managing the other students and coordinating the film team, to just find some other students who were interested, and let anyone go who was disagreeable to the terms of the deal.
Here’s where Chinese culture gets tricky to understand. The leader in any group will vigorously avoid naming and replacing friends and group members, for fear of causing them to “lose face.” Furthermore there was a resistance to move on the contract, period. They wanted me to tear up the contracts and just let them write a single sentence saying I could do anything I wanted with the film. The trust was beginning to erode. And furthermore I was informed that the film director gave me one price for the video if it never became famous, but if it did, I would owe him 100,000k or some other ridiculously high sum. Students said it was best if they met with their attorneys. Parents were calling the school and demanding resolution. The associate dean finally summoned me to his office and ordered that I terminate the whole project.
I was absolutely floored by how quickly everything degenerated. I was having the time of my life and spending my own money to make some great things possible. I wasn’t being uptight about the film quality and hadn’t really even thought about how I could even market a product like this when I returned to the U.S.A. to recoup my money.
I told my students we had to quit the project. The film supervisor was visibly shaken and told me he would just go on without me, which was infuriating, until a colleague explained how “face” worked in that situation too. Like I was told, they didn’t end up continuing with the project. I got a little of the money back from the film school, but lost the rest.
When I left China soon after that, I came away understanding more than I ever thought I would about how Chinese cultural differences in leadership, contracts, team interaction, expectations, communication, etc. could adversely affect any Western business project. Afterwards I opened myself to viewing it all as a hard lesson, which ended up paying off the next time I visited China. Today, I work with Chinese professionals on a number of business fronts, and have always found that first “amateur” experience useful in working with Chinese business people. The Chinese words, 危机 (wei ji), danger and opportunity, are united to mean crises—such symbolism isn’t lost on motivational speakers who frequently use the adage to remind us that there is room to improve and develop amid misfortune, or as we in the U.S. like to say: Make lemonade when life hands you lemons.
Cultural lessons are always challenging, since it typically means embracing compromise much more than one would ever need to do back home. But beyond the difficulties lies great opportunity, cultural enrichments, and lifelong friendships.
Disclosure: Names and places aren’t listed for privacy and security purposes.
Jonathan Poston M.E. is Chief Content Officer at FastPivot and Editor-in-Chief for “Learn Chinese Business” Blog. Mr. Poston also leads cross-cultural and business workshops around the world. Contact him by email (Jonathanposton@gmail.com ) to book a seminar.