When I was younger I spent a lot of time following the Grateful Dead and Phish around the United States. I was a backpacker so I stayed at a lot of campgrounds and hostels. I really felt that made me a pretty savvy traveler.
Those days are over and now I’m an entrepreneur. I’m president and a founder of Grain Audio, a startup that manufactures audio equipment, specifically high-end wooden headphones, earbuds and speakers. I’m still traveling all the time, but now it’s for business. I have to laugh, because I am not as skilled a traveler as I thought I was.
We do a lot of business and manufacturing in Asia. Of course, there can be a language barrier, but that’s usually taken care of by one of our sales representatives there who is fluent in both English and Mandarin Chinese. Sometimes, he isn’t available, and I only speak about 200 words of Mandarin, and I don’t do that very well.
Recently, I was in Shenzhen, China, with our sound engineer, who was trying to communicate the proper assembly of our Packable Wireless System to some manufacturing plant employees. There was a problem with how a screw was being worked into the product. Although engineers usually can communicate through drawings, this was one of those instances in which drawings wouldn’t work.
The problem was pretty minute, and we are perfectionists. Our engineer doesn’t speak Mandarin, and no one there spoke English. What was so amusing was that everyone started speaking very slowly. It didn’t help us understand the factory workers any better, nor did it help the factory workers understand us any better.
So after a lot of back and forth, our sound engineer grabbed the product and took a hands-on approach, showing everyone what he felt would be the best way to accomplish what we needed. Once he did that, everything worked out really well, and everyone was happy. I think our sound engineer also made some new friends.
The one thing I really have noticed when traveling to Asia is that people do want to help you out. And sometimes I really do need some help when I’m traveling for business.
The very first time I went to China I was traveling with our creative director. We thought we were ready, but we made one serious mistake: We did not exchange our currency for Chinese currency. We figured it wouldn’t be a hassle. We were wrong.
We were at the Dongguan train station in Guangdong province. We figured it would be no big deal to pay our train fare with a credit card. But when we tried to buy our tickets, we found out they wouldn’t take a card, and all we had was U.S. dollars, which they also didn’t take. We tried multiple ATMs, but our card kept being rejected. All the banks were closed, and none of the local hotels would exchange yuan for dollars.
It was probably about 110 degrees, with 100 percent humidity, and we wandered around for about two hours trying to find a solution. We probably lost two pounds each in water weight. We were complete idiots, and we must have looked really miserable because a Chinese gentleman, about our age, came over and said in perfect English, “Let me guess; you don’t have any Chinese money.”
Apparently, he sees many travelers looking as confused as we did. He worked for a local business, and we wound up exchanging just enough money with him to cover our fare.
The first thing we did when we got on the train was order some Chinese beer. We were pretty sure it was the best beer we’d ever had.
Q: How often do you fly for business?
A: About four to five times a month.
Q: What’s your least favorite airport?
A: Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Manila, the Philippines. It’s a free-for-all at customs and baggage claim. After 21 hours of flying and a layover in Hong Kong, Ninoy Aquino did me in.
Q: Of all the places you’ve been, what’s the best?
A: Hong Kong. It’s a very clean city, and the people are amazingly friendly. It’s got a lot of energy. I’ve been there seven times in the past year, since it serves as a hub when I need to get to Taiwan or the Philippines, and I always make sure I spend a few extra days there before I head home.
Q: What’s your secret airport vice?
A: A bloody mary, a beer or a glass of wine, depending on the airport and where I’m headed. I figure traveling so much means time zones don’t really count for much.
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