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As I look out of the taxi window on my rides through the city these days, I see large red banners with four golden characters framing the doors of almost every home and store in Beijing.
“春节快乐”, chun jie kuai le, ‘Happy New Year’. The city’s taxi drivers – always keen to chat with foreigners thereby providing a free crash course in modern Chinese conversation – say the wishes have already worked for them. Business has been strong as millions of Beijing residents journey back to their hometowns to celebrate the New Year of the Tiger. Nationwide, it is expected that this year’s New Year travel season will see an incredible 2.5 billion trips.
Life in China is always on a bigger scale and this had fascinated me for many years. So in August 2009 when I was offered the chance to temporarily join our China M&A practice, I didn’t think twice. Since I moved from Frankfurt to Beijing, I haven’t been disappointed. Whether people in the streets, modernist high rises next to the 600-year-old Forbidden City with its 10,000 rooms, or the latest export and growth figures – everything comes in large numbers.
For a foreign attorney like me, the ensuing close contact with Chinese clients and domestic law firms acting as local counsel is a particular challenge that greatly enlivens the daily working routine. While universal standards for M&A transactions increasingly apply in China, this can not mask the cultural differences and, of course, the language barrier that I face in my new working environment. However, understanding the different expectations of Chinese clients (and meeting them), comprehending local counsel’s rationale which may be distinct from your own reasoning, and discussing a transaction’s legal issues with the client in Chinese are among the tasks that make a foreign lawyer’s work in such a different jurisdiction both challenging and rewarding.
Cultural differences also mark the nightlife activities popular among Beijingers. While China’s capital boasts countless Western-style bars and dance clubs, maybe the best way to discover genuine Chinese social culture – and some of my colleagues (unfortunately not my) hidden talents – is a night out at one of the city’s numerous karaoke joints. After several Sunday afternoons of intense rehearsal in Beijing’s public parks with the help of my iPod’s repeat-function and my dictionary, I recently succeeded in performing a local song in Mandarin. This not only won me great praise from my colleagues but also filled me with enough confidence for the conversation with the cab driver on the ride home and the conference call with my Chinese client on the following Monday morning.
Working in China provides for lots of truly incredible moments.
Patrick Heid is an M&A associate at Shearman & Sterling in Frankfurt, currently on relocation to the firm’s Beijing office.