Suzanne Fox still remembers the first time she tasted dim sum in the Chinatown section of New York City in the late 1960s. Not yet 5 years old, little did Fox know that the Asian cuisine — and an influential high school history teacher with an interest in Chinese culture — would set her on a decades-long path to the East. "I went from, 'I really like dim sum' to 'Oh my God, there's this place on the other side of the world with one billion people I know nothing about,'" the petite Fox says, wide-eyed as she reminisces.
Fox is president of Fox Intercultural Consulting Services of Falmouth, which she founded eight years ago to help companies interested in doing business in Asia navigate the often confounding cultural differences that can make or break business deals. She's now expanding her work to a new endeavor called the Maine-China Business Center, which aims to strengthen ties between the state and Asia by awakening the Chinese to the state's tourism offerings and by encouraging recruitment of foreign students in Maine schools.
Teaching the Chinese that America exists beyond New York and Los Angeles takes many forms. Fox envisions setting up a Maine booth at Chinese tourism fairs, translating marketing materials, arranging matchmaking meetings and convincing Asian students to stay here after graduating from Maine's private academies, Fox says. Her tactics even include recruiting a friend in China to dress up in a lobster suit.
For Fox, the potential for Maine-China ties keeps hitting home. When her business partner, Beijing-based Paul Zhang, witnessed Chinese billionaires buying up yachts on their travels, Fox thought to herself, "Why not Hinckley yachts?" she says. And the Chinese know Maine's pride and joy, lobster, only as Boston lobster, because it's labeled as such as it passes through Massachusetts en route to Australia and then restaurants in Hong Kong and Shanghai. Fox imagines an L.L.Bean-hosted lobster bake for Chinese executives as just one way to correct such misperceptions. "Once they come, they're going to love it," she says.
Fox fell in love with China as soon as she left Bowdoin College in 1985 to study abroad her junior year, trading Brunswick for Beijing. "It was totally Dorothy on the other side of the rainbow," she says. But convincing Maine executives to hop a plane east to such a forgein and immense country can prove challenging.
The divergent communication styles are embodied by two proverbs Fox often cites: Here, "the squeaky wheel gets the grease," but in China, "the spoke that stands up gets hammered down." Americans' direct, down-to-business approach can come across as rude, while the Chinese take pains to appear agreeable, an effort at courtesy that can frustrate and confuse American executives, she says. "I see my role as the person to set them up, to prepare them for China, to set realistic expectations," she says.
Fox travels overseas regularly, and still recalls her first days in China in the 1980s when "the images they had of America were Baywatch and Dallas," she says. Fox went on to teach English there, then directed a study abroad company's Asia program in Shanghai for several years before teaching Chinese history in California and later cross-cultural communications at Saint Joseph's College in Standish.
Proficient in Mandarin, Fox is planning a trip to take Maine industry representatives to China this spring and vice versa. She's also crafting a directory to promote communication among Mainers living in China, many of whom don't know the others exist, Fox says.
Her at-home consulting service — now serving 10 clients including Fairchild Semiconductor, Wyman's and Lee Academy — is poised for growth as ties between Maine and Asia strengthen, particularly in the seafood, wood, boatbuilding, tourism and real estate industries. China was Maine's fifth-largest export destination last year, bringing in $122 million worth of goods, according to the Maine International Trade Center. "I expect we're going to pick up and then it's 'be careful what you wish for,'" she says, steeling herself in anticipation of the growth, "because we are so small."