How Chinese View Columbus, Ohio

This article was published in January, 2015 on China Law Blog in an abridged version. Below is the full version.

 

Introduction

Columbus, Ohio, with close to 2 million people in the region, is a city considered on the move.  The city, country and regional authorities all tout its continuous positive growth, young and healthy citizenship and increasing global reach.

Though the city is named after arguably the most well known global explorer in the Western World, and settled by a plethora of European immigrants most notably Germans, there are many aspects that make Columbus still accidentally global in today’s international business community.  It is true the region continues to grow and attract more foreign interest through government, private enterprise and higher education channels, yet by and large there are key international communities living in Columbus that are little understood and disconnected. 

According to various sources there are roughly 20,000 Chinese residing in the Columbus region, up from about 16,000 four years ago. Residents have both seen and heard more Mandarin speakers walking the streets, shopping at area malls and eating in restaurants.  This simple observation creates an important, more complex question:  What do the Chinese think of Columbus? 

To better understand a key international population in Columbus and how they fit into the region’s efforts to market itself as a global gateway, my company Laonei Global surveyed a number of Mainland Chinese in the area. Results reveal how area organizations and businesses can better promote themselves, through messaging and programs, to attract Chinese interest and investment and in turn strengthen the local economy and Columbus’ overall global image.

 

How Columbus Promotes Itself to the World

In recent years, the city and region has invested and created a branding campaign that includes a Columbus logo and messaging for marketing purposes.  The key stakeholders include the City of Columbus, the Columbus Partnership, the Columbus Chamber of Commerce, Columbus 2020, Experience Columbus, the Greater Columbus Sports Commission and the Columbus Foundation.

Here are excerpts from www.brandcolumbus.com:

Columbus' top-ranked location, educated workforce and vibrant cultural scene make it the perfect place to locate, whether you’re looking to grow a business, a career or a family.

Columbus is home to 15 Fortune 1000 companies and welcomes one of the highest populations of college students among more than 50 university and college campuses, ensuring we maintain youth and progressiveness. Columbus is also one of the country's leading research and technology cities, attracting the brightest minds from around the world.

Based on a market research campaign, Columbus organizations launched a Smart and Open Campaign a few years ago designed to highlight the young, diverse mix of residents:

Columbus is a smart and open-minded city with a progressive attitude, where people are free to go out on a limb. Where diversity isn't just a state of being, but a state of mind – made real through people, businesses and neighborhoods every day.

Because we share the philosophy that Columbus is open to all, we are always taking risks, always thinking big and always open to new ideas. Columbus is an educated community with more than 40 regional colleges and universities, as well as international brain-trusts such as Battelle and Chemical Abstracts Service and a youthful, vibrant, engaged citizenry with a median age of 35.

Downtown Columbus

Downtown Columbus

From the collection of messaging above, Columbus sells itself in overall value, and both local residents and visitors will often comment on how pleasant, livable and affordable it is compared to bigger cities like New York and Chicago. But business travelers, immigrants new to the area or those in Columbus for 3-4 years as temporary residents either as an expat or a student, might be missing these messages and opportunities altogether and thus not be fully informed and integrated.  In the case of the Chinese, who are investing more time and money in parts all over the US, are highly educated and looking for better opportunities, this connection and integration to a community like Columbus is important for both its future growth and its smart, open and global moniker.  If those internationals in Columbus can positively experience the area and then spread the word to their countrymen back home, Columbus will be more global in no time. 

 

How Chinese View Columbus

We created a simple, general survey in Chinese that was sent through a variety of channels, including a local Chinese information web site, www.ohio168.com, as well as email lists of Chinese contacts and students at Ohio State University, where more than 3,600 Chinese are enrolled as undergraduate or graduate students. 

Through basic channels we collected answers from 97 respondents with varied backgrounds.  Most major Mainland Chinese cities and provinces were represented. In regards to time in Columbus, a majority were university students (57%) living in the area from 6 months to 3 years, while close to 25 percent have been in the area more than 3 years, and another group residing here for more than 5 years.  Another 15 percent of the respondents were graduate students.  Almost 30% of the survey respondents were either working professionals or looking for work.

Questions included the following:

  1. What is the primary reason for coming to Columbus?
  2. Use at least three different words to describe your Columbus impressions
  3. What is your favorite aspect of Columbus?
  4. What aspect of Columbus would like to change?
  5. What is your favorite American city you have been to and why?

The overall impression derived was that Columbus was quiet and cozy.  This could be read in two ways.  From a positive perspective, this includes the overall environment, the natural environment like parks and greenery, clean air and blue sky.  It also includes the general quality of life and relatively low cost of living.  Chinese are known to be extremely loyal to their ethnic cuisine and mentioned it was easy to buy Chinese ingredients for home cooking.  Finally, the education environments provided by Ohio State and other local universities was mentioned as a plus.

From another perspective, quiet and cozy could be a downside. Most Chinese live in cities of hundreds of thousands of people, and many in cities with more than 1 million residents.  When I lived in Wuhan in 2006, a major city but not well known outside of China, there was a running expat/foreigner joke that we “Lived in a village of only 6 million,” more than half of Ohio’s population.  Quiet and cozy could also be interpreted as boring, not exciting and not enough social stimulation.  In their own language, Chinese in the area call Columbus 哥村 – gē cūn, which translates as Columbus Village. 

Many of the negative impressions connected to Columbus in the survey could be considered life inconveniences.  People familiar with Chinese language know the word for convenient - 方便 fāng biàn, is used on a daily basis in China.  The concept of whether something is convenient or inconvenient reveals much about a person’s attitude towards it.  The main Columbus inconveniences mentioned were:  hard to get a job in the area after graduating from local universities; hard to get around town without a car, lack of reliable public transportation; and the weather and climate were not ideal.

Amidst these expressed shortcomings there is a positive overarching theme:  Out of 89 respondents who rated Columbus on a 1-5 scale, with 5 being the most positive, 65% rated Columbus a 4 (46) or 5 (12).  Another 24 respondents gave the area a 3 rating.  It appears that regardless of Columbus being perceived as a village compared to Chinese cities, or a lack of entertainment options often found in China, many local Chinese appreciate the value of what is provided in Central Ohio.

 

U.S./China Culture Comparison – Where the Overlaps and Gaps are in Messaging

One of the main research goals was to flesh out Chinese language concepts linked to city living to gain true insight on how the average Chinese sees Columbus.  Though we offered the option to answer in English, most respondents chose to use Chinese.  Some of the often-repeated phrases in connections to cities were:

热闹 – rè nao – Lively and boisterous

人口密集 – rén kǒumì jí  - Highly populated areas

经济发达 – jīng jì  fā dá  - Economically developed

交通方便 – jiāo tōng fāng biàn - Convenient transportation

Those who have traveled to China know that Chinese city centers are a 24/7 cacophony of sounds, sights and smells. New York, Chicago and Los Angeles are American cities that best mirror the Chinese city atmosphere.  In comparison, Columbus is more spread out, less dense and less populated and thus village-like and “too quiet” by some Chinese standards.  In addition, Columbus for the most part lacks the highly concentrated pedestrian areas familiar in any Chinese city.  Gallery Hop in the Short North, an art and culture event held on a Saturday each month, might be the best Columbus equivalent.

East Nanjing Road Pedestrian Street, Shanghai

East Nanjing Road Pedestrian Street, Shanghai

High, Street, Short North Arts District, Columbus

High, Street, Short North Arts District, Columbus

Chinese are wont to tell outsiders that China is a developing country and will point out new skyscrapers, high-speed railways and any other city infrastructure being built in cities around the country.  Most Chinese, when arriving in Columbus, come with the preconceived idea that American cities all look like Manhattan:

NY 1
NY 2

But when they arrive they notice these types of sceneries:

It can be read that the incoming Chinese view construction cranes, new tall buildings with multi-colored lights and massive construction projects as a representation of economic growth and strength.  Columbus, then, could seem quite depressed, with few buildings taller than the average 30-story apartment building found all over China, and significantly less new constructions projects in comparison.  While touring Easton Town Center, an upscale outdoor mall area in Northeast Columbus, a number of Chinese groups have commented, “I thought all of America would look like this.”

Easton Town Center, Columbus

Easton Town Center, Columbus

Finally, with easy, affordable and established bus and taxi services for Chinese urban areas, as well as developing subway systems in more than 20 major cities, Columbus mass transit bus system – COTA - is seen as inefficient and little understood aside from Ohio State campus area bus services. Chinese in town will often comment that Columbus is a car city and therefore hard to get around without one, and many of them do not have their driver’s license yet.

With a better insight of how a Chinese might view the city, the following table compares the most common strong points Columbus possesses mentioned by local organizations and people promoting the city, with a common Chinese viewpoint on that particular point.

We used a world cloud generator (wordle.net) to tease out other similarities and differences of Chinese viewpoints in the survey and compared it with the language used on www.columbusbrand.com.

Columbus Branding wordle

Laonei Global survey results – words to describe Columbus - translated to English

Brief explanation:  The words “crowded” and “big” were preceded by the word – bù – which means no.  The common answers for Columbus were “not crowded” and “not big”. 

Both the table and the word clouds reveal an overlap in higher education, as many of the Chinese respondents were students.  Entertainment, arts, restaurants and a few other key points promoted by local organizations don’t register with the Chinese, or the Chinese community doesn’t necessarily think of these points when thinking about Columbus.  The respondents point to a more emotional result that lends to the overall atmosphere and not what the area necessarily provides as a package.  The idea of Columbus being a smart and open city is not recognized as well.

 

The Quest for Global Gateway Status

Many cities states around the US like Columbus are ramping up approaches to promote international investment and touting their community as the new, hip, affordable place rather than the developed and crowded East and West Coasts.  State government and third party reports point out that increased international attention increases local sales and tax revenues, opens up more foreign direct investment opportunities and even boosts American exports to those countries where the foreign investment came from. But on the surface, how welcoming are the so-called flyover regions such as Columbus, Ohio?

Using organization web sites like www.experiencecolumbus.com, as well as local business directories from the Columbus Chamber of Commerce, we called or visited the region’s major tourist attractions, hotels, shopping malls, and local events to inquire about foreign guest services. 

The results are quite simple: At present there are virtually no multilingual or international guest services around town, save for a few businesses close to Ohio State, some shops like Louis Vuitton and Macy’s that cater to Chinese shoppers, and ethnic restaurants that Chinese or other ethnic groups might own or work at.  Easton Town Center told us they have one customer service representative who can speak 5 different languages, and the Apple Store at Easton reported they have one Japanese speaker.  Little or no multilingual literature in any form, such as official web sites, traditional print, phone apps, in any language, has been published.  At Port Columbus International Airport, there is a small welcome booth on the baggage claim floor with a sign that directs international guests to use a nearby landline phone to connect with staff that speaks their native language.

Welcome sign and language services posting at Port Columbus International baggage claim
Port CBus 2

What does it take to be a global community?  Local organizations cite more than 450 international companies have a presence in Greater Columbus and there are 109 languages spoken throughout the area, and that we have some of the world’s brightest living and working around Central Ohio. It is true that Columbus has become more global, with significant business investment from Japan, Germany and the UK, and places like China, as well as a steady influx of immigrants from Latin America, Africa and Asia. And it is clear the efforts of the organizations responsible for growing and promoting Columbus mentioned above have done a commendable job in placing focus and efforts on global reach.  But in regards to connecting with recently arrived internationals, as well as creating a positive buzz about Greater Columbus being a premiere place to live, work and play for everyone, has the community succeeded at rolling out the welcome mat?  The answer is clearly no.

In the midst of these differences in perception of the Columbus Region comes opportunity:  A growing, educated international community from China that views the Columbus Region in a positive way, but for cultural habits or other reasons, is not necessarily aware of the what’s around.  At the same time, there exists a city and region with steady economic growth and resources like private enterprise, government and higher education organizations that can better communicate and cooperate to put Columbus, Ohio on the world map.  It’s our opinion that better integration of ethic groups like Chinese will increase their community investment and in turn be better for Columbus, and similar American cities, in the long race to be a global city.

 

Smart, Open AND Global - How Columbus Can Better Promote to Chinese and the Benefits

The benefits to engaging the Chinese community in Columbus are many. Creating a more open, nurturing environment for the Chinese who reside here short-term or long-term will speak well of Columbus and encourage their family and friends to experience it as well.  Not only will local universities benefit with international tuition dollars, but also local service industries like hotels, retail and food will reap rewards, including real estate and housing markets.  The next progressive steps is increased foreign direct investment in the State of Ohio and the Columbus Region, which in turn has been reported to have a direct impact on opening foreign export markets for American companies. 

 

Chinese Living Abroad

Chinese pride runs deep. The Chinese sense of community on the whole is a sense of Chinese community, especially when living in a foreign country.  There are Asian clusters around Columbus, such as University Village close to Ohio State, as well as neighborhoods in North Columbus around Henderson Road and Bethel Road. A common observation by non-Chinese is that Chinese don’t often integrate into their surroundings and keep to themselves, preferring to live in their own culture bubble.  This is true for most first-generation immigrants in any place and at any time in history, including the Irish, the Italians, the Polish, etc., etc.  many immigrant clusters around the world that share similar culture, but local Chinese, when asked, will attest there is safety in numbers and that life is more方便 – fang biàn – convenient that way.

In addition, many Chinese in the area are here solely for an American university degree.  Asian families finance their child’s international education but also apply a lot of stress on their sons and daughters to succeed, which means earning an extremely high GPA, landing a job at a famous global company and earning a high salary, and most importantly taking care of the family.  Failure is not an option.  With this notion engrained, connecting and becoming involved with the local community could be viewed as a waste of time and not practical in the long run.  Further, business networking and socializing in the United States in general places value on the newcomer/outsider to initiate and break into social groups, thereby gaining access into people’s private social circles.  On the other hand, Chinese are enthusiastic about promoting outsiders to their groups, particularly foreigners, to show they are connected to this newcomer and thus are part of their Chinese guanxi network.  With these couple ideas in mind, motivation viewpoints and values have a lot of influence on engagement behaviors.

A number of Chinese American university students in Columbus, as well as other cities and towns with well-known universities, have expressed they would like to remain in the US and find local employment for a couple years after graduation and then return to their native country.  The young Chinese value the independence from their families 7,000 miles away and seek opportunities to develop some US work experience, which is still highly valued around the world.  Our survey results reveal that this young Chinese demographic, eager to establish their professional career and already view Columbus in a positive light, would invest in the area if they had the chance to stick around. 

The fact is that opportunities for foreign nationals in the Columbus Region are not as easy to come by as the East Coast (New York, Washington, Boston) or the West Coast (California, Seattle, Vancouver). Only a handful of corporations have the resources and ability to hire at present.  For Chinese expats and business people passing through town, Columbus offers some conveniences but lacks the allure of famous American cities simply because it’s not well known.

 

Greater Connectivity and Engagement – Action Steps

Based on the survey results we came up with the following possible action steps to help accelerate Columbus’ ability to be viewed as a global city.

 

Step 1 – Lay Out the Welcome Mat

Imagine you hop off a plane in a foreign country and are immediately welcomed by signs in your native language.  You pick up a local map with bilingual labeling, including your native language.  Upon arriving to your hotel you are greeted with a bilingual set of instructions, a local tourist map and maybe a young intern or front desk staff member that hails from your country and can assist you.  At the top tourist destinations and restaurants around town, you have access to print or electronic versions of key information in your native language.  After some days you return to your home country and talk to your friends.  Would you say the place you visited was a global, open-minded city?  Probably.

This does not sound like Columbus – but it could.  All the following could be created with small investment and have a massive effect for both short-term and long-term Chinese in the area.

1. Chinese City Maps - A bilingual map of Columbus that highlights key/famous restaurants, regional parks and other entertainment points of interest.  All could exist in digital form either on a web site, phone app or hosted on China WeChat, a popular multifunctional phone application.  If there’s a budget, printed copies could be available at Port Columbus airport, hotels and shopping malls

2. Chinese Landmark Descriptions – Bilingual introductions to key landmarks, tourist spots and districts like Easton Town Center, Franklin Park, Columbus Zoo, German Village, Short North, and so on.  Electronic/smart phone friendly versions first and print versions if there is increased demand.

3. Restaurant Guide – Bilingual guide to promote top restaurants, top chefs, food styles and trends.  The Chinese are very keen on trying local specialties and want to be told/guided what to order and what to eat – especially signature dishes which Chinese will often call famous dishes.   This could be done for the craft beer and wine markets as well. 

4. Ethnic Cultural Events – Better cross-promotion of existing Asian Culture Fest, Chinese New Year and other Asian culture-related events around the area to show that local Chinese groups are engaging the area community and that Chinese culture is valued and appreciated outside the Chinese community.

5. Chinese Social Media - Market Columbus through major platforms such as the aforementioned WeChat, Weibo (Chinese Twitter), and others.  In addition, a concerted marketing campaign could be done to add better known Columbus restaurants to dianping.com, the Chinese equivalent of Yelp.

The following key points could be played up in marketing messages to Chinese:

  • Clean air and water quality, food safety - massive problem in China
  • Affordable real estate – high value in comparison to other US markets (and Chinese)
  • Big local China community – Chinese super markets, authentic restaurants
  • Arts and entertainment scene in bilingual marketing forms (English/Chinese)
  • What the Smart and Open campaign means to internationals
  • True ease of doing business – establishing a business or simply doing business
  • Easy connection to Chicago, New York, Washington, DC – convenient access to the bigger ones

 

Step 2 – University Student Groups and Organizations

There are thousands of Chinese students at regional universities.  Though their plans are to earn a degree and move on, there are multiple ways to attract them more to existing Columbus events to have positive experiences and therefore spread a positive buzz about what Columbus has to offer, including to their parents, family members and family friends back home.

1. Area Orientation Programs - Experience Columbus, GlobalColumbus, young professional groups and other organizations could hold seminars/Q&A to raise awareness and offer inclusion and engagement to local events.  Organizations could cooperate with local universities to offer internships for international students who could serve as culture guides for visitors and tourists. 

2. City Living/Tourist Documents/Handouts- Bilingual versions similar to the ones mentioned above, all electronic to save cost, but focus on regional events that might be interesting for a long-term visitor to the area.

  • This could include maps of Columbus, the Columbus Region, or Ohio, with highlights Chinese groups might like, as well as native/local recommendations.
  • COTA bus bilingual instructions and bus routes to major places in town would be welcomed, along with various taxi service companies, CoGo bikes, and Car2Go instructions. 

3. Area Exploration Activities and Promotions – The Chinese are eager to try new things but expect to be told what they should try.  Choice is good but up to a point, but many times the US lifestyle provides too many. 

City, Area Tours and Events – The Chinese love a good local tour and to experience cultural events.  Bilingual tours (led by a native English speaker, accompanied by a young intern or volunteer) could visit cultural hot spots in the area such as theatre and the arts venues, annual culture festivals and Columbus neighborhoods, like SegAway Tours of Columbus.

Restaurant/Museum Tours – Bilingual guidance similar to a restaurant week or a neighborhood restaurant promotion, including local farmer’s markets and farms.  A focus could be put on history of the restaurant, the signature/famous dishes and food/drink pairings.  A walking tour would be best, like what Columbus Food Adventures offers.  The Columbus Museum of Art, Wexner Center of the Arts, COSI, Ohio History Center and Franklin Park Conservatory could have Chinese volunteers or interns tour the groups after the meals.

Driver Education and Tests - Many of the international students receive second-hand information from friends about US driving laws and driving test information.  Auto industry organizations like driving schools, Ohio AAA, local car dealerships and auto insurance companies could develop some bi-lingual materials to reinforce safe, responsible driving.

4. International/Bilingual Student Internships and Jobs – Increasing job opportunities and retaining international talent is a long-term process that will require a lot of efforts and changes.  In the meantime, Columbus area companies and organizations can partner with universities and high schools to create short-term 3-month Marketing/Customer Service internships. The benefits are many:

  • Offers a global face and platform for local tourism and services businesses.
  • Offers valuable internship/job experience for the students, including American and Chinese professional etiquette and business behaviors.
  • Allows Columbus to continue growing the “Smart and Open” phrase on a bigger stage.

At the same time, Columbus Region universities are producing bilingual American students in a number of languages, particularly Chinese, who could serve as a bridge between a company and its foreign customer base.  The Ohio State University Chinese Flagship Program is a great example of a language and culture development platform.  Hiring American students with Chinese language skills is much easier and gives the students opportunities to continue developing their language skills, receive experience and compensation for it, and help local firms and organizations become more culturally intelligent and global.

 

Summary

It should be stressed that many globalizing efforts in the Columbus area, and in other parts of the country, are producing positive results as areas and regions look to promote their strong points and attract foreign interest.  Columbus is a great, open-minded city, which is the reason I founded my company here when I moved back from China in 2013. You can’t be everything to everybody, but better understanding your residents from abroad, and better connecting to them through various existing platforms and channels, can have mutual benefits for all parties and increase the area’s global reach.

The Chinese are a small but key population for realizing both regional and city goals. They are increasing in number, hungry for education, hungry for quality of life and have the hard work ethic and the economic strength to achieve their goals.  In addition, the United States and China are so strongly linked in the world economy and global politics that anyone or anywhere who takes steps to build better bridges on this side of the Pacific are going to benefit.  Region-wide and citywide cooperation, coupled with existing US-China resources in Columbus, can make it happen.

 

Author Background

Eric McGraw lived in China from 2006-2013. He has assisted more than 30 American companies with China sales and marketing projects, as well as Chinese companies looking to attract and develop foreign customers and enter the U.S. market. Eric also developed a cross-cultural communication skills class at Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business for international undergraduate students.  Eric is part of a U.S.-China business network of non-native Chinese speakers in Columbus who provide expert import/export management resources, executive language and culture training, China delegation to U.S. assistance and China social media management.