An Interview With Tom Parker
When did you become interested in China?
I come from a large family and in the late 1970s one of my elder sisters married into a Bruneian Chinese family, which had extensive network of relatives throughout Melbourne. As a result, we were invited to Chinese New Year celebrations, weddings and yum cha. So in a way, it was food, family and festivals that first drew me to China. I was lucky enough to attend a high school that taught Mandarin, and starting learning it in 1987 and found that I really enjoyed discovering the deep cultural roots embedded in such a complex language. It wasn’t until 1992, during my first visit to Beijing that it became clear that China would play a central part in my future career.
When people ask you what you do, how do you generally respond?
I tell them I am a cultural broker helping to reduce conflict and producing change through training and advocacy. If they are still listening, I mention that I provide access, understanding and influence for Australian businesses hoping to benefit from China’s decade long double digit economic growth.
How have your perceptions of China changed over the years?
When I first started studying in Shanghai in the 1990s, I naively wanted to achieve absolute fluency, and somehow become Chinese. I realized pretty quickly that learning Chinese and understanding is a constant journey with no fixed end point and this certainly changed my perception. China is also constantly changing, and is so diverse that it is hard to make accurate generalizations but witnessing major events in China’s recent modern history gives you an insight that can only be achieved through experience. One of the greatest joys in my job is watching people reassess their preconceived perceptions about China once they’ve spent some time here.
You have coordinated countless business, educational and cultural tours to China. Can you share with us one of your most challenging tours?
I think this relates back to perception. I find a closed mind the most challenging aspect of any interaction, and this is amplified on any China mission, where people look for evidence to prove their views or opinions on how they assume China operates. I had people lose passports on the Great Wall in the middle of winter with connecting flights to Shanghai the next day, I’ve dealt with over efficient provincial police at 4am in the morning in dimly lit karaoke joints, and people trying to cope the next day after too much food or baijiu. People who are not open to China’s vast history, culture, and hospitality and all its contradictions remain the most challenging participant on any tour.
How do you define a cultural facilitator/broker?
A cultural broker helps bridge cultural gaps by actively providing a different point of view or understanding and acting as a go-between for two different cultures. I guess it really means, understanding the Chinese perspective and then translating it into an Australian context, and vice versa. Obvious areas of miscommunication between Australian and Chinese business partners relate to how each culture views or values time and hierarchy.
How important are your Chinese language skills in your job?
Very important. My language has deteriorated since leaving China in 2003 but I find it comes back after about a week in-country. I still use an interpreter for high level meetings to make sure that the nuance of the negotiation is not missed due to my limited vocabulary but for logistics and to coordinate a mission it is crucial. I also wouldn’t be able to understand the underlying cultural assumptions that guide most Chinese if I didn’t invest in learning the language.
What sustains your long-life passion with China? How much of China and contact with Chinese people has enriched your own life?
My life and who I am would be very different if China wasn’t such a central theme to it. I met my wife (also from Melbourne) in Beijing, our daughter Sylvie was actually born on 08/08/06 at 8am and all our Chinese friends call her our ‘fuwa’ – and as a result, we gave her a Chinese middle name (mei) blossom. My visits to China and my time spent living in Beijing and Shanghai have deepened my own cultural understanding of what it means to be an Australian and given me the tools to become a cultural broker. My Chinese friends have acted as my guides and educators and I appreciate their humor, which keeps me interested in China. I enjoy watching how China absorbs and adapts to different foreign trends and ideas, and this keeps my life long passion sustained, as well as realizing that this is a journey and there is so many facets of Chinese life, art, culture and food to explore that I won’t even scratch the surface in my lifetime.
What other professional connections to you have outside of your work with China?
Although I am regarded as a China specialist, I also work with the other BRIC economies and continue my own professional development through a network of trainers, public speakers and authors called Thought Leaders, which helps creative people become commercially successful and I am also interested in the role sport can play in building bridges and so have been heavily involved in helping Australian sporting bodies better understand and interact with China.
When you want to disappear from the world and relax, where would we most likely find you?
It sounds clichéd but at home with my family. We have a little two year old girl, who is just discovering her voice and learning about her surroundings. It’s so much fun seeing her explore her immediate world and tell us all about it – it is very hard to stay stressed and focused on work, when you have a toddler telling you to eat.