On April 30th, 2019, Madisen Siegel interviewed Yael Farjun, founder and CEO of ChinaClickGo, a customizable travel agency for trips to and within China. Ms. Farjun is a born and raised Israeli, received a Bachelor’s in Asia Studies and Political Science from Haifa University, and speaks Mandarin. Ms. Farjun moved to Shanghai in 2010, where she began life after university by working at the Israeli Pavilion at the Shanghai World Expo. After that, Ms. Farjun launched her own business, first working as a private tour guide and built a travel agency, then, using her knowledge of the industry, launched her own startup travel agency: ChinaClickGo.com. Geared toward China inbound tourism, ChinaClickGo is a service that lets you customize your China experience by mixing and matching tours, services, and activities, all quality checked and vetted.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Madisen Siegel: When did you discover the connection between Israel and China? How did you get to where you are today?
Yael Farjun: After studying Asian Studies and Political Science at the University of Haifa, I went to Shanghai for the first time in the summer of 2009 as part of my semester to study Mandarin. In 2010 there was a six month job opportunity to work in the Israeli pavilion at the Shanghai World Expo. I applied and got in. So I literally graduated as I started this job, submitting my last academic papers from Shanghai.
When the Expo was over, I decided to stay in Shanghai rather than return to Israel. Most of my friends that studied Mandarin with me could not find Mandarin related work in Israel. Ten years ago, the only jobs related to China in Israel were focused on manufacturing. So unless you were interested in traveling to China to work in operations for a factory or do quality control, not many other opportunities were available.
I understood that if I wanted to keep this connection I felt to China, I would have to stay here (in China). Finding a position in Shanghai was challenging at the time as employers were primarily looking for native English speakers to teach English. The biggest companies were German, American, or French, and I do not speak those languages. So after a month of job hunting, I decided to create my own company and work for myself. The second big decision I faced was figuring out what I wanted to do. I took stock of the knowledge and resources under my belt at the point in time: a university degree, Mandarin, and a passion for working with people. I started my business working as a tour guide and, little by little, I grew it into a full scale travel agency, bringing in clients primarily from Israel, but now from everywhere around the world. That’s what brought me here and made me stay.
MS: What were your first impressions of China? How has that changed over time?
YF: 2010 was a great year. It was my second time in Shanghai, but my first time being there not as a student, and it was a different experience all together. I was so impressed; China was not what I was expecting it to be and nothing like I learned. In 2009, I found China to be a bit of a disappointment. University made me expect a China full of traditions, Mandarin, and philosophical people, and that is not what I found.
It took me a while to understand today’s China. I decided to use my misconceptions as an educational opportunity to highlight the differences between what we think China is and what actually exists. I also realized that I am not alone in the phenomenon of preconceptions and misconceptions. People consistently rely on bad resources to define their opinions about places. Take Israel for example; people have no idea what life in Israel looks like outside of what they hear about in the news, and that tends to be very selective and biased in the sense that there is a journalistic agenda at work. And then people come to Israel and they are shocked by the reality they are faced with here. To locals, this may seem preposterous; of course China is not wholly tradition-driven or philosophical, nor is Israel a constant war zone. These are real places where life occurs just like any other place on the planet. Yet, this remains the way people form their ideas about places and, unfortunately, people.
MS: How did you start learning Mandarin? At what point do you feel you became fluent?
YF: I really want to stress this point: I don’t think anyone speaks fluent Mandarin, not even the Chinese themselves. I find it funny when people ask me if I’m fluent. I’m not fluent, and I don’t think I’ll ever really be. Mandarin is a very complicated language that is limiting to the person using it. In order to learn new words, you have to memorize and completely immerse yourself in the subject. For example, if I’m in business, I will learn the vocabulary of those subjects. But if someone wants to strike up a conversation with me about politics in China, I might not know how to express myself at all. In Mandarin, you cannot borrow words from one topic and use them for another topic as you do in other languages. That’s why I say I don’t think even Chinese people speak fluent Mandarin. As soon as you start speaking to them using words they are not familiar with, they completely lose you. I see that on a daily basis. I would say I’m fluent enough for what I use Mandarin for.
MS: How did knowing Mandarin help you when you started your business in Shanghai?
YF: It opens a lot of doors. In China, foreigners are always different. In the U.S. or Europe, while it’s true locals will see me as an immigrant until a certain point, I can immerse myself in the local culture. Because I look and behave like the local population I can always become an American or a European. But in China, because of foreigners’ looks, we are always separated from the locals; we are always different. And the culture here is a big thing. Unless you grew up in it, completely in it, you will never be Chinese; it doesn't really matter how hard you try.
Speaking Mandarin, in a way, helps establish a better connection with Chinese natives. Chinese people feel more comfortable with you and appreciate the fact that you took the time to learn the language. It’s a sign of respect in many ways to their culture, to their country, to their history. And so, speaking Mandarin has made things easier. It made me less of a stranger here.
MS: What was it like starting a business in China, a place notorious for its bureaucracy and red tape?
YF: Yes, there is a lot of bureaucracy, but it’s manageable. There are steps you need to follow, especially as a foreigner in China, you are scrutinized more than maybe a Chinese national. But I think that holds true for any country with an immigrant starting a business. The country wants to know who you are and why you want to establish a business. As I have only started a business in China, I cannot really compare with other countries. But overall I think it’s not as bad as people make it out to be. For example, in Europe, to start a business I would have to invest a lot of money, whereas in China I don’t have to do that all at once. The EU might not give me a working visa, and I know for certain it is no easy feat to attain a working visa in the U.S.; by contrast, in China it’s relatively easy. Yes, there are rules and regulations you have to comply with, but that kind of makes sense because what country would just open their doors to anyone?
Today it’s becoming easier than it used to be to move here and establish a business. But I will say this: nine years ago, it was a lot like the Wild East - as opposed to the Wild West. You had more freedom simply because activities and transactions were not well regulated. There were a lot of grey areas.
MS: What has been your biggest learning curve?
YF: Cultural differences pertaining to communication have been challenging. But I think to overcome issues which arise from miscommunication, it’s important to really listen. In a foreign culture, locals don’t think the way you do nor do they expect or prioritize the same things. If you want to reach your goals, you need to find the delicate balance between making yourself and your intentions clear while not coming off overly aggressive or single-minded.
MS: What do Israelis find most surprising when they visit China? How do you usually describe China to Israelis before they come to visit?
YF: We first tell Israelis: until you’re here, you won’t really understand it. Come with an open mind, patience, and curiosity. Don’t think that you know, rather come here ready to learn. I always tell my clients to absorb everything and ask any and all questions they have.
A lot of tourists expect China to be poor and underdeveloped or mid-development. When they come here they are so surprised by the modern infrastructure and technology. They are shocked when we explain that everything, from ordering food to paying for groceries to ordering a taxi, can be done through phone-pay on apps like WeChat and AliPay. People can do everything with their phones essentially - I leave my house without a purse because I simply don’t need it. Visitors are also surprised by China’s wealth. Take a walk in the streets and you will see fancy cars everywhere. And of course the biggest surprise is the sheer number of people. We always talk about how China has a lot of people, but being here and seeing those numbers with your own eyes can be overwhelming.
I think anyone who visits China, even if it’s only for a week or ten days, starts seeing the world from where China is. And this holds true for any trip you make. You suddenly understand a new and different perspective from this place in the world.