When you think of Minnesota trading partners, you think "Wisconsin." We give them condescension, they give us quarterbacks. Or perhaps Canada: We give them wheat, they give us . . . Canadian wheat, I don't know. You rarely think of China, since it's far away, contains 11 billion factories and did not invade Tibet in search of lefse. But it's our biggest international trading partner, and when the governor went abroad last month to drum up our exports (yams, magical heart-fixing gadgets), his entourage included Dennis Nguyen, a local businessman who heads the New Asia Partnership, a private equity investment firm with offices in Shanghai and the Mill City.
So: How you'd get to be a liaison between Cathay and the land of the Gophers?
"I grew up in Orange County in California -- my family still resides there; I'm the only one who left. I came to Minnesota back in the '90s, attended law school and fell in love with this state. The people, the culture -- everything about it. I planned to stay after law school, but I found a job with Citibank, and began my career in Hong Kong.
"When I decided to move my family back to the United States, I went to California -- but then I thought it would be great to move the kids back to Minnesota. We've been here since the summer of 2009."
How did the kids take the change from dense hectic Asian cities to easy-going Minneapolis? "It's a little different," he laughs, "But they're acclimated. They like it a lot better." Still, culture shock: "When I get off the plane at the airport here, I think wow, what a lot of blond-haired people."
So how'd the recent trade trip go? "A lot of the people in my delegation were very experienced with China; they've been there 10, 20 times. They know it well. China is our largest export market, and the governor is really spearheading our drive to export more." Like what? Maybe you could ship them our potholes as "negative road-space modules"?
"Agriculture, of course, and professional services. At New Asia Partnership we handle consumer products, alternative energy, commodities. When we invest in deals, we use Minneapolis-based professional services, like lawyers."
If you're thinking they stuff lawyers into those metal cans on container-cargo ships, no. Hide your disappointment.
Trips to China means spreading the gospel on the culture, as well:
"Here's what I tell people about Minnesota: Every Saturday in the fall, millions of people get up and root for the Golden Gophers. I like that sense of community. It's overplayed, but Minnesota Nice? It's there."
If only we could bottle it and export it.