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Archive for the ‘Culture Shock’ Category

In chatting about Mike and my recent trip to China, a Singaporean friend (of Chinese descent) commented about his tough experiences doing business in China:  “They don’t think like us.  Maybe in another generation.”

Some of this may be language barriers – few Chinese speak English, and Mike’s business meetings in Shanghai all have interpreters.  To complicate things further, dialects of different regions are incomprehensible to other Chinese.  The only Chinese nationals we really converse with during our 12 days in Shanghai and Beijing are our two English-speaking guides.  Each has a degree in Tourism and Hospitality and 10+ years of tour-guide experience.  Both know dynasties and dates, heights of buildings and bridges, silk industry, agricultural past, industrial present  – amazing factual knowledge, but little unscripted – they have to pass government tests to keep up their licenses.

 Heidi is our Shanghai guide.  Proud to be Shanghai-born, Heidi is cute and stylish, wearing silk dresses with matching jackets and heels – aged 32 but could have passed for early twenties.

First, we definitely pick up a Shanghai-superior attitude toward Beijing in her contrast of these two metropolitan areas:

Heidi:  Shanghai is center of finance, shipping and commerce, media, technology, fashion, and largest city in China with over 23 million people.  Beijing is center for politics.  Many people say Shanghai is Asian Manhattan with so many skyscrapers.  When you go to Beijing, you will see it is low with mostly four-story buildings.  And what we eat is different.  Here in the south, we eat a rice-based diet – lighter food.  In Beijing diet is flour-based because it’s colder there.  Beijing people are taller and fatter, and men have big bellies from drinking.

The best bits are her few “off-script” comments.

Nancy:  So what in Chinese history or culture makes it by far the most populated country in the world?

H:  It must have been something Mao did.

After Heidi expresses disgust with cigarette smoke in one restaurant . . .

N:  Is the government doing anything to encourage people to stop smoking for health reasons—like they do in Singapore and the US?

H:  Not really . . . government doesn’t care what we do. (Later we notice “No Smoking” signs in restaurants – largely disregarded.)

Heidi shares extensively about her latest “cute boy” problem – lamenting that Shanghai boys are only interested in drinking, gambling, making money, and having fun with girls.  She thinks they’re spoiled from the one-child law.  (Heidi herself is an only child who lives with parents, and mother does all her cooking and laundry.)

N:  My brother once dated a woman from China, and she claimed that Chinese women today don’t like Chinese men for the same reasons you mention . . . and prefer Westerners.  Is that true?

H:  No, girls in Shanghai want a Shanghai boy because we speak the same language. . . . (thinking pause)  Your brother . . . is he married yet?  (Later our Beijing guide will tell us that the Shanghai dialect is very distinctive.)

Once we leave a silk museum in the rain and duck into a taxi.  The driver and Heidi in the front seat chat away in Chinese until Heidi turns around and says . . . our driver asked if you are film stars here for Shanghai Film Festival.

N:  Do any drivers speak English?

H:  No, if they could speak English, they wouldn’t drive taxis.

Sam takes over as our Beijing guide.  Married, he moved from a rural area 11 years ago and now lives in a high-rise with wife, mother, and nine-year-old daughter.  Like most Beijingers, Sam is less stylish and savvy with electronics than Heidi . . . and with a heavier accent, but he’s more measured in his responses and shows a bit of intellectual curiosity.

N:  So what in Chinese history or culture makes it by far the most populated country in the world?

Sam:  It’s because of wars – the Anti-Japanese War [WWII], the invasion of the Eight Allied Powers [Boxer Rebellion], and other wars.  China was invaded many times over centuries. Thousands of Chinese people die in wars and also in many terrible earthquakes and floods.  And most provinces have agricultural economy until recently, and people needed children.

We ask Sam about the frightening driving we’ve seen.  Drivers regularly drive down the middle of lane markers, speed along expressway shoulders, and blare horns continually.  Stepping into pedestrian crosswalks with the “green man” is risky business  . . . cars sail through red lights, tooting and nudging pedestrians out of the way.  We explain that in both Singapore and the US, pedestrians have the right-of-way, but here cars seem to take it.

S:  No, in rules here also pedestrians have right-of-way.  But so many drivers are new here, and people with cars think they are more empowered than pedestrians.  When I move to Beijing eleven years ago, cars are rare – bicycles are everywhere.  Beijing is adjusting to so many drivers, and police start to enforce laws.

Tiananmen Square, Forbidden City, Summer Palace – all are swarming with tourists, but mostly Chinese nationals, and Mike and I do stand out (height,  coloring, clothes).   Student groups, often in uniforms, ogle us, and Sam tells us they often visit the capital city between junior and senior high.  He also says that rural citizens now can save enough money to travel to these revered sites, once hidden and now open to the public.  Older rural tourists frequently sport mismatches of patterns and prints along with colorful “group” matching hats.  Each place, Chinese tourists ask Sam to take pictures of our exoticness.

One time we watch a rare group of Caucasians emerge from a small tour bus, and I ask Sam what country he thinks they’re from – since he’s an experienced tour guide.

S:  I think from Sweden or Norway . . . because of their skin. 

N:  Really . . . you can tell from that?

S:  Oh, yes.  Weather is harsh there and show in their skin and hair.  Americans are special with good skin and hair because air and water are so good there.

N:  Since both you and your wife are English-speaking tour guides, do you speak English with your daughter at home?

S:  We mostly speak our home-town dialect – our daughter mostly understands, but can’t speak.  She speak Mandarin, and we have language tapes to teach her English.  In time Mandarin will become more common throughout China . . . television is making a difference.

N:  Have you yourself traveled much outside of China or to other parts of China?

S:  No, but I hope to go to Shanghai someday.  If I travel outside China, I want to go to Egypt to see pyramids before the writing on them disappears.

China is definitely catapulting from the nineteenth century into the twenty-first . . . we saw it everywhere.  Sam proudly stated that the standard of living is now on par with 1970s U.S. . . . a fair assessment from what we witnessed in Shanghai and Beijing.

Language barriers – swelling of cities – rapid industrialization – revolutionizing economy – national pride – no wonder they don’t think like us!  Mike and I are learning so much from Asia . . . and we’re looking back over our shoulders to the U.S. from this new perspective.

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There are three things that I never thought I would do in this life: jump out of an airplane and hope that my parachute would open; jump off a bridge and hope that the bungee cords won’t break; ride a motorcycle through traffic anywhere in Thailand.  I guess I’m now down to two.

I walked out of the antique store and met the motorcycle.  And twenty-year old driver.  I wasn’t sure exactly what was the proper etiquette for this.  “Hi.  Nice looking bike,” didn’t exactly capture the moment. “How fast does this thing go?” seemed to be suggestive in the wrong direction. I probably just looked stunned – is this really happening?  But, safety first, they handed me a helmet.  Ha! Safety first, I would have turned around and walked straight back into that shop.  I got on, the engine roared, and we launched into one of the non-existent spaces in the continuous stream of traffic.

How much clearance is there on a motorcycle? After my foot rubbed against a neighbor car, I couldn’t even bear to think how far out my knees were flying.  On the way to the hotel, we picked our way through traffic, dodged a couple of cars that unexpectedly pulled out in front of us, leaned our way through turns (left, right, and U) at full speed, and I had to shout and point directions.  It’s times like this when its wonderful to have training in improvisational theater.  When you don’t know what you’re doing, when you have absolutely no idea of what’s coming next, when your guts are trying to decide whether to turn to ice or explode, that’s when you paste a grin on your face, hope you don’t catch too many bugs, and enjoy the ride. Whew!

We got to the hotel without incident, and I hopped off the motorcycle, praying to any god that would listen that my knees would not turn to water and buckle.  I ran up the stairs, stuffed my passport into a pocket, snapped the pocket shut, and

… thought about it. There were two choices: take the return ride, or hire a tuk-tuk.  I’m not sure I would say that I really enjoyed the ride, but it didn’t scare me completely silly, either.  Tough decision.  I buckled my helmet on my head and hopped on.  We instantly dived into the street traffic, unfortunately going down the wrong street. Quick U-turn, quick left turn, and we were headed back.

There are times when it is good to follow the Buddhist precept of non-attachment and seeing through the curtain of maya.  In this case, it just meant not holding onto the fear and taking the ride for what it was.  Five minutes later, we were threading through the same traffic-choked, shop-lined lane, and two minutes after that, we were filling out the Buddha paperwork, passport in hand.

Motorcycle in Thailand.  It wasn’t on my bucket list before, and now I’ll add it and quickly cross it off.  Been there, done that, don’t need to try again.

For my celebration dinner (celebrating being alive!), I went to the same neighborhood restaurant to return the umbrella, and to sit with a large beer and my open notebook, in the open, across the street from a beautiful temple, watching the traffic and channeling Hemingway.  This would have been his kind of place.  Cheap, friendly, exotic, exciting even if all the tigers are long gone. I started thinking this might really be a good writer’s place.  Good food, friendly people, lots of stories to see and tell.  As I wrote, slowly drifting into a reverie of words, the wind began to blow.  The sky darkened.  That old tap-tap-tap on the awning began, and then the rain came down like thunder, lit by stroke after stroke of lightning. At the restaurant, the girls hustled to tie down the awnings and to keep the settings from blowing off the table. The lights flickered.

“Don’t worry.  We have candles.” As if a candle would stay lit in this weather. One of the girls was completely soaked, but still smiling. And then the other side of the street went completely dark. “Happens all the time. No problem.”

Well, maybe a little problem.  This was supposed to be the night when I picked up my jacket, or had a fitting for any final adjustments.  Not only was the street dark and flooded, but it was still raining like crazy.

“Could I borrow your umbrella again?”

“We gonna call you Rain Man.”

After 20 minutes searching for a way to cross the street to the tailor, I finally rolled up my cuffs and sloshed. The tailor was happy to show me the jacket by candle light, but we agreed that an inspection in the next day’s light might be a better idea.

And then, back to the Night Market. I had had my eye on a particularly lovely carved wooden reclining Buddha, but I finally decided against it in view of the risk in taking it with me.  Had it been seized at the airport, I would have been heartbroken to leave without it. My consolation was the very nice bronze reproduction I’d earned after my motorcycle adventure. There was, however, a particularly iconic Thai painted word figure of …well, it’s hard to describe.  “Thai girl riding a bird while holding a lotus” is pretty accurate, but it doesn’t convey a very good sense of the figure.  I’m still not sure how I will ultimately get these treasures home to Arizona, but I’m sure enjoying the search for them.

One more tuk-tuk ride back to the hotel, where the lights were back. I immediately fell into a deeply satisfying sleep and was surprised when the alarm rang 8 hours later.

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This is the week of rugby Sevens, and who knows what that means? All I know is that the Sevens seems to be a very big deal that involves booking all available hotel space.  As a result, the posh hotels have raised their rates well beyond the corporate limits, and the travel agent got our rooms at the Marriott Courtyard in the old part of Hong Kong.  Sounds charming, but in fact, the buildings are from the 50s and 60s and are generally quite run down.

On the taxi ride to the hotel, the urban landscape got more and more industrial as we got closer to the hotel.  I began to see policemen on the corners.  Police presence = good.  Need for police presence = not so good. Then, I saw knots of policemen, and a little later small crowds of policemen. Obviously, something was going on, and it seemed likely to be a protest that the police were very serious about managing. Even though the police had a relatively calm demeanor, I hoped that the streets were not blocked and that whatever it was had nothing to do with relations with America.  Slumping down in my seat, I held my breath and hoped that the taxi driver would continue careening down the road at breakneck speed.  (Hong Kong taxis are an excellent lesson about why you should buckle up, even in the back seat.)  Finally, we passed the protest crowd and the guy with the bullhorn and the shouted slogans.  Police numbers were easily the same as protesters, if not more.  I couldn’t tell what it was all about since my Cantonese is non-existent, but I was grateful to feel the acceleration as the taxi dived between a truck and a bus to gain an extra little bit of ground. [Later: It turned out to be a protest over the new government officials who were appointed rather than elected. Similar protests took place in different parts of the city, and one was cleared with pepper spray.  Ours was noisy but, by comparison, quite peaceful.]

Having settled into the hotel, I went for a walk through the neighborhood.  This section of HK is near the old docks, and the streets have a memory.  They are lined with small shops that are full of dried things from the sea.  Dried fish, dried fish maw, sea cucumbers, seahorses (small), seahorses (large), seahorses (extra long), star fish, shark’s fin, and things too mysterious to guess. Other shops have dried mushrooms of all shapes, colors, and sizes, dried almonds (that are really apricot pits), blanched dried almonds, ginsing (in regular, medium, good, excellent, superior, and imperial qualities), snakes, lizards, and more things too mysterious to guess.  Why? All for traditional Chinese medicine.  What, for example, is the good of dried seahorse?  Boil it into a disgusting tasting broth and drink it to gradually reduce heat and restore balance of warm and cool to the body.  Got headache?  Drink seahorse.

Between the protesters, the police, and the strange-dried-ingredient shops, I didn’t see any tourists.  I guess this must be the authentic Hong Kong.

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In Japan, it’s good business manners to accompany a visitor to the elevator when a meeting is over.  Everyone from the meeting walks together to the elevator.  One of the hosts punches the call button.  When the elevator arrives, the guests enter the elevator, and the hosts line up opposite the door.  When the door begins to close, everyone bows.  No waving hands bye-bye.  No walking away early.  No “Thanks and bye!” Just a deep bow that lasts until the door is almost completely closed.  Very civilized.  And very alien to a Westerner.

When my visit to the Tokyo office was complete, two of the women from our office walked my colleague and me to the elevator.  My colleague offered, “You don’t have to do this,” but the women completely ignored him.  They wouldn’t think of not walking us to the elevator.

When we got on and the door began to close, I bowed goodbye to the very great amusement of these Japanese women.  Not just smile, but as close to laugh out loud as it gets in Japan. I’m pretty sure they knew that I wasn’t making a joke. Humor is often based on the completely unexpected, and, I guess, good local manners from a foreigner must be completely unexpected.

Well, looking at it from their point of view, maybe it did look kind of funny.

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Chinese New Year 102

We’ve been invited to a Chinese New Year’s dinner, and Nancy’s already written that it’s obligatory to have red envelopes for all the unmarried guests (regardless of age).  That much we can figure out.  However, it gets a little complicated.  Even numbers are good luck.  Odd numbers are bad luck.  Four is bad luck.  How much do we give for a token present? Not just how much, but what bills?  Now, $8 (good number) is four (bad number) $2 (good number) bills.  Or, it could be $5 (bad number) + $2 (good number) + $1 (bad number) for a total of three (bad number) bills but $8 (good number) total.  Maybe $10 (good number) + three (bad number) $2 for a total of four bills (good number) or $16 – good number?  Or could we give $6 (good number) which is three (bad number) but affordable.  Maybe two bads cancel each other to make one good?  Or at least a nothing?  Or maybe each bad is cancelled by a good, which means that three good numbers would cancel two bad numbers with one good left over.

Oh, and if we visit at home, we’re supposed bring oranges, too.  Nicely wrapped, choice fruit, even numbers.  I brought two home to Nancy, but I had to confess that they were a present from a work colleague … who left the next day so I couldn’t return the gift as I’m supposed to. I’m trying to be culturally sensitive – even participatory, but it’s not easy.  I think I’ll be back in town before the 15 days of New Year are over, so I can still offer my two.  Unless that would be insulting because they’re supposed to be given before New Year, lest they represent left-overs.  Or something like that.

I’m trying; I really am.  But it’s complicated. Why did I ever think that New Year’s was just watch-the-fireworks-and-it’s-over-for-another-year?  It will never be the same again!

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Chinese New Year 101

This morning I went to more cultural training—Lo Hei Traditions—in preparation for the upcoming Chinese New Year while Mike winged his way to Hong Kong.

Because eighty percent of Singapore’s population is ethnic Chinese, CNY is huge here—15 days of organized celebrations, including two public holidays.  As soon as Christmas decorations come down (Jan 2), CNY banners and lights start going up.

To prepare for the holidays, Chinese people do spring cleaning, buy special foods, and decorate with distinctive plants like tinted pussy willows, yellow chrysanthemums, and fully-fruited kumquat trees (sometimes going for S$800-1200!).  They decorate door frames with red banners and hang a pair of pineapple lanterns on either side.  Special foods include black moss seaweed, dried oysters, whole fish, abalone, and hog knuckles or trotters.  All of these items and colors—especially red and gold—hold symbolic meanings:  generally prosperity, wealth, and good luck.  Red is especially auspicious because it also keeps away demons, so we’ve seen red lanterns hanging from trees, over streets, and in malls all over the city.

Then there’s the gift giving.  If we visit Chinese friends during these holidays, we’re supposed to bring oranges for good luck (preferably easy-peel, tangerine style)—but only in even numbers (two or six, but not four, which is unlucky.)  When we leave, they will give us oranges back!  Yes, I do think that people just check their supply of gift oranges in the kitchen and just swap them around.

Another great tradition is favored by children:  Married people must give red envelopes with cash to all unmarried persons (good luck, prosperity again).  You give more to your own children plus nieces and nephews and parents, but even a few dollars to each unmarried family friend—yes, even 30 and 40 year olds—along with a gentle nudge . . . “and when will you be getting married?”  A young Christmas dinner guest had told us that she collects several hundred dollars each year.  Other Chinese parents have said the red envelopes can cost them up to to S$1000 each year!

Finally we got to the “Lo Hei Tradition” part (tossing up good fortune), and this involved eating!  On the 7th day of CNY, the family or party group jointly tosses a big salad of 10 special ingredients, each with symbolic meanings:

  1. raw fish = abundance throughout the year
  2. pomelo (like grapefruit) = good luck and smooth sailing
  3. pepper = attract wealth and treasures
  4. oil = make 10xs profit with capital
  5. carrots = good luck is approaching
  6. green radish = stay forever young
  7. white radish = reach higher level with each step
  8. peanut crumbs = household filled with gold and silver
  9. sesame seeds = prosperity for the business
  10. deep fried flour crisps (golden pillows) = floor covered with gold

It can include other spices and flavorings (cinnamon, nutmeg) and ingredients also, and was surprising delicious!  The higher you toss, the better the luck.  It makes for a very messy table, but the main meaning should leap out from the ingredients!  This “Prosperity Salad” is unique to Singapore, but has gained popularity so that the practice is spreading to Malaysia and Hong Kong.

So what year are we entering?  I’ve just started learning all these traditions, many that seem superstitious to Westerners—like the Chinese Zodiac.  By tradition, Buddha invited all the animals to visit him in the forest, but only 12 accepted—monkey, rat, tiger, ox, snake, etc.  We’re just coming off the year of the rabbit (2011), and we should all be celebrating the fact that we are entering 2012, the year of the DRAGON—the most powerful of the 12 animals.  Under that auspicious sign, this should be a good year for getting married, being born, or making major decisions and transitions—and for all lucky enough to have been born under the sign of the dragon.  If you wish to do a quick birth sign check:   http://www.chinesezodiac.com/calculator.php

Tomorrow is a “Chinatown Walking Tour” for this trailing spouse—what I think of as my continuing education here.  This tour could be my CNY 102 course!

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Our faithful readers know, by now, of course, that Singapore is just three degrees north of the equator.  Our two seasons are hot and wet, and hotter and drier.  Our days get at most five minutes shorter in the winter (our hot and wet season) and five minutes longer in the summer.  Our population is primarily ethnic Chinese, with a significant fraction of ethnic Malay, and a smaller but still significant fraction of ethnic Indian.  In school, English is the primary language, but students are required to take twelve years of classes in the language of their ethnic heritage: Mandarin, Malay, or Tamil.

We do not get snow.  (When I took a taxi home from the airport a few days ago, I talked with the driver about the rain that we’d had for the last several days, and then I asked what he thought the weather would be for Christmas.  “Maybe it will snow?” I asked.  He almost choked!  “No.  No snow in Singapore.  If it snow here, something wrong!”)  We do not have short days for the winter solstice.  We do not have a majority Christian population.

So, what about Christmas?  See for yourself:

Is that snow on the tree?  Snow in Singapore?  Really?  Well, no, it’s soap suds.  There’s a special machine that churns the suds and sprays them on the tree.  Really?  a soap suds machine?

If you look closely, you’ll see that the girl in the picture is not Nancy.  Who is she?  I have no idea.  When the Christmas trees appear on Orchard Road, the cameras come out.  Everyone has a camera, and everyone wants to take a picture of their girlfriend/boyfriend/wife/husband/kids or maybe some random hottie standing in front of a big tree:

Every mall of any importance along Orchard Road has a tree.  Twenty feet seems to be the minimum height.

It looks like the hop-on, hop-off bus has a special tour of the Orchard Road Christmas trees.

Paragon Plaza may be the mall with the most expensive brand stores, the coldest air-con, and the biggest tree.

Soap-suds machines not withstanding, we don’t expect a white Christmas in Singapore, but the light show is pretty good none the less.

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