Our second week ended with a special class. We dressed up to share a lecture on intercultural communication with a group of Chinese university students from Shanghai. We split into groups and immediately got under way chatting with each other about each other’s cultures; they wanted to know how the Chinese are seen in America (we basically told them that they are considered to be very smart at things like math, but also rather quiet and shy), while they told us how the Chinese view Americans (loud party-lovers, but creative thinkers and good businessmen).

We also swapped tips on how to adjust when visiting each other’s culture, and generally learned from each other how our respective societies, attitudes, cultural norms and social mores worked. I think I learned more about Chinese culture from them in a few minutes than I did in my first few days in China! It was great to have the chance to talk to Chinese my own age about the many questions I wanted to ask about the country.

To pick one, I had heard about a month before this trip that the Chinese government had banned from television numerous shows that involved modern Chinese traveling into the dynastic periods of the past to find romance and adventure amongst figures from Chinese history. The government’s official reason for the ban on time travel plots was that it was disrespectful to history to show it in a fictional way. I asked the Chinese students if this was true, and they said yes. I then asked if they were ok with that, and even the ones who said they had liked those shows said they understood the government’s reason. I was surprised – in America, if our government did something like that, people would flip out. People really do just have a radically different mentality here (and I would begin to realize why a few days later).

At the end of the very learning-filled class, the Chinese students gave us all business cards with their names and e-mails, and many of them also gave us some small gifts like bookmarks and phone charmlets, among other items. I was very impressed with their professionalism and generosity, and felt sorely outclassed since we had nothing to present to them in return. If anyone thinking of going on this study abroad in the years to come reads this, bring along some little American trinkets to give as gifts!

Macau, the Asian Vegas

We took a day in our weekend to head over to the island city of Macau, renowned as the place to go in Asia for gambling. We took an hourlong ferry ride over, and after going through immigration (Macau is an SAR like Hong Kong, so it also operates almost like its own nation), we were in… well, if it weren’t for all the Chinese characters everywhere I would have sworn it was Las Vegas.

Seriously, Macau has all of the glitz, lights, and excess of Sin City, but with an Asian flavor. We spent a good amount of time going around to several hotels along an area called the Cotai Strip, and we could hardly believe how incredibly fancy and ostentatious the décor was. I originally spent a long time trying to find the words to describe it, but I’m not sure they exist. What pictures we took will have to suffice, but they really don’t do justice to the scale of the place.

We stayed in Macau pretty late – checking out hotels, doing a little bit of gambling (I managed to come out with 300 more Hong Kong dollars than I started with… woohoo!), reclining in fancy hotel bars. And I must add that when we went to the Venetian, I REALLY was sure we were basically in Vegas – I’ve stayed at the Venetian in Vegas, and the lobby for their Macau location was a carbon copy down to the last detail.

It was quite a blast – it’s an exhilarating city to see and be in! And it might actually have even more crazy ritziness than Vegas itself. It really has to be seen to be believed.

The Life of an Expatriate

After recovering from our long day in Macau, the third week of the program began with an interesting class on intercultural communication that explored some depths I hadn’t before considered – that we simultaneously over- and underestimate the role of cultures in shaping our encounters with people.

We underestimate by simply wondering how to do business with the Chinese, for example – there are many more dimensions of culture that shape each individual in China beyond what country they hail from; there are also cultures stemming from gender, age, race, religion, area where they grew up, and more. Yet we underestimate the role of cultures by attributing all of a person’s aspects to their nationality – such as if you had an unpleasant encounter with a Chinese person and assumed all Chinese were unpleasant. The role of individual personalities cannot be forgotten. It requires a careful balance of consideration of these things to properly facilitate intercultural communication.

Even more interesting than that, however, was what I did that afternoon. Through a man from my church back home I had been put in contact with a man who has been living and working in Asia for over a decade, and has lived in China for seven years, after having also lived in Tokyo and Singapore, and having worked all around China, Japan, Thailand, South Korea, and more.

We met for coffee and had an incredible conversation. He told me about his work – helping resolve debt disputes through a combination of the courts and negotiation. Despite all his years in Asia, he’s never needed to learn any language other than English – he communicates through both a translator and an interpreter. When the person he is trying to do business with replies, he gets a translation from both the translator and interpreter, and puts their two responses together to get a better sense of what his business contact is really trying to say.

He told me a lot of things that reinforced our earlier lesson on the importance of guanxi. In South Korea, drinking is a huge part of business culture. He has people working for him in Seoul whose entire job is to be “designated drinkers” – to stay at a bar with the Koreans he is working with to keep drinking and laughing with them after he has to leave, and to settle the tab at the end of the night; all to facilitate the relationship. South Korean businessmen are reluctant to trust a potential business partner until they’ve seen them drunk, as they feel that being inebriated brings out more of one’s true colors.

And once while he has been in China, he was told there were several cases relating to his clients that were tied up in court. He spent two days bringing moon cakes and tea to judges, and chatting with them about family life (through his interpreter/translator combo) – not a single word about business. And within two weeks, every single one of those cases was resolved in favor of his clients. And in case you haven’t read my earlier entries, doing that kind of thing in Asia is not a bribe. Showing respect like that is what greases the wheels of business and society over here.

He also told me about what it’s like to be an expat. He lauded the opportunities to see the world and really expand one’s view of our world and what is going on in it. He said that when he returns to the United States, he finds it hard to talk with people like he used to. His friends who have never left the States talk about their daily lives, but when he talks about all of the global issues and interests that make up his daily life, they find it baffling. And he said that gave him a special feeling of having that broadened worldview. In fact, he enjoys the expat life so much that he does not plan on returning to the United States to retire – he’s going to retire in Bangkok.

We also talked about many other things about China and its current economic situation, but allow me to share one more thing. He told me that when he first came to China in 2000, the drive from the airport was surrounded by farms. Now all of that same area is developed land. Those words made me give pause and think. Growing up, and leading up to this program, my friends and I always wondered why Chinese citizens were ok with the government, which to us seemed not so great (Communism and all that). It made no sense to us why the citizens took no issue with things like the government telling them that certain TV shows were now banned, which seemed at the time to be a flagrant attempt to exercise tight control over the people.

Now I understood. In just the last 10 years, and for a few decades before that, the Chinese government has taken the lives of millions and made their standard of living so much higher; giving Chinese citizens much, much more comfortable lives. In only a decade. I realized – this government is giving its people results. In comparison to a dramatic increase in standard of living, the time travel TV show ban is so relatively minor. After the government has made their lives so much better, why WOULD any of them take issue with that? They trust their government, and they have good reason to. They aren’t brainwashed by Communist doctrine or anything of the sort. To them, the government’s previous decisions have enriched their lives, and based on those past results, they trust its current decisions are for their benefit as well.

Just that statement from him completely shifted my view of the Chinese people and government to a new plateau of understanding. I couldn’t ask for a more enlightening conversation.