Charming the Chinese: A Few at a Time

On a recent three-week assignment in China, I was reminded once again that breaking through to others from another culture often has more to do with attitude than ability.

It was my first time there, and normally I would prepare for such a trip with as much language study as possible and a good amount of reading about the location and culture. I couldn't make it all happen this time, so I landed in Shanghai with a good sense of the city but merely a few phrases of Mandarin, China's "common language."

Although China, and especially Shanghai, is forever in the news these days for its new ways, booming economy and emerging consumer class, old habits die hard and the business model at the university hotel where we were staying seemed more aligned with the bureaucratic, state-controlled economy of old Communist party. By appearances, few of the hotel staff seemed inclined to great levels of customer service, and the tasks associated with our needs required a dizzying array of forms and intricate procedures: getting a shirt laundered required 2-3 signed documents, for example. None of them knew more than a few very basic expressions in English.

I had a phrasebook with a dictionary and had given some attention to the sounds of Mandarin, so I could point to and passably say what I wanted or needed. But being able to ask for (or demand) something doesn't always get you what you want, especially in a foreign place. It's not simply about being able to say what you need, but–more importantly–getting people on your side so they are glad to help. And getting people on your side involves establishing a human connection, an empathetic relationship which understands and respects and even enjoys the other.

My first success was the young girl who cleaned my room. I could have been nasty about all the forms for the laundry, but I knew that was what she had to do, so her job had to become important to me, too, and making a stink about it wouldn't have gotten my shirt cleaned–more likely "lost" instead. So I patiently, and cheerfully, signed away and left the necessary cash for her each day, and we established a trusting, friendly rapport: I would do what she needed to get the shirt done and she would–reliably–make sure I got my shirts cleaned, delivered, and hung in my closet.

And we "chatted" as best we could, too, each of us exchanging a few learned phrases daily, she in English, I in Mandarin. I also deliberately left pictures of my daughters stuck on the mirror above my desk, knowing she would see them, knowing they would prompt the "aren't they so cute–thank you" exchange, which they did. So I was no longer simply an imposing American with needs to be met, but an English coach, and a Chinese learner, and a Daddy too.

The women at the front desk seemed even less friendly, but the key to unlocking their smiles was quite simple, just a phrase actually. I had learned two or three expressions in the Shanghai dialect, different from Mandarin, and I surprised them with the local forms of "hello" and "goodbye." The first time I used "Za Wei" (goodbye), they dropped their jaws in amazement, and pleased, excitedly chattered to each other, I could tell, "Did you hear that? He speaks our dialect!"

After that they were putty in my hands. They asked me about a few phrases in English they wanted to know, and they in turn cheerfully advised me on taxis and directions, and were very helpful when I had to pay for my phone calls–which normally could have been a lengthy and frustrating interaction without a translator. Instead, my exchanges with them became pleasant opportunities to charm and be charmed.

Small victories? Maybe. But my stay was easier–and much more pleasant–for the rapport I built with those women (who could have made my days miserable). Tellingly, the cleaning girl came to see me off at six in the morning on my last day in China and–refusing the smallest gift herself–gave me sweet little pencil cases for my daughters instead!

And the ladies at the front desk? I returned my keys, and said thanks and goodbye in Mandarin, and as I turned to the taxi waiting to take me to the airport, they stopped my Chinese colleague, gestured towards me, and said something to her which I could not understand. "What did they say?" I asked. "Please come back again," she replied.


All rights reserved. Ron Clark 2004

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