Category Archives: Culture Shock

Cross-Cultural Interactions Between Chinese and Michiganites

Great article here from a local paper detailing the cross-cultural interactions and differences between Chinese and local students in Michigan.

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Culture Shock: American Managers in China

I found this well-written, concise article in the Salt Lake Tribune that highlights some of the cultural adaptation problems American managers who work in China encounter.

From the article:

The issue…is that the Chinese culture is so different from what Americans have experienced in life and in the workplace.

When people ask me if there are major cultural differences between Greater China and the United States, I usually reply with this: “They are two entirely different worlds. Humans need to eat, sleep, and work, but the similarities end there.” Managers heading for China would do well do keep a very open mind, and to avoid any major policy decisions until they get the lay of the land. They should also consider hiring a cross-cultural communications trainer with experience in Greater China to guide them through the mine fields.

This article is full of other gems that provide a brief overview of some of the major cultural differences between China and the West. I’d love to go through them but, as usual, I’m in the middle of 18 projects.

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Culture Shock For Chinese Tourists And Taiwanese Hosts

I’ll borrow the title of the article for this post.

Basically, mainland Chinese tourists have begun to visit Taiwan, and are expected to do so in greater numbers in the months and years to come. Predictably, there are some biases and prejudices on both sides and like most biases and prejudices, they are largely without logical foundation.

The article doesn’t go into any kind of depth on the political, cultural, and socio-economic differences between the Chinese-speaking peoples living on either side of the Taiwan Strait, but it makes for a light, fun read.

It will be fascinating to see how things play out. I’ll be watching with interest.

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Do the Chinese Lie? That Depends…

Out in my neck of the woods, it is not uncommon to hear a businessperson from a Western country, following a disappointing episode with a Chinese supplier, say something like: “They’re all a bunch of liars!”  Of course, they’re not all bad. Part of the problem is very different definitions of what constitutes ethical and honest behavior between the Chinese and the Western world (Note: I’d include the Japanese in the group of people who don’t understand Chinese “lying”).

In short, for most Chinese people, lying is not really lying. What we in the West would consider to be a bald-faced lie, a person in greater China might think of as a courtesy, a convenience, or a smart tactic, none of which are immoral. In fact, lying to achieve some business or social aim, and getting away with it, is considered to be a sign of intelligence and social skill among many Chinese.

Chinese values are rooted in concepts of duty to oneself, one’s family, one’s company, one’s friends and associates, but not to anyone else. There is no “Good Samaritan” ethic going on; kids are not really taught from a young age that they have a duty to help strangers. The teaching is more along the lines of “don’t make trouble,” “don’t do anything shameful,” or “be a good student.”

Also worth noting is the fact that many more things are covered up by the Chinese than they would be in the West. People don’t tell each other about things that would make someone lose face or cause social embarrassment, and once the “deception” is discovered, all is generally forgiven after a brief explanation along the lines of “it wasn’t convenient for me to tell you the truth.” Things like job loss, serious illness, legal trouble, or problems with children are seldom talked about, and often kept hidden, even among close friends and relatives.

In a business context, you might not hear about a shipment that was supposed to go out last week but will now likely never go out until it is too late. This occurs with great frequency in greater China, and there is very little concern or shame on the Chinese end, because it simply isn’t viewed as being wrong.

For the unprepared Western businessperson, these ethics can be quite unnerving. I’ve personally seen many a business deal, and many a friendship, fall apart because of these radically different values.

The Bottom Line: Don’t expect your Chinese suppliers to have the same set of ethics that you have. There are differences across the board in what constitutes ethical behavior when you’re talking about East and West. Tread carefully, and set up plenty of checks and balances until you really know what you are doing.

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Filed under China, Communication, Culture, Culture Shock, Taiwan

One Night in Taipei: Business Entertainment, Chinese Style

For those unsuspecting businesspersons heading to Taiwan or China from the West, you need to know what you’re in for once the day’s work is done and your hosts take you out for a night of fun.

First of all, some of your suppliers will understand that for most Westerners, business entertainment centers around providing your guests with a fine meal at a nice restaurant. One or two glasses of wine or a beer or two may be consumed. Conversation will be largely centered on matters not related to business. If your hosts understand this, then you can expect to go to a nice Western or Chinese style restaurant and enjoy a few quiet drinks. You’ll discuss a bit more business than you would back home–the Chinese can’t escape their own culture, which teaches them that a business deal is not finalized until you’ve socialized and patted each other on the back a few times. However, you’ll be safely back in your hotel at 10pm, in time to call your spouse and kids back home if they are haven’t already left for school or work.

If your hosts don’t understand that most Westerners prefer this sort of evening–I have had clients who will get back to the hotel, change into party attire, and head out to drink and have fun until the wee hours, but most are content to eat and get back to the hotel–well, then you’re very likely in for a wild evening. You can of course request an evening of entertainment, local style, if you prefer this. Just say “I’m here to do business, and to have fun. Let’s do what you normally do for fun on a night out on the town.”

If you are entertained local-style, here’s what will probably happen:

7 to 10pm-The Dinner

Still dressed in business attire, the factory boss will drive you in his BMW or Benz to his favorite eatery. Key managers will be invited, some of whom will likely be female. Friends who owners of other factories will be called out to put on a good show and to keep things lively. The dinner will start quietly, but soon the beer and whiskey will start to flow and predictably, the conversation will become more free-ranging as inhibitions drop. The noise volume will rise steadily until it’s at a low roar.

You will often find that as people are eating their fill and knocking back drinks, the boss will open up of his own accord. If he puts his arm around your shoulder and starts talking, listen carefully. He’s about to tell you what he really thinks about the business you are discussing, something he won’t do during the daytime when you’re at the office.

You are in danger of becoming very drunk at this point because (a) you probably don’t normally drink more than one or two servings of alcohol at a dinner (b) you’re likely to be jet-lagged and (c) everyone at the table will want to drink with you. In Taiwan and China, you don’t nurse a drink. You drain your glass as soon as it is filled and another person’s glass is raised to indicate that he wants to drink with you. Thank heavens beer and whiskey glasses in Taiwan and China are designed to accommodate local drinking culture: they are small enough that you can do a shot without feeling sick.

One way to preserve your liver and at least a semblance of sobriety is to insist that where you come from, whiskey is always taken with Coca-Cola, and order a couple of cans right away. That way, if ten or twelve people each want to drink two or three glasses with you (the women most likely will not drink), you’ll survive the evening by diluting the whiskey with Coke.

If you don’t drink, just explain politely and firmly that you don’t drink, but that they are welcome to proceed as they normally would. You’ll be happy with a Coke or some tea. The boss will likely not drink, though he will be in a good mood, and that will help you when it comes time to talk business.

As people get happier and happier, they will become touchy. Not sensitive, but tactile. They’ll put their arms around you, hold your hands, rub your leg, all sorts of things. Men in Taiwan and China are generally quite repressed and only let loose when they are drinking in the company of friends.

Another important point: In Taiwan and China, deals are not really finalized–indeed, the real issues are often not even discussed–until you’ve been out to dinner and had some drinks. The best thing you can do is to relax, get into the spirit of things, tell some jokes, drink with your group, but hold on to your faculties as best you can so that when either your or the boss brings up the real issues, you are able to function.

Negotiation Tip: If you’re trying to get the boss to agree to a lower cost or make some other concession, hit him up between drink #4 and drink #6. If you try him before then, he won’t yet be in the “Mr. Generous” personae that Chinese businessmen love to adopt. If you try him after he’s had six drinks, he’ll be too drunk to remember what he promised.

Once everyone is stuffed, and most of the party is completed soused, the female managers will be dismissed. If you are willing to continue with the evening at this point, you are now in for one of the wildest evenings of your life.

10:30pm to After Midnight: The Entertainment

Now, dear reader, I must confess to a bit of hesitation on my part. I’ve got the next part written, but I am not sure if I’ll post it in its current form, which pulls no punches.

It is not that I’m ashamed of anything I’ve done, but I’m not sure if it is a good idea to publish the next part without a bit of whitewash. Give me a few days to think about it, and I’ll post Part Deux either unvarnished, or a bit more sanitized.

What do you think? Comments welcome.

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Culture Shock: “Look at the foreigner!”

For those of you wondering what it might be like for an American to live in Taiwan, here’s a snapshot of a typical day:

After conducting a morning training seminar, I repaired to the wedding reception of a close friend. The reception was attended by nearly 400 people, and I was the only non-Taiwanese person in the banquet room. The groom is a professional educator and a graduate of both the #1 high school and the #1 university in Taiwan. His wife works for Cathay Life Insurance. So the crowd, comprised of educators and business people, was well-heeled and well-educated. I felt completely at home, not at all like a foreigner, because nobody treated me like a foreigner. I love to meet people like that, who view me as a person rather than an exotic breed of non-Taiwanese, and who don’t care enough about my nationality to make it an issue.

After the reception, I went to an afternoon meeting that ran until about 5pm. After 45 minutes on the subway, I got off and started walking toward home. Waiting at a stoplight, I heard a man standing behind me say, in Mandarin “The foreigner is going to cross the road,” followed by a woman’s response that was too soft to make out.

I was indeed planning to cross the road, but that was hardly worth commenting on, except for the fact that I am a tall white person in a land of people who don’t look much like me.

I turned to look at this pair and saw an older man, about 60, with a woman in her 20s. They were about two feet away from me.

The man made another comment: “Now he is looking right at you!”

I nodded my head and said, in Mandarin, “He can understand what you are saying.”

The woman then said. “I told you he could understand Mandarin.” I have no idea how she knew I could understand Mandarin, as I don’t wear a t-shirt proclaiming such, and most people who use the third person to discuss a foreigner standing directly in front of them, as if the foreigner is some kind of zoo animal, typically assume that the vagaries of the Mandarin language are beyond the comprehension of the descendants of hairy barbarians.

At this point, I just shook my head, turned back around, and waited for the light to change. They continued to discuss me in the third person, apparently still unable to grasp the concept that I fully understood what they were saying or, more likely, not caring. As much as I enjoy my relationships with well-educated, open-minded Taiwanese people, these sorts of encounters are discouraging. It is quite strange and discomfiting to be made out to be something not quite human by narrow-minded dolts.

Living in Taiwan, this sort of thing happens to me on a nearly daily basis. There is an incident or two per week on the MRT, where I either have to ask people to stop discussing me while I am standing next to them, or I have to change seats to get away from a group of idiots. When I go to China, it is the same, or worse. It actually happened again at the grocery store later today, when I caught a family by surprise, pushing my cart down the aisle they were parked in the middle of. I guess they haven’t seen too many foreigners, because there was a big, loud discussion about various aspects of my foreignness (including the very astute observation that “foreigners also go shopping at Carrefour!”) , and about foreigners in general, even after I had called across the central aisle to my wife, in Mandarin.

What can one do in such situations? Not much, actually. You aren’t going to be able to educate people like that, who are so lacking in any sort of understanding of the larger world that they simply couldn’t wrap their brains around the idea that I am actually just another human, rather than a bloody foreigner. At times like these, you remind yourself that if you lived in the US somewhere, you’d be just another American, which would be nice, but you wouldn’t get to deal with being an outsider, or a zoo monkey, all of the time. Comforting but boring in the end.

Sometimes living in Taiwan is an exercise in dealing with contrasts that can challenge the sanity of even the most easy-going person, but it is that challenge that makes life interesting.

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Chinese Teacher Experiences Culture Shock…in Alabama

I saw this little item on a regional news website (first four paragraphs):

Chinese teacher has culture shock at Elberta school

ELBERTA, Ala. (AP) – A small school in south Baldwin County has become the only one in Alabama and the first Catholic elementary school in the country to be chosen for a guest teacher program designed to teach students Chinese.

The program at St. Benedict Catholic School brings in a guest Chinese teacher and is co-sponsored by the College Board and Hanban, China’s Office of Chinese Language Council International.

St. Benedict, which has 158 students in pre-kindergarten through eight grade, decided to add Chinese to its foreign language curriculum, augmenting a Spanish program that launched a few years ago.

The article goes on to describe the culture shock felt by the Chinese teacher, a Shanghai native.

While I feel for this fellow, who is indubitably confused as all hell, I have to appreciate the humor of this situation. There is nothing in this world that will fully prepare a Shanghai native for life in any village, town, or city in the United States. By the same token, there is nothing in this world that will fully prepare an American for life in most parts of Asia.

I wonder what, if any, sort of training the Chinese teacher had before he left for small town USA. I wonder what sort of training, if any, the school had in hosting a visiting Chinese teacher. Probably none.

What’s the problem, you may ask? What exactly are the differences between Chinese and American culture?

Start with this idea:

EVERYTHING IS DIFFERENT!

Nothing is the same. Food, style of dress, communication styles, value systems, religious beliefs, political environments…the list of differences is endless. Which is why, of course, I live in greater China. Still, even those of us who have sense of the differentness between the cultures of East and West are sometimes frustrated by the cultural differences we encounter.

My advice to both the teacher and the school: Patience, openness, and tolerance. Judgment and an overweening focus on cultural differences will make you miserable. Teacher Wang, think of your colleagues and students and their strange behavior as “ke ai (loveable),” and parents, teachers, and students at St. Benedict Catholic School, give Mr. Wang the gift of acceptance. Let him eat his fried fish and rice, drink his green tea, wear his slippers in the faculty lounge if he chooses to.

In closing, I quote the Principal of the school:

“We felt like children who have Chinese language are going to be able to write their own ticket when they get to college,” Principal Kendall McKee said.

I know that reporters typically aren’t able to communicate all of the thought and planning that precedes a decision to implement a Chinese language program in a school, but statements such as these concern me a bit.

Why? Because you’ve got to learn a language like Mandarin in the proper cultural context. You can’t just learn some vocabulary, tones, and sentence structure and expect to have any idea what is going on. Chinese is nothing like Spanish. Or French. Or German. There are huge cultural gaps here, and from a linguistic perspective, it would be easier for a native English speaker to learn all three of the aforementioned  languages than it will be to master Mandarin.

Is there a program in place to bring the students to China, or to make some effort to bring China to the students? What sorts of cultural activities are built into the language program? Does the principal himself know anything about Chinese culture? Does the Chinese teacher know how to communicate his own culture to the kids? I hope there’s more going on here than just a Chinese teacher spending a year teaching kids the difference between the tones and the first few hundred words in Mandarin. Otherwise, this project has the potential to turn out to be an exercise in waste and frustration for all involved.

I wish both sides well. I hope the news station reports on progress made on both sides in six months or so.

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