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Traveling in China: What’s really Important?

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Among the things I’ve learned about traveling in China is to prioritize the things that are really important. What is very important? What is just sort of important and what really isn’t that important at all?

First, I’ve learned that Starbucks always has Western toilets. KFC and McDonald’s usually have western toilets as well. Beyond that, you pretty much take your chances. (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you’ve never travelled in China.) OK, that’s not the most important thing I’ve learned, but It was not something I even thought about when I made the decision to come to China to teach. Another thing I never thought about is that the water isn’t always potable (drinkable) right from the tap. This means that at times you may need to make sure you’re equipped with bottled water even for brushing your teeth and making coffee or tea in your hotel room. Most hotels will provide you with at least one bottle of water each day. If you are traveling more low budget, to a hostel for example, you will most likely have to buy your own. It just goes to show that there will be surprises that you never considered. If you can handle these glitches with grace, humor and a sense of adventure, you will go along way toward thriving in China whether you’re traveling or moving into your first apartment here. On that note:

About a year ago I was returning to China after Winter Break. I had been home to California to visit family and friends. During that time, I had to have minor surgery. My doctor cleared me to return but said I couldn’t lift or carry anything. The flight was wonderful. All the attendants and ground crew wheelchaired me to and from the plane. Everyone was very attentive… until I got to Guangzhou. Let’s back up about 36 hours. The day before my flight I received an alert that said that my flight had been changed and I now had a 23-hour layover. I called the airline. It seems the connecting flight time had been changed and it was not taking off an hour before my flight would be arriving. I asked what could be done about it. The young man at customer service told me not to worry. He said, “The airline will issue a voucher for an over night stay in a hotel.”

When I got to Guangzhou I found that was not the case. The complication seemed to be that while I’d booked the flight through one airline, they in turn had booked the final leg of my journey through a subsidiary airline. The flight attendant from the previous leg took me right up to the airline customer service counter of the original airline. When I explained my dilemma, she told me I had to the customer service counter for the airline the ticket was issued through. I was very tired. I was hurting and just wanted to get off my feet. However, I pushed the wheelchair over to the other counter which seemed to be about a million miles away at that time. When I finally got there, I again explained my dilemma. The agent told that since I’d booked through the parent airline, it was their problem. The agent was nice enough to get someone to wheel me back to the first airline’s customer service counter. I again explained my problem to the new agent at the counter. She made a call, went through a door into a back office and came back. I could tell she was upset. She said, “Nobody cares.” I think I was shocked and dumbfounded. I just looked at her and said calmly, “I care”, and I didn’t move. She went back behind the door and came out again with a ticket for me to take an entirely different airline that same day that got me to Zhengzhou in about two hours. What did I learn from that?

Harmony is very important in Chinese culture. It is one of the highest values. Throughout the very frustrating encounters with customer service agents, I maintained my cool. I was pleasant. I never raised my voice or said anything unkind. I even praised the customer service efforts of the ground staff and airplane crew. I let them know I was an appreciative customer. I approached the issue like we were in this together and we could find a solution if we worked together. In the end that is what happened.

I believe one of the reasons foreigners are advised to have a Chinese friend or associate go with us when we have issues with banking, phones, transportation, etc… is that we don’t understand the importance of harmony in the culture. The importance of smiling, remaining courteous and showing that one values the other’s service and point of view cannot be overstated. I didn’t fully understand these things at the time, but their importance was brought home to me very effectively through this experience.

What other cultures have you come into contact with? Or maybe you come from a different culture than the one you currently live in? What differences between cultures have you noticed? What might be effective ways to handle these differences? I’d love to hear from you.




Academics In Asia
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