Learning How to Adjust in a Foreign Culture

Many years ago an advertising campaign in America attracted millions with a slogan reflecting a typical American cultural value, individualism. “Have it YOUR way” was sung and repeated over and over again for Burger King, emphasizing the fact that anyone could order the restaurant’s food and have it specially prepared to meet their own specific taste. While this would not be too unusual as far as ‘sit down’ restaurants were concerned, it was a big step for a fast food chain which has to produce and package food items quickly for the customer on the go.

And so the American individualistic mindset was reinforced. Now, when something does not go go the customer’s way, the customer asserts his or her American right to have the situation remedied. It is not enough to just get the basic service- there must be complete satisfaction!

Imagine then, how my wife and I felt in China when we ordered a certain color for curtains and then were delivered a different color. The factory had changed the color ‘slightly’ from the sample we were originally shown. We said, “What’s this? This isn’t what we ordered!” They said, “It’s just a minor thing. Don’t worry!”

When I first came to China in 1995, I was treated to a welcome dinner in Beijing. I was in for two surprises. One was that the Chinese food tasted much better in China than what I had eaten before in the States. The other surprise, however, was somewhat distressing. I had been conversing with several people before the food arrived. My mouth was quite dry and I began to look around for the waiter with the ice water. I was more thirsty than hungry, and was growing a little impatient. After all, the ice water is the first thing brought to the table in an American restaurant. I could think of nothing else but that first gulp of cool refreshing water running down my throat and quenching my thirst. “Where is that water?” I anxiously thought.

Then someone came with the glasses. “Finally!” But what was this? There were little green leaves in the glass. My heart sank. I knew I was not going to ‘have it my way.’ Then another person came along with a thermos and poured steaming HOT water into the glasses with the leaves. “It’s green tea,” our hosts said. Now this was new to me. Americans use tea bags. It was a bit of an adjustment to drink it with the leaves and spit out the stems. The hardest adjustment, though, was the fact that I was not getting any ice water.

More than ten years later, I consider myself a green tea lover. I look forward to drinking it before, during, and after a meal at a restaurant in China. It was just that first experience that caught me off guard.

Anyone new to a foreign culture might feel similar when they meet a situation that goes contrary to their expectations. Americans, however, have a tendency to try and fix the situation to their liking. Some will become demanding or complaining. Others will try to come up with an alternative solution rather than deal with what they are given. This has earned some of them the reputation of ‘the ugly American’ in many foreign cultures.

Now I love America. The term, ‘ugly American’ represents a stereotype and is not true of all my countrymen. The same idea may be seen in other nationalities as well. The American, however, tends to exemplify this because his culture has, in a sense, pampered him. There is so much variety of service and goods on the market due to the competitive nature of the economy. This competition has been rapidly developing in the Chinese market as well. Because the American has so much to choose from, and because the competition seeks to win his loyalty, he more often than not gets things ‘his way’. Then he or she goes to a foreign culture and expects the same because of previous conditioning. There is often lacking a sensitivity to others and to the nature of their different way of life.

Therefore I have heard Americans in China barking orders at different Chinese service people as if they were the bosses ordering around their employees. Not all Americans, and not just Americans, but I have heard it.

When I first received that green tea, I was disappointed, but as far as I can remember I do not think I said anything. Perhaps I made a reference to my disillusionment. The ‘ugly American’ would make a loud reference to the disillusionment. “I can’t believe this!” might be accompanied by the challenge, “You mean to tell me you don’t have any ice water?” A superior disdain might come across the face. But most likely at a banquet, these things might just be spoken quietly under breath.

Another ugly way would be to demand that some ice water be brought, even though it will be extra trouble to find ice and boiled water that has already cooled off. There is nothing wrong with making a reasonable request, but the ugly way is to disregard the possible difficulties that might attend the demand.

Sometimes an alternative solution is acceptable, like asking for plain hot water instead of tea. The key is sensitivity. In some situations the foreigner should just take what is given (be it food or service) without having to have things differently to suit his or her desire.

Sensitivity to others is what the world desperately needs. When westerners comes to China, they should understand that things work differently here.

I remember some great frustration I had dealing with a bank in China. I had come during regular business hours to collect money from a check that had just come in. The bank worker told me that I had to come back tomorrow because “the person who handles the checks” was not in. I confess, I was angry! I came a long way to get to that bank, and I needed my money. I followed the rules, I came during the right business hours and I expected to get the money without a hitch. Why couldn’t any other bank workers handle the checks? This was the way we would do it in America.

I had to remember that this was a different system. I had to remember that if I complained I would get no sympathy from the bank worker because he would have no idea why I was bothered. I also had to be sensitive that this could happen to anybody and probably commonly happened to the Chinese. I would be pretty ugly if I made a show of my frustration and anger. I can’t say that I left with a halo around my head, and my face was probably grimacing red! But it is better to walk away quietly seething than to shout and stomp like a spoiled king. Usually such an incident is not enough to cause such frustration or anger, but when it combines with many other ‘cultural adjustments’ it tends to intensify things.

Sometimes the Chinese worker can get frustrated with the foreigner because of the foreigner’s desire for special treatment. Sensitivity is again the key here. If the foreigner will smile and speak very politely, the worker will usually be happy to comply if possible. A smile can change everything. It is hard to speak rudely when smiling and it is hard for the one receiving the smile to remain aloof.

We moved from one city in China to another. Before moving into our new apartment, the landlord had told us that everything was fixed up and ready to move into. To him it was, but to us it was far from ready. After experiencing many disappointments, the build-up was just too much and we ended up complaining to him that everything was wrong. He took great offense at this, because he thought we would become friends, and friends just bring up wrongs casually and strategically in friendly conversation. On the other hand, we felt justified in coming right out and complaining because we felt we had paid good money to get things the way we wanted. It seems that neither he nor we were very sensitive to what the other was experiencing. We had great setbacks because of the situation, but he had also gone through many headaches to do what he could.

Sensitivity is the way to stop being ugly and start being beautiful. While the world culture becomes more and more ‘me-centered’ and caters to the consumer as ‘king’, it is extremely important that the one visiting overseas steps out of himself to see what he or she may look like in the eyes of the foreign culture. He or she should not step on the airplane without understanding that the system will be different and that the people will act and respond according to that system. He or she should step on the airplane with this resolve: that “I will not willingly do anything to treat those in my host company as if they owe me anything.” Then he or she should keep alert, knowing that flexibility is a must, and that many situations will be challenging.

With these ideas in mind, the experience will be more pleasant for all involved, if not an adventure of sorts.

The Bible says, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” If both sides can practice sensitivity towards the other, that is half the battle in overcoming cultural barriers. It is not a bad practice to have with others in our own respective cultures as well!

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