Long Term Tourists and Their Ideas of Cultural Supremacy

Thursday, April 23, 2009 6:31
Posted in category Uncategorized

Yesterday, while having coffee with another member of the Shanghai halfpat community, we were discussing the fact that the bar was rising in China. That for a foreigner to land in China, hole themselves up in serviced apartments, drink at the local pub, and succeed was getting more difficult.

It was ironic that we were discussing this as I had been dealing with an issue of an American in Shanghai who left that a member of my staff had somehow failed to respect his culture, or communicate in an appropriate manner. to quote:

it is very difficult to understand her because of her inability to express herself in English. She has an acceptable vocabulary but uses words inappropriately without comprehending their usage and cultural meaning. Kindly note her last phrase in her email to me. It is apparent that she has an issue with me and certainly it reveals itself clearly in this note. As with most Chinese, this issue will continue to expand, until she fully gains complete control of the situation and dominates it to her own advantage and to suit her own purpose.

I certainly am aware of her efforts to improve your organization’s strength, focus and contributions to Shanghai and indeed to China. But I would respectfully suggest that when she deals with native-speakers, her written words are carefullu monitored so that the cultural divide does not create an obstacle to your goals and objectives.

That in CHINA, where the national language is MANDARIN, that he felt she (Chinese) has somehow failed to communicate with him (America), or had an obligation to when he himself (after 7 years in China) has a level of Chinese that is passable as a survival level…

So, I thought I would use his words as the foundation for a lesson in cross cultural communication, and how to succeed in China.

As an American in China, I have come to accept if I want to live here, that it is important to understand that some of the things I hold near and dear to me as an America DO NOT JIVE here, and that there are things I need to learn and respect about China’s.  There are going to be misunderstandings, and I have them all the time, but to believe that a Chinese person (or group) should somehow leap hurdles to make me feel comfortable I still find uncomfortable.

However, while experiencing Chinese fall all over themselves to compliment me, or make me feel comfortable (largely something in their mind), what I am growing more contempt for is when foreigners EXPECT this to happen… or worse, feel that some standard wasn’t met when it doesn’t.

That Chinese people should speak in clear English, be considerate of their culture, and make their stay here as un-Chinese as possible… as if that comes with the passport stamp.

But it doesn’t, and in fact, I think it is high time that foreign residents of China start understanding this.  That not everything that goes wrong here is because “they” have done something.  That “they” are out to get them. Or that it was their fault that “they” did not understand your instructions.

Speaking the language, or at the very minimum respecting the language and bringing a translator, is a must… and that wil never change.  Sure, you may have a BD manager for a factory who can speak on behalf of the management, but that does not mean that they are translating for your benefit, nor does it mean that the translator is experienced enough with your product/ process to know how to fully explain the nitty gritty details.  You need to have a way to do that.

Culturally.  china is a complex country, and while the Chinese are a friendly people, there are some strong cultural undercurrents for how relationships are built and communications take place. misunderstandings will take place, regardless of how hard both parties try to avoid them, but to blame the Chinese culture for the misunderstanding while standing on Chinese ground is not an honest assessment of the problem… nor will it get you anywhere.

Why I feel it is important to post what may seem obvious to some, is that when I think of all the things I have seen go wrong on projects, in factories, or in relationships in China, by far and away the greatest issue is the fact that the foreign party did not fully respect what is going on here.

  • Managers hire staff and fail to understand how to effectively train, manage, and retain them.
  • Firms continually set up suppliers in China, and fail to manage them appropriately.
  • Investment funds fail to understand the fundamental dynamics of China’s “market” economy

There are different rules here, and while it may be possible to manage a firm without learning a single word of the language, that model is one on the way out.  Firms must hire and empower managers who are open to culture/ language before sending them to China, and those on their own need to keep this in mind as well, or both risk failures or product, process, or business.

For the person who I mentioned above. In the end, it was ultimately that persons inability to communicate effectively in China that lead to the understanding, and in his departure from the program.  It was not an easy decision to make by any means, but it was clear that this person’s ability to effectively understand the rules of the game and communicate were a hurdle that could not be overcome.

Both comments and pings are currently closed.

14 Responses to “Long Term Tourists and Their Ideas of Cultural Supremacy”

  1. Gerry Z says:

    April 23rd, 2009 at 8:13 am

    I assent most of things you discussed. It bugs me too when expats are high-maintenance folks over the local’s English. Well, never thought this could be the cultural supremacy…

    Having said this, after reading the guy’s note again it seems to me he was just suggesting that the girl could use some more professional business communication English for these kinds of correspondence. Given English is and will still be the most widely used business language in the world, I always suggest co-workers, be native or non-native speakers, to write and speak professionally. You wouldn’t believe how amateur some native speakers’s emails are.

  2. Kai says:

    April 23rd, 2009 at 8:15 am

    Good post.

  3. Craig says:

    April 23rd, 2009 at 9:29 am

    Long Term Tourists? We are all long-term tourists. China does not permit immigration for ordinary foreigners. Invest a few mil and you can get a green card, though, depends on where.

  4. Rich says:

    April 23rd, 2009 at 9:48 am


    There are a few other emails prior to this where references to not understanding American culture are mentioned, and not being communicating properly in the context of American culture.

    I agree that on some level he is trying to help, but I would also say that in the emails to her (not including me) his tone is quite different as well.


  5. Bill says:

    April 23rd, 2009 at 9:50 am

    I think “appropriate accommodation” should be the norm when dealing with issues of non-native speakers and writers of English and Chinese, both written and spoken. Please note it is “accommodation” and “appropriate”, not one or the other.

    When I speak or write in English or Chinese, I try (not always successfully) to consider the reader/audience what is appropriate. But in a mixed audience, I may have to repeat – for both audience – just to make sure the communication is clear.

  6. Rich says:

    April 23rd, 2009 at 9:52 am


    Sure, we are all legally LT tourists, but I meant it in a figurative sense. i.e. LT tourist live here for 5, 7, 15 years and speak little of the language, know little of the city outside where the western markets/ bars/ restaurants are, etc.

    Extreme example of this is that I once had a conversation with a woman who had been in Shanghai 3 years and did not know where Xujiahui was. Had lead a completely encapsulated lifestyle.

    That being said, there are a few foreigners who are granted Chinese nationality. Very Very few, and the one I know of I believe interview Map during the revolution.


  7. Ma Chor Guan says:

    April 24th, 2009 at 3:54 am

    Sadly this applies to the vast majority of expats who are here. Generally expats are aggressive, don’t speak particuarly good Chinese (even the ones who have been to University) from the cultural aspect of the language, tend to be dismissive of Chinese staff and do not seek to integrate into Chinese culture other than picking up chicken girls. (50% of the total). The expats who succeed tend to be more humble and do make an effort. I’d put it at no more than 1 in 100. One just has to take a look of the vast majority of English language blogs that purport to be about China to see how appalling the English language speaking culture is here. But not you Rich!

  8. Steve C. says:

    April 24th, 2009 at 12:55 pm

    Sadly we are exporting the very same lack of respect that we in the USA suffer from. In China they care for their elders within the family… here we send them out seeking the lowest bid for their care. Our entire society is collapsing in the past few generations and as long as we all have enough dollars we could care less about others, the planet or other cultures. If they dont move as fast as we do, if they dont think as we do then they need to “change”. I really dont like that word much at all. I applaud you for honouring a different culture and society, it is one of the reasons I love your site.

  9. KV says:

    April 24th, 2009 at 9:18 pm

    Hi, thanks for good blog and this is all-around good entry. You don’t fall to the common pit of being apologist either in this entry, something I do hate in Asian long-time-wanna-be-culturally-assimilated-expats. Sorry for the outburst. Anyhow, there is something that I wanted to comment:

    “but to blame the Chinese culture for the misunderstanding while standing on Chinese ground is not an honest assessment of the problem… nor will it get you anywhere.”

    I want to ask you about exception to this, when “blaming” is indeed in place in a sense. 🙂

    How is the situation in China, Chinese when it comes to asking someone did he/she understand your guidance, rules. I live in Thailand and here most non-apologist expats really hate (maybe too strong word) the unfortunate fact that there is no real way to really make sure that someone understood your tips, guidance or rules as the “Thai culture” says that to superiors/people over you in the ladder, they must always be answered “yes”. Even if you have no idea what you are talking about, you by cultural learning always say “yes, i understood” or even what happens when you ask a way to somewhere, everyone answers they know where that place is and will give you directions, which might end up being totally wrong but you are never supposed to say “no, i dont know” or “no, i did not understand”.

    What is the Chinese culture regarding this very real and potential problem that exists in Thailand? Is it similar?

  10. Rich says:

    April 24th, 2009 at 10:23 pm

    Ma Chor Guan/ Steve/ KV.

    Thanks for your comments (at compliments).

    To wrap up a few of the statements you have each made, I think a humble and honest approach to learning a culture is the best approach (not sure I qualified for either myself), but what is also needed is just healthy respect.

    I have learned a lot through close friends, coworkers, and observing humanity while in China, and every day is a learning experience. An experience that requires teaching/ learning.

    KV – in answering your question, all I can say is that through my time I have learned a couple of the key tells about the Chinese and their culture, however I can “read” my friends/ coworkers much better than I can read strangers. I honestly do not distinguish in many cases, but I read based on the situation. Am I meeting a friend, a business leader, or a government official. Each setting has a very different culture surrounding it, and while a good understanding of the “Chinese” culture is important in each case, it is equally more important to understand and respect the “culture” of the situation you are in.

    I have not spent much extended time in Thailand, but on the face of it, so not sure how to compare the two.


  11. Paul Cambre says:

    April 25th, 2009 at 8:48 am

    I am sorry but while there are obvious areas of your post that I agree with (cultural sensitivity, learning a foreign language) I do think that is important that if some one claims to speak a language and use it in an occupational setting then said person should be able to do so. These are not beginners we are talking about but people who are hired based on their ability to speak a language. Maybe I am being hyper-critical but maybe what we need here is more criticism of the English level in China. Let me clarify, I don’t expect Chinese people to speak English and I rarely speak English with them unless they are a) adamant to the point that I will accomplish nothing unless I speak English with them b) they actually speak fluent English. My point is, the English level here is so shoddy at times (and I mean in professional environments where the English level should be higher) that it puts other Asian countries to shame. I don’t care if Chinese people learn English and in fact I am much more concerned about foreigners who live and visit China being able to speak Chinese, but if I hire a Chinese person or work with one and they say they speak English then they better speak it and speak it well. I have spent many years of my life learning Chinese now just so that I can be reassured that I myself actually speak at a level that is fluent and takes in to account culture and would thus get me a job. However, I would love to see a sign in Shanghai that said “Only Chinese spoken in this premises.” At least all foreigners would know prior to entering to either bring a translator or their A-game Chinese and not be frustrated upon leaving bc the service sucked because the waiter/waitress couldnt understand them.

  12. Beijing Sounds says:

    April 25th, 2009 at 8:00 pm

    Rant well put and greatly needed.

    I do empathize with the plight of the expat business manager surrounded by those who want to please, or even just practice their English. The peculiarity of many foreigners’ working environments makes it difficult to acquire a grasp on the spoken language, even residing in country. For those whose language acquisition abilities made a clean escape during the teenage years, I will even assert that we should grant Mandarin-study waivers for their years here. No sense in making language study punitive.

    But that waiver would be granted ONLY on the condition that they maintain utter humility when it comes to communication. And somehow humility can, as you’ve put it so well, quickly blow away with the spring breeze when aforementioned linguistically challenged executive comes to expect rather than appreciate the language assistance they rely on every day.


    PS: Paul Cambre I thought I kinda got the point until you were expecting the wait staff to speak English well or not at all (?!) — destined for disappointment I’m afraid

  13. Rich says:

    April 25th, 2009 at 9:27 pm


    If a Chinese person works for EYI (for example), is there an reasonable expectation that the accountant should speak fluent English?

    They look at Chinese receipts, they are auditing Chinese books, they are speaking to Chinese accountants.

    The only reason they would need to speak English would be either (1) it is the EYI company policy or (2) to speak to an expat who cannot speak Chinese.

    So, if that is the case, how reasonable is it to expect them to speak fluent English?

    Second, if we take Beijing Sounds example of wait staff, at Element Fresh, then I can understand that the person needs to be able to capable enough to take an order.

    However, is this something that on should reasonably expect across the city where wait staff are more than likely from inner parts of China, not college educated, and are having to learn their English on the job (assuming it is their first big city restaurant job).

    There is a great video on Cotton Ding – owner of Cottons- on this point


  14. Rich says:

    April 25th, 2009 at 9:33 pm

    Beijing Sounds.

    Language waiver with the precondition of humility.

    I think their is a better chance of finding wait staff in Inner Mongolia with fluent English before the humility end is upheld 🙂

    Seriously though, I have known plenty of people who are quite content in the White Ghetto. Their companies pay for it too! amazing villas (in compounds), drivers (good English), etc. After a couple of years they leave, and that is that. Some manage to enjoy the “uniqueness” of it all, while others don’t.. really really don’t… and that is when the issues surface.