Friday, March 09, 2007

American Hospitality

I just got back from a week-long business trip in the United States. It was a fun, eventful, yet tiring 6 days traveling from Hong Kong to New York City to Boston and all the way back again.

After arriving on the Amtrak Acela train at the Rt. 128 station just south west of Boston, something interesting happened. I lugged my luggage with me into the elevator and pressed the wrong level of the parking structure to get off (for the taxis). After the elevator door opened at floor 2 (the wrong floor), I leaned my head out to look for taxis. Realizing my mistake, i quickly came back in to wait for the next stop. When I came in, I was greeted by 4 complete strangers asking me if they could help me find my way. These people, who were getting back home from a long day, made the effort to aid me in my search for the taxis. They exerted diligent efforts to help me figure out where I wanted to go, asked if they could help carry my luggage for me, and even asked if I needed to use their cell phone. In a 2 minute conversation, I felt that they cared.

In my perspective, however, instead of sincerely thanking these people for their efforts, I gave them a cold shoulder. Even though I acknowledged their aid, I didn't move to be engaging or even that considerate. Instead, I had this unrelenting annoyance towards these people for not minding their own business. Why were they bothering me with help? Thanks but no thanks. I don't need your help.

In retrospect, I know exactly where this annoyance came from. Although people in the US are independent, they are often nice and helpful to strangers. Although there are a few bad apples, most people are very accommodating. This is entirely different compared to my experience in Shenzhen.

When I first moved to the Dongmen area of Shenzhen, the vibrant pedestrian only shopping district, I tried to ask people a lot about where I wanted to go. I would walk up to a group of 3 girls. They were about my age and were having a fun conversation with a lot of fun and laughing. When I walked up to them, saying “excuse me, can you help point me towards [insert location],” they looked at me in a strange contempt. Most people would not answer and would quickly walk away. Others would roll their eyes and speak in a quick and detached way to get rid of me. Sometimes there seemed disgusted and showed it with cold, hateful stares.

Maybe it was me, but I was usually dressed well and didn't look like a creepy guy from the country side who could’ve been a thief. Maybe it was my Chinese, but my mandarin (putonghua) is very standard without any dialect. Although I have had good experiences of people being helpful in Shenzhen, a majority of people have developed a similar sensibility as I displayed in the elevator. Just leave me alone and I’ll do it. I don't need or want to depend on any of you.

I am kind of annoyed with my attitude and hope to change it. I also hope this change sticks and it will ultimately bring a little bit of “American Hospitality” over to China.

However, after talking to a fellow expat in Shenzhen last night, I realized I not only needed to focus on cross-cultural differences (ie cultural shock), but also cultural assimilation/adaptation. Each and everyone of us are becoming a little more Chinese everyday we are here.

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