Monday, January 7, 2008

Flying to Shanghai

This morning I woke up at 4:30 so I could be at the airport in time to check in for my 7:00 flight. I was up so early my toothbrush wasn't even dry from the night before, but I made it as wakefully as I could to check in for my flight. That's when they told me that my flight to San Francisco had been cancelled and I was being rerouted for a direct flight to Shanghai.

So it's 5:30 in the morning on a Sunday, I don't know what happened to the rest of my group, I don't have anyone to call, and I don't have anyone to rendezvous with until I'm already there. My new flight was set to take off at 10:45, so I did what I think anyone would do in my position: curl up in the seats at my gate and take a nap.

Around 8:00 when I was done with my early morning juggling practice Jessica arrived wearing a USAC shirt. And then, an hour after that, Rebekah came, and that made three of us. Rebekah had called our contact from the program and told her about the change of schedule, so we were all set. It worked out really well for us, because the flight was only an hour longer but we avoided the whole flight to and layover in (and, as we found out later, the five hour delay in) San Francisco.

During the flight I had my first cultural experience. I intend to use that term loosely to mean "any behavior that I can't understand." We were a few hours in on our way to China and they came by to check on our drinks. Two seats next to me, a Chinese guy asks for some ice. The Chinese stewardess looks at what he was drinking and said, "Ice? For red wine? Red wine doesn't come with ice. I'm sorry, sir." She said she could give him a little water (to temper his wine with?) and he respectfully took it.

I watched the whole exchange and was completely confused. In America, you can't question people's whims, because unless their action affects other people, they can do whatever they want. There is no right and wrong with personal habits. In China, apparently, they don't have the same ideas. The encounter suggests that there is a cultural judgment associated with every action (or if not every action, way more actions that we care about). After all, everybody knows that you don't put ice in red wine, so why would this guy here buck the trend and implicitly say that the Chinese custom wasn't good enough? That's the way I imagine it would go anyway.

The implications of this difference are interesting. America thinks that thinks are wrong if it hurts other people, this woman seemed to think something is wrong if it isn't already accepted. Each perspective has its benefits, I think. America has more room for innovation, but China has unity, loyalty, and community. America relies on individuals, China relies on society.

This is all guesswork, of course, but I'm encouraged that my perception concurs with what I'm reading in my Understanding Chinese Culture book. I had a second cultural experience today. When we arrived in Shanghai and were waiting to see what was happening with the San Francisco group, the three of us and a fourth girl, Sofia, were all talking about China. I said that I wanted to try to have a conversation with a random Chinese person, and Sofia said that in her experience in New York, Chinese were either really friendly or really cold. Well, I decided to try to talk to the woman sitting next to me, who was probably in her 20s, so I turned to her and said a simple greeting: "Ni hao."

The woman barely looked at me when I said it, smiled a little, and then faced fully forward again. I waited for a second or two, and when she didn't reply, I was about to turn back to Sofia and try to interpret the situation, but the woman finally says in pretty good English, "You only speak a little Chinese, right?" I said yes, and that was that. She faced forward and didn't say anything more.

Sofia said that she told me so, but I'm not convinced that the woman was naturally unfriendly. I probably broke some cultural rule without knowing it. For all I know, men aren't allowed to talk to woman who are by themselves, and I unwittingly sounded like I was trying to pick her up.

Maybe by the time I come back and can understand whatever they were saying over the airport loudspeakers, I'll know more of what I'm doing.

1 comment:

mom said...

Very impressive cultural observation! This kind of skill will help you as the days go by. I especially liked your attempt to interpret what you saw. Your guess at interpreting what you saw will be good fodder for discussion with your cultural insider, won't it?... not to mention saving you embarrassment for all those times you'd be tempted to ask for ice cubes for in your red wine!