Sunday, December 4, 2011

Communicating in a Cross-Cultural Crisis

Published in the Fall 2011 issue of Verge: Travel with Purpose magazine.

After dining on hotpot in Tianjin, China, my insides were boiling – and it wasn’t just the soup. At some point my purse had been snatched from the back of my chair: a whole weeks’ pay from teaching English to college kids, down the drain. But it was when I realized what else was in my purse -- my apartment keys and my school ID – that my anger turned to dread. The previous year a foreign teacher in my apartment building was stabbed to death when thieves broke in, intent on finding her un-banked cash. I didn't want to be overly dramatic, but I also didn't want to be Tianjin's next headline.

Living abroad can feel like living with a mental illness. One day, skies are radiant blue and you gush, “I could just live here forever!” Next day, you’re cowering in front of the TV for hours on end, lapping up dubbed-over Charles in Charge like it’s comfort food. Culture shock can make a trip to the P.O. feel like navigating the Great Wall, let alone when a real crisis comes at you.

Fortunately for me, a Chinese woman at the next table offered to contact the police. Meanwhile, my husband headed back to our campus apartment to see about getting locks changed.

Within minutes, a police car arrived on the scene, lights all a-flash. I was relieved; my crisis was being taken seriously. Perhaps too seriously, because the officers immediately decided my predicament required more attention than the usual hand-written, on-the-scene report. Instead, I was personally escorted to a crowded interrogation room.

I think in most cases being interrogated in a small room by uniformed men whose language I don’t speak is somewhat unsettling. Especially when I’m not the one who’s committed a crime. But the interviewer’s endless string of irrelevant questions -- Do you speak with a British or American accent? How does your husband grow such a fine beard? Why do you look so fat in your passport picture? – kept even my overworked translator in good spirits. Some cultures consider a good beating around the bush to be inefficient; not this one. Still, I did my best to answer each question clearly and honestly, remembering the value of mianzi, or “giving face” by showing proper respect. In turn, I was given a listening ear, gentle clucks of understanding, and some pretty sweet V.I.P. treatment.

Back at the university, my husband politely reasoned with the night guard – the same guard who notoriously slept bundled in his bed in the guard box, curtains drawn, while on duty. Couldn’t you just call in a locksmith? Isn’t it a good idea to keep the foreign teachers feeling safe? But the guard was adamant that we would be fine. Nothing would happen tonight on his watch. At his wit’s end, my husband asked advice from his English student/interpreter, who suggested an ultimatum. Either the guard must stay awake all night, or have our locks changed.

Within an hour, a new lock was installed on our door.

It was nearly midnight when I returned home via police escort, grateful for the new locks, but exhausted and seriously doubting my choice of how to spend an evening. Gradually, like the melting ooze of oyster sauce, it dawned on me that this was why I’d moved to China. Not necessarily to give the local law enforcement an impromptu English lesson (which I did), but to fully experience a new culture as much as an outsider can, to touch even its underbelly. Sure, I’d lost some money, and a good bit of innocence, but how many people get to brag that they’ve entered a Chinese interrogation room – and lived to tell about it?

Five Rules for Communicating in a Cross-Cultural Crisis

Enlist the help of a native speaker

If ever there's a need for translation, it's when tempers are hot and personal safety is an issue. Don't go it alone, even if you feel like your language studies are coming along well. A native speaker knows the language and the culture.

Show respect for authority

Listen carefully, follow directions, speak kindly – these are all ways to “give face” to an authority figure. Especially in Eastern countries, obvious displays of respect can lead to some powerful guanxi, or a favor-based relationship that will likely benefit you when you most need it.

Keep priorities in focus

Experiment with a barter, a bribe, or an ultimatum in order to get what you think is fair treatment, but remember to weigh in the value of friendship and reputation. Choose battles wisely.

Control emotions

Whether native or foreign, you’re likely to induce eye-rolling if you cry, whine or act paranoid. Chillax a little, and be reasonable with your requests.


Sometimes mis-communications are funny. Sometimes they aren't. In either situation, try to keep a sense of humor and remember that, someday, this whole ordeal is going to make a great story.

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