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Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Dealing with Bias in China and Beyond

I expected to face a lot of bias when I came to China. Being an American at a time when America can easily be viewed as a warlike aggressor, I came here prepared to face a little bias. I came here expecting the warmth and kindness that I experienced when here briefly in 1987 to be somewhat cooled. To my surprise, it's as fervent as ever. I am the subject of bias day after day, but it's the kind of bias I enjoy facing. It's unfair, I know, but for some reason people are inclined to treat me better than I deserve to be treated--or perhaps with the kindness that every stranger should receive in this world.

Today at lunch, a friend from another Asian nation was telling me that in his opinion, Americans and Europeans seem to get treated with unusual politeness over here and he couldn't figure out why. I was surprised and hadn't really noticed the discrepancy (just not paying attention). Immediately after explaining this, we got up to leave and the restaurant staff all started smiling and nodding at me. Some who were sitting eating their own meal stood up to bid me farewell and waived goodbye. They made me feel like family. He shook his head. "They never look at me that way here," he said. "It's even worse than I thought."

To be fair, I had been to that restaurant twice before and had shown appreciation for their kindness--but the kindness began on day one. I got there for a late lunch after they had shut down. They could have been bureaucratic and sent me away hungry, but they explained the situation and said I could eat what was left, which I gladly did. I left a hefty tip, too--something you're not supposed to do and something that doesn't always get accepted, but they at least got the message that I appreciated their flexibility.

I think being almost 2 meters tall helps. I'm a curiosity, one that speaks bad Chinese but at least tries, and many Chinese locals really seem to appreciate that. The restaurant, by they way, is one of the best places for a good, inexpensive lunch on the Bund. It's called Manko and is hidden away on the second floor of the Golden Financial Tower on Yan'An Street right between the main drag on the Puxi side of the Bund and the Waldord Astoria. Financial business people eat there so I expect food safety to be high and I've felt great after all my meals there. What amazes me is that for 18 RMB, about $2.60, they bring you 7 to 8 different items and they are all good. You can't do better than that even risking crazy little places on the street.

Back to the problem of bias. We humans are loaded with bias in how we approach others. Sometimes bias reflects sound experience and helps us summarize large stores of information effectively, but other times it is wildly incorrect. It's something we need to be open to when we confront new people. Consider your attitudes and biases when you confront a beggar, for example, and ponder how that reflects on who you are. That's part of the profound message of King Benjamin in his ancient discourse that still amazes me with its wisdom and literary power. Do the same when dealing with someone of a different faith, even a faith you consider weird like, oh, the Mormons, if you're not one (and perhaps a fortiori if you are). Sometimes our biases blind us to the truth or to opportunities to connect and love someone that could be a friend. If you're reading this here in Shanghai, maybe your biases are making you treat me too kindly--but don't fear, I'm willing to accept that. No hard feelings!

OK, one more example. Tonight my Big Dreaded Language Adventure was returning the yinshuiji (the water machine) that wasn't quite working right from day one when my wife bought it. I've never used these before except to get a drink or two in someone else's office, and didn't dare try to remove the big blue water tank until it was empty. That took a couple weeks. I think their policy is returns have to happen within one week. I wasn't concerned because I could dispense water from it, but the hot water feature didn't work and my wife wanted me to return it. Well, OK, I'll eventually give it a try, I said to myself, but I expected failure. And I also expected language failure because service people in busy stores usually don't speak English and aren't all that great at speaking slowly. So tonight I had the empty cylinder and was ready for the dread task. There was a big line at customer service and things were popping busy at my local E-Mart. But the customer service lady understood the issue, asked a few questions that I pretended to answer (simple enough that I think I understood her--hurray!), and then bingo, she took me over into the store and gave me a new yinshuiji. She also kindly told me that next time I had trouble, I needed to [unintelligible], to which I nodded my head knowingly. So here I am with a fully functional water machine. Life is sweet, just like that busy customer service woman. I know she could easily have been too busy and used the official rules to turn me away. Was I the victim of undeserved bias? Yeah, I think I was. At least for tall Americans, this is such an awesome country.

Tallness does come with a price, though. If you go to Manko's, duck. Duck a lot. There are several places where the ceiling is only maybe 5 feet 8 inches tall. My second time there I got a nice bruise entering. But I smiled and told them it was nothing. When it comes to international relations, sometimes you take it on the chin, but most of the time it's the forehead.

4 comments:

Openminded said...

You make me want to visit China now!

Faith said...

haha, write more about China please! I can't get enough of it. Feeling so good after reading.

I'm sure you've got all these "bias" also because you are really nice and polite to the Chinese. Thank you. You deserve the bias. :)

proud daugher of eve said...

I wonder if it's the hospitality instinct at work. Or perhaps in-group, out-group dynamics. You're visibly a guest or an Outsider so you get the super-polite behavior. We had some of that in Japan. Once, when we were visiting Kyoto, we earnestly explained to the owner of a small restaurant that my sister was vegetarian and asked what on the menu she could have. He did his best to help, then my husband and I ordered the sukiyaki, which is a meat dish. He made a bunch of negative gestures and statements and we kept assuring him it was OK, that we did eat meat. It turns out he was trying to tell us he was out of beef and he actually went out and bought some for us! We felt so bad and were very profuse in our thanks. It's awesome when people are so kind when you're in a strange place, but sometimes it can be awkward.

Tracy Hall said...

My cousin's sister-in-law has had the opposite experience in Shanghai: people are generally rude to her because they take her for a low-ranking servant (rather than a rich American). I imagine you'll meet her in a few weeks when they return from their summer in Utah.

http://www.circustales.com/2011/02/10/mistaken-identity/