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The Danger of First Impressions

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I had an experience the other week that left me quite perplexed.  While Justin and I were standing in line waiting to order some street food, another foreign woman was standing in front of us waiting for her order to be completed.  She was constantly hovering over the chef, pointing at different ingredients or sauces, and just overall not in a pleasant mood.  When it came time to pay the chef asked “一起吗?”  (yi qi ma) meaning “all together?” to which the woman responded “不一起!” (bu yi qi) “no” .

The chef finished bagging up the food, and the customer handed her a 20rmb bill, enough to cover the cost of all 3 food items she ordered.  The chef then asked again “一起吗?”.  At this point the woman got really cross and yelled, “不一起!” then proceeded to take out her phone and use the calculator to type in the price of each item, showing that each one was a different price, indicating that they each contained different ingredients and were not all the same.

She had a friend with her of the same nationality, and they both started speaking in their native language (something Slavic I think).  She obviously didn’t speak much Chinese, so I figured she must speak English, since if you are living and or traveling in China and speak neither Chinese nor English, you are pretty much screwed as far as communication goes.

At this point I realized the miscommunication; the foreign woman must have mistook the meaning of 一起, which means together, with 一样 (yi yang), which means the same.  She did order three different items, but was indeed paying for them all together.  Trying to relieve the obvious frustration from both sides of the conversation, I asked the foreign woman if she needed help, to which I received an unrecognizable response, which leads me to believe maybe she doesn’t speak much English either.

By now she is yelling at the poor woman working the cart in her very limited and extremely poorly pronounced Chinese, while the chef calmly tried to understand what she wanted.  She finally gets her food, pays for it all as one purchase (the chef now having completely given up on any type of communication), which was the entire meaning behind the question she was being asked, and storms off with her friend.  We step up to order, and the woman is clearly flustered and confused by the experience.  I ordered quickly in Chinese trying to give the woman a positive experience interacting with foreigners.

We got our food and paid, no problem, yet as we walked away I had this lingering resentment towards my fellow foreigner, as she clearly did not understand the potential ramifications of her behavior:  the negative stereotype.  This is the danger of first impressions, and it is constantly in the back of my mind while living and traveling in foreign countries.  The danger is even more real in countries like China where the locals don’t have the opportunity to interact with many foreigners.

It is always important to have positive interactions with the local people.  Everyone is entitled to a bad day, but remember, they don’t know that you are having a bad day, or know you as a person, and it is because they don’t know you that your one interaction is so crucial.  As much as I would urge the street vendor not to let this one experience define her view of foreigners, how can she when she will most likely only meet a handful of foreigners in her entire life.  The truth is, she will most likely judge you, and form an opinion about all foreigners in her country based on your actions.


To the Chinese street food chef:

I sincerely hope that you don’t take this one negative experience with a foreigner and use it to define all of us.  I know I certainly have days when, after people have pointed at me laughing and making jokes, or spitting as I walk by on the street, or drivers that purposefully cut me off or come up behind me and slam on their horn as I ride my bike, I have to remind myself that not all Chinese are rude, or disgusting, or mean, that in fact, most of them are extremely nice, kind people.

Even I have to remind myself to leave the stereotyping behind.  One bad experience, or even a few, does not define an entire category of people, animals, things, etc..  I hope that you will look past this one negative interaction, and realize that we are all human, and everyone is entitled to have a bad day.

To my fellow expats and travelers:

You are a guest in someone else’s country, so please:

Stay Humble

You are navigating a culture that is most likely immensely different from your own.  Yes, I said DIFFERENT, not right, not wrong, just different.  The truth is, you aren’t going to change an entire population’s behavior just because it bothers you, or seems wrong, or backwards.  Learn to adapt, and learn to apologize because you will make mistakes, whether in language or customs, and there will be many, many, miscommunications, and I hate to break it to you, but those will be your fault.  Thankfully, an apology, often combined with the fact that you are obviously foreign and therefore probably clueless, is often all that’s needed to dispel rising tensions.

Stay Kind

A smile can soothe many a frustrating encounter.  It is not the locals’ responsibility to speak your language, and it is not their fault for not understanding you when you are trying to speak theirs.  It’s ok to get frustrated with yourself, but never take it out on the locals, who are most likely trying to help you in the best way they can.

Keep a Sense of Humor

Laughter cures many woes.  Keep you reflections positive, have a laugh about how badly you failed to order your desired dish at a restaurant, or got taken to the complete wrong side of town by your taxi driver.  What is frustrating now, will make the BEST stories later.

Have you had any travel woes or miscommunication errors?  How did you deal with them?


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