What do people understand?
A few years ago an association director took me to dinner at an exclusive Chicago restaurant. Born in Mexico City, with an Hispanic first name, a Jewish last name and full American citizenship, he looked like he stepped out of a Bruce Springsteen song.
When he handed the valet attendant his car key, the valet and another said something to each other in Spanish. My client was mid-sentence when he stopped talking to me. “Excuse me, I need to have a word with these gentlemen,” he said. He addressed them in their language (and his too) and later explained to me that they had said something disparaging about us, and he wanted them “to be more thoughtful and not judge people by the way they looked because in fact we’re all the same.” So there I was in China, relearning the same lessons.
Working in China has been quite eye-opening because I’ve learned the beauty of the Chinese language. Not that I can speak it (beyond ne hao [hello] and xie xie ([x pronounced like sh- for thank you] or understand it, but because the Chinese have been kind enough to translate what I say to what they hear to what that means to them.
Here is an example: When I say “enchanting hospitality” in terms of what a hotel might offer, they say that means things like: We cherish you; you will enjoy personal space and great privacy and security; your event dreams will come true; you will create a personal wonderland for your guests. The beauty and richness of the language amazes me. I have begun to understand that they think in symbols, and as an American, I think in words. Their symbols tell descriptive stories and I’m honored they explain their pictures; my words do not convey the essence in as visually pleasing manner. Theirs is storytelling at its best.
The Chinese I am privileged to work with have taught me much. Though they may prefer not to speak English because some are embarrassed at their accents, they know English. (I’m in their country and dependent on them to speak my language! What’s wrong with that picture?) They ask forgiveness for their “poor” ability to speak to me, and have assistants to translate for them to help me feel more comfortable.
Things, however, are not so different from that night in Chicago. Alone, they dig deep to answer questions and though they may need to repeat several times, it dawns on this American, that they have understood all along.
What do people understand? It is best to remember “to be more thoughtful and not judge people by the way they look because in fact we’re all the same.”