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Cultural Shock Shocks in Many Ways

Clients come from every corner of the world and each with his/her unique cultural background. Generally we know a little bit about the so-called western culture, which is actually a glimpse of a culture that is different from ours, a little bit of knowledge about the people and their ways of life. When the difference is wider than our expectation, it becomes a shock, a cultural shock, and as translators, we are usually prepared for such shocks. However, when clients come to us, it’s more often than not the clients not us who are shocked.

A truly shocking experience took place at an electrical and mechanical installation site where galvanealed steel plate for the automobile industry was to be made. The enormous zinc pot, which was loaded with zinc and aluminum ingots and energized with high power, was turned into an exotic lake of molten metal. I guess few people have ever had such a view and some workers were so fascinated that they caught a couple of frogs from outside the workshop and, in roaring protests of all the American, German and Japanese technicians, threw them into the pot and saw them die! I’m not sure whether that was a cultural shock, but I was shocked and my client, a young American engineer, was shocked, too. He muttered several days: no respect, no respect!

Cultural shocks may come in different ways. Once a customer, after concluding a business with his supplier in Hangzhou, whispered to me in French: on mange ensemble or pas? Do we have to dine together with them? I knew he was not sure of our dinner culture and reassured him: oui, si tu veut. Mais pas necessaire. Yes, if you wish. But not necessary. I further explained to him: you can either do as Romans do, or do as Chinese do. You choose whichever way you like. He did choose to dine with the suppliers but I don’t think he enjoyed it. Hard as I tried to focus the dialogue on my client, the suppliers always talked to me, leaving my client seated there listening to an irrelevant conversation.

Some cultural shocks may not be shocking but all the same dramatic. People who are familiar with Chinese ways know that Chinese people drink hot water, and always remind their friends not to drink directly when they receive a cup of water from a Chinese host. I, too, don’t take any chance, either ask my clients whether they need chilled water or normal or remind them the water might be hot. Eating Chinese food is also a challenge. When we Chinese prepare chicken or fish, the bones are not removed and sometimes cut up, making it difficult to locate the broken bones. Therefore, its necessary to remind the client to be careful to avoid unexpected hurt. And, with chicken and fish, too, the head and feet, in the case of chicken, are retained. Some clients may tolerated, but sometimes the clients are so scared by the staring eyes or protruding chicken feet, they may refuse to eat the meal.

China is an open country now and the cultural exchange has been quite frequent for the last 30 years. Such cultural shocks are less and less shocking. When you know it, it’s uncomfortable but surely not shocking any more.