I came prepared for my first day on the job in Beijing. I had read the guidebooks on China’s business culture and local customs, traditions and behaviours. Having read about the common practice to exchange gifts with new business partners, I had bought beautifully wrapped chocolate totem poles from Purdy’s. As I handed each gift to the young engineers during our first meeting, I explained my understanding of their cultural practice of gift giving. “We don’t do that anymore” was their answer, “that is only for very formal occasions” was another reply as they happily bit into the delicious treat.
I thought I had learned something that day… until I found myself astonished when my book learning on Iraqi culture was erased by our Newcomer family during our first face to face gathering at the Tiede’s house.
The modestly dressed young woman beamed at each man and woman in the room as she shook their hand in greeting. A couple of women even received hugs. Her husband, baby in tow, shook our hands as well, following his wife’s lead. Then he placed his hand over his heart and bowed. When I asked him about the gesture during our second meeting, he explained “it is a show of respect, especially when men and women greet each other.” It was during this second meeting that my eyes were opened a bit further still.
It was their first English lesson. I suggested that they practice their elevator speech, you know, the one where you’re stuck in an elevator with the leader of your company and have 30 seconds to make a good impression… “Very applicable to parties where you meet people for the first time,” I explained. Ehab the brave, gave it his best shot: “My name is Ehab, I am 28 years old, and Ola is my wife. I am a civil engineer.”
“Ok, that’s good, but only 10 seconds have passed, you have another 20 seconds to go.” After I coached him on topics men talk about in our culture, he added:
Ehab: “My hobby is to walk.”
Me: “Everyone walks, that’s not a hobby.”
Ehab: “I like to walk fast, it’s a sport.”
Me: “Ah, you like running? Speed walking?”
Ehab: “No… I think it’s called jog.”
Me: “Now we’re getting somewhere.”
Ola, big smile on her face, had watched her husband struggle trying to talk about himself for 30 seconds. It was her time in the hot seat…
Me: “So Ola, what would you say to people you meet?”
Ola: “Hi I am Ola, I am 25 years old, Ehab is my husband, I have 2 daughters and I like Biology.”
Now it was Ehab’s time to grin.
Me: “Tell me more Ola, what do you Love to do? Any hobbies, passions?”
Ola: “I Like to cook.”
Me: “What type of food do you like to cook? Iraqi food? Turkish food”
Ola: “Cake! And I Like to organize parties, with decorations and balloons and lots of people.”
Me: “So you Love to throw parties, wonderful. What else do you LOVE?”
Ola, throwing her arms wide open, exclaimed: “What do I Love? Well I LOVE my husband!”
As I burst out laughing I realized that although we may have heard and read many things about foreign cultures, religions and behaviors, the young people of this world are reshaping the customs of their people and are slowly erasing the assumptions we carry in our hearts and minds.
– Written by Rose W.