Saturday, May 14, 2011

Know where you are, and Know where you're going

Gloucester Road in HK
During one of my previous trips to China, an "interesting" story unfolded on a night out with my colleagues. I was visiting the city Shenzhen for a couple of days to manage a project that we were doing in our manufacturing facility there.

Shenzhen is a huge city located in the southern part of China, only an hour away from Hong Kong. In the late seventies of the previous century, Shenzhen was only a small village. In 2008 however, the official population was registered at a staggering number of 14 million. (And according to some, the unofficial number is significantly higher)

To celebrate the successful closure of our project, me and my colleagues decided to go out for dinner and drinks after work. We took a taxi to Shekou, which is a part of Shenzhen that is about an hour away from our facility in Futian. (Depending on traffic)

After spending half of the night in a restaurant, and the other half in a bar, we decided that it was time to end the night and go home. My hotel was located near our facility in Futian and because of the long distance between and Shekou and Futian, we decided that one of my colleagues would join me in the Taxi to explain the driver where to go.

Most of the Chinese taxi drivers do not speak any English, and even if you tell them the name of your hotel, they probably will not understand as most hotel names have both a Chinese name as an English name. The Sheraton for example translates (phonetically) to ShiLaiDong. (I don't know the real Chinese translation unfortunately)

However, it was a late night and we had a couple of drinks, and instead of joining me in the Taxi, my colleague told the Taxi driver which hotel I was staying (in Chinese), shut the door, waved me goodbye, and off I went....

"Well..", I thought ".. at least he knows where he should take me."

So I wasn't worrying too much, and enjoying my nightly ride through the city. After a while though, it appeared to me that I started to see the same buildings appear, and then another time, and another time. Apparently the taxi driver didn't know where to go and was driving through the city in circles hoping for me to tell him where to go.

I didn't have any street name or address with me, and also my Blackberry (which has google maps) didn't work in China, so that wasn't of much use either. Luckily I have been to Shenzhen before, and my visual memory never fails on me, so I (kind of) had a hunch where we should be going.

So with giving some suggestions with my hands and combined with English (which he didn't understand anyway) I pointed him where to go. "Yes yes, left here...right here". We didn't make it directly to the hotel, and we halfway got stuck into a very dark and scary neighbourhood where even the taxi driver didn't want to stop his car, but in the end I saw the 28 story Sheraton hotel rising up on the horizon and I pointed towards it, after which the Taxi driver and I smiled to each other.

"Finally we made it!"

When we reached the hotel, it appeared to me that I didn't have enough money to pay the taxi driver. I had some RMB (Chinese Yuan) money with me, but because of the long "sight-seeing" tour around the city, I was short of about 10 RMB from the total taxi fare. While looking through my wallet I found a 10 euro bill, and just gave it to him instead of the 10 RMB (which is about 1 euro).

He looked at the bill, and after a moment started to smile at me. He probably understood that he just earned his daily income by just one taxi ride. Anyway we had an interesting experience together and I didn't mind paying him this extra bit. All together he gave me a good sightseeing tour around the city!

So to make a long story short: Always know where you are, and where you are going to in China.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Dining Etiquette

Going out for dinner is always a comfortable way to spend time with colleagues and friends in Hong Kong. As I live alone in Hong Kong, but don't like to eat alone, I try spend my dinners with friends, colleagues and business partners. During these dinners I carefully watched the table manners, as most of the etiquette are different than what we are used to in Europe.

Malaysian Cuisine
The dinner in Hong Kong is considered to be the highlight of the day and this moment should be spent efficiently as time is always running short in this busy city. And because of the limited time, food in restaurants is served within record times. Before you know, your order is already on the table, cooked or fried and ready to be eaten.

The great thing I like about dining in Asia is that all the food is there to be shared by everyone. Unlike in Europe, where you order your own dish that is supposed to be eaten all by yourself, in Hong Kong (and the greater Asian region) all the food is shared by everyone. Every person on the table looks at the menu, and will suggest something of their interest to the others.

When the food is served, it will be placed in the middle of the table and everyone is free to take a portion. Please take care that you don't use your own chopsticks to take the food, as not everyone appreciates this. Usually there are "shared" chopsticks on the table which you can use to take the food and put it on your plate. In most places you will get a bowl and a small plate. I have always been wondering whether there is a real difference in purpose, but most people use both the plate as the bowl for different purposes. (And yes, needless to say, usually they have no forks and knives, only chopsticks... so you should better get some practice!)

Chinese Hotpot
Tea is an important part of the dining procedure. In all restaurants you are served hot tea and I noticed that it has two different purposes. In some food canteens, I never see people actually drink the tea, but they use it to clean the chopsticks before eating. When I ask about this I usually get the reply that they are not sure whether the sticks are really clean so they take the benefit of the doubt and use the tea to clean it. In restaurants, the tea is usually for drinking, but if I want to be sure, I just wait and pay close attention to what my Asian friends are doing. You never pour tea into your own glass though. It is a common rule that you serve tea for the others, and wait until someone else fills your cup. When you are a guest however, there is no need for you to pour tea for the others.

Dining with your boss or another person that has a higher "rank" I noticed that you should pay attention to some basic rules. First of all, the person highest in rank, should sit at the position of the table that is as far away from the door as possible. The chair that is positioned the closest towards the door is for the person that pays the bill. Besides the location, always let him or her take a look at the menu first and choose some dishes. When the food is served, also wait for this person to either start first, or make a suggestion to start eating.

Having Lunch on the Street. Excellent Food!
Whenever I bring friends from Europe to a dinner in Hong Kong, I always tell them not to worry about anything. Although there are do's and dont's as I described above, the local people are very flexible. They understand that you are a foreigner, that using chopsticks can be difficult, and that you don't always know the rules.

So just relax, enjoy the company and furthermore, enjoy the excellent food that Asia has to offer!