Thursday, October 27, 2011

Culture Differences - My Personal Experience in Malaysia

Everyone that has lived or travelled in Europe knows that even though Europe is a reasonably small continent, so many different cultures exist next to each other. We have the Germans who are punctual and accurate, we have the Italians who are passionate and outgoing, we have the French who are Romantic, and so on and so on.

Although it seemed to me that these differences were very normal, it never occurred to me that in Asia you also have these kind of cultural differences until I lived and travelled here. One example of the differences became obvious to me when I travelled to Malaysia recently to manage an IT implementation project.
Kuala Lumpur
The project lasted for two weeks, and in the middle of the implementation, we encountered a serious problem with a new fiber-optic Internet line in our office. The result of the problem was that there was no connection possible between our Malaysia office and our worldwide network. We discovered the problem in the morning, just after arrival to the office and immediately called our IT business partner who was responsible for the line. They came reasonably quick, but after an hour of two doing troubleshooting, they said:

"OK, it's not easy to fix. Let us first have some lunch and then we will think about how to solve it".

At first I thought that I perhaps didn't hear his words correctly. Did he really want to have lunch now, while the office has no network, and leave the staff here being unable to work? But then I heard that everybody agreed, including the office management, so we went for a 1,5 hour lunch break, and had very tasty Malaysian food.

Still surprised about this action, I thought to myself that such a thing would have never happened in Hong Kong. For the average person in Hong Kong, time is considered to be most precious, and as there is not much free time besides work and sleep, people don't want to spend unnecessary time waiting for something. The same counts for companies as well. If there is a problem, it should be fixed as soon as possible.

The great Malaysian food we had while I was worrying
about the internet line.
For example; The average time that a Hong Kong person spends in a restaurant is about 30 minutes. If the food is not served within 5 minutes after ordering, people start to get annoyed.

Another example is when people are going up and down in a lift, they will press the "close door" button immediately after they enter. They don't have the time to wait for your "lazy" ass to walk in the elevator, so if you are not fast enough getting in, the door will be shut right before your nose and you have to wait for another one.

I have that experience, yes.. a 70 year old lady pushed so hard and quick on the button that I didn't stand a chance...and she looked at me from the other side of the door while it closed in front of me for the last few centimeters..

There are lots of other examples I can make, but I think I made my point, Hong Kong people are always busy, and they do not want to spend unnecessary time. (Which is not a bad thing by the way.) So when I informed our headquarters in Hong Kong that our network connection was broken, and that the whole crew, including our staff, decided to go on a lunch break first, you can imagine how the reaction was. (Luckily the team was able to fix the problems quickly when they returned from lunch.)

During my two week stay I discovered more of these acknowledging moments that the Malaysian culture is quite different from Hong Kong. The pace, the action, everything goes with a certain smoothness, that I have not experienced in Hong Kong, ever. Whatever happens, there is another day tomorrow. And luckily it's always summer in Malaysia!

For people that have not been here, I would say, you can compare it with the Greek doing a project for Germans... then I think you know what I mean..

However,  I must admit, there is a positive side about the way the Malaysian people take on their daily pace of life. They are so relaxed but also friendly and helpful as well. I guess they must have a lower amount of health problems related to stress too. So... I recommend any overworked HK expat or local to stay there a few weeks. You'll feel reborn!

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Commuting in Hong Kong

As of today I have been officially living and working in Hong Kong for one month! Since my start here the weeks have been so busy that already this month passed before I realized it, so it is about time that I continue my blog here.

Since the beginning of September I have been a regular Hong Kong commuter on the MTR. MTR? ... Yes, sorry for outsiders I mean Metro. MTR stands for mass transport railway, and is the name of the company that services the metro in Hong Kong. However, the word MTR is so commonly used that it replaced the word metro, so don't be surprised that if you ask about the "metro", most people don't understand what you are talking about.

The MTR railway system is operational since 1979 and currently includes more than 200 km of railway with about 150 stations. It is one of the most popular ways of transportation, as it is fast, efficient and convenient. On the main lines during the day, a new train arrives every 2 minutes(!) so there is no need to rush down when you see a metro waiting. The next one is always coming very soon.

That the MTR is one of the most popular ways of transportation became clear to me as soon as my first working day when I had to travel to work. After leaving my apartment I walked down to the MTR which is about 5 minutes away. Going down the MTR I noticed that it was not so busy as I was expecting. Only 3 or 4 people waiting for every entrance door. However, when the train arrived and the doors opened, a shiver was going through my spine... Inside there were so many people that there was hardly room for all those people inside, let alone for the rest that was waiting outside on the platform to go in.

A usual picture during the rush hour
Hoping for better luck I decided to wait for the next train, but this one was not different from the first, so I decided to follow the rest of the HK locals and push myself in until there was only 1 cm between me and the door which (fortunately) closed without grabbing me. I told myself I had to survive at least 6 stops (the station I needed to exit for my work), and luckily I did.

After a few mornings I concluded that the trains were busy every day, so I accepted the idea that I had no choice but to feel like a sardine in a can. (the one you can buy in the supermarket).

I also discovered that there are some "metro-rules" when taking an MTR journey;

Be quiet and focus only on yourself or your smartphone.

Nobody talks here during the morning ride except when somebody is called on his cell-phone (which is rarely the case in the morning). Besides that most of the people are making not any interaction with others. 90% uses their smartphone to entertain himself by watching online TV or playing games. The other 10% is reading the newspaper.

Get experienced with the amount of millimeters between you and the door that is closing.

This requires some exercise with you being almost ripped to pieces, but in the end you will learn how much space you need so you are still able to enter a train that is already too full.

Know your movement gestures if you want to exit the train.

Do this while the train is nearing your station, by turning around your face towards the door, so the people around will notice that you want to get out. Usually this is enough and when the door opens they will make some little space for you to exit. If that doesn't work, use the word "sorry" or "mh'goi" (the Cantonese for thank you)

Nobody talks with each other.
Everyone is focused on him/herself
No matter if some old lady is standing, if you are lucky to get a seat, you won't give it to anybody.

In Holland it is usual practice to give up your seat to the elderly or impaired. "Please madam, take my seat". However, in Hong Kong I have not seen anybody doing this. They are ignoring whatever is around them, even if an old lady is struggling to stay on her feet in the train.

When you take the elevator, stand on the right if you are standing still. 

People will get annoyed when you are standing still on the left side as this side is for people that are in a hurry, so make sure you follow this rule to avoid angry faces behind you.

Make yourself accustomed with the best locations in the train, and practice to get there before anybody else can.

There are some area's in the train which are the most convenient when you commute in those busy trains. The area's near the door give you the convenience of the back wall to lean against, and makes it easy to exit during rush hour. These locations are well protected by people, and whenever one comes free, you should act within a second, otherwise it is already taken by someone that has senior experience over you with this exercise. Bummer!

Once you get accustomed to the rules, the ever busy trains and the individuality, the Hong Kong MTR system is very convenient. I don't want to trade in my 20 minute MTR ride with the one hour car drive I had in the Netherlands!