After finishing the last essay on the relationship between language and (over-/ under-) representation in China’s and India’s global participation, a professor advised me to have more take on culture, rather than on language alone. Focusing on culture is definitely a difficult task for me. A green-hand amateur (though keen) observer encountered with two of the most dazzling culture in the world, I doubt if I can successfully find one focus. One easier solution is to discard those big concepts and instead turn to minutes. Indeed, I have stories to tell. Two stories that happened on the same flight that might be informative, if not reflective, about the cultural difference between China and India.
One hour after the actual take-off of our plane, which was one hour late than the scheduled take-of, the cabinet crew started to serve dinner. Oddly enough, I wasn’t able to discover any pattern in the sequence of their service: both passengers in front of me and behind me got their food while the people in my row were still starving. (Note in a small plane as Airbus A319, there was only one host serving the meal from behind to front.) Knowing that the bread will finally come, however, I remained cool on the surface (although my stomach was already undergoing waves after waves of storming!!), and waited another 20 minutes until my meal finally came. The air hostess told me face to face that two options were available, and I ordered fish. Yet when I opened the meal box, fish magically transformed into chicken! This time, my mind was grudging but my stomach told me to let go: after all, chicken was no less delicious than fish. To a starving stomach, everything is tasty.
I felt profoundly recharged over meal for barely five minutes when some unpleasant noise flew into my ears from behind: an Indian senior next to the corridor behind my row was speaking angrily to the crew, and the latter looked rather embarrassed. Sitting on the window seat, I was not in a position to follow the whole “event”. But as the bickering continued for a while, I cannot help but suggest that besides fish and chicken, they should also prepare some veg meals considering that this is a flight to India. The air hostess then explained that it was not about veg food. Actually, all vegetarian Indians were served veg dishes in advance. (That explained the irregularity of the sequence of service and why it took so long for us to be finally served.) Instead, it was all but “an incident of the bread.” The senior asked for an extra piece of bread but, due to communication problems (remember what I mentioned in my last essay that “the notoriously difficult-to-understand Indian accent is more often victimized as object of mockery”?), the hostess said that her colleague did not understand the request at first. Being irresponsive for once already, at the second time, understanding the demand since the senior accentuated the word “bread”, the hostess told the senior that all food is allotted to each passenger, and he can only get the bread and better if there is extra. This time, it might be the broken Chinglish that caused the communication problem. (It seems then that I should be more reserved when praising the Americanized accent of Chinese. Now instead, I strongly recommend those who are interested to take one flight operated by Chinese carriers, or at least Air China Limited- congratulations if you manage to grab 50% of the broadcast! In that case you are better than a Chinese native!) These two rounds later, the senior was so offended by the poor service even though the bread finally came, and threated to file a formal complaint.
In the end, the crew was so afraid to face the India-accented English that the whole explanation (and negotiation) was done through the interpretation of Zhang, a Chinese guy sitting next to me. Warmhearted, smiling all the way and speaking with gentle tones, he finally persuaded the Indian senior to “rest the case”. However, it was this same guy that unfortunately acted as the protagonist of our second case.
It is said that the embarking procedures of India is disturbingly perplex. Zhang is on project visa to oversee the operation of a power plant as designated by his company. He was asked by his boss to bring some Chinese Su Embroidery (Su Xiu) with him as presents for local managers. Because of the delicacy of those crafts, he chose not to put it in the bags but instead took as hand luggage. The value of six pieces of normal Su Embroidery can by no means exceed 500 US Dollars (which is the threshold required by the immigration office), but apparently the immigration officers were attracted to the exotic and graceful package. So Zhang was blocked off and at the mercy of Indian corruption.
He was offered to options: a formal resolution and an “underground” one. He opted for the former at first, only to be informed that formal resolution would be more costly. Honestly hoping to avoid as much trouble as possible, he turned to the second option. 20 US Dollars, they charged. But not to be paid here.
Half-relieved, Zhang pushed his trolley all the way to the exit. Only one last line of security check left to go. Yet even then it was too early to forget about the 20 Dollars. Unexpected or not, Zhang was forced by the guard into a dark room, where he was charged 200 Dollars, 10 times the “original negotiation.” “You’re supposed to pay 20 Dollars only, why don’t you bargain?!” I asked later. He said he was afraid that going back to the immigration officer might push the consideration even higher. Without any concrete proof, reneging on the previously “agreed-upon” price was like a piece of cake.
The second story ended up in Zhang, the warmhearted, friendly and accommodating Chinese guy, paying 200 Dollars plus several RMB plus dozens of Rupees, to different officers and guards along the way. And Zhang was not alone. By the time he finally “ransomed” his Su Embroidery, another group of Chinese passengers were still in trouble inside the immigration security check, while the commodities in question were simply tens of ordinary cables. Even I was called by one of the officers while waiting for Zhang inside, despite that I was just cleared five minutes before! “Come”, “wait”, simple verb without due explanation. During my time waiting, however, he seemed to be distracted by some Chinese who carried even bigger (and fancier?) luggage. Sensing that he was not interested in my luggage any more, an Indian guy who was also blocked there told me that I can go. And that was how I dodged more bureaucratic bullets.
These are the stories that I witnessed during the same trip. Except for the “live show” of the famously annoying Indian corruption, I am not against anyone in the stories, but simply want to extract (if any) difference between two cultures. However, the stories alone are richly-contexted enough that deserves longer time of digestion. Therefore, I’d rather leave the culture analysis to later articles, and end this one by soliciting reasoning from readers: what would you do if you were either one of the subjects in the two stories?