We arrived at the Summer Institute for Intercultural Communication on a Sunday, before classes began. That evening we had free time, so we drove to Portland's Chinatown for dinner.
We had no idea that a simple dinner would itself become an exercise in cross cultural communication.
This story requires me to make one small confession. We paid for the dinner with the corporate credit card, but apparently we were not allowed to use the card for meals. It was an innocent mistake on my part; I had never used the corporate card, and no one explained the rules before we left Spokane. In any case, after I made the charge, someone called from the central office and informed me of the problem. I was told to go back to the restaurant and ask them to reverse the charge. We would then have to pay with our own money.
The task seemed simple enough.
But when we arrived for a second time at the Chinese restaurant, we discovered that the hostess spoke very limited English. The simple act of explaining our dilemma became a monumental task in linguistic gymnastics as I attempted to explain a complex financial concept using pantomime and as many word variations as possible. The language barrier proved too great to overcome. She asked us to return at a later time to speak with the manager.
We returned at the appointed time, only to find the manager was no where to be found. The hostess asked to to come back yet again and assured us, "For sure next time..."
The "next time" proved equally disappointing and frustrating. The manager never did make an appearance and the charge was never reversed. During our last visit to the restaurant, a second woman attempted to help us. She spoke English a little better than the other, but we could not convince her that the bank would be willing to reverse the charge, even if we paid cash. She shook her head and repeated several times, "It's too late."
I shifted strategies somewhat and attempted to explain all the difficulties that would befall us if we failed to reverse the charge. She listened very patiently and finally said, "Oh, that's too bad for you. Come back tomorrow when the manager is here."
The next day we decided to call. Just as we feared, the manager never did show up to work. In fact, we began to suspect that the manager didn't exist. Fortunately, we were able to resolve the issue through our central office, so we never went back.
But since that time, I have reflected on how the experience could have been different. For one thing, the language barrier was a very real obstacle to communication. We probably also encountered cultural differences that were invisible to us, but would perhaps be obvious to an outside observer. In all our struggling, I never thought to enlist the assistance of a cultural mediator. In fact, one of my fellow classmates worked for an international corporation in Beijing and may have been able to help us bridge the communication gap.
In hindsight, this experience highlights the importance of people with expertise in intercultural communication. Sometimes we encounter people who think they don't have time for multiculturalism. They say it doesn't affect their end product or their numbers, and yet this experience shows that multicultural understanding may have very well saved our bottom line.
The Portland Chinatown Gate.
A local Chinese newspaper.