Friday, November 30, 2012

Lessons from Beijing traffic

A rare break in traffic across for Tiananmen Square
Walking to a meeting last night in Washington, D.C. I stopped and looked at the chaos that is D.C. downtown rush hour traffic. I realized this was the first time I had experienced this phenomenon after my Beijing trip earlier in the month (a Thanksgiving trip to New England had intervened). I was struck by how the big city traffic here differs from that in Beijing, and began to ponder what traffic can teach us about life - and communication.

In Beijing, the pedestrian has no right-of-way. Vehicles of every size occupy three to four lanes on each side, and there are bicycles and three-wheeled electronic delivery carts in the bike lanes. Traffic signals seem to mean something, but apparently turning on red is permissible for right and left turns. So pity the poor tourist on foot! The best advice I got about walking around town was from a wonderful guidebook, China Survival Guide: How to Avoid Travel Troubles and Mortifying Mishaps. The authors said the best thing to do, since a stray bike or random cab can come out of nowhere, was to wait till a crowd gathers to cross the street and go with them. Even if you have the light, as a pedestrian you are vulnerable. Best to travel with a group. Fortunately, you are never far from a crowd in Beijing!

The other striking thing about Beijing traffic, though, is its quiet, almost dance-like flow. In a town with so many drivers that they can only use their cars on alternate days, and six ring roads defining the city, I was expecting to see NYC-style traffic jams, complete with horns blaring and breaks screeching. Nothing could have been farther from what I experienced. 

Beijing traffic flows smoothy. Drivers maintain a uniform pace (maxing out at 25 mph by my guesstimation). No one races to make a light, but plenty make u-turns mid-block (because so many streets are one-way). Those behind the wheel must be used to such things happening in front of them, but visiting passengers are quite unprepared! The first time I witnessed this (from inside a cab) I cringed and held on tight, expecting horns, maybe some loud cursing, definitely a jolt as the brakes were applied. But no, the turn was easily accomplished, and we were on our merry way.

It may be illustrative of what some call the "Chinese character" that drivers work so well, so harmoniously, in such a crowded place. Traffic is bad in Beijing, and I think the system of ring roads is pretty inefficient. But the drivers are all mindful of each other. They all seem to realize what so many of us forget: we are all fellow-travelers, and rushing about and behaving as if our needs trump everyone else's doesn't really help us reach our destinations that much sooner. They watch each other, engage mindfully, and go with the flow.

Lessons to remember the next time we find ourselves in a foreign communications landscape!

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Why I give thanks

Thanksgiving is upon us, that most American of holidays. We all celebrate it: a feast of food, family and friends. It is a grand tradition indeed!

But most of us no longer farm. We did not flee religious persecution in our homelands. So our thanks is not for our new life of religious freedom, nor for the bountiful harvest we have gathered in. We may see the Pilgrims  and their 1621 Thanksgiving at Plymouth as a metaphor for a "good year",  a time of abundance, a time of freedom. But can we really relate?

There is an another historical first Thanksgiving in American, though, predating the one in Plymouth. In Virginia, on December 4, 1619, the givers of thanks represent another facet of American identity. Berkeley Hundred was chartered by the Virginia Company of London. Like the Jamestown Colony (est. 1607) it was business venture. The goal of the Company was to gain a foothold in the New World, cultivate some cash crops and send them back to England. These colonies were chartered to reap profits for settlers, speculators and shareholders. How very American!

And yet, even the profit-driven leaders of The Company acknowledged that the safe arrival of the colonizers would be a reason to give thanks to God. By charter, the Captain was directed to hold a service of Thanksgiving upon landing in Virginia. After 13 weeks at sea, Captain John Woodlief led his 38 men in prayer: “We ordaine that this day of our ships arrival, at the place assigned for plantacon, in the land of Virginia, shall be yearly and perpetually kept holy as a day of Thanksgiving to Almighty God”. 

And so our first Thanksgiving was a celebration of our safe arrival, and the beginning of a new venture. For those of us who no longer live in an agrarian world, where life's rhythms follow the seasons, celebrating a harvest festival may be a bit of a mental stretch. But I think many of us (especially creative types and anyone who makes something out of raw material, drive, and vision) can relate to the thanks given at Berkeley Hundred. 

When we take a leap of faith into the unknown we are like those first settlers, guided by a hope for a better tomorrow and a prayer that we will arrive safely. Like them, the profit motive may be a factor, but we are also pioneers, journeying toward a new world. We will only succeed with good winds, hard work, and the grace of God.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

A pause to reflect

The Forbidden City
I have just returned from a week in Beijing. It was a fantastic experience! I had never been in China before; indeed, this was my first trip to Asia. My husband had been invited to attend a conference, and I tagged along, just for fun.

The Great Wall
His Chinese colleagues were generous with their time, and invited us to several meals. One even shepherded us through our morning of haggling and bargain-hunting at The Pearl Market.  But most days we were on our own, seeing the sights and generally self-navigating the city. Not knowing more than three word of Mandarin, I did a lot of listening. was especially attuned to non-verbal communications.

I rediscovered that a smile can communicate a lot of good will, and that the meaning of joyous laughter is universal. But what also struck me was the essential place of the pause in any language. My husband's colleague graciously took us to the best Dim Sum restaurant near the Lama Temple.  And when she made a phone call, she spoke so rapidly in her native Mandarin that it took my breath away. Only when she paused did I know she had come to the end of a very long explanation. In a tonal language, ends of sentences cannot be signaled by the downward pitch of finality that we use in English. And so the pause becomes even more important as a signal of conclusion. We noted this as well when we had to rewind our (otherwise excellent) audio cassette tour of The Forbidden City. The Chinese English speaker was hard to follow: was she still describing the Hall of Supreme Harmony, or had she moved on the Hall of Central Harmony? She did not drop her vocal tone at the end, which is one of the few tonalities we use in English (as opposed to Mandarin, where every word is formed by one of three tones). So it sounded like she was continuing with the same thought. But if she had paused, we would have known.

It got me thinking of the rhythms of communication, and how essential the pause is in any language. In German, the listener uses the pause at the end of a sentence to match all the verbs with the nouns that preceded them. In English and the Western Romance languages, the listener uses the pause to  absorb what has just been said. If we fail to pause, we are not engaging in the give-and-take of the communications loop, and we lose our listener.

When speech mirrors our speeding train of thought, it is too hard for the listeners to stay on board. And once they have jumped off, it is almost impossible to pull them back on. A pause may seem like a small thing, but it can keep you on track!