The language barrier: Our team is 9 people from 7 countries speaking at least 13 languages. English is our common language. And, even my English deteriorates as I learn and use a few Mandarin words and phrases. Luckily, YY's second language is Mandarin. YY has saved our team on numerous occasions by managing restaurant bills, negotiating the laundry service, directing our taxi drivers and even helping us to navigate our way out of a less than desirable Karaoke locale. While Mandarin is preferred in China, Sichuanese is the dialect spoken here. I have not yet dared to attempt to decipher more than 8 of the 2,000 Simplified Chinese characters in existence. Pinyin diacritic helps me enough to make a worthy attempt at one of the four tones. In English, the tone of my speech is inextricably linked to my emotion. This could be disastrous if carried over to Mandarin.
The communication barrier: It is more than just the language barrier that has kept me on my toes. Business communication carries out using a poker face. Expressing slight emotion with facial expression can be interpreted as weakness. At times, there is more meaning behind that which is left unsaid. For the Chinese, "I don't know" is not an acceptable response. I might ask, "What is the reason the marketing plan did not achieve this goal?" for example. I may get a response like," Our operations extend into Japan." I could try to figure out what Japan has to do with anything. The interpretation is correct, however, and Japan has nothing to do with anything in this example. Some questions will not receive a direct answer from the client or associate in order to 'save face' (yao mianzi). The true and unspoken answer may be, "I don't know.", "We don't have a plan." or "I made a bad plan." Ultimately, one must find a creative way to identify actual root causes in order to come up with plausible solutions and offer recommendations.
The rights barrier: Language and culture are enough of a challenge in understanding people and getting your own message across. At the same time, the actual right to speak freely can be the most intimidating of all barriers. Government control and censorship is palpable here. When the press corps was introduced during our conference the other day, each agent was identified as representing a different newspaper or magazine. All were owned by the same media company and that media company was operated and run by the government. There is a strange sense of uneasiness that comes with speaking and writing in China. Certain topics must be avoided to form and maintain good relationships and to stay out of trouble. The Chinese government has programs and people in place to search and block web sites. Censorship has kept me from having direct access to and functionality with CNN, Blogspot, Facebook, YouTube and more. I have been using backdoor, web-based proxies to circumnavigate the system. Simple words like, "Taiwan", "Tibet" and "human rights" can be a sure fire way to get this blog instantly and permanently blocked by the Chinese government. Over the past week, decorations have been going up in preparation for National Day -- the 60th anniversary of the PRC. As part of that preparation, police and military presence increases day by day. When I had a cup of coffee in the downtown shopping district yesterday, I listened to the slow voice of Patsy Cline pipe through street speakers as I watched camo-clad, helmet-wearing gun-toting military personnel march on the mall. This is surreal. Local police and military are ramping up, along with civilian security volunteers, to prevent and manage expected demonstrations in support of the freedom of Tibet. The residents feel safe. I am alarmed.
I've never felt as grateful for U.S. freedom of speech as I do now. Today, I feel lucky to live in a country that grants this right. U.S. citizens owe it to ourselves to exercise this right with respectful, open sharing of information, ideas and beliefs.