LSS: Both hands full of respect

Within a few hours last week, I met three people who told me they were headed to China for business within the next few weeks. One of them knew I had been to China a couple of times and politely asked if I had any pointers.
I’ve thought about his question and my answer since, and I believe my advice for him regarding a particular Chinese custom might be beneficial on either side of the Pacific.
In the past decade, many books have been written explaining the finer points of making the best impression in meeting and working with the Chinese. My limited information only scratches the surface, and is based more on personal observation than anything else. I am not for a moment suggesting that my insights compare to those with encyclopedic knowledge. However, there is one thing I believe visitors to China can do that may make a world of difference in their experience there—and translating the intent of that custom could make a difference here, as well.
My piece of advice is really very simple. Exchanging business cards is a big deal in China. Learning Chinese business card etiquette will go a long way.
Firstly, anyone planning on doing business in China or with the Chinese should create double-sided business cards—one side in English and one side in Simplified Chinese, but the real protocol is in making the exchange.
When you accept a business card or hand a business card to someone, you should face the person you’re making the exchange with and use both hands to deliver and use both hands to accept the card.
Using both hands is a sign of respect.
Following the exchange, both parties are expected to study the business cards they’ve just accepted for a moment and then place them on the table beside them, if they’re sitting down for a meeting. Stuffing it into a purse or pocket is frowned upon.
As I understand things, in China, haphazardly reaching out with one hand to grab something from one person, while you’re talking with someone else, would be considered the height of rudeness. While I’m certain there are countless other points of Chinese etiquette and protocol that a more enlightened and educated person could share, that one point made an impression on me.
In fact, even though I haven’t been back to China in nearly eight years, I think about that point almost every day. Nothing about it comes naturally to me. But it’s about giving my whole focus to the person I’m interacting with—and demonstrating that focus physically.
Using both hands in the business card exchange requires a different kind of concentration than most Americans are accustomed to offering. Why would we do something with two hands when it only takes one?
And, I think that’s the whole point.
Taking that extra energy and time to pay attention to someone new slows down the exchange and, in my opinion, improves a rhythm that is all too often rushed. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not insisting, or even proposing, that everyone should start using two hands to make business card exchanges. However, I do believe taking extra time and focusing our energy, attention and respect on the people we meet and greet might go a long way in laying the groundwork for improved relations wherever we are.

LSS: Rolling around again

Even though Piper, my 9-year-old daughter, can’t make it all the way around the rink on her own, her latest fixation of roller skating is another example of the adage, “Everything old is new again.”
Piper loves to roller skate. Based on her newfound love, I’m thinking roller skating may be making a comeback.
Truthfully, what Piper does really couldn’t be considered as skating. Even so, there’s something about putting on those skates and doing her best to go round and round that the child simply adores. It’s completely new to her. In fact, she’s only been twice, but she talks about it nonstop.
By the time I was her age, roller skating was old hat to me. Well, that’s not true—roller skating never became old hat. We went often, always as a large group and usually on a church bus, but it was still a thrill. Anticipating a trip to the roller rink (about 30 miles from the tiny town where I grew up) could keep me awake at night. It was exciting stuff.
When we went to the roller rink, they hosted one big life-altering event every time we went. At some point in the course of the evening, they’d turn the lights down and all the girls would squeal because we knew what would happen next. With the disco ball in the middle sending little stars all over the walls and our clothes (which all the girls had chosen carefully in hopes of the chance to shine in the black light effect during that very moment), we would prepare for The Big Event. (By the way, in an unwritten rule, the girls never wore dark clothes to the roller rink so they could look cool under the black light.)
In the way I remember what happened next, the boys would be lined up on one side of the rink and the girls on the other. What happened next was rather brutal from a 10-year-old girl’s perspective. The skate manager would pick one boy. That kid would have to skate to the girls’ side of the rink and pick one girl. They would then be forced to hold hands and skate round and round—all by themselves, with everyone watching, until the song ended. Then they would drop hands. The boy would go pick another girl, and the girl would go pick another boy. Repeat. For about three songs or so, every girl and boy would stand there, holding their breath, wondering if he or she would be the next chosen.
It was exhilarating and awful all in one.
What happened during those three songs provided enough fodder for gossip for weeks.
My daughter doesn’t have any deep emotional connection to the roller rink. I asked her what it was about it that she liked so much.
“It’s just fun, and it’s sort of challenging,” she said. “Learning a new thing is interesting. The problem with it is that the skates are way too heavy and when you fall, you fall really hard.”
I believe part of her interest in roller skating could be the real consequences it offers. Roller skating is not virtual.
“When you fall, it really hurts,” she said—and that’s an important lesson to learn.
Thus far, she has demonstrated the appropriate response.
When she falls, she gets back up and just keeps going—and it won’t be long until she makes it all the way around unassisted.

LSS: America’s place in the world is changing

My recent trip to Eastern Europe was a reminder of my American-ness. I drink real Coca-Cola — with ice. I love me some football — real football, that is. And though I adore music from around the world, for me, no music is like a good James Taylor, Lyle Lovett or Dixie Chicks song.

I am proud to be an American.

I am also proud to have lived in and spent time in a variety of other countries. Time in those places has given me a keener appreciation of what those countries and cultures have to offer and has made me understand much more about my own country and culture.

When I lived in Slovakia 18 years ago, everything there was somewhere between beige and gray.

Communism had just ended. The country was on the verge of everything.

In 18 short years, their economy has skyrocketed. For the most part, Slovakia is now as advanced as any Western European country.

To put things in another perspective, when I was there in 1993, I could change $100 and get about 3,300 crowns (their currency back then)—enough to live comfortably on for a month. Last week, I changed $100 and got 65 euros—enough to travel modestly for a day.

Everything that once was gray and dingy is now bright yellow or orange or green and dotted with flowerboxes blooming brilliant pinks and purples.

The juxtaposition of then and now and here and there messed with my head. Their economy has gained so much strength while, let’s face it, ours has weakened.

I went back to Slovakia to attend the wedding of a dear friend. The couple’s wedding guests were from around the world.

While I wasn’t visiting with Slovak friends, I spent the bulk of the weekend with a couple from Madrid, a couple from Oslo and a girl from Uzbekistan now living in Moscow.

We laughed and danced and played the weekend away—all in English, without anyone working hard for a word or phrase.

They knew subtle references to American music and culture — while I shamefully realized that I barely could find Uzbekistan on a map. I didn’t know it was a country of 28 million, while Norway has less than five million people.

When we weren’t dancing, we were talking. We bonded in that rare and magical way that happens when you’re in a foreign place with people you never met but love in the flash of a smile and open embrace. We got each other.

Through their eyes, I was able to confirm some realizations of America’s changing place in the world. From my perspective, the rest of the world has less hostility toward us now. Some see our power and prominence fading. Maybe that’s just our arrogance diminishing. After all, the genuinely strong don’t need to remind others of their strength.

Just because much of the rest of the world recognizes a changing America doesn’t mean they don’t realize what our nation has done and continues to do for the world. However, the cold truth is that many outside of our country do see this as a time of transition around the world — and part of that change is a shift away from a world so dominated by American culture.

The small irony is that the entire conversation among people from five countries about global politics and economies took place in English. My new friends agreed that the universal language of English was a real gift — and they recognized America’s role in that exchange.

Just like we are still grateful to the Greeks, Romans and other great societies of the past, for centuries to come, the world will have America to thank for so much.

LSS: Jiggety jig

Home again. Home again. Jiggety jig.

That’s the song I sing in my head every time I have the blessing of coming home.

For this weeklong trip to Slovakia, the words jiggety jig have a particular irony. My feet, legs and knees are ridiculously sore from hours of dancing a jiggety jig at the 16-hour wedding I attended last weekend.

This wedding that began in a tiny village in the Tatra Mountains in northeastern Slovakia was more than special. Elements of it were like something out of National Geographic, but for me, the emotional journey of returning to a land and people I knew began before the ceremony.

I was the bride’s first English teacher when she was 8 years old. Her mother, Maria, and I taught together. Her family treated me as family. I spent holidays with them and grew to know and love them, despite language barriers. Staying in touch with them during the 18 years since I left Slovakia was a gift. When the bride graduated from high school, her dream was to come to university in the States. I worked with her and several universities to find the right place for her to go to school.

Since flourishing in her undergraduate studies, she has earned scholarships and accolades from near and far including stints at the East-West Center in Honolulu, a year at Berkley, and finally Harvard — earning a law degree. That’s a lot of detail, but I’m crazy proud of her of this little girl from a village so small in the mountains of Slovakia.

I had not seen her parents since I left Slovakia until Friday night before the wedding. Friends of the couple from 14 countries and her husband-to-be’s American family came to the dinner. I was the last in line to greet her parents, my old friends. The guests all knew the story of the inflated credit the bride’s family gives me in helping to create this fairy tale. When it came my turn to greet Maria, they all stood back and watched. Her mother said, just as I knew she would, “Oh, Jan,” and we embraced and could not hold back the tears. We stood there crying and doing our best to realize just how much time had passed and how much had changed.

The next morning at 11:45 a.m., we headed through the mountains to the bride’s tiny village of Kamienka on a chartered bus. As soon as we approached the village, the bus driver laid on the horn. He went back and forth through the village four times, horn blaring, before finally stopping at the bride’s parents’ home. Traditional Slovak musicians were singing as we approached the home. After everyone gathered, the bride came downstairs and a relative said a prayer.

The couple then knelt in front of their parents and expressed their gratitude. The mother of the bride took a round loaf of bread tied up with flax. She used the bread to make the sign of the cross on the head of the bride and groom. Each of the parents followed suit. The bread represented the blessing of food and the flax, clothing.

Then we went outside and had food and drinks before the entire wedding party walked down the street to the village church. The entire village was out to watch the procession. It was like a movie. Inside the recently refurbished Orthodox church, we witnessed a beautiful ceremony and music. Then we loaded back up in the bus and went to the hotel. When the bride and groom arrived, the hotel director and another staff member offered the bride and groom each a small piece of bread — to represent plenty. Then he offered them salt — to represent the more difficult times they would face. Just as he was offering them salt on two small plates, he dropped one. It crashed to the floor and broke into hundreds of pieces. I was mortified, afraid he would lose his job.

But the bride and groom jumped into action. The groom grabbed a broom and started sweeping up the pieces of porcelain into a dustpan the bride was holding. Just as he almost had the pieces swept up, one of the family members kicked them asunder. He started sweeping again — when another family member kicked them. Finally, the couple was able to work together and sweep all the pieces up and the crowd cheered.

And it was on to the next party, including meal and drinks in the ballroom. The bride danced with her groom and dad — and each guest who was up for dancing, and the dancing for the rest of the crowd began in earnest.

Around midnight, the bride changed into traditional garb and re-entered the ballroom. That is when she officially became his wife, but the fun wasn’t over. Other women in traditional dress began to put all sorts of headgear on her while she sat on a satin pillow and held a hat where people placed money. After much wrangling, the women were satisfied with the job they had done, the bride took the money and gave the hat to a man.

Then she looked to make sure her younger sister was ready. Her sister said she was, and the bride jumped up and the sister sat down quickly on the pillow. Everyone cheered. So I did too. Then the sister stood up and threw the pillow. The girl who caught it should be the next person to get married, according to tradition.

The dancing continued into the not-so-wee hours of the morning.

Being with guests from around the world and seeing people I hadn’t seen for so long celebrate such a thing of beauty was good for the heart and soul and a confirmation of the power of tradition, dreams, hard work and love.