Monday, August 6, 2012

What I learned from my Travels to Xiamen, China

In June I traveled to Xiamen, China, to teach a course in Rhetoric for the Speech Communication department of Xiamen University.  Like UNC Charlotte, Xiamen University prides itself on being innovative.  Communication Studies in China predominantly studies media, advertising and journalism, but Speech Communication at Xiamen proposes to be the vanguard Chinese program for broadly studying human communication, including public relations.  Our department hopes to collaborate with Xiamen in that quest.
I can hardly claim to be a world traveler, but here are a few observations that I hope are worthwhile:

Travelling and working in China is rather easy.  I encountered none of the delays I was warned about in my airline travel.  I did not need to do any currency exchange prior to travelling--the ATM honored my credit union card and charged me a lower fee--$1.38-- than I would have paid at a "guest" ATM machine back home.  Many signs and menus are bilingual, with English listed alongside the Mandarin.  Even at the traditional fishing village of Gulangyu Island, where no cars or bicycles are allowed, the police station was clearly labeled--POLICE.

The Chinese economy continues to boom.  Xiamen is a port town and a tourist destination, and it was doing plenty of both while I was there.  Shipping traffic in the harbor was brisk.  Timber and the ubiquitous containers comprised the bulk of the freight I saw.  The crowds of tourists--and the volume of tourism advertising on Chinese TV--speak to the rise in their discretionary income.  The cars I saw came from every country imaginable and almost all were very new.  The name for old cars seems to be "taxi."

The Chinese are prepared to embrace the new.  As I prepared for my class, the received wisdom was that Chinese students have been trained to expect that answers are either right or wrong.  I was worried, because rhetoric is the study of nuance and ambiguity, where the answer is usually "maybe," or, "it depends."  My thirty-five students enthusiastically embraced the uncertainties and complexities about communication that we explored.  Further, their English was very good, as was their appreciation for the global possibilities offered by the world's rapidly changing technology.  These are students ready for the 21st century, and everything it has to offer.

Business in China is still built upon personal relationships.  Although I was not working in a corporate setting, it was clear that my Xiamen counterparts, like us Americans, understand that there is a substantial business side to higher education.  It was also clear that our business of collaborating must begin with a strong foundation of "getting to know you."  It is a pleasant way of conducting business, but it does require patience.  If public relations is indeed the practice of building relationships, China will provide rich terrain for the profession.

If I committed any intercultural faux pas while abroad, my Chinese friends were kind enough not to point them out.  I know I came close on several occasions, however, but remembered just in time the sage advice given to Debra Winger in Cannery Row: when in doubt about the etiquette, move half a beat slower than those around you, and do what they do. 

By Richard Leeman
Professor, Department of Communication Studies, UNC Charlotte

Be looking out for Dr. Leeman's article in the Center for Global Public Relation's newsletter, the Blue Book! Accessible at the end of August at: