Thursday, October 20, 2005

Interpersonal Skills

There is one particular time person in particular, the first six months of 2004, when my interpersonal skills were tested and displayed to the extreme. During this period, I spent half a year amongst the migrants and would-be entrepreneurs who work in the IT/electronics markets of Zhongguancun, the Silicon Valley of China. These women and men are not the lofty paragon of technology virtuosity that China’s Silicon Valley is meant to contain. Instead, they are an eclectic population, coming from all corners of China with education ranging from middle school drop-out to technical community college graduate. Living and working amongst them, I experienced tests of my ideas of privacy, rudeness, hygiene. My responses, from anger and frustration to compassion and understanding, reveal the greatest extent to which my interpersonal skills can be stretched.

Experiencing IT/electronics markets for the first, one sees chaos. Boxes seem to move up and down the crowded aisles by themselves, while people spit, smoke, and throw trash outside their stores, regardless of who may be outside or walking by. But even more poignant for an American are people’s eyes. Glances become stares and shopping for a new printer is more like being an animal in a mobile zoo. Hearing only “ha-lou!” (the Chinese transliteration of hello), one quickly tires of these markets.

But I wanted to understand the mixture of technology and business in China. So, on a daily basis, I came to the markets, meeting people store after store, who constantly drew attention to my appearance, my race, and my nationality. In turn, I emphasized politeness. I observed every courtesy and custom that I knew of. Some one once joked with me that I was “more Chinese than the Chinese.” The manners I displayed had been honed over previous years of experience with China.

Store by store and counter by counter, I used my difference to create similarity. Slowly, a group of regular store owners, colleagues, and even friends emerged against the backdrop of chaos and stares. Addressing elder migrants as “big brother,” adopting Chinese mannerisms and postures, and generally being sympathetic to their opinions (at least initially), I was able to enter circles that exist in the IT/electronics markets.

What is even more significance, however, is that I gained an audience. While I learned about China’s technology migrants and emergent market economy, I also was able to speak to a receptive and interested audience about the reasons for the Iraq war, the meaning of human rights, and how unions are formed. Had I not gained trust and feelings of commonality, I be ignored and dismissed. Instead, open dialogue and thoughtful discussion took place as a result of adapting to behaviors, customs, and forms of address that made the IT/electronics migrants of the Silicon Valley of China comfortable.

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