I wish it were not so, but I have apparently developed quite the reputation for complaining about service in Chinese hotels.  See e.g., Beijing Sheraton Great Wall. China Writ Large Or Me Just Being Petty? Prior to my Great Wall post, I would typically point out one or two examples of bad service at a China hotel that would be incredibly unusual anywhere else.

I just got returned from a couple of weeks traveling on business through Asia, and while there, two people emailed me to say that they hoped my China hotel experiences would be better this time.

I spent time in Japan, Singapore, Vietnam and Korea. And I spent two nights in Beijing on a 72 hour (free) visa that I picked up at Beijing Capital Airport. Just as an aside, it took me all of about 45 seconds to get that visa; it is great!

I was traveling alone and there for only two days and so I decided I would go upscale. So I stayed at a very well known, very expensive, very swanky Western-owned five star hotel. The hotel is gorgeous in every way and in most respects, the service was amazing.

Nonetheless, I once again experienced an incident that again makes me wonder what the hell is up with service in China.

But before I tell you about that incident, let me note that it was only at my Beijing hotel that I had any complaints about my trip. I spent five days at a $100 a night Sheraton in Hanoi and it was great. All I really want is decent service.

So what happened at the Five Star Beijing Hotel? My first morning there I went down for a buffet breakfast. The breakfast room is gorgeous, with marble floors. I loaded up my plate, to include two tiny ears of corn and I was walking to grab some bread when I slipped and fell. Somehow, and truly amazingly, I was able to catch my fall while keeping the plate balanced; the two ears of corn flew off, but that was it. Two Americans right there clapped.

Some guy from the hotel ran over, clearly worried about my fall. I insisted that I was fine (I was) and I pointed out a puddle of water maybe a foot long and a foot wide where I fell. I then looked around and noted and pointed out another puddle maybe ten feet away. The guy who had run over to me started quietly yelling at an elder woman who immediately wiped up my puddle.  I went back to my seat, ate a bit and then decided to come back for more.

What did I see? You guessed it. Three small puddles spaced around the breakfast room, including the one ten feet from the one that tripped me up. The cleaning staff had cleaned up “my” puddle but nobody had looked around for more puddles or cleaned up the other one I pointed out. It is unbelievable to me that neither the guy nor the woman made any real effort to make sure that the floor was completely safe. It seems all that concerned them was impressing upon me that they were fixing things.

After breakfast, I met with a China lawyer friend who has been in Beijing for about a year and told him what had happened. I asked him whether my always “seeing” things like this in China was because I was being unfair or hyper-critical or what?  I asked him why it was ALWAYS China. He immediately said it’s China and not me. He said that he deals with stuff like this all the time.

He then told me of how at his son’s Chinese emblematic school the kids were told of how they were going to start playing baseball. They were to buy uniforms. His kid was thrilled and my lawyer friend went out and bought the uniform and some equipment for his son. A baseball coach was brought in and for a couple days he taught the kids some skills. On a Saturday or a Sunday, a bunch of schools got together and everyone played a game. The kid loved it. The head of the school and various government functionaries all spoke about sports in the schools, etc.

And then that was it. Just the one game. No more practices. No more games.

The China lawyer said that this was emblematic of China. The whole baseball thing was done simply to say that it had been done. It was done to look good. It was done to check something off. It was not done to inculcate the kids with baseball skills or baseball knowledge. According to this lawyer, this is what caused me to slip. China does not really concern itself with quality. It concerns itself with appearances. The goal is to be “good enough” not “great.” He said this, not me.

So again, I ask, what is going on here?

  • Ward Chartier

    “,,,what is going on here?” Event-based thinking versus process-based thinking. Reactive thinking versus proactive thinking.

    For example, in the story about the wet floor, the manager did the wrong thing. [1] He scolded the cleaner rather than trying to train the cleaner. [2] He did not open his eyes to see the big picture. [3] He did not use the event to train all of the cleaners. To be frank, I’ve seen problems 1, 2, and 3 occur in all of the 6 countries in which I’ve worked. It is true, however, that the plurality of the cases I’ve seen are in China.

    I’d have to do more reflecting to opine on the reasons why these thinking patterns exist and develop some ideas of what to do about it. I’m not sure that the sources are only the Confucian foundation of the society or the educational system.

  • Savvy Symbiont

    I’m now based in Korea where part of my time is spent teaching product design at a variety of universities and colleges.

    outshine the master” is among the many paradigms that east Asians are
    inculcated with. The authority of those older and above you is
    engrained into the psyche of every east Asian. If you attempt to go
    outside of what is specifically demanded by your teacher, boss or
    supervisor then you threaten to outshine them.

    In order to
    understand this better, watch how young east Asian children interact
    (especially siblings). Here you will find the roots of hierarchy and
    how and why observing things beyond those above you will result in all
    manner of social reprimands.

    Being socialized in the west will
    make one frustrated with repeatedly observing this phenomena as it is
    the antithesis of western socialization practice of choice making and
    independent thinking.

  • I think you need to start “China Bitch dot com”.

  • “TIC” (This is China). The expectations of Western service,
    attitude, and fulfillment, do not apply. It is not better or worse, but
    it is China. My suggestion to any is that you stay at Chinese 5 star hotels. I
    have found them to be much more accommodating for the value. I never stay
    in Western hotels in China. But I do stay at the best Chinese ones.

    To judge China against Western standards, in China, is useless and/or naive, unless you are a tourist (no offense intended Dan). In that case, you are just that, a temp. To do business and interact locally (“locally” is the essential theme), you must conform to expectations. Orlando has great amusement for families, not the best lawyers. Las Vegas has great entertainment, not the best fishing. China has 20% of the world’s population… that’s a good market! Its all relative.

    The “face” issue that your friend spoke of is spot on. There can always be
    better, but that is not always the pursuit. There will always be
    reaction, however, limited pro-action. The process of achieving
    something, however small, is the general rule. This is not wrong, or
    bad… just standard. Perhaps this will change over time, but I would
    not wait for the same.

    If you are a westerner, we are guests. If an expat, you know what I speak of. I’ve been there and back for 13 years. Its always the same, but never the same. I’ve told people many times… there is often rude service, bad roads, bad water, too much pollution, good business, and great people. You can decide for your self.

    • Lucas Blaustein

      This is and excellent observation.

    • nathan

      I’m as relativistic as the next guy but I’ll never understand why expats or locals allow themselves the ‘This is China’ excuse to justify the worst behaviours.

      • Wayne Francis

        Understanding Nathan’s comment, but….

        “Worst behaviors” (SIC) as compared to what? I’ve lived in Chicago, New York, Frankfurt, Jinan, Shenzhen, Hong Kong, as well other cities in the world. If you are not permanent, you are a guest. If you are permanent, you must reach the conclusion that your standards and expectations do not apply, and local daily life (however much it displeases you) is the norm.

        If you find an advantage to inserting yourself into another culture for business, you need to get used to it not being like your own. The alternative is to stay in your own hometown marketplace for business and/or culture. There are many, many worse places for service than China. They just don’t have the business opportunities that China has. Hence, they don’t make the discussion lines.

  • AsiaUser

    No, they want to be great without doing the work, without understanding the true nature of reality in order to really achieve something. It is not just that only the minimum amount of work gets done to keep up appearances; it is that they only do what is necessary, whether minimum or not, to keep the appearance. Whether the appearance actually matches what needs to be done is not considered. Since the culture awards this kind of behavior, has done so for centuries, and is encouraged even more by communism, it takes someone with quite a bit of courage to overcome this kind of thinking.

    • englishvinal

      I suggest that you stay in “Amerika” and dine at Burger King.

  • On the Corner

    It’s a perfect example of “national window-dressing” I had a long time coworker in Shanghai tell me they paint all the buildings and make them nice outside but the same, useless interior is still there.

  • I should also say that if puddles on the floor of a 5 star Hotel in China are your biggest problem/gripe about the country you are doing a lot of stuff better than most people who do business and live here. Kudos bro if that’s the deal.

    • Ward Chartier

      In the context of China, puddles on the floor are mere symptoms of far deeper and even insidious problems.

    • Bob dole

      Davin, you are missing the entire context of the post. Please read and contemplate your thoughts before you defame.

  • Yunwei Liang

    Dan, I’m so sorry to hear the unpleasant experience you just had in Beijing. I agree with you about the emblematic problem of China.

    I always thought the same thing when I was in college. I went to Shanghai University in Baoshan District of Shanghai. It’s a brand new campus and is very large with a very nice view. We even have swans and peacocks in the campus lake. Once you enter the campus, you immediately feel as if it’s a nice beautiful garden in the suburbs of Shanghai; all the buildings are pretty new and look good. But when you go inside of the buildings, they don’t look that nice anymore. There is no air conditioner and no filtration system. It was freezing during the winter, students can’t even focus in class due to the cold. Things are even worse in the dorms; I remember that there was no hot water in my dorm during my 2nd and 3rd years of college and we needed to go to another building and pay to have a hot shower which still seems odd to me. And of course, because there was no heater or AC, in the winter, people were freezing when they were in bed. The school seems to only care about the outward appearance of the whole campus, not the real experience of its students. Like your hotel experience, I think this superficial cover up is just one of many symptoms of a greater problem with China.

    I hope that more and more people in China are realizing this problem, and are trying to get rid of it, but I fear that China is too results-oriented and not process-oriented enough.

  • Folcy Tang

    Dan, you were a lucky guy. Somehow people from service industries here (esp. government who is supposedly doing service for its people) don’t even bother to appear good.

  • nilsnilson

    From a China law perspective, this reminds me of certain “campaigns” which are vigorously conducted until the issue is dropped completely (before the next campaign begins) 🙂

  • Phyl Wixom

    I just repatriated back to US from Beijing, I was there for 4 years. What was described is a common trait of the labor pool, ie. lack of motivation to be better. Self motivation and seeking excellence at work are not part of the culture.

  • englishvinal

    A nation of growth and more growth…… and you are worried about lowly employees in a hotel?…. I wouldn’t let a few puddles stand in the path of progress.

  • Mantoseda

    Well, traveling in China is always exciting and surprising 🙂 You never know what will happen about that 🙂