Saturday, March 15, 2008


Despite a few very Chinese encounters, our family has enjoyed a rather leisurely trip to Shenzhen. Rarely listed in the top Chinese cities to visit, the girls and I were tired of watching Daddy jumping on and off of airplanes. We were sick of spending nights and evenings without him. He had a Friday morning meeting scheduled in Shenzhen, so we tagged along.

Shenzhen must have been an urban planner’s dream come true. Around 30 years ago, the city had around 30,000 inhabitants and was nothing more than a fishing village. The Chinese government noted its strategic location on the border with Hong Kong, and decided to throw resources into making this an economic hot spot for trade and manufacturing. In only a few short decades the population has shot up to 8 million and the smog factor is one of the highest in the world.

The streets are wide. The sidewalks have no cracks. The metro is stroller friendly. In many ways, getting around Shenzhen was as simple as getting around Singapore - except that very few people spoke English, and Chinese customs certainly prevailed. We were pushed and cut off in every crowd. We saw duck necks, feet and even heads for sale in most snack stalls. And L—and S—received more pinches on the cheek and pats on the head than ever before – something S—reveled in and L—became militantly opposed to.

Our family clashed with Chinese culture most violently at the hotel. The company put us up in a luxury business hotel located in the center of town. Knowing that we would arrive late on Thursday evening, they called ahead to confirm that our Standard Room with a Queen size bed and a baby cot were guaranteed. No problem, we were assured.

We arrived with two sleepy children at about 11:00 at night. Ushered into the quiet expanse of the marble lobby, our expectations were high. The staff were polite, with limited English – the perfect place to test our newly growing Chinese vocabulary. The staff politely explained to us that there were no queen sized rooms available, and would we please settle for two twin beds?

Dave and I hate to hassle people. We go out of our way to make sure people are comfortable. We only registered for affordable items when we were married. We ensure parking spaces outside of our home when we throw parties. We accept other people’s errors and move on. But this was simply unacceptable. Our youngest daughter would sleep in the baby cot they said was waiting in our room, but our older toddler was to sleep in the bed between us. Two twin beds simply would not work.

We politely explained the problem. The man at the counter responded that he was sorry – there was nothing available.

No queen or king sized beds are available in the entire hotel? we countered.


Begrudginly, we accepted. But on the condition that they provide us with free breakfast.

He asked how many people would be eating breakfast, and promptly added the cost to our bill.

Free breakfast, we corrected.

Breakfast costs 45 RMB per adult, he counter-corrected.

This led to a lengthy back and forth about how we feel we deserve breakfast on the house, because of the trouble they’re putting us through. After a few rounds of this, a room with a queen sized bed rather suddenly appeared. We had been upgraded to a Standard Suite – would that do?

Absolutely. That will do fine.

You will simply move to another room in the morning, when we have your standard queen room available.

No. We will not move tomorrow.

You do not want the standard suite?

We will take the suite. Thank you.

We grabbed the keys and ran. Then we walked guardedly the next day, waiting for someone to kick us out of what turned out to be a quite large and well appointed suite. Perfect for our family, it had a bedroom separated from the living room by a hallway, closet and a large bathroom which made for a wonderful sound barrier once the kids fell asleep. A sectional couch coupled with downy spare blankets created a cozy little bed for our toddler, and there was plenty of room for the baby cot they provided. We chose to ignore that it was both broken and easy to climb out of – we had complained enough.

The phone rang during naptime on Friday.

We have you new room prepared. Can you please move now?

No, we will not be moving.

(uncomfortable laughter) When you checked in last night, you were upgraded to a suite because your queen room was unavailable. That room is now available and you need to move.
You could just hear the large smile on his face.

No, when we checked in last night we explained that we could not move. We have very young children who are both sleeping right now. It would be quite difficult to move at this point. I’m sure you understand. The words practically dripped out of my mouth, my tone was so sweet.

(more uncomfortable laughter) Yes, of course I understand.

The conversation was over. I thought we had won. Unfortunately, the hotel was more persistent and we would prove ourselves fools against the Chinese cultural norm of saving face. Just as we were finished putting the girls down for a late bedtime, the doorbell rang. A woman with very good English stood outside and explained the situation to me once more. That we had agreed to move today, and that our room was now ready.

I started sweetly. No, we reserved one room with a queen sized bed for the weekend. This is the room you provided. Our children are quite young and need to go to sleep. We will not be moving.

This woman was quite insistent. She bickered, and tried to catch us on our every word. At one point I argued that our company had called in advance to reserve a king sized room.

Your company called to guarantee a king sized room?

Yes, they did.

May I please have a contact at your company?

Why would you need to call someone at our company?

To explain to them that we do not have king sized rooms. We only have queen sized rooms, and we have one available for you at this moment down the hall.

It was silly the points she tried to catch us on. We did not allow her to call our company, and we quickly responded to this type of argument by childishly raising our voices and talking down to her. We berated her with attacks that we had done everything right – making a specific reservation, calling to confirm our specific reservation, guaranteeing that specific reservation with a credit card – and we made it clear that we would nnot be punished for the hotel’s mistake. This is your problem – not ours. I said that specifically, and in a bit of a yell.

In a very Chinese fashion, she maintained her ground quite solidly and very politely. I’m sorry, but you will have to move. You agreed to move last night and your reserved room is now ready.

Dave pulled the trump card – if you force us to change rooms, we will be very angry and insist that my company never send another client here again.

She paused. Then, please give me the phone number of your company. I will explain what happened. I’m sure they will understand.

Dave brought out his grown-up voice. No, we will explain what happened, and I guarantee you that we will not use this hotel again.

Now she needed to speak with her manager. She left.

Dave and I regrouped. I don’t have that kind of power, he said. I should not have yelled at her, I said. I can’t believe we’re so bad at dealing with Chinese people – this is a cultural norm we know about. New plan of attack – when she returns, we apologize for losing our tempers and lay it on thick about how we’re hoping to have a wonderful, relaxing weekend in this nice hotel with our young children who have loads of toys and have just settled in and shouldn’t really have their routines thrown like this, and how I’m sure she understands. I’m all composed and ready to humble myself. The doorbell rings again.

I spoke with the manager. You can stay in the room until you check out on Sunday, with the free upgrade.

Now my humble pie was much more sincere. I thanked her profusely. I apologized quite sincerely for losing my temper. I said that I’m sure she understands that we want to have a relaxing weekend with our young children. This time I played well to my Chinese audience and she was laughing and smiling at the girls by the time she left. But did playing American get us the room for free?

From the comfort of our suite, we enjoyed Shenzhen all the more. The girls enjoyed relaxing walks through Central Park, with its large lawns, groves of banyan trees and pagodas surrounded by flowers. A Metro ride East to Huaqiaocheng metro stop, taking exit A took us directly to China Cultural Folk Village, a theme park putting a variety of ethnic Chinese minorities on display in a tasteful and interesting setting. We had looked forward to a wide variety of food, but were left disappointed as most of the street food matched what is available down the block from us in Shanghai. But the shows displayed dances and brightly colored costumes in short formats which kept the girls interested. The lightly forested grounds around lakes made for a lovely walk, but the small ethnic villages with open homes and community centers were quite interesting as well and so hands on that our toddlers loved it. Probably better viewed later in the day, we found the price a bit high but the time well spent.

A trip to Shenzhen wouldn’t be complete without shopping, and the center of local shopping in Shenzhen in Dong Men Lu. This pedestrian street was packed with people – primarily the same height and with the same hair color. A view over a Chinese crowd is unmistakable. Dong Men Lu has plenty of alleys and shopping malls opening off of it, creating a maze of pedestrian shopping with loads of people and no cars. Pushing strollers through the crowds made the trip all the more interesting, as did watching people interact with the only white children we saw all weekend. We bought a watch for about $30 – we’ll see how long it works. And we ate some of the best Chinese food we’ve had in our time in China so far, a testament both to street food and to Cantonese cooking.

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