Going Dutch in Beijing by Mark McCrum

book cover
Two American men are sitting on a beach when a scantily-clothed beauty lays down to suntan in front of them. One says to the other, “You know, in some European countries, it’s legal for women to go topless at the beach.” Both men smile in thought. Next image, two Italian men at the beach are disgusted when the obese woman next to them bares her breasts. One comments to the other: “You know, in America, it’s illegal to take your top off at the beach.” This commercial popped into mind when reading Mark McCrum’s Going Dutch in Beijing: The International Guide to Doing the Right Thing (UK: Profile Books), although I didn’t find anything as amusing in the book. McCrum breaks cultural differences into seventeen chapters, covering greetings to gestures, clothes to customs, and meals to meetings. It was a laborious read and perhaps intended for travellers on those orange aeroplanes whose idea of visiting starts with a pint.

The book in many ways is Travel 101: Translation bloopers like Irish Mist liqueurs’ poor sales in Germany where mist means manure; the Japanese die from karoshi (death from over work); Arab countries have a wasta (old boys network). It was outdated references to the French, however, that made me lose confidence in his observations of other countries. According to McCrum, the French say “un ange passe” after a lull in dinner conversation passes (my French friends simply shrugged at this). He also discusses cinq à sept – the silent understanding in a marriage that affairs take place between leaving the office and returning home for the evening meal (a behind the times expression). What he did get right was Le Système D (D for débrouillardise) – getting around bureaucracy by whatever means necessary in business.

I did learn for future travels that in Russia, while sitting on a toilet, you should never look at a mirror if you’re superstitious. And another zinger: “You should never do anything in the East that makes you or anyone else look foolish.” Compelling stuff.

From Riviera Reporter 132

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