Localization as Racism?

by Translation Guy on January 4, 2013

“Swiss Hospitality for Chinese Guests,” a how-to-handle-Chinese guide by the Swiss Hotel Association, is offensive, says Rafit  Ali, CEO of Skiff.com, “an early-stage travel intelligence media company.”

The hospitality  guide starts out “well-meaning at least,” according to Ali , but soon crosses the insult frontier into “borderline offensiveness.”  Talking about the differences between ethnic groups often requires “cultural shorthand,” says Ali.  Shorthand  invites cliché, which encourages stereotypical thinlomg. And Stereotypes are racist, unless you call them “personas” in which case they are  good marketing.

Below, I’ve excerpted Ali’s own cherry-pick list of alleged cultural faux pas. You can read the entire report right here, no Swiss required. See what you think.

1. Chinese eat quickly: try and serve the food all at the same time and please don’t take it as a mark of disrespect when the Chinese leave the table immediately – as soon as they have put down their cutlery  or chopsticks.

2. Avoid using too many milk products (cream, cheese, butter) and be moderate in the use of salt.

3. The Chinese like foods which are liquid and soft. However, baked goods are not very common in China.

3. Soft-boiled eggs are not so much appreciated. So please boil them longer.

4. Hot drinks (and often simply hot water) are preferred to cold drinks.

5. A basic selection of Chinese food, such as rice, stewed or fried vegetables and sliced meat (chicken, beef, veal, pork) or fish should be available at all meals.

6. Reserve a big, if possible round, table for your Chinese guests: The group travelling together will, in principle, prefer to eat together.

7. Chinese like to combine different dishes and tastes: It is appreciated if all courses are served together. The soup will, in principle, be served at the end of the meal.

8. Together with the classical European cutlery, chop sticks – placed on the right side of the bowl or dish – should be provided for each person. Chop sticks should never be stuck into the food – this will be associated with bad luck or even death. Otherwise the usual European tableware and decoration will be appreciated by your Chinese guests.

9. Chinese eat early: Breakfast at 7 a.m., lunch at noon and dinner at 7 p.m. are quite standard eating hours for Chinese tourists.

I’m no expert on Chinese eating habits, so I don’t know if these tips are true or false, except for the part about sticking your chopsticks in the rice, which you never want to do. The big problem with clichés is that the truer  they are, the more likely they are to keep coming up. Like the Energizer Bunny, case in point.

Another question, or maybe two. Is it racist or hospitable to give a Chinese guest a pair of chopsticks? Or is it both?

That answer will be provided by the chopstick recipient, not us bloggers. Tourists vote with their wallet. My wife, who is of the Japanese persuasion, to this day will not enter a Benetton store, United Colors or no, because once 20 years ago, she felt she was being treated poorly on account of her ethnicity by a store clerk (also of Asian background, curiously.) Unforgivable and never forgotten.

I’m sure this story dredges up searing memories of ethnic humiliation for some of my readers too. Fortunately and hopefully more often and not, travellers are treated extra nice, simply because we are foreigners bearing wallets. My wife envies the special treatment I always receive from friendly people curious about my hairy arms and long nose. So I guess racism is like many other gifts. It’s the thought that counts.

I’d love to hear from readers with stories about the indignities of racist tourist treatment — getting kicked out of swimming pools and having doors slammed in your face and such — since your suffering will stir up traffic to promote our organic search ranking. Happy stories of special foreign guest-handling would be even nicer.

Thank you for your participation.


  1. kyrasantae says:

    I don’t know about habits from other parts of China, but among Cantonese, it’s more customary to have soup at the beginning of the meal (after an appetizer if applicable). Even traditional-style banquet menus are set up this way. Though my only experience with Cantonese food is with my family in Hong Kong, I don’t know if it’s much different in Guangzhou.

    I can confirm for sure the preference for hot drinks, though. We feel that one should not take cold drinks during a meal because we believe that it causes indigestion.

  2. I have never actually run into any kind of awkward or insulting behaviour in my travels, despite being a visible minority with several stereotypes associated with my ethnicity. Although, to a certain degree I’m sure some of that is dictated by the fact they want what is in my wallet, as you say.

  3. Mros Soucek says:

    Ok, I’m Chinese American and I have to say, that I would describe these as pretty accurate when dealing with a lot of my Chinese mainland friends, relatives, etc.

  4. Michelle says:

    I’m a hospitality worker, sort of high end clients, something of a concierge and I have had a number of incidents over the years. Had a supposedly devout muslim client, who we went to great lengths to prepare for to accomodate various religious behaviour (no alcohol, prayer area, etc.) after being advised by his entourage, walk through the door, excuse his people and ask for a bottle of Johnny Walker Blue, gets drunk and sleeps through morning prayer.

  5. Not totally sure these are that offensive, I might they aren’t the best thought out way of addressing things, but its not massively offensive.

  6. Reece says:

    I’m from the South, and have a reasonably distinct twang in my voice, and I’ve had to deal with some pretty condescending behaviour when visiting the “Big Apple”, people telling me they don’t serve grits or whatever. I don’t even like grits. So it’s not just an issue of different nationalities.

  7. I’m Chinese, and I’m not even out of bed at 7am.

  8. June says:

    I’ve found in my experience that a lot of travelling business people enjoy experiencing local culture, food and the like rather than having locals cater to any stereotypes.

  9. Dee says:

    The chopstick question is a bit of a cunumdrum isn’t it?

  10. Margaret says:

    I’m of Arab descent, although a Christian not Muslim, so I’ve run into some hilarious incidents over the years with people trying to be “sensitive”

  11. I’m something of a large man and American, but everytime I go to Europe on business, I get treated like I’m a dim witted Homer Simpsonesque figure

    • Ken says:


  12. Just try being Latino in the southern states, stereotypes abound.

  13. Ronald says:

    I’ve been in the hospitality industry for quite a while, and this is a bit of a delicate issue, how far you go catering to cultural ecentricities versus what could be considered offensive, and I’ve had the same behaviour and actions fall on both sides of the line depending on the customer/client. It’s really quite maddening.

  14. Arnrun says:

    Asian American here, though not Chinese so I can’t commment on the accruracy of the tips on catering to Chinese customers, but travelling for business I do find myself running into stereotypes. Although largely they come from colleagues try to pass me the check to do the math on it.

    • Ken says:

      LOL. My Asian wife faces the same sort of discrimination from me too!

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