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Published: April 22nd 2010
Where does role-playing end and being begin?
Working in a hotel gives you a lot of perspective about many things: the service industry, social stratification, even human nature.
A hotel is is first of all its own microcosm, with secret passages and back rooms, and has complex relationships at work both within itself and with the outside world. Pull aside a curtain and you literally might find a man pulling levers (in the case of the hotel where I work, you would find the phone operator's office).
I was so afraid I would get lost when I was shown the "hidden" floor where housekeeping is headquartered, and all the disperse passageways I could navigate to get there. Once I got the hotel geography down, I discovered much more difficult to navigate were hotel relationships. Relationships (the famed 关系, guanxi
which permeate Chinese society from family life right up to the corporate level), are an important part of the even more complex system of 面子mianzi
The scariest thing about mianzi
is that if you lose face, you can cause others to lose face, too. I do my best to understand and keep up my relationships by paying attention to face, but I have heard that it even takes Chinese years to master the art of giving and saving face.
When you walk into a hotel as a guest, there are a lot of things you take for granted. You don't really know how strongly the staff have to work together and communicate; to you, they're just people doing their jobs. Work in a hotel never stops. If a piece of trash, even as small as a piece of foil, falls out of a guest's pocket, someone is bound to pick it up and throw it away within seconds. If it's not the bellboy, it's the a'yi
who sweeps the lobby; if it's not her, it's the blonde foreign guest representative! We all pull as a team, pretty much, and it's all about details. In some ways, this is a really good job for me, because I am a perfectionist and if something isn't squared and lined up, I will fix it, or tell someone who can.
When you are on the service side of the hotel experience, you are in motion all the time, but in many ways you are in a unique place to stand still and watch the world go by. You see many different kinds of people, from all over the world and all levels of society. There are the people who just come in to use the lobby washroom, or sit and read the paper in the coffee bar. Then there are the guests, with all different kinds of attitudes and expectations and behaviors. I have seen drunken brawls late at night; as well as unbelievably elegant men and women, poised perfectly, sipping their coffee in the afternoon sun. I met the most beautiful woman once, and it wasn't because of her looks that she was so striking; it was her manner, like she was a movie star on a par with Audrey Hepburn or Grace Kelly for sheer refinement and grace.
I have also seen a view of the upper crust, and I must say that sometimes it is shocking what financially well-off people can feel entitled to, especially in a leisure environment away from home. I've had men twice my age ask me for dates or to give them my phone number; I've also been belittled and assumed ignorant because of my status as a foreigner. Talk about saving face when an important guest joins you and your manager in the bar, and proceeds to talk down to you!
Sometimes, standing in the lobby, I think of Shakespeare: "All the world's a stage, and the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances, and one man in his time plays many parts..." I feel that since the world comes here, in a sense, the hotel is a stage, too. I wonder about the backgrounds of the people I see, and how they got here and how they got to their respective stations in life. Most of all, I wonder what roles they are playing.
Our hotel is a place where powerful people meet for banquets; and the banquet is where the real deal goes through. People come and laugh and have a good time: maybe in taking a break from work; maybe in travelling to a new place. It seems that in a hotel, to a certain extent one can be anyone one wants or needs to be. When it's not in order to abuse the privileges of this type of role-play, I actually think people should do this more often, not just in a hotel. Change is a part of life, and sometimes in order to live well, we need to step away from our routines and habits, and see who we can truly be, if only we are willing to step into character.
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