Strangers in the Land of Smiles

From the corner of my eye I could see Yu Shifu grabbing his ears and writhing around in pain. It is obvious that he used to be a slight man, but now that he has reached his 60s he is beginning to get soft around the midsection and is developing a paunch. He is wearing a dark suit coat and trousers and is clutching his black leather man purse tightly to his chest. He is obviously not having a very good time and keeps opening and closing his mouth to ease the pressure.

"Hey, Yu Shifu, do your ears hurt?" I yell over to him -- sitting on the other side of the aisle. I address him as "shifu," which means "master," to show my respect for his age.

"Yes -- I feel like my head is going to explode," he responds in Chinese, shaking his head. Despite working for a travel agency for several years, he has never been on an airplane and doesn't know about ear popping.

"You have to pinch your nose with your fingers and blow really hard," I tell him while miming to him what I mean. From his reaction I can tell that the trick worked.

Several months ago, my wife's boss, the owner of a travel company, asked if I could help do some team-building and marketing strategy training for his young and growing company. He used to be a ticket agent for a Hong Kong airline, and decided about five years ago to start his own travel agency. Over the years his business has grown to a healthy medium-sized company and he now wants to improve the communication between his employees and improve their customer service for their mostly foreign clientele. I wrote up a proposal for a two-day training session suggesting that we should take all of the employees, from the managers to the ticket delivery men (of which Master Yu is one), someplace out of the office. I also suggested that we could do the training at a hotel in another Chinese city so the employees could have a change of scenery and I could get them out of their comfort zone. It always helps to get the creative juices going.

I passed on the proposal and didn't hear anything back for a couple of weeks. Then one day, my wife, Li Na, came bounding into the house and stated, "So my boss liked your idea for the training, but he doesn't want to go to another city." "Well that is OK -- we can always do it in Nanjing," I started before she interrupted me. "No, he actually wants to take us all to another country to do the training. We are going to Thailand!"

The first week of October is Chinese National Day and a government holiday for pretty much the entire country. It is also the start of the rainy season in Thailand so the prices were quite reasonable. If you have not been to Thailand yet, I cannot recommend it strongly enough -- beautiful beaches, friendly people, and some of the best food in Asia, if not the world. It is also very reasonable by U.S. standards.

With the exception of one or two of the employees, none of them had ever been out of China before and, like Master Yu, few of them had ever been on a plane. We set off from Nanjing early in the morning for our seven-day trip. I was the only foreigner with the group of nearly 20 Chinese people. Of course I had the largest suitcase ---- the rest of the group seemed to manage with the smallest bags possible -- many of them no bigger than an overnight bag.

"Welcome to Thailand," I told the group as we stepped off the plane into Thai customs. "Most of your clients are `wai guo ren' who are traveling in China. One of the goals of this training is to give you an idea what it is like for a foreigner to travel in a land where they can't read and write, and can't speak the language. I want you to feel like a wai guo ren!" I said as they giggled. "Wai guo ren" literally means "outside country person" and having never left China they found it odd that someone would actually consider them foreigners.

After getting myself through customs with no problem, I sat on my luggage watching several of them struggle with their declaration forms or answering the customs agent's questions. It is all part of the learning experience. We organized a scavenger hunt for the teams around Koh Samui Island and the Chinese staff went off exploring and trying to accomplish tasks like finding police officers (and explaining to them in broken English and hand signals why they wanted to take pictures with them), buying eggs and whiskey from an outdoor market, booking a boat trip to the surrounding islands, and other smaller chores -- like finding transportation around the island.

By the end of the week when our training classes and activities were at an end, most everyone was slowing down into relaxed tropical island mode. But I noticed Master Yu didn't seem to be having much fun. He had shed his dark blazer but still was walking around in his long trousers and leather shoes. Even though we were right on the beach and had a very nice swimming pool at the hotel, I hadn't seen him in the water.

"Do you think Master Yu has a bathing suit?" I asked Li Na. "Actually I don't think he does."

Like a sign from above, as we were having this conversation a portly woman with bathing suits and sarongs strung over her forearms ambled up to our beach chairs (actually, she had been walking back and forth in front of us all morning). A little good natured haggling took place and soon we had a nice black pair of bathing trunks that were just Master Yu's size. He finally accepted the gift after a few minutes of vehement denials, and within seconds he was splashing around in the salty water.

Sure enough, after diving into the sea he came up holding his head. "Hey this hurts! I have water in my ear!"

Fairfield native Keith Gallinelli can be reached at