Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Cutthroat Business vs. Old Fashioned Customer Service

I am experiencing a culture clash these days in that everything seems to polarized. There is a general lack of integrity and concern for others who in any way are opposite you. Nowhere is this more signified than American Airlines' handling of my recent travel.

I was flying from Saint Louis to Dallas then to El Paso and back. The flight out of Dallas was delayed first because of a broken copilot's chair. Then we sat there waiting for late passengers for thirty minutes more. THEN we sat there an hour because of a broken wing light. By this time, it was almost 11 and I had had enough. I was not about to go through switching planes and arriving at 2 a.m. It was inconsiderate to my hosts and would severely mess up my sleeping cycle. So I said NO. I want a hotel.

The airline accomodated me with Clarion Hotel. I got to the room to find that every lamp was unplugged, so I used the bare light from the light over the door to stumble around, pulling out beds, etc. to find the outlets. Then the ice machine was broken. When I went down four floors and walked out what seemed like half a mile to the front desk to inquire, they looked at me crossly and asked why I didn't use the ice machine on the first floor -- as if I was a complete bonehead. I didn't even know where it was! The next morning my clothes got wet because the sink would not drain due to an unconnected stopper.

Finally, I made it to El Paso. On my way back, out of El Paso, there were mechanical problems and we had to deplane. The airline ticket agent would not reaccomodate me because she was too busy. I had to wait until they could switch planes, even though they had only standby out of Dallas (we had all missed our connections). I said I would rather stay where I know people than fly somewhere and risk being stranded where I don't. They didn't care.

The flight did leave. They did find me a connection. I got home. But I emailed to complain. After all, I flew 26000 miles last year and gave them a lot of business and money. I still have not heard a peep from them. No apology. Remember Jet Blue? That's how you run an airline. American subscribes to the philosophy of all too many airlines -- we have laws to hide behind that keep us from having to provide good customer service. THEY ARE A SERVICE INDUSTRY! Not even common courtesy seems to be required! If I ran my business like they do, no one would hire me!

I remember the days of "the customer is always right" when businesses worked hard to apologize and make it up to customers who were inconvenienced or disatisfied with their service. Something about this attitude seemed to me to be particularly American. And it was about respect and appreciation. We now live in a culture where such values have gone with the wind. And that clashes with my culture of how I think things should be. It is much more like foreign countries where bureaucracy runs over people with abandon with no thought of such concerns. But I don't want to live in those countries. I want to live in the United States of America -- which used to be a great country and the place everyone wanted to be. It sure doesn't seem so much like that anymore.

For what it's worth...

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Letters From Iwo Jima: Culture Clashing at the Movies

What a monumental achievement this movie is. Its Academy Awards nominations are richly deserved. My knowledge of Japanese culture and WWII history are wanting in this instance and I need to see "Flags Of Our Fathers" to get a view of the U.S. side, but I was blown away by this movie. "Letters From Iwo Jima" takes you inside the minds of the Japanese soldiers. You empathize, and even root for them in the face of the impossible odds -- because they cannot win.

That a first time screenwriter, a Japanse American, got such an opportunity is also phenomenal. She worked with Paul Haggis, Academy Award winner, Clint Eastwood Academy Award winner, and now she may win herself. Talk about the chance of a lifetime! But the achievement is monumental and one wonders how it could have been written without the collaboration of someone with an inside understanding of that culture. It was based on a book, in part, but nonetheless, the Japanese cultural themes are so strong throughout.

The film is the the Japanese side of the Battle of Iwo Jima told from the points of view of the commanding general and those who serve under him. These are ordinary men in extraordinary circumstances. Saigo is a baker who just wants to get back to his wife and the daughter he has yet to meet. Throughout the whole film, he just wishes he was somewhere else. None of the seemingly blind patriotism of some of the others. He just wants to go home and is doing what he must to survive.

The Japanese sense of honor is certainly a key cultural theme, and it is interesting how it takes shape here. At one point, when things are clearly taking a turn for the worst, many officers and soldiers want to commit suicide to preserve their honor, while the commanding General has ordered them not to. Others want to go on. And there is an intra-cultural struggle here against the traditional sense of honor and a new understanding which has emerged in these circumstances.

Another cultural theme is patriotism. Certainly we Americans know much about this, but I think the soldiers in this film evidence a level of it which often goes beyond what most American realize. To fight and die for their country is the highest honor to them, and their will to live, their instinct to survive, is constantly tested by this resolve. What is true patriotism? Is it the man who realizes they are defeated and takes mines out to destroy one last tank suicidally? Is it the soldiers who rather than face defeat, kill themselves? Is it the soldiers who continue fighting on? Is it those who die in the course of duty? Whose is the greater patriotism. The film provides no clear answers but the questions are strong ones that leave you thinking and debating long after the film is done.

Other themes are what most jar us. If we go thinking the Japanese are not like us in any way (which I did not), we might be shocked to hear them thinking of their wives and kids, writing and receiving letters from home, and interacting with one another much as we do. One of the most powerful scenes is when the soldiers listen as their leader translates a letter from the mother of an American soldier they had captured. And they comment that the letters sound just like those of their own mothers. Maybe the Americans and Japanese are not so different, the characters realize. We realize it. And that is the heart of the brilliance at work here.

"Letters From Iwo Jima" puts us in the heads of those whom on the surface might seem nothing like us and allows us to see the world from their point of view. In the process of comparing both films, I imagine, one can see the similarities more than the differences and gain new respect for the long villianized Japanese enemy who so valliantly fought against our grandfathers and great grandfathers all those decades ago. I have yet to see "Flags Of Our Fathers" but it was written and made by the same filmmaking team as a companion from the American point of view, and I have heard it is powerful. I cannot wait to see it. You should not wait to see "Letters From Iwo Jima" either. It leaves you changed for the better.

For what it's worth...