The Chinese, by some accounts, could use some polishing. Their manners and public behavior aren't as dazzling as some of the new skyscrapers in China's biggest cities.
In Shanghai, for instance, sidewalks are awash with spittle; unkempt passengers still push, shove, and cut in line with abandon when boarding buses, subways, and at the post office. Long-nailed taxi drivers will nose-pick, spit, and belch freely while ferrying passengers through the city's chaotic traffic.
But one petite woman is trying to change that. Call her Shanghai's manners maven or a savvy, attractive version of Dr. Henry Higgins. Just don't speak to her in a loud, boorish voice. June Yamada will have none of that.
Ms. Yamada, a Japanese-born and American-raised former model, UCLA student, and fashion consultant, just opened what is billed as "the first school of fashion and manners in China, a school of elegance."
Ms. Yamada has also published China's first authoritative book on fashion and manners, "Tell It Like It Is, June," which became a surprise bestseller, with all 10,000 copies snapped up in just two months. A second edition with a much higher print run will be released soon, because local Chinese readers have been clamoring for it.
Four years ago, Yamada, in her early 40s, decided to follow her stepfather, a businessman in Taiwan and later Japan, when he returned toShanghai, where he had been educated. She had promised her late mother that she'd always look after him.
Divorced with no children, Yamada says her first days in Shanghai were "too lonely to describe," but eventually she made friends. These newfound Chinese friends, who learned about her professional background, soon encouraged her to open a training center.
In the past she had acted as a comportment consultant to such high- profile clients as Ross Perot, Sean Connery, Issey Miyake, Givenchy, Countess Isabella D'Honano of France, Halston, and even Henry Miller, in addition to many ambassadors and movie stars.
With her mother's wish in mind - that she be a bridge among cultures - Yamada worked for two years to set up the city's first school to teach the international norms of etiquette.
Her stepfather warned her that it wouldn't be easy, saying that residents of Shanghai are the "New Yorkers of China," who think they know everything.
But nothing has deterred Yamada from her goal of teaching "proper behavior" to those who want to learn.
She sees the June Yamada Academy as "an Asian school for fashion and manners ... that combines Western manners with renowned Japanese hospitality."
Classes, held in the five-star Okura Garden Hotel, go beyond simply teaching businessmen and women to function in other cultures. They stress that bearing, fashion, and manners are necessities for daily life anywhere. Yamada believes that presenting oneself well is more powerful than any title on a business card.
The school employs a roster of nearly 30 teachers, all of whom are expatriateswith a minimum of seven years relevant teaching experience outside China. Most classes have about 15 students each. About 60 percent are mainland Chinese and 40 percent from elsewhere. Each two-month course costs about $540, which limits the classes to professionals who earn enough to afford it and who are also interested in gaining the social skills that will help them move up in the world.
Yamada doesn't mince words on any subject, which is part of her charm. She comes across as a drill sergeant when reinforcing the finer points of proper behavior to clueless students.
But in private, she quickly reveals her inner "softy" via an admitted passion for animals (she avoids the National Geographic Channel for fear of seeing an animal being attacked).
Yamada says she cares about China's people, and wants to help them realize their full potential as individuals with a bright, powerful future.
Proper international behavior and etiquette are especially appealing to the under-35 generation in China.
As Aimee Jin, a shy young Shanghainese student, explains, "I read June's book and became very anxious to take her courses. I'm especially interested in proper table manners and good posture."
Yamada stresses that money and a diploma do not make up for a lack of good manners. "Nothing is more effective than a first impression," she declares. "People evaluate you according to how you look and conduct yourself."
And she feels you're never too young to start. One of the academy's classes is in international etiquette for juniors (ages 13 to 18). Foreign teachers with degrees in childhood education teach the students, and to ensure that what they learn is not forgotten at home, parents are required to participate in the classes with their children, at no extra charge.
Yamada claims she is no magician, just someone who can bring out the potential within anyone. Her latest brainstorm came to her just last week: a "Romance of Dance" mixer, a way for people to network in a fun musical setting where everything from Frank Sinatra to Motown would be played. That trumps standing around at a cocktail party, handing out a business card, and then walking away, she says.
It's just another chapter in the saga of Yamada's effort to improve China's social standards, one city and one book at a time.
The June Yamada Academy in Shanghai, China, teaches courses on a wide range of topics. Nancy Johnston visited a number of them, and this is what she observed:
• The most popular workshop is called Looking Fantastic. But also available are classes in interior design, restaurant operations, corporate training, "makeup T.P.O." (the initials stand for "time, place, occasion"), successful image creation for business executives, the art of relationships for finding Mr./Ms. Right, and the coup de grace: The Ultimate Power Study of Being a Superb Lady or Gentleman. This workshop focuses on international standards of truly ladylike and gentlemanly behavior (complete with a society-style dinner).
• In the Posture, Walking, and Sitting miniclass, June Yamada demonstrates the correct way to stand, sit, and walk. Then students practice, as she calls out directions such as "Don't slump those shoulders! Be proud of yourself! Don't drag your feet like a streetwalker!"
• The elegant dining room of the Okura Garden Hotel is the setting for the table manners class taught by Jane Hunter, a refined British expatriate and former teacher for the International English Language Testing System who also has worked for the Hyatt and Sheraton hotels in New Zealand. The class is made up of Indonesians, Americans, South Africans, Japanese, a Chinese-American businesswoman, and a high-ranking Chinese politician. Ms. Yamada begins the session by stressing that table manners begin before you are seated and end with the good impression you leave. She also emphasizes the importance of intelligent, attentive conversation during a meal. Students, who are seated at perfectly set tables, gaze attentively at Ms. Hunter, dressed in a blue pin-striped suit accented with a pastel chiffon neck scarf. (She also teaches social-skills classes at the academy.) In the table manners course she instructs the class in how to hold a wine glass, how to correctly summon a waiter, and the proper way to fold a napkin on one's lap (with the fold toward your body).
• At a shopping class in the downtown Hiroko boutique, Yamada recommends against spending money on expensive brands just because they are well-known. A better idea is to gain an understanding of color, design, and fabric. With that knowledge, people can gain confidence to choose the right clothes for them, she says.