Lingzhi Li draws on her experience of two cultures to bring the best service to United customers
Author A. Averyl Re
Lingzhi Li came from the City of Wisdom, lives in the City of Angels, and men compose poetry to her. Her life sounds like the stuff of legend. In many ways, it is.
Li grew up in Xiangyang, the second largest city in Hubei Province in central China, about 27 miles from the Three Gorges dam on the Yangtze River—the world’s largest hydroelectric dam. About 15 years ago, she immigrated to the United States. “I have two sisters in China,” she says. “They said it would be good for me to work and improve myself in a new environment.”
Li got her first taste of the air transportation business working for two years as a service representative at Los Angeles International Airport while earning her degree in Business Administration. “I wanted it as a bridge to be a flight attendant,” she says. “I worked as a translator because I thought it would be a good experience for customer service.” Once she earned her bachelor’s degree and a flight-attendant certificate, she applied with international airlines. She got several offers, and signed on with United in March 2013 as a flight attendant, where she could use her Cantonese and Mandarin language skills.
“It was the best choice,” she recounts. “United has the most comprehensive global route network—to Asia, Australia, Europe. I thought this would make me feel like I was working at the United Nations. I get to travel around the world, learn about different cultures and meet a lot of friends from different places. This is very important to me because it can constantly improve me, broaden my horizons.”
United is the biggest air carrier between the U.S. and China, with 80 flights a week. In addition to its Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong routes, the carrier became the first U.S. airline to fly to Chengdu when it began service last year, service the airline plans to expand this summer in addition to adding the first-ever service between mainland China and Guam. United employs 587 Cantonese-speaking flight attendants and is recruiting more. “There are more and more Chinese traveling to the U.S. than ever before,” Li explains. “We need flight attendants who can give service to our Chinese customers without language and culture barriers.”
Knowing the language is only part of giving the best service. Li says flight attendants must also understand nuances about the culture as well. “We had a customer who knocked on the table with his fingers every time a flight attendant served him. I had to explain to the flight attendant that, in Southern China, that’s a way of saying thank you.”
Even though she has been with United only two years, Li has already been a big hit with customers, and has received many complimentary letters—including one unique one. “I had a customer from Hong Kong who came up with a rhyme to describe the work I do. ‘A flight attendant has more duties than a waitress. Pour drinks, serve meals, see to the safety and happiness of customers.’ In Cantonese, this sounds like a song.” While service is a priority to her, so is safety. “Some customers ignore our safety demonstration,” she says. “I hope they can understand that it is not just for entertainment, but it is for their safety, and it is very important for everyone to watch and comply with that.”
This month, Li and her co-workers will be especially busy as February marks an important holiday on the Chinese calendar: the lunar New Year. “It’s a time for families to get together and celebrate together,” she says. “Because it’s the longest holiday in China, many Chinese come to the U.S., and there are many who go back to China to spend the holidays with their families.”
Li lives in Los Angeles with her husband, Raymond, a restaurateur, in a household where customer service is a family value. “Every day when I come back from work, he asks me if I gave good customer service to my customers? Did I make everyone happy?” And of course she can always say, “Yes.”
“We have a very good team,” she says, “and we work together to make sure every customer feels his or her flight is perfect from boarding to deplaning.”