To Your Heart's Content

Friday, December 16, 2005

Chinese Culture 101A

Let me tell you about one aspect of Chinese culture that is entirely different than that of the Mongolian. The idea of saving face in China seems simple to understand at first, but the longer you live here and the more you get to know the language and people, the more you realize that it is rather a complicated idea and way of thinking. Just as well, it is so ingrained in the psyche of the Chinese that it really is second nature; it's simply endemic in, part and parcel of the culture...
Well, one aspect of the idea of saving face is the politics of repaying favors. I came to a slight epiphany that synthesized pieces of one of many puzzles just recently after watching a Chinese movie called "Sunflower", about a father raising his son in such a way as to control every decision in his life (even to such an extent as to decide the abortion of his girlfriend, forcing her, without telling his son). In any case, at one point the father's best friend becomes indebted to him. Though they even lived together until his friend's death, the father never afforded his friend the opportunity to repay this debt, though his friend tried many times. For example, even when his friend wanted to give the father and his wife his government-granted apartment (which they were just denied), he would not accept it. He persisted in keeping his friend in perennial debt. It is like winning a game of chess. And the politics of favors unfolds in close to all relationships.

"What does this have to do with favors?" you might ask. I have learned that in China it is almost impossible to do something for somebody or accept anything without some sort of reciprocity expected in return. So the next time you are invited out to dinner, or to a spa, etc, just make sure you understand what may be happening in the mind of a Chinese, that the next time they ask you for something you must do it or lose face (that is, if it matters to you). Another perfect example just happened today in fact. An extended family member is here from the north, staying with us. We ran into each other as I was coming home and she invited me out to lunch at the school cafeteria (I live on a campus). Great, I thought, she has shown interest in America (to the point mostly of critiquing it) so maybe we can exchange some views. Low and behold, not one minute into walking and she wanted me to teach her some English, which is fine, but her lack of finesse was a bit caustic. For I asked her what use is it to her since she is retired and she replied, "what do you think I invited you out to lunch for?" I was dumbstruck at her bluntness. Most Chinese, in my experience, are never this direct.

Further, if you are a foreigner in China and you've ever gone out to dinner with some Chinese, you know that it is useless trying to pay! It can almost come to blows for christ's sake! Really! And this even occurs amongst Chinese because Chinese don't like to feel indebted. Okay, you might say, but you are the guest. Well, I've been in China long enough to not be considered a guest and this still plays out. Thus, I've come to the conclusion that it is extremely difficult to just offer an act of kindness without any expectation from either party of reciprocity. Disclaimer: of course the above is not always the case, but from my experience it is predominant.

Mongolians, on the other hand, are entirely different. They will do favors without expecting reciprocity, etc and vice versa. Of course, this, then, makes it a lot easier for them to ask for favors, etc. There are trade-offs I suppose.


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