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Gareth is an Australian who has lived in JiangSu, SuZhou (Heaven on Earth) for a few years - he is a keen observer of the Chinese people, Chinese culture and the changes that are occurring in China at break-neck speed. He can often be found on his a nightly 'perch' in front of his bar in the famous Bar Street in Suzhou, talking to the locals in his bad Mandarin, teaching the 'flower-selling girls' English, eating street food and smiling at the local chengguan (neighbourhood police). Gareth also has several other businesses in China around Business and English training. His experiences have been varied and interesting and his years in China have taught him to be wary of promises but excited about prospects, not a bad situation to be in!
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Part 2: Anthropology in China: - What is more important, rules or relationships?    

By Garreth Humphris
3536 Views | 0 Comments | 5/17/2010 1:31:17 PM

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(This blog post will be more meaningful if you've read the first one...) Ask anyone who has ever been to China and tried to cross the road as a pedestrian or even worse, caught a taxi – rules are irrelevant!!! Well, maybe this is a bit excessive because obviously people do follow a rules or two when driving a car – those are
1) keep your hand permanently attached to the horn and
2) if I am 1mm in front of you, you must give way to me when I want to get in your lane!! and
3) I can change lanes, stop in the middle of the road, reverse suddenly or swerve inextricably into oncoming traffic without warning and you have to dodge me!

Getting back to the relationships side of things because that is what CLM is all about…The paradox in China seems to be 2 levels of ‘belonging’ in China – I call it my ‘digital relationship meter’. On or Off!

Maybe it is something to do with the sheer population size and the tradition of living within 100 metres of all your family – but if a Chinese person does not acknowledge you, you don’t exist!
Let me explain! I can be walking along a street and walk into my friend, if they don’t make eye contact, they never saw me – I don’t exist! I could say to them on the next meeting ‘Hey, I say you yesterday, and you didn’t say anything’, and they would say ‘I never saw you’. And you would say ‘I bumped into you, literally, on the street, in front of your house’, ad they’d say ‘I wasn’t there, I didn’t see you!’. And both you and they know they were lying, but, it doesn’t make any difference.

This is the concept that Chinese call ‘面子‘(mianzi). Known as ‘face’ but in more real terms it is more like reputation or acknowledgement – an invisible currency that is stored, bartered and traded quite beyond a mere foreigner’s knowledge and/or thought process.

Everything you say, do or don’t do has some degree of ‘face‘. You don’t go somewhere with the family, you lose face. You don’t want to see your girlfriends Grandma, you lose face! Grandma sees you are the wrong time (or worse, place!) equals loss of face! You have fun with people and they feel embarrassed, they lose face. The boss of a restaurant shakes your hand, you both get face. So what is another 'face-breaker' in traditional households - daughter dating/marrying a foreigner – extreme loss of face in some areas!

Most Chinese will comply to maintain face – some will ‘forget the truth’ if it means ‘loss of face’. I know individuals that have ‘double lives’ between cities – in places they are anonymous they have one life and in a home-town they are a ‘different person’. I was never allowed to meet one girlfriend’s parents – they would not approve of their daughter meeting foreigners, much less dating one! If they came to visit her, she never came to the places they could possibly meet me, or other people that might have known her – she even rented a small room in a dormitory for a week to ‘trick’ the parents into believing she was living there – she wasn’t dishonest, she was saving her parents from ‘losing face’!

As a foreigner, you will spend so much time trying to work out face, loss of face, how to gain face and what the hell did I do to upset my partner – and it is mostly a question of face! For foreigners who don’t deal in the ‘face’ currency, you may find an ally going against you if it means they will ‘lose’ face with others – this means your partner may ‘side’ with the family when you expect them to support you! Face wins!

As an aside: The same ‘I didn’t see you – so you don’t exist’ also applies to road rules, walking in crowds, waiting in line in a shop, seeing a crime on the street, dealing with beggars, anything – This is how Chinese can observe a disturbance in the street and see nothing!

So, give enough face and doors will open for you – foster the right relationships and another magical word comes into play – ‘关系 ‘ (guanxi). This translates roughly into ‘relationship’ but it materializes itself as ‘influence’ or ‘ability to smooth the way’. For example, a successful businessman may maintain guanxi with the ‘blacks’ (mafia and petty thugs) and the ‘whites’ (police and law officials) quite openly and safely. In some cases, a personal matter can be resolved with guanxi, a regulation re-intepreted, an indiscretion overlooked. Have guanxi with officials and you might win contracts or start businesses; have little guanxi and opportunities limited. You get ‘guanxi’ through family relationships and ‘face’ you have earned with others – it is a complex web of respect and ‘trading’.

So how does this all work for foreigners? It cuts both ways - you will inadvertantly 'give face' and 'lose face' without knowing it! People will help you 'smooth the path' and you may need to do something in return. If you are inexplicably asked to attend meetings/dinners/gatherings then there is probably some 'face value' for the host! Face is an un-purchasable currency, you have to trade and return it for you to accumulate it's wealth.

Be also aware that 'face' plays itself out in 'relationships' as well. To foreigners there is often an apparent paradox with Chinese people - It is interesting that Chinese people believe they are traditional, law-abiding citizens but they also tend to be very self-centred and some would say, bloody-minded, about their own level of right and wrong and their own focus of justice. Once challenged, they will hardly every back-down or compromise. And if they do, watch out because retribution is coming! Face will be returned, guanxi may be utilized to recover it!

So I am painting the Chinese character as some demonic psychopath? On the contrary, most Chinese people I know are extremely friendly and accommodating and herein lies the secret – while you are in a ‘relationship’ with a Chinese person they are caring and attentive, but if you are ‘out of a relationship’, they can be cold, calculating and self-centred. It can change overnight - you don’t exist now, even if you once did – this morning, when I woke up, I didn’t see you, so you don’t exist!

And the problem is, the term ‘relationship’ is different between Chinese and foreigners. Whereas many foreigners would describe their ‘relationships’ as having multiple levels – associates, friends, partners, extended family etc all with different rules and degrees of interactions – my observation is that the idea of ‘relationship’ in China is generally described as a ‘mutually beneficial arrangement’, whereby if both partners have an equal stake in the relationship, it is stable.

Where foreigners may be happy to have a longer-term girlfriend, Chinese partners may not be able to tolerate this. So, in Chinese terms, if you are no longer ‘contributing’ to the ‘relationship’, you are ‘out of it’ and no better or worse than anyone else on the street. So what is ‘in and out’? Hard to know, but if your friend starts mentioning marriage, she means ‘now’, not 6 months or a year! Buying a house, better have the deposit ready tomorrow otherwise you may be ‘out’.

And what turns these decisions? – influence of ‘face’…

In some cases it is just open competition - if my boyfriend/husband is not providing the same as others, I have lost face! If her friend’s husband earns more that you, this is a face issue. Marriage, a car, a gift, a holiday – watch for the things that her friends have and see if you need to match these. One of the greatest things is seeing if you can give them experiences that their friends cannot have – big ‘face’ value!

Within families, this runs extra deep - a good daughter shows filial piety to her parents. If an issue becomes a large enough question of 'face' loss, a woman may be traditionally-bound to 'break-off' a relationship - even if it means destroying her happiness. Remember too that your partner may have been/be able to withstand a ‘face onslaught’ for a period of time – but with parents, family, friends and society all pushing it, it is hard to win indefinitely!

So it may appear that things come with ‘pre-conditions’ such as ‘house before marriage’, these are often driven be ‘face’ and showing to others that (sub-consciously) her decision to marry you is as much one of status and reputation enhancement as it is love.

Of course, this description is very non-general and very generic – not all situations will be like this but, in traditional areas of China/traditional parents the 'face' issue is significant and an underlying current that cannot be under-estimated.

The key point is if you want to ‘smooth the way’ in your relationships, you need to get a handle on the concepts of ‘face’ and ‘guanxi’ and how these factors influence your partner’s moods and decisions!

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