October 18, 2009

Individualists living in a Collectivist land

It seems we have been here long enough we are learning some of the underlying layers of Chinese interactions.  Other than the other MCC family and church on Sunday morning, we have had very little contact with the expat community here in Beijing.  Our friendships are primarily with Chinese people (neighbors, teachers etc.).  It seems that we have so far been living under the graces of western ignorance, because we are suddenly finding out ways that we have potentially been offending people.  There seems to be a lot less that is directly said in Chinese society.  This is not for lack of "reading people"on our parts, but it has more to do with how we have been deeply ingrained to behave toward other people.  Here in China, some of these things are fundamentally different.  I will elaborate by telling some of these differences and then describing a tangled web we currently find ourselves in because of these differences.  A lot of this comes from a book published in 2000, co-authored by Chinese and Americans.

The first difference is that China is a collectivist society.  This is deeply rooted and is does not stem from the government structure.  There is a concept here called guanxi, which literally means "relationship".  This is not an official definition but is my interpretation of what it is based on reading and experience.  Guanxi is the relationships and networks you have with people.  Guanxi is not easily established, but once it is established it is there forever.  If you have guanxi with someone, you must do everything you can to help that person if they need it or ask for it.  It is a social obligation.  You have guanxi with family members, teachers, students, classmates and the acquaintances of those people.  For example (this is an example from a Chinese book, it is not mine), if I need help with something, my aunt might help me by going to her old professor from 20 years ago and asking that person to help.  The professor has guanxi with my aunt so they would do anything they could to help me, even though they don't know me.  

However, you can also build guanxi with someone by doing them a favor.  They now owe you for that favor and you are indebted to them.  Now this already stomps on some western toes.  Everyone helps themselves and you can ask for help from maybe three people that are very very close to you.  We hate the idea that we would be obligated to help someone we don't know just because we are connected to them by some invisible thread. We don't like being indebted to people, or thinking that they are only helping us to that they can get something in return.  However the advantages are, of course, that if you have good guanxi with people (especially people in helpful positions), you will go far.

The second difference is the view on what is polite.  In the western world we believe that we should be polite to everyone, because it shows respect for them.  My Chinese teacher asked me to give her a sample sentence where I was asking James to wash the floor.  I said a translation of "James would you please wash the floor?"  My teacher laughed at me because I was being so polite to my husband.  Here, if you are overly polite to someone, you are saying that the relationship you have with that person is formal and not close.  If you are overly polite, the other person may think that you are mad at them because you are being so distant and formal.  Meanwhile, when I ask someone to do something for me, I think that there are two key words.  They are "would" and "please", indicating that the person has a choice and that I respect their right to refuse.  

A third difference.  When hosting someone for a meal, the belief is that the guest is most honored by the quantity and quality of food.  You honor your guest by laboring in the kitchen for them and turning out up to 10 different dishes, while they sit at your table alone, eating and watching TV.  In the west, this would be very rude, because you are virtually ignoring your guest.

A fourth difference.  In scholastic papers, citations are not nearly the big deal that they are in the west.  Too much citation means that you are insulting the reader's intelligence, and assuming that they have no idea what you are talking about.  Meanwhile, we call it plagiarism because you are not giving credit to the original writer's intelligence.

This leads us to our current, extremely confusing scenario.  

I had mentioned that Ari's teacher (our neighbor) has been taking Ari to and from school for us because she is going anyway.  After a month of this I began to wonder if we owed her some sort of guanxi debt.  However, simultaneously, I have been editing her English university papers for her.  Does this cancel the guanxi debt?  Who knows?  Well, I edited one recently for her, and I could tell that she had done this one in a much more hurried way because I had to make a lot of changes to sentence structure.  The ideas were excellent and well expressed, but there were a lot of technical difficulties.  I also edit according to Canadian University standards.  I don't know what the expectation is at her class, so I can only the use the reference I have of English papers.  Anyway, when I sent it back there were a lot of corrections.  After that she started acting strangely short with me.  

I started worrying that maybe it was the whole guanxi thing and my reaction was (every time she picked up and dropped off Ari) to be very polite, saying "thank you" and "I appreciate it" and "if it is not convenient...".  Essentially I reacted from my cultural instinct to be very polite so that she knew that I respected her individual rights in our relationship.  But things have gotten stranger still and it seems that I might be the cause of this by acting too polite.  So we thought that we could invite them for dinner, until we realized that we don't know enough about the protocol for hosting guests and could further insult them without even knowing it.  We would fail at making Chinese food the way that they like it, and in our experience, making American food is a serious gamble.  Nevertheless we extended the invitation for sometime in the future.

Thats not all!  Ari asked us last week if we would bring him to and from school again, and we thought it was a good idea since it gives us quality time with him.  But when I called his teacher to tell her that, she seemed even more confused and acted strange.  Now I am convinced that she thinks we don't trust her.  

To sum it up, I feel like throwing my hands in the air and pulling my hair out.  I am not accustomed to all of this second guessing and I don't know what to do.  I can't apologize or be polite.  I can't explain because now all of our interactions very short and formal, and because North Americans are known for surprising Chinese people with their shocking directness.  I know enough about these interactions to know that it is easy to do the wrong thing, but not enough to know the intricacies of the best response.  

So I have chosen a strange middle ground.  I emailed her saying that I sometimes have a hard time understanding Chinese culture and asked if we could have lunch together this week so that she can explain Chinese culture to me.  I'm hoping that this sends the message that I know I could accidently offend people and that I consider her close enough to help me understand her culture.

I am understanding a little more about why it is hard to adapt to some aspects of a different culture.  Just because you know something is different (and can even understand why), that doesn't make it easy to throw years of training out the window.  It is very very hard not to be "too" polite (perhaps even more so as Canadians, who are notorious for their nearly absurd politeness).  It feels rude to command someone to do something and to not sit and talk with guests at meal time.  Because it feels rude, I want to apologize, but that would be too polite.  

The learning continues...

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