Read Getting Whored Out, Part I

The problem with studying a culture as alien to me as China, is that I often have trouble distinguishing between what is a result of the culture itself, and what is the result of an individual’s character.  A lot of the social phenomenon I write about in this blog can be experienced in any part of the world, no matter what country or society you are in (see my post about Joe).  But of course no culture is alike, and while a certain practice might be prevalent in one country, it might be somewhat rare in another.  Here’s what reader Don Tai had to say about Getting Whored Out…Part I:

“In any country people will try to take advantage of you. If [Tony] was a true friend he would not have put you into such a position that either you or he would lose face. He should have given you a way out, but he did not. All this fluff about friendship and doing things you’re not comfortable with, that’s not Chinese culture but human nature.”

There’s a lot of validity to this statement, especially when he points out that Tony didn’t provide a “way out,” but that said, I still believe this story to be a good example, albeit somewhat extreme, of a common interaction between foreigners and Chinese people, especially Chinese business men, and here’s why.

China is what’s known as collective society, where the well-being of an individual is directly dependant upon the well-being of those around him.  Traditionally the society operates by way of two interconnected social strategies known as mianzi and guanxi.  Mianzi can be loosely interpreted as self respect or self image, while guanxi can be translated as relationships or connections.  One gives and receives mianzi in order to build one’s guanxi.  Everything from familial relationships to business operates by way of guanxi and mianzi, and without them personal success and happiness are hard to come by. (Keep in mind that this is the traditional style of social interaction in China, and as the world’s most populous country is going through one of the most radical economic and cultural revolutions the world has ever seen, social strategies are changing as well.)

According to an article I came across on middlekingdomlife.com, “A recent study conducted by the China Youth Daily found that over 93 percent of the 1,150 respondents surveyed admitted that face is very important to them, with 75 percent acknowledging that making a mistake in public was, by far, the most humiliating experience they could ever have (Shan, 2005).”

This results in a general unwillingness to directly admit to personal mistakes, as well as an unwillingness to directly deny a request.  Usually a more tactful, roundabout method is used, that often times may border on what Westerners would classify as dishonesty, thus creating a culture in which truth and honesty are not held in the same light as they are in Western culture.  Chinese people employ ‘white lies’ on a daily basis in order to maintain mianzi and guanxi. (This is perhaps one of the reasons for Tony’s severe disappointment in my refusal to hand out flyers.  Had I come up with an excuse, whether it was true or not, it would have softened the blow and saved Tony and I a good deal of strife. Although, as reader Don pointed out, it would have been more polite for Tony to offer me a way out had it occurred to him that handing out the flyers would have caused me to lose face.)

So compared to Western society, Chinese society at its core tends to be less honest, which isn’t to say that in this instance Chinese culture is any way worse than Western as much as it just different.  Compounding the issue is the fact that China is in many ways still in the pioneer stages of capitalism, an economic system in which dishonesty can pay out big, and in my opinion that’s when you start to see problems.  Capitalism in America has evolved to the point at which there are general rules and regulations that attempt to provide the consumer with more rights.  False advertising is of course illegal in the States, but is actually a pretty common practice in China.  I asked Tony what they would do when the students arrived at the English to discover that there was only one foreign teacher instead of three as the flyers advertised.  Tony told me that they will “have an explanation” as to why Serena and I were not teaching.  “You mean you will lie to them,“ I said.

“Yes,” he said, “We will lie to them.”  Tony then translated our interaction for Mr. Wang, and the two of them had a good laugh.  I wondered if they had ever heard of Bernie Madoff or Enron.

All this dishonesty makes my involvement with their plans less than comfortable for me, but as the white face in the crowd I played a key part in their business plan, even though I wasn’t actually working for them.  I find this to be a really common experience, not only in business but in any given social interaction because foreigners in China are face giving machines.  The rarity of foreigners, the obsession with Western culture, and the importance placed upon learning English means that my presence goes a long way in improving someone’s image.

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