Like any expat in China longer than five minutes, cultural faux pas have occured in my stay. Small things, like cutting a pear and handing a piece to a friend; or big, like unnecessarily losing face for a potential business partner. Such mistakes are part and parcel of life in China. But over the long term, what tends to differentiate the successful from the non is willingness to ask questions; and not to simply leap to conclusions.
When I first arrived, I worked as a university English teacher. I was freshly graduated from university myself. So not only was it my first time in China, it was my first time teaching. Conscious that I would make mistakes, I frequently asked the students questions, “Is there anything you’d like me to change? How can I make the class better?” And each time, I was assured by a wall of smiling faces that I was a great teacher, and they loved my class.
Imagine my dismay, then, after three months when I was summoned to the office of the Dean of the English Department, who informed me in a rather perfunctory fashion that my students had all been complaining.
I was upset to discover that I was doing poorly, but I was far, far more upset by the perceived betrayal of my students, who had looked directly in my face and told me that I was doing great, and then went behind my back to complain to my boss, without even giving me the chance to try to do better. I was so angry that I left the Dean’s office determined to quit.
He stopped talking to me, when I tried to contact him he’d always say he was busy.
But first, I talked to a Chinese friend. And he explained that for many students, they simply cannot criticize a teacher. To do so would be a mark of disrespect. Students don’t have the ‘right’ to determine if a teacher is right or wrong, good or bad. But my boss has that right. Therefore, telling him was the proper way to handle it, and then he would decide which things were legitimate. The issue extends into the workplace in China. Many employees will feel reluctant to criticize a boss, or to suggest ideas, for fear that it is disrespectful. But if they try to communicate that information through less direct methods, such as talking to someone else first, many expats will react with anger, seeing that as disrespectful, and indicative of poor moral character. This can lead to a Catch-22 situation, where Chinese employees feel paralyzed, unable both to talk to their boss directly or communicate indirectly.
In another situation during my first few months, a Chinese friend had done a great deal to help me settled in, assisting with issues that I was entirely unable to handle. In gratitude, I took him to a Western restaurant in a five-star hotel, the first time he’d ever been inside such a nice hotel, and the first time eating Western food. We had a nice evening. He asked tons of questions, and we laughed as he used a knife and fork for the first time.
But after dinner, he just disappeared. He stopped talking to me, when I contacted him he’d always say he was busy. It was obvious that there was something wrong, but I couldn’t figure out what on Earth it could be.
About two months later, he invited me to dinner. I happily agreed. He came by to pick me up, and took me to a restaurant that I knew was the best seafood restaurant in Qingdao and he ordered the most expensive dishes (many far too bizarre for me to enjoy).
It took some probing, but during the dinner (and after drinking a lot of alcohol), I discovered the issue. The cost of the first dinner was not, for me, that terribly high—a couple hundred RMB. But in 1993, that was almost 50 percent of his monthly salary. And under Chinese rules of reciprocity, he felt obligated to repay in kind. He spent two months working extra jobs and buying only bare necessities to treat me to a dinner of equal value.
An action that I’d intended to demonstrate gratitude and friendship had, to him, become a massive burden that severely disrupted his life, and endangered our friendship. I had to learn that in Chinese culture, there isn’t really much of a concept of doing something for someone else without expecting anything in return. For most, an honorable person must repay any favor or gift in equal or greater fashion, failing to demonstrates a lack of face.
Again, this has applications to the business world. Most expats know that if a Chinese person does something for you, they do expect you to reciprocate in kind at some point; but many are not aware of the equal importance of recognizing what they can or cannot comfortably do for you. It is generally considered very bad form to do something for someone else which would impose a hardship on them if they were to reciprocate.
In fact, when I first came to China, asking “How much money do you make?” was a common question that helped figure what could be afforded in return without creating an undue burden. This is a mistake that I’ve seen many times. Yet few seem to be aware, and are mystified later, when a personal or business relationship suddenly deteriorates.
John Lombard has worked in China since 1993. For the last 15, he has trained multinational companies in cultural intelligence, was a consultant to the Beijing Olympic Committee, and has founded two companies and one NGO in China.