It’s “Chinese Culture” or “Saving Face” ~ When is it Real or a Form of Manipulation

I’m sure this will raise some eyebrows. I mean I get the whole Chinese culture thing. Every culture has their own set of “rules”, their own way of doing things. I totally agree that whenever you travel to a foreign country you should try to learn at least a few basic phrases and the basic do’s and don’ts.  I have lived in China for just over 20 months now.  My mandarin is still poor at best and maybe I don’t try as hard as I should, but I do get by.  I think I understand the basic “cultural stuff” in this country of 1.3 billion people with a rich history and one of the oldest civilizations on the planet. I actually love this country, the opportunities it has given me and the amazing places I have visited and the things I have experienced. But…..does China, or should I say the people, who are worldly and “get it”, push the envelope and use it to their advantage as a method of manipulation or am I really causing someone to lose face?  And… it different in the countryside versus city?  Why do I ask?  Because after being in this country for this long, every now and again I feel I am being “manipulated by tradition”.  Please don’t take this as I am fed up with China, well, yes I do get pissed off every now and again, but not ready to kick China to the curb and say nice knowing you……too much I still have to explore in this place………….

When I first arrived in China, August 2015, I spent 2 weeks in training in Beijing.  Part TEFL training, part Mandarin language training, some calligraphy classes, a little TaiChi and a lot about Chinese Culture, traditions, do’s and don’ts, what is saving face, be careful of the baijiu and so forth.  We, me and 70+ other newbies, (actually 98% of we were kids fresh out of high school doing a gap year) bought into all the Chinese culture, tradition, saving face stuff.

I mean, okay, if it will cause someone to lose face if I offer a tip for service, no problem, I can easily forget about tipping.  Yes, I can remember not to stick my chopsticks upright in my rice because it will look like incense sticks at a funeral.  No, I won’t randomly touch strangers, especially on the head (shit, I don’t touch strangers in Warren, Ohio), but why don’t YOU recognize personal space and queue up?  No, I won’t give a clock, umbrella, a green hat or anything that comes in fours as a gift. Nor, will I be offended when you refuse my gift at least 3 times before finally accepting it, after all, it is the “Chinese Way”.  And yes, I will always remember to accept your gift with 2 open hands. This one’s easy, if I am invited to dinner, I will never offer up money which would cause my host to lose face. I could go on and on, because at least once a day I hear, “it’s the Chinese way”, “It’s Chinese tradition”, “Save Face”. If I ask the simple question, “Why?”, I am usually met with, “no why”.

Back to the original question, “is it real or a form of manipulation”?  Many times I have been requested, at the last minute, to do something or change my schedule. When I say last minute, I literally mean “last minute”. It can be on the spot and you are put in a position you can’t really say no.  “It’s the Chinese way!”  Numerous times I got up in the morning, dressed and reviewed my lesson, only to arrive at school and be told, “sorry, no English class today, they have exams”.  Are you effing kidding me, you didn’t know this last week, or really, even last night. Did someone wake up and just decide, oh, lets give the whole school a test today.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining about having the day off, but, it would have been nice to stay in my cozy bed instead of arriving and being sent home.

Take this past Saturday for example, I give private lessons from 9 to noon to 2 students in my home.  Being in my home, I stay in bed as long as possible then piddle and sip my coffee until I absolutely must be presentable when my students arrive. I finally rolled out of bed at 8:15 and put the water on for coffee.  I kid you not, there was a knock at my door at 8:25.  Really……it was one of my students. I quickly threw a track suit over my pajamas. That works, right? I am in my own home and have nothing planned for the day, except to venture out at some point for my $6.00 massage.  I hand him a copy off The Little Prince Chinese/English version and continue getting ready for the lessons.  June, my assistant arrives at 9 and my second student at 9:05.  Soon we are deeply involved in fruits, vegetables and all kinds of food.  Laughing, reading, tasting, making deviled eggs, popping popcorn and practicing our English.  All is right with the world……wrong. June gets a phone call and I get a wechat message from Peter at about 11 am.  It says Hot Pot at noon.  Notice the lack of a question mark.  I reply with a simple no.  A few minutes later, June says, we must go have Hot Pot at 12.  Again, I politely say no and explain. First, lessons don’t finish until noon and I have pajamas on under this track suit because he arrived at 8:25.  I shoot the same message to Peter.  Who says, “it’s okay, we will wait”.  Okay, I am no longer feeling “polite” and put Zootopia on for the kids to watch while they eat popcorn. I ask June, who is we and why MUST we go.  It is the headmaster of the Primary School.  He is inviting you. You can’t say no, he will lose face.  “June, I am not happy about this and I will not be there at noon.”  I send the kids on their way, June waits for me to quickly/not quickly get dressed and she drives us to lunch.  Yes, it was a lovely lunch, the headmaster was very happy to have me, we drank two bottles of wine and despite the fact I was fuming inside, I smiled and played nice.  Needless to say, after 2 bottles of wine and small talk, mostly in Chinese, we finished around 4 pm.  My day was shot.

Many people claim you develop a love/hate relationship with China.  To an extent I must agree, but as I stated earlier, I am not ready to kick China to the curb quite yet.  It really is an amazing culture with many amazing people who will be my life long friends.

Would he have really lost face or was I manipulated?  I will let you be the judge.

At least Peter had all of my favorite dishes waiting.  This is raw beef which you dip in a horseradish vinegar sauce.  I love love love this.  It looked much better when it was first served, but I forgot to snap a photo.

2 thoughts on “It’s “Chinese Culture” or “Saving Face” ~ When is it Real or a Form of Manipulation

  1. Tough one…except for the fact that I know you a bit and know your intentions in general. You appear to be and I believe you to be a willing rule minder when you travel. No “Ugly American” syndrome here! Your intentions are to be of service, offering your host country the best you have to offer. It is obvious from your pictures, stories and person to person chats that you love the opportunity to be doing what you love. Any custom or norm can be used for the general good or an individual’s not so pure desires. In general “face saving” seems to be a container for the way people are to act for the general welfare of their society. It is not for us to judge how a whole society chooses to act unless it is supportive of heinous behaviors. But politeness can be wielded as a weapon for selfish and self serving purposes. “Face saving” becomes just one more weapon in the arsenal of an unscrupulous person seeking an advantage over someone else. And, there are unscrupulous people in every culture…and you, Wendy, are NOT one of those people. Be well!


    1. Clark, thanks for your great response to my post. I definitely try to avoid the “Ugly American” syndrome at all costs as I have witnessed it more than once. I grimace on those occasions and distance myself from the offenders. Yes, I agree there are unscrupulous people in every society. For some reason, on this particular day, I was impacted (I wanted to use affected/effected, but that is one that always screws me up and I want to avoid the grammar police) more than normal, hence the post. I am well and usually take everything in stride. Hope you are well also.


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