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Yin-Yang: American Perspectives on Living in China – Book Review

A few months ago I reviewed Yes China! by Neil Clark, and when a friend asked me to review another book about teaching English in China I was a little hesitant to commit to reading what to me has already become a familiar story. Yet, I was pleasantly surprised to find Yin-Yang: American Perspectives on Living in China filled with thoughtful reflections packaged in an altogether new format.

Colorado China Council (CCC) Executive Director and author of this book, Alice Renouf, collects letters from former teachers and organizes them into a wide range of topics, and sorts them by location and date. I found this a wonderfully novel approach to creating a clear picture of China’s development and the diversity of experiences. This book shows it all, from adventurous eaters, eager teachers and avid explorers to painfully bad writing classes and border-line abusive department heads. Even though Alice works to place American teachers in China, she does not shy away from giving a complete picture of what that commitment entails.

Because Yin-Yang is a compilation of letters by a variety of people, it avoids some of the common problems in other writings about China – the problem of portraying China as a single entity (I fall into this from time to time myself). It gives a sense of time passing, and shows these teachers moving from their initial astonishment and shock to understanding and enjoyment (in most cases) of a new culture.  After finishing just the first chapter, I was wishing that I had had such a guide before coming to China; it would have saved me from many headaches. Also because these were written as personal letters instead of blog posts, they tend to give a more intimate look at life without trying to make profound pronouncements about the country. These captured the effects of culture shock and bouts of depression in a way that doesn’t sugar coat reality.

A number of friends also picked up the book to glance through a letter or two and found themselves laughing out loud at some of the classroom descriptions, like an entire room full of 50 students crying their eyes out at the end of Armageddon, even the boys. The short sections make for great snapshots of life in China, and I think they could be used for a variety of activities in ESL classrooms in China to spark conversations on life in China.

I would highly recommend this book to anyone thinking about teaching in China, and even more so for those who already have. The reflections on living in rural areas and the simple joys of bike rides through the fields brought me back to Guangxi. As one teacher sums up his experience,

“There are good China days and bad China days. The good far outnumber the bad, and even the bad have their good side.”

Yin-Yang: American Perspectives on Living in China is available on Amazon in hardcover, paperback, and Kindle editions (That link also has a free sample).

The rainy day guanxi fund – Understanding social obligations in China

Yesterday we explored why there is no such thing as instant guanxi, and were reminded that favors are often repaid in ways that we might not expect but have to accept. Today we’ll be looking at why your Chinese friends might feel uneasy pulling strings for you, and why foreign teachers are so wary of dinners with co-workers and bosses.

As an employee of a hospital, I occupy a prime spot in the guanxi hierarchy in that I know a few doctors in several departments. Even though my connections are very limited in number, the connections I do have can be incredibly handy when friends are sick. Yet, as they have come to see, if it can be avoided I don’t use my guanxi. It isn’t out of selfishness, but as my co-worker in an even better position pointed out, “Every time I use my connections for someone else, it costs me something.”

If I spend my favors today on someone I don’t know, I might not have any guanxi when a close friend needs special care. You can think of this as something like a rainy day guanxi fund.

I learned this through trial and error. Not so long ago a friend of a friend requested additional attention and I did my best to make use of my limited connections. To my dismay, the friend of a friend complained daily about her treatment and argued with hospital staff about her bill at the end. The bridge with that department had been burned.

While this doesn’t mean that no one would use their connections on your behalf, it does mean that you will have to try and compensate them for the social capital they spend on your behalf (the preferred method of payment seems to be tea). It’s no secret that foreigners come and go quite regularly in China, and so your friend might think twice about spending favors on a person who may not be around long enough to repay them.

This brings me to my second point – favors can be called on immediately. That is why it can be incredibly difficult to build up guanxi, your contacts won’t let it accumulate. This may seem to contradict yesterday’s point, that there is no such thing as instant guanxi, however that point refers largely to asking for favors beyond what you have put in to the relationship.

Take a very typical example, a friend invites you to a fancy dinner, only to announce at the end that they would like you to help with X. X in this case very often has something to do with English teaching or being a token foreigner at some event. Of course you can refuse the offer, but it means that you will need to find some other way to repay the social debt of the dinner they just paid for. Giving an extra lesson or attending school events are also relatively easy ways of adding to your own guanxi balance. Furthermore, the school is usually asking you to do something that your contract encourages anyway.

This has probably happened to me and my wife at least a dozen times over the past few years, and happens so often it was explicitly discussed during our China orientation program.

While it might make you uneasy accepting such invitations, keep in mind that you can use this to your advantage as well. As we saw yesterday, favors are often returned in an unexpected way, if you ask for a specific favor at the time of agreeing to another one your request will often be fulfilled.

Finally it should be remembered that in virtually every case, it takes years to build solid relationships in China because of ideas about social responsibilities. Even after 2 years at the hospital, the amount of “special attention” I can ask for is little more than setting up an appointment with a specific doctor.

Two Jobs In China That Are Better Than They Sound

On China’s East Coast people are getting rich. The province I currently live in, Jiangsu, has a GDP equivalent to Switzerland (picture the Alps with more than 30 million people, and 100 degree heat). While much of this wealth is concentrated in a few hands, there is a growing middle class in the cities, and they are providing jobs to their lower class neighbors that are better than they sound.

The first job I wanted to discuss was that of the maid, only that isn’t close to being an adequate translation. The Chinese call the maid an “Aiyi” which actually means auntie (in the close family friend sense of the word). In English this job doesn’t offer the opportunities that it does in China, nor is it as common.

At the hospital most of my co-workers have an Aiyi come by their home 5-6x per week for a few hours. They do some cleaning, but their major role is to take care of the shopping and cooking. In exchange they are paid about 2,000rmb/month, which is similar to what a factory worker makes. They also receive generous bonuses on the holidays.

It provides middle-aged women with a job that allows them to work close to home and continue their family duties, which factory work does not. While these salaries aren’t enough to move them from lower class status, it is the kind of foundation that allows their children to move up in society.

The other job that offers more social mobility than you might first expect, is being a driver. In China a driver is not simply a chauffeur, he is more like a personal assistant.

They keep track of meetings, and are responsible for most travel arrangements, they even hold their bosses wallet so that he doesn’t have to deal with cash. Their schedules include long weekend trips, but those are often punctuated with banquets, nice hotels, and plenty of time for napping during the boss’s meetings.

As a driver though, a person can gain incredible access to guanxi. These guanxi relationships build the connects that allow the drivers children to aim for a brighter future than their parents could achieve.

It is also considered a fairly respectable position, since a driver is often one of the most trusted people in a company. At one of my former schools the drivers had computers before the teachers, since they were essential in planning the president’s travel.

Guanxi- how to make it work for you

This is part two, make sure to read yesterdays post about “face”

The other term that every expat dreads is “guanxi.” Roughly translated it means “relationship,” or “connection,” but really it is so much more than that. Guanxi is often described in textbooks as a kind of privilege or as a thing that might help you get a job. One of my readers described guanxi as “endemic” and that’s really the only way to describe it.

Recent articles on People’s Daily relating to guanxi have included gov’t positions being given to family members before they are even half way through college, its an official’s son running a person over, and then daring the police to arrest him. Not that this kind of thing doesn’t happen in other countries, but that this level of entitlement is pervasive at even the lowest level of government (or in schools).

It runs the other way too though. Sometimes it is only through guanxi that anything can be accomplished. I had a few foreigners visiting the hospital recently, and they ran into some visa problems. The local authorities said there was nothing they could do to help them. The man behind the desk sent them away three times. Finally a phone call from their university made everything possible in a matter of minutes.

So it’s important to remember that a “no” is not always a “no” for everyone, if it doesn’t work for you bring a better connected co-worker. I had a friend trying to send a package home, and they were told by the man at the post office that the CD was a “cultural relic” and would not allow it to be sent. Finally they brought a woman from the school who claimed that sending the CD abroad was something that the school leaders need her to do, and off it went, no more questions.

After a few weeks in China most foreigners are cringing at the notion of guanxi, because as foreigners we are treated well, we have privilege, but we can never have guanxi. so when you can, try to have a little connection to someone who has a pile of guanxi.

The two things you need to understand to thrive in China

Two concepts that foreigners are always told about are “Face” and “Guanxi”.

“Face” is usually explained as not embarrassing people. It seems that every business book about China makes a point of explaining that you cannot point out workers mistakes, because it will cause them to “lose face,” which would be a great embarrassment. “Losing face” can be getting angry in public, making a mistake, or just not knowing an answer.

This is a good start for understanding face but really the concept runs so much deeper than that, and causes problems for expats who have lived in China for years. From my experience it’s not actually making a mistake that causes the loss of face, it’s someone discovering that you made a mistake. So often there will be storm clouds looming, and your co-workers will say that everything is just fine to avoid the loss of face.

There’s not much you can do in these situations, because even if you point out the problem, it will be denied. I hate to say it but often all you can do is brace yourself.

The other part of face that foreigners often misunderstand is that “I don’t know” is not an acceptable answer. So when you ask a co-worker a question, they will always give you an answer, regardless of whether or not they know what they are taking about. This was especially frustrating recently when my friend was told that his employer knew how to get him a visa. It turned out that they had no idea what to do and he ended up having to leave China after a few short months.

The trick here is to ask “or” questions. Instead of saying “when do you think my apartment will be ready?” it’s better to say “Is my apartment ready now? Or would it be a good time to take a short trip?” These questions give them a way out so they can save face.

Check back tomorrow for the explanation of “Guanxi” and how to work around it.