Tag Archives: culturalliteracy

Making My Peace with Hongbao Culture in China

As of writing this article, the population of China is just over one and a quarter billion people. That makes it the most populous country in the world. It also makes it hard to get special attention or treatment for any problem you might have. 

dragon and boy

Chinese have developed a way to get that attention and its called the hongbao (red envelope stuffed with money).  This is both literal (yes sometimes you have to bribe people), as well as metaphorical (more often the case that your “hongbao” will look like a special gift or service). 

As a foreigner, I naturally stand out and therefore receive special treatment more easily than others. However, I also see the constant exchange of this both literal and figurative hongbaos as I mentioned above. 

They are given to people like doctors, teachers, policemen, and government officials in exchange for things like heightened attention on a loved one or the expedition of an important document.

For outsiders, and even for many Chinese themselves, this practice can be particularly hard to live with. It undermines the law and seems unfair. However anyone who stays here for a longer period of time must understand and adapt to this practice or else risk insanity.

For the time being, it is a part of life in China.

Hongbao Plus One

This past weekend my girlfriend received a red envelope in the form of an invitation to a resort in the north of the city: on the border of Beijing and Hebei. The parents of some students in her class wanted to solidify their relationship with their children’s caregivers and therefore offered the invitation to the student’s homeroom teachers. I went as the plus one.

The resort was the recently opened water town called Gu Bei Shui Zhen (古北水镇), which is basically a replica of a water town that you might find in the southern city of Suzhou.

For people not familiar with China, this is like saying that somebody built a replica Virginia tobacco farm in upstate New York. I don’t really like these kinds of places. They feel very fake, like the very soul of the place is missing.

Normally when I travel, I like to visit local places. I don’t stay in fancy hotels, and opt for budget accommodation like a hostel or cheap hotel. I like to focus my time and resources on visiting places, rather than staying in my room. To me this is what traveling is all about- talking and experiencing life as the locals would see it- rather than an airbrushed resort version. 

Chinese, and coincidentally enough my girlfriend, are the opposite. They don’t mind if something was made particularly for them. The most important thing is that it’s beautiful. If a place’s architecture doesn’t match the geography and history of an area, well, so what!

At least there is a nice pool. 

Moreover I found the entire situation slightly unnerving. The parents essentially decided the schedule and, even though they were very nice people, it felt like I was constantly walking on eggshells around them. It’s not that I don’t think it was very generous of them, it just felt a little odd to me.

The differences in our expectations of teacher-student relationships as well as travelling experiences tell us a lot about Chinese and American culture.

I would never choose to go to a place like Gu Bei Shui Zhen on my own. As I said above, something about its in-authenticity repels me.

I would also never invite my child’s teacher on vacation with me. Just like Gu Bei Shui Zhen, it feels slightly unauthentic and uncomfortable. 

How to Develop Cultural Literacy

The challenges posed by a clash of cultures here is a great metaphor for the challenges of living in another country. When confronted with these types of situations, the best thing you can do is to adapt- if only for the sake of preserving harmony- which is perhaps the most you can hope for when living abroad.

Even though I often feel like speaking out against these types of cultural practices in china (specifically the practice of giving envelopes and superficial relationships), doing so would accomplish nothing. In fact, it would make me more stressed out.

In the end I am not in China to change it. I am here as a visitor. I hope that my presence and interactions help to open them up a little bit to outside ideas; but ultimately I don’t plan on naturalizing.

The Result

As a result of practicing this cultural literacy I was able to lay back and relax with my girlfriend. Even though I did have the urge to criticize both the resort and circumstances under which I had come, I restrained myself and am very happy that I did. The most important thing was that she enjoyed herself and the parents felt like we were being reciprocative of their generosity.

This experience served as further proof that I rarely have all of the answers, and my own expectations are often wrong. I can’t change the way I feel about these types of places and relationships, but I can seek first to understand and not to be understood.

Yes, that is a Stephen Covey line. And while I am not promoting his whole system, I do think it is an important building block of living in another culture happily.